Ed Essex

Ed Essex

Monday, 06 February 2012 16:00

Home and Energy Options Part 3

Well so far we’ve purchased the land and built a house and now we need to look at three other features of a home that will dramatically affect your off grid lifestyle and energy system. Those three items are appliances, 

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAppliances: Appliances have come a long way in energy efficiency but don’t be fooled, they still have a long way to go. The term Energy Star Rated isn’t all it’s been made out to be in the past. There is a lot of information out there if you take the time to look for it and this is one area you really need to do your homework

For our electrical appliances we finally decided on a “three factor” strategy. Electrical operating requirements and short cycle capability and price. In order to keep our electrical usage down, we looked for appliances that required less power to function along with the ability to operate at reduced times. Our washing machine is electric and has many choices for timed cycles. Long wash or short wash. Our dishwasher has a feature called “Quick Wash”. We found that cycle to be more beneficial than the one labeled “Eco Wash”. Eco wash sounds like a good feature but it isn’t. The dishwasher operates for about an hour on Eco wash but only 30 minutes on Quick wash, so beware of terms that sound good but are really just a another sales pitch.

We chose most appliances based on energy consumption, short cycle ability, and price but there is one appliance that we chose to buy based solely on its energy efficient design even though it was expensive. Our Sunfrost refrigerator. Refrigerators are one of the biggest energy drains on your system. Sunfrost refrigerators have a completely different design than traditional ones. They put the compressor at the top of the unit instead of the bottom. Compressors create heat and as the heat rises it warms up the cooling area above where your food is located which in turn causes the unit to turn on and run more in a never ending cycle. By placing the compressor at the top of the unit that whole process is avoided with the end result that your refrigerator runs a lot less. Will it pay for itself? I’ve never taken the time to figure it out. The unique design just made sense to us so we bought one. I’m in no way promoting this refrigerator. We just decided this would be one place we would take a stand on unnecessary energy consumption and we have never regretted it.

In summary, be prepared to do a lot of homework on your appliances. We used the library and the Internet. There are a lot of comparison charts on the Internet and the U.S. Department of energy is another good source.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableHeating: In this article I will just touch on the subject of heating because to get into it properly would require one whole blog per type of heater and there are a lot of heat sources to choose from.

Underground houses utilize the natural temperatures of the earth. Passive designs use the sun. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and propane are always an option.  Wood heat is widely used. You have other choices available such as a furnace or heat pump with forced air, boilers to heat hot water, and geothermal systems.

We chose a wood fired masonry heater with propane wall heaters as backup or to be able to leave the house unattended in the winter if we needed to. I will discuss the masonry heater at length in a future blog because it is such a unique and efficient type of heater. Our 40 acres contain about 25 acres of timber and because our heater is 95% efficient and we grow more trees than we need for firewood, we actually have a net positive impact on our carbon footprint! It also didn’t hurt that I owned a masonry company and was able to get our heater at a greatly reduced price. If I had to lobby for a heat source I would push for the earth, the sun, and wood heat as the best options for the least amount of environmental impact for any home whether off grid or not.

Electrical Fixtures: We’ve all heard a lot about “phantom power” the last few years. No one seems to know exactly how much it adds up to but whether you’re off grid or not, it is a factor in your electrical consumption. Phantom power is that power required to maintain an electrical appliance in a ‘ready’ state such as standby for things like your computer, TV, or stereo system. It is the clock on your microwave, TV cable box, and stereo receiver. The only way to get rid of phantom power (thereby reducing your electrical consumption) is to turn it off. In our new home we installed extra switches next to the light switches to turn the power off to  the plug ins. It works great. Something else you can do is to buy a multiplug with an on/off switch. You can get them anywhere. You most commonly see them used for computers, printers, and monitors.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLed light bulbs are another good way to keep your power down. These bulbs are in constant design transition. Whatever you see on the market today will improve.  We use both led light fixtures and fluorescent bulbs. The fluorescent bulbs vary considerable in price. One of the reasons is the time to warm up to its brightest capacity. We chose bulbs that cost less but take longer to warm up. I have yet to find it an inconvenience. I can’t recall ever having to sit there waiting for a light bulb to heat up to its capacity. Lighting is definitely a factor in calculating your energy consumption needs. Again, there are way too many options to list here, other than to point out that you need to do your homework when choosing lighting systems. You either do what you can to keep the electrical fixture wattage down or you will have to increase the size of your energy system.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 06 February 2012 16:00

Home and Energy Options Part 2

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn Part 2 of this Series we are going to talk about more design features to be taken into consideration when you design your off grid home.

Windows: I could probably write a whole blog on windows alone but my main purpose in sharing our experiences in building a home for off grid living is to present  a broad overview of many of the options we had to wade through and to give others who are following us a starting point to do their own research.

Windows are a critical factor in energy efficiency. Considerations range from the different types of windows to location in the house and the sizes chosen. Double or triple pane? Argon filled and type E? Wood, metal or vinyl?

Passive solar design is something I will cover in depth later on. Window sizes and location are a big factor in passive design. My research suggested that you use the following glass quantities based on square footage of your floor plan:

East side of the house 4%, west side 2%, north side 4%, and south side 7-12%. So if you had a floor plan of 1000 square feet, on the east side of the house you would allow for a total square footage of 1000 SF x 4% = 40 square feet of glass and so on. Always put the most glass on the south side of the house if you can.

Our house faces east by southeast which isn’t ideal. It had to face that way due to the hillside terrain we built on. So we couldn’t strictly adhere to the formula explained above but just by being aware of the affect windows have on passive design will allow you to do the best you can with what you have to work with.

The sun is one factor and cold is another. My wife Laurie made insulated curtains for all of our windows and they make a huge difference. Without them we would probably burn an extra 1-2 cords of wood per year.

In a perfect world your home will face south. I have a friend who was able to do just that. Even though they live in the cold country in northern Idaho, if it’s a sunny day, they are able to shut the wood stove down by noon because it gets too hot otherwise. They put most of their windows on the south side of the house and when the sun comes up it heats everything it touches. They have concrete floors and an indoor concrete planter that absorbs the sun most of the day. After the sun goes down, the concrete still continues to emit the heat that it soaked up earlier. Passive heat works and is something that should be considered in every home whether on or off grid.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAbove or Underground: One of the best passive insulators is the earth.  Anytime you can put part of your home underground you will be money ahead. Earth insulation will help you stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. One whole side of our house is underground because we built into the hillside. It is a garage wall. With the earth on one side of the garage and our heated house on the other side, our garage never freezes and it has no heat! We get sub zero temperatures every winter. If I had my way, we would have built an underground house but the other half of this off grid partnership needs light and more light so we ended up with the one long wall. I’ll take any small victory I can get. As a bonus, our garage makes a perfect food storage area. It stays between 35 and 40 degrees from late fall to early spring, all with no heat.

Home size: In the case of energy efficiency size is an important factor. The smaller a home, the less energy it will use for both heating, cooling, and electricity. We chose to build a 1500 SF home mostly because the winters can get pretty long here and we thought it prudent to each have our own room to go to when we need to “get away”. I have a traditional man type room with all of my special man treasures and Laurie has a crafts room with a lot of windows and a loom.

Before we bought this property we had a nice cabin not too far from here. It was 800 SF with a 400 SF loft. It was quite comfortable for two people. 1500 SF is nice but the 800 SF footprint would have been better in terms of energy consumption. Many of you will think we built too large and others will wonder how we get along with only 1500 SF. There is a current trend in some circles for really small homes measuring as little as several hundred square feet. Build the home you need but the smaller the better. Note: Due to the 12” wall thickness our floor area is actually 1400 SF.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEave Length: Another feature of passive design is your roof eave overhang. Design your eaves to extend out far enough in the summer to shield the sun from your windows and in the winter to let the sun into your windows. It’s going to depend on where you are located. Eave length will be different in the southern part of the U.S than the northern. Shielding the sun in the summer months helps to cool your home. Conversely you want to allow the sun to heat your home in the winter. Passive heating and cooling are factors in sizing your off grid system. The less need you have, the smaller your energy system will need to be.

Ceiling heights: The same applies to ceiling heights. Higher ceilings equal heat loss. Many people love the look and feel of spacious high ceilings. That’s nice but you know where the heat goes. It goes up and the higher the ceiling the more heat is required to keep you warm, down where you live. Keeping your ceilings low is an easy way to keep your energy needs lower.

Passive design is a wonderful thing to incorporate in any home being built. Anything you can do to utilize the natural things that are available to us should be taken advantage of. Why pay for heat and light when you don’t have to? We have six solar tubes in our home that allow us to see with natural light all day long. Without them we would have to turn on the lights, even in the daytime, because we don’t have windows in every room. There are many ways to use what’s natural and free to heat, cool, and provide lighting in your home.

Coming up next: Appliances, heating, and electrical fixtures.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 06 February 2012 16:00

Home and Energy Options Part 1

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn our last blog, we purchased our property and visited the local jurisdiction to make sure we can do what we want with our property. We also made sure it met our minimum requirements for insurance, safety, medical care, and services.  Now it’s time to consider what kind of house we want to live in for our off grid experience.

There is no “best in category” type of house for off grid living. There are however, many different design considerations that can be incorporated into your home of choice that directly correspond to being off the grid. The most critical one is energy efficiency.

Just think of all the different types of homes available to you today. Tepees, yurts, cabins, manufactured homes, mobile homes, traditional stick frame, insulated concrete forms (ICF), structural insulated panel (SIP),  log home, cob, cordwood, straw bale, adobe, earth berm, underground, steel, steel container box, concrete, and masonry (brick, block, and stone).  Don’t forget houseboats!

Remember, we each have our own set of circumstances that factor into the choices we make so the trick here is not to get too hung up on which kind of house is better for living off grid but rather to make the most of the one you choose or already own.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe decided to go with an insulated concrete house. One of the biggest factors is that we live 20 miles from the nearest fire station and wanted to do everything we could to be non-combustible. The ICF design is also fairly energy efficient and easy to upgrade structurally to withstand earthquakes and heavy snow loads. In our first year of living here we have experienced a 4.6 magnitude earthquake and a forest fire that would have consumed our house except for the precautions we took in constructing a defensible area around the house and the non combustible nature of the materials we used on the exterior walls, roof, and soffits.

Our exterior walls consist of Hardiplank siding over 2” (3 hour fire treated foam) insulation board attached to an 8” concrete wall with another 2” layer of fire treated insulation on the inside. The roof is constructed of metal panels and the soffits are covered with vented or slotted metal panels which eliminate bird blocking holes. We even used metal panels on the carport and porch roof exposed ceilings. One of the main causes of house fires from an exterior source is when the wind blows fire embers into your attic via the bird block attic vent holes.

Non combustible construction could also be a factor with your insurance company.

Anyway, back to energy efficiency. The more energy efficient your house is, the less energy you are going to use to run your household. Less energy to run your household will result in a smaller energy source. The smaller the source, the less money you will pay to purchase and install it. I know you off grid readers already know that but it made me feel better just to say it!

Considerations you need to make affecting energy efficiency include but are not limited to construction materials, insulation, window size and location, the direction your home faces, how much of your home is above ground, the size of your home, eave (overhang) length, ceiling heights, appliances, heating, and electrical fixtures. I’m sure with a little more time I can add to this list. It may seem a little overwhelming but the good news is look at all the ways you can save energy and the decisions and choices are yours to make.

We’ll address these items one by one to help understand what effect each one has on energy efficiency.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableConstruction Materials: I’ve already explained the factors we used in determining what to build our house with. Strength and non combustible materials. Factors for you may be entirely different. I personally would love the atmosphere of a log home under other circumstances. For many of you cost will be the biggest factor. Manufactured homes and mobile homes are more affordable types of construction and have come a long way in terms of quality from years past. If you want to be close to nature and simplicity, maybe the tepee or yurt is for you. Straw bale, cob and cordwood are good “do it yourself “materials. Masonry can be a good choice in terms of appearance and insulation efficiency. Whatever your circumstances are, just do the best you can to utilize the most energy efficient materials available to you.

Insulation: The type of insulation you utilize willdepend on the type of construction you choose. We used insulated concrete forms which doubled as our concrete wall forms and exterior insulation plus fiberglass blown in over the ceilings. We also applied insulation batts in the ceilings at the exterior wall line. We used the earth on one side of the house because we built on a slope.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThere are many choices available to you today. Rigid foam insulation, batt (fiberglass) insulation, blown insulation and polyurethane insulation. No need to go into detail here.  The important thing to remember is that all materials and types of construction can be insulated.

Any part of your house that you can place below grade is the best insulation of all. Properly designed, insulation can help to keep your house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Straw bale, cordwood, cob, and log walls act as their own combo insulation and exterior wall systems.

In the late 1970’s I built my first home with my Dads help. Being 20 years old and having insulated a few houses for my Dad I thought I knew a lot about insulation. Our local utility offered a free energy survey and if you followed their advice in “draft proofing” your home they would give you the materials to plug the holes and your monthly bills would go down. I thought it was a waste of time but I would give them a shot anyway. After all, I had done my own insulating and knew what a good job it was. It was a traditional stick frame home. During the survey I was so busy rolling my eyes that I almost missed the toilet paper test. Remove an electrical outlet or light switch cover and loosely hold a few squares of toilet paper in front of it and watch it flutter from all of the air passing through the opening. Without further comment (or rolling of the eyes) I accepted their free foam plugs to put behind the switch and outlet covers. To this day I have no idea where that air comes from but I do know it exists if you don’t plug all of the holes including the small ones.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’m not going to get into whether or not it is best to “seal” a house or whether it is harmful to your health. The fact is, the international residential building code is headed in that direction and in some cases are already here. As of January 2011, some building departments began doing pressure tests on new homes. Using a huge fan they blow a prescribed amount of air into your home from an exterior doorway which creates a positive and measurable pressure inside the house. If your house can’t contain and hold that amount of pressure for a certain length of time they will not let you move in until all of the leaks are identified and plugged. It is my understanding that most houses pass the test.

I have mixed feelings on the subject. I understand the need for energy conservation however you never heard the term “sick building” until the late 1980’s when we began to seal up buildings for energy purposes. I think I’ll let someone else tackle that blog.

Coming up: window sizes and locations, the direction your home faces, how much of your home is above ground, the size of your home, eave length, ceiling heights, appliances, and electrical fixtures.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

Monday, 06 February 2012 16:00

1st Step Planning and Research

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn our last blog we looked at the meaning of “off grid” and gave a brief overview of our experiences this past year in our new lifestyle. The next few articles will detail a step by step process we went through and the choices we made in order to transcend the leap from city condo life to off grid “modern homestead.”

Research played a big part in the planning process. We talked to other people, checked out library books, read a multitude of magazines and then subscribed to the ones we felt were most beneficial to our goals. Combining research with the experiences described in the next few paragraphs will give you a pretty clear picture of the first steps we took to enter into a new lifestyle.

We each have our own set of circumstances that help determine the direction and choices we have to make. Laurie and I had purchased 40 acres of property in the east side of Washington State, 250 miles and five mountain passes from our westside condo. Our original intent was to use it for recreational purposes. I had always loved the atmosphere of a pine forest and that is what we ended up with.

The property already had a drilled well with a 1500 gallon holding tank, so water wasn’t an issue. The next thing we did was install a septic system for a three bedroom home (just in case) and after that we built the barn. Finally, we purchased a used 28’ travel trailer to stay in whenever we could find time to go visit our little place in heaven.

This was our first off grid set up. Power came from our generator and trailer batteries. We also used the generator to pump water into the holding tank which was located up the hill from our trailer and barn. Gravity flow took care of the water pressure into our trailer. We ran 150’ of 4” sewer pipe from our trailer to the new septic tank. We used the barn to store our trailer and other belongings (toys) over the cold winters. We now had a secure and fully functioning off grid system in place to practice and learn with.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs a homeowner since the age of 20, I had never been hooked up to a well or septic system before. I always had City sewer and water services. Power came from a local utility service. When Laurie and I decided to build a house on our recreational property and live there full time we had a lot of homework to do.

The first thing we did was to go to the county courthouse which had legal jurisdiction and look at what the property was zoned for, what building permits would be required, and what other permits might be required. While we were there we also discovered that our property had been surveyed and recorded. That was important because it meant our property corners would be recognized by the County as “official and approved” in case there was a dispute with adjoining property lines, corners, or fences.

We also discussed the rules and regulations for ‘access’ roads. Our property is located almost three miles from the nearest paved maintained road. We needed to know how wide the access road is, who maintains it (if anyone), can we maintain it and if so are there any limitations to what we could do, after all, the road belongs to all that it serves and passes through different private properties from beginning to end.

It turns out we were required to get an Adequate Water Supply permit, a Site Analysis permit, a Septic System permit, Building permit, and we would also have to get an Electrical permit from the State.

I used the well driller notes for the Water permit. We already had a Septic permit. I drew a scaled plan showing the property lines and locations of the buildings for the Site Analysis permit.

We were going to need a house plan for the building and electrical permits.

One decision we had to make was whether or not we could live on this property in the winter at an elevation of 4200’. As stated earlier, we were three miles from the nearest maintained road with plenty of snow and ice in between. Only one other person lived on this access road and his solution was to park his car at the bottom of the hill and ride his snowmobile down to the car and back once in a while for supplies. One more thing to research – snow removal.

In our case we had one other item to consider. No phone service and no cell phone signal. We had no desire to be cut off from the outside world. We just wanted to become a little more independent from public services than we had been. To make a long story short, our research turned up a cell phone signal booster system that allowed us to have service where none had existed previously. I’ll describe it in detail in a later blog because there isn’t very much information available right now and it isn’t as simple as going online and purchasing a cell phone amplifier and antenna.

So as you can see, there are a lot of things to consider and a fair amount of time spent in research. Before you even break ground you need to make sure of the following:

  • Your property can be used for your purposes
  • Find out what all of the permitting requirements will be
  • Consider access to your property the year around
  • What communications are available?
  • What services are available such as fire and law enforcement?
  • What medical services are available?
  • Can you get insurance?
  • Are you going to have to give up Wal-Mart or Costco?  (quit laughing, it was Costco for us)
  • If there are two of you are you both excited and committed?

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

Sunday, 03 February 2013 16:00

Wood Burning Masonry Stove

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’ve mentioned this appliance in other articles and shown a couple of pictures but the more use we get out of it the more I become enamored with it and it’s time we put this appliance on the “highly recommended” list of low energy desirable appliances. I’m talking about our custom built wood burning masonry kitchen stove.

At the time Laurie and I were making our move from city to country life I owned a commercial masonry construction company. In talking to a product salesman one day (a former mason himself) he told me I should check into Masonry Heaters as a heat source for our new home. I had heard of them before but didn’t really know anything about them.

I read everything I could about the heaters and in that discovery process I noticed that some of the custom designed ones had kitchen stoves and ovens attached to them. That is what this article is about, our wood burning kitchen stove.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe use our stove for cooking, canning, and heating our home. This stove was always intended as an alternative stove to our primary cooking source, the propane stove and oven.

Who knew at the time we built what the price of propane would be in a few years? It bounces up and down with the price of oil and I didn’t like the idea of being stuck and at the mercy of the big oil and propane companies so we decided to have a backup stove. I’ve never regretted that decision since.

When we aren’t using the stove its 42” cast iron cook top serves nicely as counter space. It sits right next to our propane stove. It has two top round plates that are designed to distribute the heat evenly in the entire round space but the whole top is obviously heated as well.

The wood burner is in the upper left corner with an ash cleanout directly underneath. You can burn any kind of wood from kindling size up to about 3” round. To the right of the burner is the 10” oven. We have cooked bread, roasted whole chicken, and even a few pies in the oven. The only trick we had to learn was to rotate the food dish occasionally in order to get it to cook evenly. Even with the masonry mass heated up from a long term fire before baking it is best in this design to rotate the oven dish.

Starting from zero in the morning you can have bacon frying in about 10 minutes and coffee boiling in twenty minutes.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’ve got a 6” fresh air PVC pipe that runs from outside the house, under the slab and up next to the firebox. That air is then taken out through the adjoining Masonry Heater mass via an air chamber built into it and then on up and out through a standard double wall stainless steel pipe and vented through the roof just like a wood stove.

We use this stove in the spring and fall (when the temperatures are only mildly cold) to heat the house because we don’t really need a lot of heat at that time of year. We also use it a few times during the winter to supplement or “add to” our masonry heater when the temperatures are nearing zero degrees Fahrenheit and our masonry heater struggles to keep up. We heat a little over 1400 square feet. It only takes two small armfuls of wood per day to heat the house or supplement the other Heater. Whenever that happens we automatically use it to cook with. In the fall when it gets cool it comes in handy to do pressure canning and heat the house and cook dinner all the same day!

The one drawback to this heater is that here in the mountains we have inversions frequently the year ‘round. If the temperature is over 40 degrees and we have an inversion this stove won’t draw. The inversion shoves all the smoke right back down the chimney and into the house. We’ve tried everything. The reason is that in this design the air flow is “indirect”. It goes by the fire and “pulls it up the chimney. In our Masonry Heater design the fresh air comes in directly under the fire and pushes it out the chimney. That design works every time. The indirect design works most of the time. It is unfortunately a design issue and there is nothing we can do about it without tearing things apart.

Laurie and I both highly recommend wood burning kitchen stoves to anyone that can burn wood where they live. It doesn’t matter whether it is a custom built masonry stove like ours or a manufactured stove. These appliances are very diverse and will give you a real sense of self sufficiency. How many people in your neighborhood wake up to the smell of bacon and coffee in a nice warm house when the power goes out?

If you are considering a custom built stove, check out the Masonry Heater Association Of North America on line. There are only a few masons qualified to design and build custom stoves and you will need to do your homework. This is a great place to start and to get ideas.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012 00:00

Masonry Heaters

One of the big decisions we had to make when we were planning our new off grid home was what kind of heat we were going to have? We pretty much eliminated anything that would require electricity such as a heat pump or forced air furnace since we’re going to produce our own electricity with solar power. Ideally an underground home with passive solar design was the very best design concerning heating but Laurie may have put me underground about 6’ if I tried to put her in an underground house so we had to keep looking.

We considered geothermal but it wasn’t practical due to water availability concerns and again, the electricity required for the pump. We were trying to stay away from propane heat in the pursuit of sustainability.

We did have 40 acres of trees and wood heat was a consideration but what would be the best kind of apparatus to deliver the heat? I had heated for years with a wood stove and didn’t particularly like the unevenness of the heat circle. If you place them where you live (living room) it can get pretty hot up close. A wood furnace would once again have the need of electricity for the fan to circulate. Fireplaces are not efficient or effective with the possible exception of a Rumford.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAt the time we were planning this new home I was fortunate enough to be self employed in the commercial masonry business. I was discussing the heating issue with a colleague one day and he asked me if I had considered a masonry heater for my primary heat source.  Well, I just told you I was the Owner but I never said I was a professional mason. He explained to me that there were other terms like Russian stove or Russian fireplace etc. I had heard of those before but didn’t know what they were. I started doing research as soon as he left my office.

The short of it is that we did indeed end up with a masonry heater as our primary heat source.  We also had a wood burning kitchen stove and oven built on one end of the heater. I can’t tell you how happy we are with our choice. These heaters are over 95% efficient. Some claim they are the cleanest heat source available in terms of emissions.

They burn so hot that all of the gases and toxins are burnt up before they go out the chimney. Once the fire is started they are virtually smokeless.

They work differently than a woodstove. When a woodstove gets too hot you have to damper it down and they don’t always burn as clean as you would like when that happens. You also have to keep a woodstove going 24/7 in the cold months.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableMasonry heaters are different. They are a solid mass of brick and/or stone with a unique course for the exhaust to travel from the firebox to the chimney. The exhaust chamber starts at the firebox and then winds through the mass of masonry before it exits out the chimney. This allows the masonry mass to be heated thoroughly in a short time. We burn our hot fire for about two hours and then shut it down completely. Fire out. The heated masonry mass then continues to emit passive heat for the next 10 hours. Passive heat is the most comfortable heat there is. It is the same type of heat the sun puts out. You can even touch the outer stone with your hand without getting burnt so they are much safer for children and pets to be around.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableBecause you only burn for two hours twice a day you save on wood. We are going to use about six cords of wood per year but we live in cold country. This heater has kept our house (1400 sf) at a comfortable temperature when it was down to -9 degrees F so far. We did have to close off two rooms that didn’t need to be heated. If we need more heat or if we don’t want to close those two doors we just light a fire in the kitchen stove. If I had this same heater in my old house I would only use about three cords per year. We have even learned to use our kitchen stove to heat the house in the milder temperatures like spring and fall. That takes about an armload of wood per day.

 off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThese heaters have been around for hundreds of years. They were developed and are still quite popular in Europe. Mark Twain commented that they were the most comfortable heat he had ever experienced after a trip overseas. They were developed as Europe became more populated and wood became scarce. Short hot fires to heat the mass and then let the mass emit heat for hours afterward. Most of them had ovens and even platforms for sleeping attached.

There are six different types of masonry heaters. Ours is a Finnish Contraflow. Each type has unlimited design ability. They are all custom designed and built.

There is a downside to these heaters. They are expensive. I may not have had ours put in except I was in the business and was able to cut the costs considerably. You can’t imagine why they cost so much until you see one being built. They are complicated to build and require more material than you could ever imagine if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. There is a legitimate reason they are so expensive. I should also mention that you have to burn relatively small pieces of wood, not to exceed 4”. That means way more splitting than a wood stove or furnace.

You can build one yourself but I would caution you to do a lot of research on the design and size before you do. If you are going to hire it done like I did, make sure your designer/mason is qualified and experienced. This is too large of expenditure and too important to your well being and comfort to do otherwise. For references or research I would suggest you start at your local masonry supply store or visit the Masonry Heater Association Of North America on line. You might also look at Firecrest Fireplaces .

 off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainable off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs an aside, we did put direct vent propane wall heaters in as backup if we have to leave the house for any length of time during the winter.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.


Tuesday, 26 February 2013 00:00

Winter Gardening Updated

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainable

I wrote an article in January (More Winter Fresh Veggie Choices) about winter gardening. Specifically our insulated cold frame attached to the south side of the house, our EasyGreen Automatic Sprouter, our hydroponic experiment called EzGro Garden, and our free range chickens.

Many people have written us asking how the EzGro experiment turned out and also for more detail. We are pleased to say it has been a success. I’m not sure the creator of this hydroponic unit ever intended it to be used the way we have but I know he would be happy with the results.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEzGro Garden – This is a brand new experiment for us and it is going very well. It is a vertical hydroponic garden. It doesn’t take up very much space (14” x 14”), it uses less than 1 Amp of power for 18 minutes per day and is easy to use and takes very little time to operate.

It comes with everything you need including stackable pots for anywhere from 20 – 80 different plants depending on what type they are.

Once you set it up you fill the pots with the media (made from ground coconut husk) provided.

Next you mix the nutrition supplements provided with water and pour them into the base (reservoir). Add the pump to the water and program your timer. We’ve set our timer to pump the nutritionally supplemented water every hour for two minutes from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Your timer programming may be different depending on what you plant.

The last step is to plant your seeds in the pots. We would recommend just one plant per pot to start out with.

We add water to the reservoir every two weeks and the nutrients every four weeks. You can grow plants even faster by cutting those times in half and a few other tricks users have come up with this past year. Use the Contact form from one of our websites for more information.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOurs plants didn’t start out too well but we aren’t using grow lights. We just set it in front of a window during the coldest and darkest time of the year – December and January. During that time period we went almost two months without sun. Once the sun started showing itself again these plants just took off. As long as you have good light you don’t need growing lights!

You plant a seed for whatever you want and they usually come up in just one or two days! We are still in the process of experimentation but what we have done so far has worked very well. Right now we are growing lettuce, cucumbers, and spinach. Why spinach – I don’t know. We have tons of it in the cold frame! We must have a lot of seed.  Anyway, as soon as we eat this crop we are going to plant something different.  Strawberries are popular with this product and so are flowers.

We have been posting our progress on our Facebook page. Several Facebook friends have been using these gardens for a while and they just love them. Some have them inside like us, some outside on the patio or deck and some on the covered back porch. They seem to be very versatile.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThese units don’t fall into the “self sufficient” category. Only our garden and insulated cold frames do that. They require electricity and the routine purchase of special nutrients to be added to the water. That being said however, the amount of power required to run these is about the same amount as our laptop – for 18 minutes per day and the nutrients should last a full year.

The bottom line is that they allow you to grow your own fresh food, even during winter including the harsher and colder climates like we have. They allow you to grow food no matter how busy you are and no matter where you live, even a condo or apartment and those are all good reasons to share our success with you.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works .

Monday, 25 March 2013 00:00

Tattler Reusable Canning Lids

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableED: This article is about our experiences with reusable canning lids. Of all of the items we had in our Mother Earth News Fair booth last June, they were the most talked about. Hundreds of questions were asked and many people just wanted to look them over and touch them to see what they were made of. Most buyers only wanted a minimum of one dozen to try out. These lids have been around for a long time but still seem to be relatively unknown to the pressure canning world.

Laurie and I don’t mind admitting we were inexperienced in our canning knowledge and at the same time striving to become more self sustainable in any way we could so we hope this blog will be informative to all of you out there just like us – learning to be more sustainable and trying to provide our families with homegrown safe and quality food items for years to come.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLAURIE: My experience with canning was non-existent until we decided that we were going to be moving from our condo to the wilds of Eastern Washington and the Okanogan Highlands. Our nearest neighbors are about 3 miles away and the closest town is 20 miles, and being as self sufficient as possible is the name of the game out here. My Mother-In-Law was my biggest and best help getting me started with learning how to can. She grew up growing and raising all their own food and continued right up until a few years ago. I had read several books and watched some videos, but until you actually get in there and do it you really have no idea what is involved.

So, I started learning to can while we were still living in the condo. That was a great time to start to learn. If things failed and didn’t work out like they were supposed to I could still walk 2 blocks to the grocery store and get what I needed for dinners. That’s not the case here. We’re lucky if we get off the mountain once a week now.

Even doing the small amount of canning we were doing while still living in town I hated throwing away the lids. So I got on line to look up what other people were doing with their used lids. You can only make so many Christmas decorations and shiny scary things to hang in trees to scare off the birds (although they didn’t seem to work for my birds). Ed had seen an ad in the MEN for the reusable lids and we went ahead and got some to try.  My first batch of canned green beans with the reusable lids did fine, but I had 3 or 4 jars that didn’t seal properly, so I went back and read the instructions, followed the instructions closely on my second batch of beans and haven’t had any trouble with the lids since. The method you use to can is essentially the same as with the metal lids, with just a little tweak. It has to do with allowing the jars to vent while they are being cooked and then tightening the lid while they cool down.  It’s nothing more than that.  They come in widemouth and regular sizes and you can purchase the rubber rings separately if you should lose or damage them. So far we have not needed to replace the rubber rings. The ones we are using have held up for 5 seasons of canning, and a lot of those lids and rings have been used 2 and 3 times in the season.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWith all the news these days about additives and unnecessary chemicals used in growing and processing foods, (not to mention all the GMO foods that are the norm for foods in the grocery stores) canning and freezing food we have grown ourselves is what we can do to make our lives a little safer and healthier.  The reusable lids are food grade and BPA free and can be used with the hot water bath or pressure canning methods.

We can a lot of fish we get from the lakes nearby, much of our garden produce, and we buy fruit from the local organic orchards and can that. We raised a batch of broiler chickens and canned most of the meat. We did freeze some of them, but freezer space is limited and canning is a great way to process your meat. Canned meat will store longer than frozen meat. This next season I think we will tackle canning more meat so that our freezer doesn’t get so full.

ED: Over all we have found these lids to be as advertised and anytime you can reuse something over and over again, it just has to be a good idea.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 00:00

Our Garden At 4200′ Elevation

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableNot only are we new at living off grid but we are also new at gardening. This is only our second year but our garden is doing well. Laurie is the prime planter, caretaker, and waterer. We have twice as many types of vegetables as we did last year and almost all of them are thriving.

Starting January 01, 2012 I started keeping a weekly journal of everything from daily temperatures and weather to how much wood we were burning, when the snow started to melt, and other things that matter to us living where we do. This spring and summer I have included the garden topics so we would have a better idea ahead of time next year on when we could do our seedlings and starts inside the house prior to transplanting them into the garden.

We live at an elevation of 4200’. The snow left this year by April 25 but the ground was still frozen. I finally rototilled the garden May 18. By that time people down in the valley were already mowing their lawns and seeing their first vegetables popping out of the ground.

We were eating fresh vegetables out of our insulated cold frames – spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower. Once those were all done we replaced them with cherry tomato plants and more spinach in late May.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOn June 10, I made an entry into the journal that the beans had come up and died. The temperatures were still in the 30’s. That is cold even for here. The other veggies – peas, spinach, garlic, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower and broccoli were all okay. Now that we have all this recorded, next year we will adjust our planting times accordingly. By June 25, everything had been planted including the corn.

By July 20, only five weeks later I recorded the following – “Garden – is growing like crazy. Corn is 3’ tall. Beans ½ up the pole. Tomatoes just starting to show, eating lettuce, spinach, and peas. Potatoes are waist high”. We were later than the valley gardens but coming on strong. Mother Nature just seems to know how to get it done.

Our corn is only 6’ tall but the ears are already 2/3 filled out. We even have ears of corn on stalks that are only 4’ tall.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAugust 19 – “Garden – corn husks are showing. Beans are blossomed. Tomatoes are green. Potatoes are almost done, dying off now. Peas are done. Broccoli and cauliflower are coming on strong. Cucumbers are starting to develop. Carrots just starting to show green tops. Zucchini – lots and lots right now. Lettuce – too many – dying. Beets did not come up – again.”

This journal is going to be so helpful for future garden planning.

We water our garden from our two cisterns which receive water off our house roof when it rains. It hasn’t rained here in six weeks and we are finally having to pump water out of the well for the garden. When we installed the cisterns we put an extra pipe and valve into the cisterns from our pressurized water system. All I have to do is turn a valve and the cisterns will fill up from our pressure water system. One item of interest concerning water is that we know the prior property owners hauled water for their garden from a spring over a mile away, all by hand. They used the same well we do. Cisterns work and because of them our slow producing well has not been over used and is still producing enough for all of our needs. We have never run out of water.

Laurie waters everything by hand which saves a lot of water as opposed to using some other means like a sprinkler that waters every square inch of garden including those areas that don’t have plants. This time of year it doesn’t take much water, just a little more time to do it by hand.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe have been eating out of the garden or insulated cold frames since April when it was 18 degrees F. This next year we are going to try to grow vegetables in the cold frames the year ‘round. We are eating, canning and freezing everything we grow. We have given away plenty of produce as well.

We live in the heart of apple orchard country. I have been told by everyone that we can’t grow apples this high. We’ll see about that next year. One thing at a time. I do know there are crab apple trees two miles from us on an old homestead. I wouldn’t bet against us.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

Sunday, 23 September 2012 00:00

Mountain Salmon Canning

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOne of the things we miss the most after moving into the mountains is the saltwater and all of its bounty. Laurie and I fished for salmon and bottom fish, dug fresh clams, and caught Dungeness crab in Laurie’s crab pot. That’s right, Laurie’s crab pot. She got it for her birthday!

We both grew up in Bellingham, WA in the northwest corner of the state. When I was a teenager I water skied in the saltwater almost every day. Laurie’s family sailed the San Juan Islands and camped on many of them growing up.

My dad was a commercial fisherman and as a teen I reef netted and gillnetted with my Dad. Laurie put herself through college gillnetting with her brother. Needless to say we miss the salt water.

Moving calls for adaption to our surroundings. We bought a little crawdad trap for the lake a few miles from us. We haven’t caught anything yet but we will. We just need to leave it there for a few days, something we haven’t had time to do yet.

We’ve also learned to catch one variety of fish in the same lake called Kokanee or Silver Trout. These fish are planted by the State. They are raised in a hatchery where we both come from on Lake Whatcom. My company did the last remodel and expansion for the hatchery in the 90’s so I got a firsthand account of how it is done.

Kokanee trout are actually land locked sockeye salmon. Every fall they go up the creek next to the hatchery in Lake Whatcom where they are caught and processed just like salmon at hatcheries all over the state. The result is fish that are large enough to transplant in lakes for sport fishing.

These fish vary in size from lake to lake. In Lake Whatcom where they are hatched they are only 10” to 12” long. In some lakes they can get up to 14” in length. Ours are 12” to 14”. I’ve caught them in four different lakes over the years.

We start catching them in the spring when the ice thaws, take a break midsummer, and start back up during the fall months. We pressure can them and eat them all year long, mostly in sandwiches in lieu of tuna fish. I use them for salad in place of tuna as well. The taste is slightly different than canned salmon but not by much. It is my favorite fresh water fish to eat – fried, baked, or canned.

When they get into the 14” range they are so fat I can skin and fillet and basically debone them just like we do with salmon. That is what I did with the fish in the picture above before we canned them. No skin or bones for this size. If we catch smaller ones we just cut them up after cleaning and put them into the jars; skin, bones and all. There is no difference in flavor; I just like the clean look of the larger processed canned fish.

While it’s not the same as catching salmon n the saltwater, it is a lot of fun and you can’t beat the pureness of fish grown in a mountain lake. No worries about lead or other contaminants found in tuna. We need to figure out the crawdads next and who knows, maybe there is a freshwater clam or two around here.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com  and Off Grid Works.

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  • Our Home Design Features Part 1

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. Since I seem to struggle with my memory more and more I thought it would be nice to list them out along with a little explanation of them. Most of them are explained in detail on prior Blogs. Roof overhangs – our eave length is calculated to keep the sun out of the windows in the summer which helps with natural cooling, and let the sun in during Read More
  • Our Home Design Features Part 2

    Our off grid home has many design features you don’t normally find in most houses. Many people come here to see what some of these features look like or how they operate. This is the second installment of features. Part 1 was published last week. See Part 1 Insulated cold frames – on the south side of the house we put in raised bed insulated cold frames. We have grown fresh cold weather type vegetables as cold as 18F with nothing to heat them but the sun. They are attached to the side of the house which never freezes. Plug Read More
  • I Built My House for Extreme Weather

    I went to work in the family commercial construction company in the early 1980's and by the end of the decade had worked my way into the office as a project manager. Commercial construction is entirely different than residential construction. For one thing, everything is engineered - structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a part in the design of commercial buildings. It wasn't long before I discovered the term "100 year storm". Many structural designs and mechanical designs were based on the 100 year storm (I'm over simplifying for the purpose of this article). Things like concrete foundation design and Read More
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