"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

State of the Homestead: Part 2

After my long, rambling, non-specific entry yesterday, I think I'll settle down to brass tacks and just quietly talk about our provisions for Alternative Utilities as plainly as I can.

Of all the areas I outlined (Alternative Utilities, Knowledge and Skills, Supplies, Security, and Food Security), this is the one on which we have made the least progress. We still depend on municipal, county, or private corporate services for basically all our utilities - the county comes and collects our garbage; we buy propane (and lease the tank) from a local company for heat; Puget Sound Energy supplies our electricity. We have a septic system which, although maintained by ourselves alone, is subject to yearly inspection by the county. Our water is supplied by a very local water association - about 150 homes are supplied by a few good, local wells, and the very nominal monthly fees pay for maintenance, meter reading, and water testing. Actually, the water association is a good example of the kind of small-scale, semi-public utilities I see being the wave of the future. More on that later.

Of course, we are still dependent on fuel from the fuel station down the road. Transportation is a "utility." There is no public transportation that comes within three miles of our house, which I find ridiculous since we are on a state highway midway between the freeway and the county's largest employer. But that's a rant for another day. So, if we break it down, here is the state of the homestead as regards:

Electricity: no progress. I spent many hours researching solar options and discovered, basically, that we can't afford a system that would be independent of the grid. And I don't care to spend a year's income installing a grid-tied system. Last year, a really cool opportunity came our way to lease space to a small independent company - owned by a family friend - who wanted to install a large windmill capable of powering some 40 or 50 homes on our windy ridge. We would get free electricity plus 5-10% of the profits reaped from selling excess capacity to the grid. We were sold, but then the county inexplicably imposed a moratorium on windmills. We were sad - not only would this offer us income and independence, but also a chance to be part of the solution, creating medium-scale renewable energy generation to replace dirty methods. Alas, it was not to be. Currently, we have no plans to get off the grid, or even to generate any of our own electricity here, but we will continue to look into possibilities. Our situation is so perfect vis-a-vis wind power that it would be a crying shame not to take advantage of it. This is Homero's bailiwick - he is excited by the idea of a biomass gasifier, whereby we could make electricity from our livestock's manure.

Heat: Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a local company to get an estimate for converting our open fireplace (which we do not use) into an efficient heat system by bricking it up, sheathing the chimney, and installing a free-standing woodstove with a cooktop. We will still keep the propane furnace, of course - but right now, we have no provisions for heat, hot water, or cooking if the power goes out. Last week, it went out for a day and half. We went and stayed at my sister's. What with all the wind here (see "electicity", above), we can count on losing power a few times a year. And looking into the future, I expect that restoring power will take longer and longer as utility budgets decline. I don't intend for us to use wood as a primary heat source, but it is important to me that we have options. Homero has ideas in this area too - last year he got a brand new, never installed oil-burning furnace off Craigslist for $200. He says it will be relatively simple to convert it run off of waste veggie oil. We'll see, but that would be totally cool! Because, Homero has done a great deal of work in the area of sourcing

Fuel: not just for transportation! Some three years ago, Homero built a biodiesel processor out of stuff he got for free off Craigslist (ladies, if you're single, seriously consider marrying a mechanic). He also built a really cool device we call an "oil-sucker" that is basically a 50 gallon drum fitted with tubes and valves that goes in the bed of a pickup. He can use the truck's engine to create a vacuum inside the drum, and then just stick the tube into a dumpster full of waste veggie oil, open the valve, and suck up enough fuel to drive about 1,500 miles. He has an arrangement with a couple of local restaurants and at any given time, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 gallons of oil waiting to be turned into biodiesel. Biodiesel which can not only power our cars, but also our diesel generator (so I guess we DO have some electricity generating capacity) and our (so far theoretical) diesel furnace. On the list of equipment we want (more on that later) is a small diesel tractor. We could run that on homemade hi-test, too.

Water:I don't anticipate trouble with the water supply anytime soon, but nonetheless, I invested in 2,000 gallons worth of storage tanks. The idea is they will harvest rainwater and be used for non-potable uses like gardening, washing, flushing toilets, etc, and that we will continue to be able to source potable water. I'm sure that that will be true for my own lifetime. My kids may have to look into serious filtration and purification systems.

Waste Processing: We have not made any provisions for processing waste, by which I mean garbage as well as sewage. We would be in trouble if for some reason there was no longer septic tank pumping available. Our tanks were pumped last year, and should be good for at least another 4 years. Long term, I would like to install a composting toilet. If you haven't heard about these, they are pretty amazing! They can take the annual output of your average 5 person American family and turn it into an amount of dry, crumbly, odorless compost that would fit in a five gallon bucket. Not kidding. I've used them, I've stayed in houses where they were the only amenities, and I can attest that when well functioning, they don't smell at all. It's a little weird not to flush with water, but just imagine you're at the county fair using a magically non-disgusting port-o-potty. Cost about $2,000.

As for garbage, well, we could do an awful lot to cut down on the amount we produce. I have not yet taken the obviously necessary step of eliminating plastic from our lives. Or, to be more honest, of drastically reducing the amount of plastic coming into our house. Bellingham is looking into a plastic-bag ban - hope it passes! We already compost or feed to the animals all food waste. We recycle what is recyclable, although to be honest we are nowhere near as conscientious as we could be. My husband, in particular, has a lot to learn concerning what is and is not actually recyclable. This is an area where I am not at all happy with our efforts, yet where I have a hard time seeing myself taking on all the extra work that it would mean to - for example - haul glass jars to the co-op to buy in bulk. As a matter of fact, we are one of those households which is continually threatened with being overwhelmed and literally buried in trash. I don't know where it all comes from. It's a vexing mystery to me. I am always whining about how we need to go to the dump. In fact, just this week, I made a deal with my husband - anytime he makes a dump run, I make him chiles rellenos for dinner.

You can find my chiles rellenos recipe by searcing the sidebar for "Mexican Food." It's my grandmother-in-law's recipe. I highly recommend it.

Tomorrow: Knowledge and Skills!


JanesDaddy said...

Enjoyed reading this. Looking forward to the rest of the series.