Off-Grid Living: The Gift of Solar!

You guys, I am still in shock over what has transpired in the past few weeks…

We’ve been getting by with a little 180 watt solar panel system for the last couple years (it was an upgrade from nothing!) and recently it stopped charging my batteries properly.

So, I reached out to an old friend who has a solar panel installation business to see if he’d be willing to stop out and trouble shoot it for me. Turns out, my charge controller got zapped in a lightening storm likely this fall and was kaput.

Well, he offered to reach out to some of his vendors to see if they had anything they’d be willing to help me out with.

Holy cow, people! I can’t even believe it!

The girls and I were just gifted a $5500 brand new system!

We now have 1140 watts of panels (they are scratch and dent so couldn’t be sold but are in perfect working condition) and 2 top of the line 24 volt batteries (brand new but had been sitting on the shelf too long to sell)!

I only needed to pay for some of the new technical pieces to put it all together, and a dear friend offered to pay for it for me!

So we suddenly have more power than we know what to do with! I ran the vacuum yesterday!! And we can have lights now!

I seriously don’t even know what to do with myself.

This opens up so many possibilities for us, including me being able to do my computer work (WordPress website design) from home so I can stay here to stoke the fire!

A huge thank you to:
Craig Tarr of Energy Concepts
David Fries of Werner Electric (panels)
Steve Belisle of Bae Batteries
Chris Jarosch of Carr Creek Electric for the installation labor
And my dear (anonymous) friend for paying for the necessary pieces

We are so thankful!

Off-Grid Living: Home for the Winter?

Here on the home front, a small miracle is unfolding.

Through the help of many hearts and hands, the walls of our house are almost completely insulated!

The silver spaceship look on the front is thanks to Craigslist and some reclaimed insulation from an old elementary school.

And the pink on the back wall…well, a friend gave me a Home Depot gift card and through the magic of math, it turned out to be the exact amount needed to cover the rest…down to the last sheet!

We still have a lot to do (put up Tyvek, insulate the floor, acquire firewood), but it is looking like it’s maybe, just maybe, possible for the girls and I to stay in the house this winter!



At the Homestead: First Fire in the Hearth

It’s been a big day around here! We still don’t know if we will be able to stay in the house all winter, but we are a giant leap closer today.

Jonathan spent several hours building the chimney and prepping the wood burning stove for its first fire!

And our devoted apprentice, Margie, was out in the cold with me stapling up a wind and rain barrier to help seal up the house and get it ready for some insulation.

So at 8pm tonight, our 8 year old Maggie lit the fire for the first time and we have a warm hearth! We are so thankful. And truly lucky to even be here living this life.

And so…hauling firewood begins!

At the Homestead: We have a roof!

Wow, a lot is happening over here all of the sudden!  After so much time feeling stuck with the progress, it feels incredible to be moving forward on both the house and the next book.

We actually finished the roof!  And by “we”, I mean Jonathan and all the incredible help he has had from friends and family.  It even poured rain yesterday, and it didn’t matter…because we have a roof now!

So, as promised, here are some photos of the house as it’s coming together.

The insulation went down really fast last Sunday, with the help of many friends.  Then the rubber under-layment had to be stretched out straight on a curved roof…super fun.

And then came the beautiful copper roof!  (We found it at a 2nd hand lumber store, and I was so excited to have this yummy color!)

Now that the curved edges are all cut, and the trim is in place…it is officially done!

So, as Jonathan has been working on the house every ounce of daylight, I’ve been doing the night shift finishing the illustrations for Lily & the Fox so the books can be printed for Christmas.

Thank you to all of you who helped me raise over half the goal in 24 hours!  That’s incredible!  I’ve only got 3 more days to get all the illustrations complete, and to raise the the rest of the deposit for the printers.

If you haven’t already, please check out the campaign and pre-order your signed hardcover copy at 25% off the cover price!

I just need to pre-sell 43 more copies to be able to get the printing started!  I would be so very thankful if you could share this campaign with anyone you know who has kids in their lives, (or kids at heart).

In case you missed the scoop on the book…

This fully illustrated 8.5″x11″ hardcover book is perfect for elementary aged kids, but is a story for all ages.  Lily is a shy girl, and is too timid to make friends with the boys at her fishing spot (you may remember them from the last book!).  But after a meeting with a wild red fox, Lily learns to be brave and reach out for new connections.

You can pre-order your copy HERE.

I am so excited to see all this coming together!  Both the house…AND the book!

Thank you so much for your ongoing support!

Eating humble pie

IMG_0772This is a long one, please bear with me.

We often have folks telling us that we must be “living the dream”, and while I absolutely wake up thankful for this crazy/awesome life, we still have our fair share of pretty constant challenges.  It would be inauthentic to pretend otherwise, and so that’s why I am being brave today to tell you that we are eating some pretty large pieces of humble pie right now.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we did not complete our house in time to move in this winter.  Even with the generous loans from friends and neighbors, we weren’t able to get it all enclosed before the conditions turned frigid and icy and it just wasn’t safe to be working up on the roof.  That’s OK, it’s not the end of the world.  We have a sweet little school bus to keep us warm.

IMG_3893BUT…because winter came fast, and the ground froze before we could fully landscape the hill behind the house, this meant that the sand bermed on the backside of the house was pushing on it all winter, instead of being sloped away.  The result is that 2 of our trusses shifted forward about 5 inches.

It’s not catastrophic, but it’s enough to mean we couldn’t move forward on building until we dug it out and straightened them.

Oh, the thoughts that go through your head when faced with a failure!  We’ve all got them, right?  Please tell me I’m not alone.  “What were we thinking?!”  “This is too hard.”  “I’m tired of this!”  Etc…etc…

Well, while it’s important to acknowledge the disappointment and sadness about it, wallowing in the upset just takes too much energy.

IMG_3922The fact is we messed up.  We shouldn’t have backfilled until the outer shell of the house was complete.  We thought we could enclose it all quickly before winter set in, but we were wrong.

So…we put on our big girl/boy panties and asked for help.

Many thanks to my dad, who was able to hook up a trade with the local excavators, and yesterday was the big day.

A giant rumbling machine made its way down the hill and spent a good chunk of the day totally carving away the hillside behind the house.  It’s quite a transformation.  It frees up the pressure on the house, so we can get back to building the roof and walls.  And it means we can build our root cellar on the northwest side this year instead of waiting until “Phase II”.

IMG_3947Hopefully this means a lot more action will be happening with the house soon.

And let me tell you, we are so looking forward to this project being complete enough so that we can focus our energy back on the work we are passionate about providing.

It has been a giant conundrum for us to be simultaneously growing our business here, WHILE we create the venue…nevermind building it by hand AND somehow paying our bills.

Oh, I’m not complaining…because we are absolutely choosing this!  I’m just saying that, yes, it’s a little crazy AND we are clear that the commitment that still moves us to tears is helping folks remember their deep connection with the Earth.

Speaking of which…

Our Earth Warriors Nature Club started up again last Friday…on Spring Equinox, the New Moon, and a total solar eclipse.  It was a magical day, to say the least.

Here we are playing a game of “Fire-Keeper”, a kid favorite.  The kids are stalking, trying to steal a small bell (the fire) and make it back to the outer circle without the blind-folded Fire-Keeper in the middle hearing them and pointing at them.  Incidentally, it was actually raining on us during this game, but the kids were so focused on stealing the “fire” that not a single kid complained!


The best quote of the day came during closing circle:

“My favorite part was digging in that dirt, and my least favorite part is right now because it’s time to go!”  ~Wesley, age 8

Thanks so much for your continued support!  Just keep imagining the amazing space the house will be, both for our family and as a classroom!

We look forward to seeing you on the land soon…
Heidi and Jonathan

Things I Do & Don’t Miss On Our Off-Grid Homestead

IMG_3616As the building project moves slowly along, and the possibility of living in our own house again is becoming a reality, I’ve had the chance to really take stock of what I am looking forward to, and what things I honestly don’t miss.

If you don’t know our story from before we started this crazy/amazing adventure, we used to live in south Minneapolis, in a sweet little house with a sweet little yard (that we transformed into some amazing gardens) with normal things like, you know, plumbing.  And electricity.

We’ve received so many questions about the details of our off-grid life, that I thought I’d share a bit with you to give you a glimpse into our daily life.

So…the following is a list of the things that I do, and do NOT miss from our old (AKA Normal) life.

Things I Don’t Miss:

1. A fridge
IMG_3659A giant humming appliance that holds mostly condiments that get used once a year.  Nah.  I’m good.  Did you know that a refrigerator is one of the biggest electricity drains in a modern house?

We have used a variety of other solutions, like sinking a galvanized trash can in the ground for a small makeshift root cellar.  In the winter we use a cooler and we move it in and outside, depending on the weather.  We have also changed our diet to more food that stores well without refrigeration.  And since the local grocery co-op is 7 minutes away, we swing by there a couple times a week for perishables.  They know us by name, and we like it that way.

For our home, we plan to have a big root cellar that will keep food plenty cool, even in the summer.

2. Electricity on the grid
Speaking of electricity, I honestly do not miss having outlets every 6 feet so I can plug in all sorts of appliances that draw energy even when they are not turned on.  Nope.  We’ve got 3 small solar panels and 3 batteries, and that’s plenty to charge our laptop, our phones, and a DVD player.  We’ve got some solar powered lights as well.

On the cloudiest days on the darkest days of winter, sure, the charge may run out in the middle of watching a movie, but hey, reading a book instead isn’t torture.  We all pay closer attention to the weather, noticing when the sun is out or not, because it directly affects what we can do that evening.

On our house, we will likely have a few more panels and batteries so this isn’t as much of an issue.

3. Spending several days cleaning
Our 198 sq ft bus is so ridiculously small that I can spend less than half a day and have it cleaned and organized from top to bottom.  In our old house, that would have taken days, weeks even!  Now, this only applies if the children are gone for the day.  If they are home “helping”, they essentially follow me and unclean right behind me so it never actually gets done.

4. The City
While we certainly miss our old next door neighbors, and some of the good friends we no longer see often enough (you know who you are), I just plain old do NOT miss the city.  It’s not my vibe.  I love the culture and the restaurants and the art, but I like the earth, and am absolutely in love with this beautiful land we are blessed to care for.  I love the stars.  I love the insane amount of birds that wake me in the morning.  I love the coyote yips and howls in the night.  I love the quiet feel of the wind on my cheeks when I’m up on the ridge.  I am HOME.

5. Sleeping inside in a bed
Since leavinIMG_3662g our old house in Minneapolis, and our luxurious king sized cushy bed, we have had a variety of sleeping arrangements.  Most involved a tent and sleeping pad.  Sometimes, a cot.  More often, we were right on the ground.  In fact, I’m still sleeping outside this winter, while the rest of my family has moved into the bus.  (I did move in when the night-time temps were sub-zero a few weeks ago, but I’m back out there now, thankfully.)  I much prefer sleeping to the sound of the owls than my family snoring.  After 8 years of child-induced sleep deprivation, I’m pretty sure I deserve to sleep however I want.  And I love waking to the sun and the flapping of birds’ wings.  I even saw a fox walking by one morning.

And if you are worried that I’m cold, believe me, that is not the case.  I wear multiple layers of smartwools and fleece, and I’m inside 2 winter-rated sleeping bags.  I’m toasty, almost too hot some nights.  When it’s really cold, I carry out with me 2 big hot rocks from on top of our rocket stove, and they keep my toes and hands toasty all night.

When the house is complete, I will likely sleep inside in a bed in the winter, but I will definitely miss the birds.

6. A Flush Toilet
IMG_3637Did you know that even the highest efficiency toilets use 1.28 gallons of water with each flush?  And older toilets use between 4-7 gallons each time?!  We (and by that I mean Jonathan) haul our own water from my parents’ well.  On average we use about 5 gallons a day.  Total.  (Full disclosure: We do still do laundry over with my parents’ high efficiency washer, and in the winter, we take showers there as well.)

Anyways, with our composting toilet ($15 Luggable Loo from Fleet Farm), we get to save all that amazing compost and fertilize an orchard with it!  Every time we pee or poo, we add a scoop of sawdust on top, with starts the composting right then.  There’s no smell.

Things I DO Miss:

1. A Room of One’s Own
Now this only applies in the winter, because come spring we are all outside all day again and there’s plenty of space on our 6 rolling acres for all of us.  But during the long cold winter, I really would love to have a warm indoor space to spread out my art or other projects, without having my children walk by and destroy it all.  And just some quiet space to retreat.  A room with a door.  Yes, I am looking forward to this.

2. Water on tap
IMG_3701IMG_3646This one is tricky, because in many ways our life is much richer and more connected now that we have an intimate relationship with the water we use.  When water is on tap, it is so easy to just let it run for every little thing.  (“Oh, whoops, I spilled a drop of something, better run the water on a rag to clean it up.”)  When the rain barrel is low, we all pay attention.  In the summer, our drinking water is rain that we filter through our Berkey water filter.  When a storm rolls through, we are so thankful to be filling our water catchment and pond again.

We honestly don’t plan to have running water in our home.  We will have a big cistern that will collect the rain water off of our metal roof, but we will likely have a basic system of hauling water into the house from there.  Ask me later about the legalities of indoor plumbing, septic systems, and grey water.  (Hint: If it is common sense and environmentally friendly, it is illegal.  If it is expensive and wasteful, it is mandated.)

3. An Oven
Pizza.  That is all.  Oh…and tater tots.  And roasted squash.  Yum!

Now, we’ve learned to bake in some innovative ways, using cast iron and the coals from the fire.  Or a tin foil cover over our rocket stove, to bake corn bread, etc.  But yeah, I’m very much looking forward to having a real oven again.

In our home, we will have a classic wood-burning stove with an oven.  I am looking forward to the learning curve with that!

4. Internet
Some of you may have noticed that we aren’t always the quickest at returning the communications you send.  We sincerely apologize for this.  In our defense, to access email and the internet, it usually means we need to drive down the road to use the wifi at the Town Hall, or at the very least, bundle up and hike to the ridge where there is better cell phone service.  In the summer, no big deal.  But in the winter, when it is dark and only 5 degrees above zero, it’s harder to get motivated to stand up there with numb fingers typing up a reply.

The good news for us is that in about a month’s time, we will have a fiber-optic cable that will bring internet to our place.  We ordered it last fall, and it’s taken them this long to get it to us.  This is our only “utility” we plan on using at our homestead.

So, I think that’s it for now.  If you’ve got any questions about more of the details, please feel free to leave a comment below.  I’d be happy to share more!

Also, have YOU made any changes in your life recently that you’ve noticed make a difference in your experience and what you appreciate?  Please share below!