2017 Melting season is upon us

It has been quite some time since my last post. There hasn’t been anything interesting going on as far as building projects go. We’ve mainly been idling away the winter. We must say that this winter (our third in the trailer) has by far been the most pleasant. We’re well insulated now, we have working appliances and plenty of dry firewood. It’s a grand improvement over previous years.

We are one day away from the official start of spring and it is a fantabulous day here: bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Yes, we still have plenty of snow on the ground, but it was warm enough today that we could go out with only a sweater or perhaps light jacket on.

Yes, we even have pictures.

As with every spring, our driveway gets all mucky. Hopefully this year it won’t be quite as bad as previously after we dropped that load of gravel on the driveway in the fall.

The squirrels are out in full force after discovering the huge pile of seeds under our bird feeder.

Generic forest picture.

And we have a shot of our humble abode, complete with overflowing compost pile in the foreground.

If you’d like a bit of perspective, here is what things looked like back in January.

Yeah, a bit snowy.

I took this picture standing on top of the smurf house (composting toilet room).

What was I doing on top of the smurf house, you ask? Well, that is where I stand to clean off the solar panels. I have a squeegee taped to the end of one of those extendo-painter’s poles.

It snowed quite a bit this winter, so that was a very regular task. It’s best done in the morning so you can get the most out of the daylight shining on your solar panels.

We had quite the winter for a while, up until about mid February. One person I talked to described it as living in a snow globe that someone kept shaking. It never snowed really hard, it was a constant gentle drift of falling snow all the time. There weren’t too many days that went by where we didn’t get any snow. I have heard it from others that this was a record year for snow fall.

Fortunately, come mid February, the weather broke and we had a warm spell. Here is another picture of the trailer on Feb 20th.

That was a really nice weekend up here. Kat and I took a walk through our property. The snow had melted and refrozen a few times so the top was hard enough we could just walk on it without using snow shoes.

That’s Kat sitting on top of the back rest of the bench that sits in front of the pond at the top of our hill. We had been up there earlier in snowy-er days and you couldn’t even see the top of the bench.

After all that snow, the top of the smurf house had quite the massive pile on it so Kat decided to get up there and clear it off. I managed to snap this shot of her looking quite gleeful in her snow removing activities.

That’s all of our winter weather related news.

There was one other interesting event that happened back at Valentine’s day. Our local cafe, The SunRun had a special event.

The SunRun usually only does breakfast and lunch, but they put on special dinner for Valentine’s day. As soon as we found out about it, we reserved a spot. Natalie, the woman who owns it and is the main chef, does amazing things with food and this is not an opportunity you want to miss.

So, Kat and I got dressed up for it.

I have to mention that this is the very first time Kat and I have ever done anything special for Valentine’s Day, seeing as both of us are not very into that mainly commercial event. The dinner, I have say was absolutely superb. I had jalapenos with mango wrapped in prosciutto for an appetizer, one of the most amazing pieces of beef I have ever eaten for the main course and chocolate brûlée for dessert. That was the first time I had ever had a brûlée, chocolate or otherwise. It was so good, we went back the next day and asked them if they had any left-overs.

They did. We ate them. We were very happy 😀

If you are ever in the Maynooth area, I cannot recommend The SunRun enough. The meals are simple, but everything is made fresh, mostly from local ingredients and it all tastes amazing. Unfortunately, they will be closed for the next eight weeks due to some renovations they are having done.

Sigh. We will miss you, SunRun, but we will also look forward to your re-opening in May with a great new and fresh look 😀

A few words about composting toilets

I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while, and since we aren’t doing much around the trailer right now, I thought this would be a good time to cover this topic.

Composting toilets are very often lauded as a more environmentally friendly option for dealing with human waste and this is the subject that I would like to address here.

There are many different kinds of composting toilets, from the home made to expensive contraptions. Kat and I decided to go with the non-electric version of the SunMar Excel, pictured below.

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We didn’t know much about composting toilets when we bought it, but now that we have been using it for about eighteen months or so, we have a pretty good idea of how it works. We also have had to deal with some issues.

Our toilet has a simple drum chamber where the solids collect. There is a screen that allows the liquids to drain into a dehydration tray. You add bulking material and spin the drum using a crank handle to mix up the contents. Fairly simple stuff. After a while, you move some of the material from the drum into the “aging tray” at the bottom and let it sit undisturbed for about six weeks and then, according to the manual, it should be ready for use as compost.

But is this system more environmentally friendly than using a conventional water-based toilet? Let’s look at the details.

First, construction. Most conventional toilets are glazed porcelain. When they break, there really isn’t any way to fix them, so they usually end up as waste at the landfill. This is not a good thing. There have been some articles I have read that say the porcelain can be crushed and used as aggregate for concrete, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

What about our SunMar composting toilet? Well, it’s primarily made of plastic. There aren’t any recycling symbols stamped on it, so when the toilet breaks beyond repair, it too will end up in a landfill. Both the porcelain and the plastic will last seemingly forever, in terms of breaking down. No one really wants a compostable composting toilet.

Okay, so you aren’t really gaining anything with the construction, at least with these commercial versions. How about daily usage?

Water, of course is always the biggie. Conventional toilets use water as their transport mechanism. Most toilets today are low-flush, meaning the amount of water they use is less than in the old days, but you’re still using fresh water (in a conventional home) to flush your crap away. Depending on the size of your family, this can account for a large majority of the water being used.

With the composting toilet, you don’t use any water at all. However, you do use bulking material. Our SunMar toilet came with a bag of this stuff and you can buy more bags from the store. Their recommended bulking material is 40% peat moss, 60% wood shavings. A bag of this stuff runs $20 and it will last roughly 2 weeks for two people. That’s in addition to buying toilet paper, so now you have additional charges for using your composting toilet. On top of that, peat moss is a controversial material as far as the environment goes as it has been debated just how well it can recover after being harvested.

What we ended up doing is ditching the store bought bags of bulking material and just using wood shavings, which I can generate in large quantities using our planer. We also stopped using that aging tray mentioned above. Once we did that, we eliminated the gnat problem we were having during the summer. Which is another issue you generally don’t have to deal with when using a conventional toilet: insect infestations.

So, the purchased variety of composting toilets can end up costing you more per daily use, if you strictly follow the recommendations from the manufacturer. On the other hand, if your house is connected to a municipal water grid, you will likely have a water bill as well which your conventional toilet would be a prime component of, so it may equalize out in the long run.

How about electricity? Our toilet is a non-electric version so we don’t use any electricity at all. Your conventional toilet will use some electricity to run the pump to refill the tank. There are also compositing toilets that use electricity to run fans and a heater to speed up the composting. With those, expect to use way more electricity than your conventional toilet as using electricity to generate heat is not very efficient.

Now there are simple, homemade composting toilets. These might be a simple outhouse style or even just a bucket-loo. The bucket toilet is about as simple as it gets: you have a bucket with a toilet seat attached to it. Add your bulking material as you go and when it gets full, you need to dump it somewhere. The best option we have found for this is to get a big plastic barrel with a lid that can be sealed. Put the contents of your bucket in the barrel and when it fills up, seal it and start another barrel. Let sealed barrels sit for a year to digest and after that, you’ll have perfectly usable compost.

Composting toilets, no matter what kind you have, are a little more hands-on than conventional ones, which can turn people off. Of course, some are more hands-on than others. All for the sake of saving water. It can be argued that the composting toilet gives you access to the end product which you can then use to grow plants. A conventional toilet hooked up to a septic system will end up putting the materials back in the ground, but you don’t get to put those materials anywhere you want. If you live in the city, well, your crap just ends up in the sewer and eventually the sewage treatment plant. Who knows what happens to it there. I can probably guess they aren’t growing plants with it, though it would be really awesome if they did. Unfortunately, a lot of people like to flush things down the toilet that they shouldn’t.

Let’s consider the toilet situation in a conventional Earthship. Water in an Earthship is used several times. It’s first use is when you take a shower, do your laundry or wash the dishes. As the water goes down the drain, it is sent through the planters in the greenhouse at the front of the house. At the end of the greenhouse, there is a small well where water that has traveled the length of the garden will gather there. That was two uses, if you’re keeping count: once for the initial washing, then feeding your plants.

The water that gathers in that well I just mentioned is the water that is used to flush your toilet, so you aren’t using fresh water for flushing, you’re using your grey water after it has been filtered by the plants. That’s usage number three of the same water you used to do your dishes. With this system, you get all of the ease-of-use and benefits of the conventional, low-flush toilet, but you aren’t using any fresh water to make it work. You will still need a septic tank, which people who use composting toilets will say is one of the benefits of them: you don’t need to spend several thousands of dollars putting in a septic system to use a composting toilet.

You don’t have hands-on access to the effluent that comes out of the septic tank, like you do having access to the output of your composting toilet, however you can still use it to grow plants if you put a botanical cell between the output of your septic tank and the leech field. This works great in the desert to create lush jungles around your house, however up here in Canada, it would only be a seasonal thing as the ground is frozen for half the year.

In the end, having and using a composting toilet seems mainly focused on saving water. In some places, this is an absolute necessity and so are highly suitable for those locations. But depending on the style of composting toilet you have, it may be using way more power than a conventional toilet so it is a debatable to say that they are really more environmentally friendly.

All I can say about ours, is if we were to do it all over again, we probably wouldn’t buy the expensive, fancy plastic version. It’s way cheaper and easier to build your own and you don’t have to worry about parts breaking that you can’t replace.

The Beauty Of Winter

Well, here we are in January 2017. A new year has come and there is much to do. Unfortunately, we don’t generally get a whole lot done on our building projects during this time. The weather greatly reduces your willingness to work outside.

That being said, the weather has been rather interesting this year so far. It’s only January 5th, and we’ve seen quite the gamut of weather activities. I have pictures for your viewing pleasure too.

Let’s start off with January 2nd, which was a rather spectacular day. It was bright and sunny, not too cold. Kat and I decided we should take advantage of this and go for a walk through our forest. We strapped on our trusty snow shoes and ventured forth.

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The picture above I have shown numerous times in different seasons and weather. This is the road that will eventually become our real driveway up to the top of the hill where we plan to build the Earthship.

We headed up the hill and we were quickly reminded what it is like to break fresh trail in powder with snow shoes… up hill. We made our way to the top, stopping every so often to enjoy the view of the sun on the snow and examine several sets of animal tracks that we came across.

We reached the top of the hill, where we have a little meadow with a pond and I suddenly realized that my phone was no longer in my pocket. After a moment’s panic, I retraced my steps and found it sticking out of the snow.

With phone recovered, I snapped this next picture of the pond with some rabbit tracks crossing it.

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The fields of snow in the meadow in the sunshine were quite lovely.

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Here is a lone spruce tree looking very Christmas-y.

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On our way back down, I took this picture of the sunshine in the forest.

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All in all, a very good time. The sky was pure blue that day, which is rare this time of year.

It did not last either. That evening, the clouds rolled in, the temperature actually rose and we received a dumping of ice rain that night, so when we woke up the next day, everything was coated. I don’t know if you have ever experienced ice rain, but it does things like this.

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The ever green trees get it even worse.

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This is what it does to your vehicle.

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And your bird feeder.

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It does make everything glisten like crystalline glass.

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It would look even more awesome if the sun had been out, but alas, that was not the case.

Oh, we’re not done either. It rained more that day as well, then the temperature dropped that evening and it snowed. So, imagine what wet iced tree branches do when they get snowed on. Actually, you don’t need to imagine, I can show you.

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Those are the same branches shown above, but with snow added on top of the ice. Here also is a picture of that same spruce tree from above, but now also covered in ice and snow.

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Needless to say, it was mighty beautiful. I walked all around taking several pictures, trying to take it all in.

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Beautiful though it may look, it is really hard on the trees.

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There were a lot of trees that were bent over or broken, or large branches having fallen off. I’m sure there will be a lot of trees killed by this. It is both beautiful and deadly to behold.

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The big white birch behind the trailer looks mighty awesome, I must say.

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Same road as before, but frosted white now.

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So that was yesterday, but the fun doesn’t stop there. It snowed some more last night. But as luck would have it, for a while this morning the sun was out and I ran outside with my phone to capture some yet even more amazing shots.

Sunshine through the trees.

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Sunshine on the snow drifts.

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It all lights up so wonderfully in the sun.

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I really like this last one. Lower branches not in the sun with ones that are above them.

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The weather here has not stopped. The temperature just keeps going up and down like a sine wave. Here is a shot of our weather forecast for tonight and the following days.

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It’s almost like a Katy Perry song.

December 2016

Time keeps moving on and it has been a while since my last post. There is a variety of things to cover, so stay tuned.

First, I’ll give you a solar update.

Solar power during winter has its challenges. Optimally, it would be nice to have the batteries in a semi-heated/temperature stable location, but alas, we don’t have such a place so where they are is what we have. That being said, the solar system has been behaving very well. Unfortunately, the weather hasn’t been all that sunny. After that snow we had on my birthday, it warmed up a bit, rained enough to get rid of all of the snow and then it snowed again.

… and again… and again… In fact, there haven’t been too many days in December where it hasn’t snowed at least a few flakes. This means I need to get out and clean off the solar panels each time. I have a system where I don’t need to get on the roof, but it still has its own risks being up on a ladder. I fell from it once and I don’t recommend the experience. Nothing major was broken, fortunately.

The other thing I discovered is it is not sufficient to simply clean off the solar panels. The more you do that, the more the snow builds up at the bottom and then starts covering the bottom panel. Once that happens, your incoming voltage will drop so much that you can’t get enough power out of it to recharge the batteries. So I spent an extended amount of time cleaning off the roof below the panels yesterday.

If the panels are clear of the thick snow, any ice or minor coverage will quickly melt even on a cloudy day. Last Thursday (Dec 15th) was one of the first days where we had any sunshine at all, but it was bitterly cold. I think the windchill that night was down to -32C (-27F). Fortunately, we went back to getting snow and it wasn’t quite so chilly. Today, was a brilliantly awesome sunny day and we were able to get some good power out of it. If it is constantly cloudy, we can go three days or so from 100% battery down to 80% at which point I run the generator to top them up.

I’m sure you’re all wondering where the pictures are so here are some nice scenery shots of the snowy landscape that we now live in.

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In that last picture, on the far right you can see a black barrel beside the smurf house. The snow cap on it is probably 40-50cm (16-20″). As I said above, it’s been snowing a lot. We’ve certainly enjoyed having our driveway ploughing done by someone else, that is for sure.

Kat also managed to sneak a picture of me as I was cleaning snow off the roof yesterday.

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In case you’re wondering, I have a squeegee attached to the end of one of those telescoping poles you usually use for painting. It works great for the panels, but is less efficient at clearing the roof itself.

While I was outside taking pictures, our bird feeder has been quite the area of activity. Chickadees, bluejays, wood peckers and nuthatches all like to feast on what we have to offer. I managed to snag a picture at just the right time to get a shot of a nuthatch. They are pretty flighty and don’t stay for very long, even less so than a chickadee.

You can see this one on the side of the feeder on the right.

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Next, we’ll move inside.

As you may know from previous posts, we have a new bed frame that is working very well. Soon after that was put in, I hooked up this.

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That’s an LED light strip on a dimmer switch. It’s very snazzy and makes reading in bed very enjoyable.

Once that was in it was time to work on paneling the walls.

This is the area around the closet, before any paint was applied.

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This is the first section on the opposite side of the closet, by the window, after the primer was applied.

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Here you can see both sides after the primer.

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Progressing along, all of the window side is now paneled. Some has been painted, some are waiting to be painted.

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That last picture is a little out of date, as those unpainted panels now are.

Recently, we were back at my parents for our annual cookie day event. Friends of ours from the Ottawa area, Ian and his wife, Heather, who were attending said event, kindly donated a small set of cupboards to us that they no longer needed. As it turns out, the cupboards fit nicely over the counter where the sink will be going (yes, another project yet to be completed).

Unfortunately, this did mean some adjustments needed to be made to the spice rack we had made to go over the stove, but nothing that we couldn’t handle. But before we could install it, Kat wanted to paint the wall to match the rest of the area. So, she did.

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Isn’t that a lovely blue? Anyway, I did need to make a few modifications to the cupboards before I could install them. We don’t have standard wood studs behind our walls, so you can’t just hang it any which way you like. Here is a picture of me on the floor praying to the cupboards.

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It wasn’t a whole lot of work, and we now have a nice new storage location for more things. Actually, all of the spices ended up in the cupboards until I finish making the modifications to the previously mentioned spice rack.

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This was right before it got really cold last week, so we haven’t done much since then. I still need to go outside into the truck shelter to do things like make cuts in the pieces of wood we want to use. If it’s -20C (-4F), I’m not really inclined to go out and do that.

Things are winding down now and we’re getting ready for the holidays. We won’t be doing any major traveling this year, just visiting our family and friends within easy driving distance.

Make your holidays great 🙂

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