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Our FAIRS bring living wisely to life with hands-on workshops in organic gardening, country skills, renewable energy and more.

Making Loose-Leaf Tea Easy

It’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a tea snob. I will only drink high quality herbal teas, and I tend to avoid most tea bags. This is the curse of my career. I grow herbs, teach about them and make medicines with them. This makes me acutely aware of the quality of tea when I go to enjoy some myself.

The Importance of Loose-Leaf Tea

Tea bags seem like such a necessary convenience until you begin to understand that the quality is almost always greatly compromised. To fit into that tiny tea bag, the herb must be finely shredded or powdered. The longer an herb sits after it has been shredded, the more oxygenation occurs and the less benefit and taste actually remains when you finally decide to drink it.

Loose leaf tea tends to give you a better shot at herbs that have not been crushed or broken too much. When leaves and flowers are not hidden in a tea bag, you can easily see the color and condition of your herbs. There is no hiding.

Loose Leaf Tea Intimidation

So many people are intimidated by loose tea. They wonder how much should I use? Our new customers often ask if we sell a tea ball with our tea. We don’t, and I have a good reason why.

I don’t like tea balls. A good cup of herbal tea should use 2-3 teaspoons of herb. Have you ever noticed how little you can stuff into one of those things? To make a good tasting and highly effective tea you need your herbs to be “free range." That’s right, they need to have the ability to wander around in your tea without a cage. Only then can the water pull everything out of the herb. If your leaves are squished together, unable to move, well ... we know how bad that is for our eggs, why would it be any better for our tea?

So why not just use a strainer that sits on top of the tea? Again, the tea isn't freely roaming through your mug. You’re just not going to get your best cup that way.

Tea Hack

For me, nothing beats a simple mason jar for making loose leaf tea. I throw in 3-4 tablespoons of tea for a quart jar, cover it with hot water and add a lid. This tea can sit for 10-20 minutes, or overnight. When I’m ready to drink, I simply pour into a cup through any number of strainers or sieves in my kitchen arsenal. No need for fancy gadgets, just simplicity at its finest.

This only works for leaves, flowers and fruits. That type of tea is made as an infusion. An infusion is the typical method of tea making: Add hot water and soak. If you have found a tea that includes bark, roots or nuts, you won’t be able to use the mason jar. This type of plant material requires a decoction, which is made by placing the herb in a saucepan, adding water and simmering for 20 minutes. The fancy equipment list still doesn’t apply. Instead of a mason jar you use a saucepan. After that first step, you still pour into your cup through the strainer of your choice.

If you have gone to the trouble of sourcing your tea from a high quality producer, keep in mind that you can usually use your “tea leaves” for at least two batches of tea before you compost them.

In this year of true winter in most parts of our country, what could be better than a good cup of tea? I’m just off to enjoy one myself. What are you drinking?

How to Find Your Own Clay and Make Your First Sustainable Pottery Project

To build with love is the way the craftsman … does just enough, not more and not less. - Harry Remde offers creative community handcrafts by traditional artisans supporting agrarians in a sustainable village context. These functional farmstead, quality handcrafts include woodworking, pottery, blacksmithing, textile crafts and more. We are joining MOTHER EARTH NEWS at their FAIR in Puyallup, Wash., May 31 to June 1, 2014, at booth 810. You will be able to see sustainable pottery made at our booth demo and FAIR workshop.

Why Do Pottery? 

People around the world have used sustainable pottery for thousands of years to store and serve food, hold water, boil tea, preserve documents (in the case of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls) and for many other purposes. Cups, bowls, pots, vases, plates, saucers, butter dishes, even a “pot-within-a-pot” used for refrigeration in parts of Africa, are all traditional pottery products. This wide, purposeful use of pottery supported the local agrarian community, which is what Cottage Crafted heartily encourages.

One specific use for pottery is fermentation crockery. Handmade pottery crocks are perfect for making sauerkraut or kimchi. Fermentation is not only a great way to keep your harvest, it also exponentially increases its nutritional value.

The skills learned in making pottery are invaluable, as well. Learning about the different types of clay (and which to use), using glazes, hand-building, wheel-throwing, “firing” (baking) clay … all these are rare and valuable skills.

Find Your Own Clay

Potters have been digging and processing their own clay for millennia. It has only been since the Industrial Revolution that clay started being sold by suppliers on the market. Before that time, potters situated themselves near a good source of clay and always passed the trade down from generation to generation. In many places, such as China, Korea and Great Britain, whole families of potters would build small towns near a clay source and the local economy centered on pottery making.

Clay is a smooth soft rock made up of mineral particles as fine as dust. Clay particles are all that remain of rocks such as feldspar after these have weathered and decomposed. Most clay remains at the site where it formed, making a clay deposit. In its undeveloped state, it is one of the few natural resources that has no perceptible value of its own yet can be transformed into some of the most valued works of art.

Many potters caution that it isn’t worth the time and effort to dig your own native clay, while others strongly urge those who are able to take advantage of this abundant resource to do so. Potters can gain a great deal of practical experience and broaden their knowledge by going out and digging their own clay (and feel the fulfillment of actually making a pot from the ground up).

Here at our shop many people ask if we use clay from the Brazos River, which borders our farm. We have been unable to do so because of a major lime contamination. A good part of this is due to the high limestone cliffs just above the river. Every time it rains more limestone washes down the banks, contaminating the absorbent clay. James Chappell, author of The Potter’s Complete Book of Clay and Glazes, writes, “While the presence of alkalies can be tolerated, the presence of lime cannot; when such clay is fired, lime turns into calcium oxide, which will absorb water, expand inside the pot, and cause it to crack, flake or chip.”

There are two basic types of clay: earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware can only be fired up to the temperature range between 1700 degrees and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, it is not waterproof and the finished product can chip or scratch easily. Stoneware is much less common than earthenware, yet it is highly sought after for its durability and lasting strength. This type of clay can be fired up to 2400 degrees to become vitreous (meaning “like a rock”), making it water-proof even when left unglazed (thus the name, stoneware).

Some miles from the future extension of the Ploughshare school is a large deposit of kaolin clay in Helmer, Idaho. The mineral kaolin is an extremely refractory clay with a melting point at 3200 degrees. It cannot be used alone as a clay body due to its highly nonplastic texture. Because of this it must be combined with other clays to increase its plasticity and lower its maturing temperature. However, this clay is very durable and has a low rate of shrinkage, making it one of the most sought-after ingredients for making pottery in the United States. We have yet to work with it ourselves but we are looking forward to possibly using this native clay source (with which we could supply the needs of our school and craft shop).

Now that we have the foundation of pottery (the clay), we’ll put it into use. The simplest method of making pottery is hand-building: You form the pottery entirely in your hands, instead of on the wheel.

Making a Pinch Pot

A pinch pot can be as simple as a little bowl to put knickknacks in, or it can be as elaborate as a teapot with a footed sugar and creamer set. Another great thing about pinch pots is that you don’t need any specialized equipment. You can do all of this right on your kitchen table! 

Start by making a small ball of clay. The smoother and rounder you get it to begin with, the better the finished product is going to look. Once your ball is ready, poke your thumb straight down into the middle of it, and then pinch the clay between your thumb and fingers.

Squeeze with the full length of your fingers, not just with your fingertips. Pinch and turn. Continue turning and pinching until you go all the way around. Multiple small pinches will yield better results than just a few forceful ones.

The lip of your bowl may be a little rough at this point. You can use your fingers and thumb to smooth and even it out. Now, begin to work any lumps out of walls of your bowl. Smooth them out with your thumb. It is not necessary to use any water during the making of your pot, unless the clay begins to crack. If this happens, use only a dab of water to help you smooth them out. Too much water will cause your pot to begin to dissolve and you will end up with a mess instead of a pot! just a few large, forceful ones. Keep the pot cupped in your hand as you work with it. Work your way around until the walls of your bowl are evenly thinned out. 

Once you are satisfied with how your pot looks, set it down on the table and gently tap it. Using your finger or thumb on the inside, smooth and press the base down. This will create a flat base for your pot. You can also, at this point, turn it over and smooth out any remaining cracks or crevices on the outside.

That's basically it for a pinch pot. You can start with small pinch pots and work your way up as you become more comfortable with making them. Eventually, you can make things such as tall vases, salt and pepper shakers, or sets of matching bowls or mugs.

If you don't have access to a kiln and you would like to do this at home, you can use the mud in your backyard or buy self-drying clay at a craft store and finish it out yourself at home. You wouldn't be able to use these pieces for food, but you can paint them with acrylic paints and then use them for knickknack dishes. This would be great practice, but eventually, if you’re going to get serious about pottery, you will want to invest in a small kiln.

Making a Wheel-Thrown Pot

Once you have mastered hand-building and gotten a “feel” for the clay, you can move on to wheel-throwing, or using the potter’s wheel. The basic (oversimplified) method is to “throw” (smack) the clay onto the middle of the wheel, start the wheel spinning, finish centering it with your hands, push your thumbs in the middle of the clay to make a hole, shape it into a cylinder, and keep shaping it from there into a pot, bowl, cup or plate … anything that can be made of clay. This, however, is a complicated process, so there is no substitute for learning from a teacher in order to create a quality handcraft. Jenni Fritzlan, a full-time potter who also teaches pottery year-round for the Ploughshare Institute in Texas, will give a wheel-throwing demonstration as part of an onstage presentation on the making and use of fermentation crockery at the Puyallup MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.

Come by our booth to see a live demonstration on the potter's wheel by Fritzlan. She and her team’s quality handcrafted pottery is offered online at

Cottage Crafted also helped supply the $7,500 Mother Earth News Homesteader Sweepstakes, featuring a Cottage Crafted Homesteader Set: a mesquite box, a gift basket set (including a bread basket, bread cloth, hardwood cutting board, wood spatula, and wood butter knife), and a video beekeeping course. Be sure to enter here:

We can also be reached through these at:

Cottage Crafted


Aromatherapeutic Cold and Flu Relief

You know when a dreaded cold is coming on: Your throat and voice feel a bit scratchy, your nose begins to run, your eyes resemble those of a frog, your energy dips, you get the chills, and, in general, you feel like a blob. Compound these symptoms with muscle aches, joint stiffness, occasional nausea and fever, and you’ve got the flu. According to my wise grandmother, influenza used to be called “bone fever” because you ache right down to your marrow and it hurts for someone just to touch you.

When you want relief from your misery, instead of reaching for some chemical-filled pill or ill-tasting syrupy medicine that will just leave your brain feeling clogged, why not add the following remedy to your arsenal of natural cold and flu therapies? With its analgesic, antibacterial, antiviral and respiratory-soothing properties, it’s guaranteed to help ease symptoms and bring comfort so you feel better soon. Combine this treatment with more-than-ample bed rest, hot organic chicken or vegetable-onion-garlic soup, and lots of herb tea, and you’ve got the recipe for healing!

Surround Me in Comfort: Warming Bath Oil

Feeling all stuffed up? Got the chills, aches, pains and general misery of a cold or flu? Then a detoxifying sweat session with this bath oil is just the thing you need to ease your symptoms, open your sinuses, warm your core and relax your entire body so that you can sleep soundly and get the healing rest you so desperately need. Ginger, thyme, lavender, palmarosa and pine essential oils deliver antiseptic and antiviral properties, stimulate sluggish circulation, induce perspiration, relieve muscle tension and aching joints, and even relieve headaches due to congestion.

Note: Do not partake of this heating therapy if you are running a fever, sweating, or are extremely weak and debilitated, as it will exacerbate your symptoms.

20 drops ginger essential oil

15 drops palmarosa essential oil

15 drops thyme (chemotype linalool) essential oil

15 drops Scotch pine essential oil

10 drops lavender essential oil

1 cup jojoba base oil

Equipment: Dropper, dark glass bottle with dropper top or screw cap

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 24 hours to synergize

Yield: Approximately 1 cup

Storage: Store at room temperature, away from heat and light; use within 2 years

Application: 1 or 2 times per day

Add the ginger, palmarosa, thyme, Scotch pine, and lavender essential oils drop by drop directly into a storage bottle. Add the jojoba base oil. Cap the bottle and shake vigorously for 2 minutes.

Label the bottle and place in a dark location that’s between 60° and 80°F for 24 hours so that the oils can synergize.

Application Instructions:

This healing, detoxification process can be performed in the morning, if you are staying home for the day, and also at night before retiring. Turn up the heat or stoke the woodstove and make a mug of fresh ginger, cinnamon spice, or decaf chai tea, or just plain hot water with lemon juice. Run a hot bath, with the door closed. When the tub is nearly full, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of bath oil under running water and swish to blend. Ease into the soothing bath and lie back for about 20 minutes while you sip your tea. Sweating helps release toxins from your pores. Following your soak, gently pat yourself dry. Put on pajamas and socks, and climb under the covers. Do this once or twice daily for a few days, until you are well.

You can learn how to make more topically-applied herbal remedies by reading Tourles’ latest book, Hands-On Healing Remedies: 150 Recipes for Herbal Balms, Salves, Oils, Liniments & Other Topical Therapies (Storey Publishing, 2012). 

Stephanie Tourles is a licensed holistic aesthetician, certified aromatherapist, and gardener with training in Western and Ayurvedic herbalism. She is the author of eight books, including Organic Body Care Recipes; Raw Energy: 124 Raw Food Recipes for Energy Bars, Smoothie, and Other Snacks to Supercharge Your Body; Naturally Healthy Skin; 365 Ways to Energize Mind, Body & Soul; and Natural Foot Care. She lives in Orland, Maine.

Visit Tourles’ website,, her blog and Facebook page to find out more about her, and stay tuned for her 2014 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR speaking schedule.

Healing the Earth

The self-reliance tsunami arguably spawned by MOTHER EARTH NEWS in the early 1970s is a revolution for “integrity living.” That’s a powerful phrase, but I think it captures the essence of our movement.

I think most of us who attend MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and read the full Ogden Publications curriculum have a deep-seated belief that most of modern America is living a lie. Hence the notion of “integrity living.” For example, it’s simply untrue that industrial farming, monocropping and petroleum-based fertilizers can actually sustain our civilization. We simply don’t believe genetically modified corn and soybeans are the difference between abundance and scarcity.

Healing The Earth

In our gardens and diversified, decentralized, compost-driven farms, we know how abundant the Earth wants to be if we respectfully massage nature’s templates. We don’t have to swagger into nature like a bunch of conquistadors to get the Earth to produce. Actually, abundance is nature's default position when we touch our ecological umbilical with awe and reverence.

Big industrial agribusiness would have us think that their Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) ensure life — that to deprive our planet of CAFOs would mean starvation for millions. But those of us who count ourselves among the MOTHER EARTH NEWS family know that pastured livestock — animals that move freely and eat perennials — actually produce more per acre than the animals on grain-chemical-pharmaceutical-petroleum-confinement factory farms.

Indeed, our movement is like the little boy in the fable who cried: “The emperor has no clothes!” We believe compost makes the richest soil, the most nutrient-dense vegetables and the most regenerative production. We dare to question the notion that life is fundamentally mechanical and that safety requires sterility. We know that most bacteria are good, and that bad ones that proliferate into pathogenicity only do so when our management is wrong.

We don’t believe Wall Street is more important than healthy earthworms. We don’t believe that petroleum is more important than clean water. We don’t believe knowing about the dysfunction du jour of the Kardashians is more important than what will become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone at dinner time. We certainly don’t believe the answers to our societal maladies emanate from Washington. No, we think our civilization is only as healthy as our soil, our economy is only as healthy as our personal finances, and our health care begins in our own kitchens and gardens.

To believe otherwise is to drink the Kool-Aid of a cult that promotes disempowerment, and corporate and governmental dependency. If wellness comes from drugs rather than our gardens, we’ll spend quite a bit more on drugs. If our homesteads heal us emotionally, physically and spiritually, what need have we of so much health care in the first place? If our mission is sacred enough and noble enough to consume our life focus, when do we become depressed about our physical appearance enough to demand corrective surgery? We glow naturally when we’re consumed with redemption and nurturing.

Everything else is chasing a lie. I know that may sound strong, but I think days like those we’re currently living in demand clarity. It’s not good enough simply to slow down. If you’re going the wrong way, slowing down won’t get you to your destination. You have to turn around and go the other way. Our community of rebels, of humble truth seekers, wants to turn our culture around. We don’t despise our country. We don’t desire failure. We desire light, a beacon to show the world that our wealth need not show the way to more rapid destruction, but can be leveraged to heal more acres, more backyards, more communities faster than any civilization on the right path has ever done it. That’s our goal, our truth.

Now let’s keep going if we’re going, and let’s start if we’re not going yet. We are the truth antidote for our society. Let’s show it in our gardens, our compost piles, our vermicomposting bins and our domestic larders. That’s not hoarding: It’s ultimate freedom, liberty. Here’s the truth: Security does not come from outside. It comes from inside. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at this year’s FAIRS. Until then, keep reading and keep doing. Our homesteads pulse with the heartbeat of truth. Here’s to a great 2014.

Photo by Fotolia

Ginger Beer Recipe Remix

Who knew that making a soda so delicious was so darn easy?! This office experiment is our most rewarding yet. I mean, Marlin is cool with his aquaponic system and all, but I definitely don’t want to drink fish water. (See "Office Trials: Aquaponic System.") Our ginger beer is so refreshing, surprisingly effervescent and just plain awesome! So you’d like to know how to make it yourself, right? Well, I will gladly share the steps and recipe with you.

It all started with a little ginger bug. I wanted to make the ginger beer from scratch which means I had to make the yeast or “live” part of the soda. In researching the ginger bug I came across an article from 1981 by none other than MOTHER EARTH NEWS about how to create your own! Always a trusty source.

The following recipe and instructions were loosely based around the article, but I made a few changes to make it my own. You can do the same!

Start a Ginger Bug

1½ cups filtered water
3 teaspoons finely chopped ginger root
3 teaspoons organic raw sugar
1 wide-mouth quart jar
Cheesecloth or coffee filter

Starting your ginger bug is ridiculously easy. Combine filtered water, finely chopped ginger root and organic sugar together in the quart jar. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Place cheesecloth or coffee filter over top of jar and secure with rubber band around mouth of jar. This allows the ginger bug to breathe, but keeps out any unwanted debris or creatures!

Daily, for about 7 to 8 days, add 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger root and stir. You’ll want to agitate the ginger bug twice a day by stirring to be sure it stays activated. I made the mistake of letting it sit for a day or two without any stirring and it went dormant. It can easily be brought back to life with the sugar, ginger and a little agitation.

You’ll know your ginger bug is ready to use when it starts to fizz upon adding ingredients and stirring. It should take 7 to 8 days, but depending on temperature and other variables, it may take a bit longer. Because I let it go dormant, it took our ginger bug about two weeks to be ready for the ginger beer process.

How to Make Ginger Beer

Ginger bug
3 lemons
¾ cup organic raw sugar
½ gallon filtered water
 ½ gallon container

After your ginger bug is all fizzed and ready to go, you’ll need a larger container to store your ginger beer in. In my case, there is a brewery located conveniently down the road from the office so I bought a growler to make my ginger beer in. It is a glass container and I wouldn’t use any other material for fear of leaching, but you must be very, very careful with glass. When the pressure of the beer builds up it creates perfect conditions for the glass container to blow up! You must release the pressure daily once the beer has been concocted.

To start, strain the ginger bug through the cheesecloth (I found this worked much better as a strainer than a coffee filter) into the container. Be sure to keep the solid parts of your ginger bug! I’ll let you know what to do with it in the following section. Next, juice the three lemons through the cheesecloth to prevent the seeds from going into the mix. Finally add the sugar and fill the rest of the container with filtered water. Be sure to stop about an inch from the top to allow fermenting to occur. Give it a shake, seal the top down tight and put it on the shelf. This should take about 4 to 7 days to be ready! 

As I said before, if you use a glass container be sure to release the pressure daily by opening the lid. You don’t want your bottle to bust everywhere. That would be one sticky mess! After 4 days here, we opened the bottle and it fizzed violently like a shaken soda bottle. It was obviously ready for consumption! Once you get this type of reaction from your ginger beer you’ll place it in the refrigerator to stop any fermentation. Once it’s cooled, it is ready to drink!

Back to the Bug

1½ cups filtered water
2 teaspoons organic raw sugar
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger root

To keep your ginger bug alive be sure to keep the solid portion of your ginger bug after straining. Add filtered water, sugar and ginger root back into your quart jar and repeat the steps for keeping the ginger bug. The cycle will keep going as long as you keep your ginger bug active! 

To conclude, I had a great time with this process. It really is a fun soda to make and so easy. Every step was done at my desk… It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (trust me, I’m no chemist either!). If I can make it so can you and it takes no time at all. Over the course of the past three weeks I’ve grown oddly attached to my little ginger bug, and I’m sure to stir it twice a day to keep it kickin’. We’ll be making another batch of ginger beer after the holidays. It may become an office staple.

Stay tuned to the blog! We’ll be posting about our homemade (or office-made) apple cider vinegar, aquaponic system and we’ll keep you updated on our hydroponic system!

Check out the FAIR website at and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for fun how-tos and FAIR updates! 

Office Trials - Aquaponic System

Set-up (Day 1)

We received our 3-gallon aquaponic system, graciously donated to us by We were super excited, but we had no clue where to start. Fortunately, the company included a trifold pamphlet explaining how to set up the system—and it was quite simple. First, we had to purchase a fish. James and I happily
drove to PetSmart and picked out a flamboyantly colored beta (the recommended type of fish). When we got back to the office it was time to prepare the tank. Back to our handy dandy set of instructions. We had to give the fish a bath…give a fish a bath? Yes. This is required to clean any scummy disease that it could possibly transfer into its new aquaponic home. 

As the fish was lounging in a tepid bath, we filled up the aquaponic tank with water and added the D-Klor (to de-chlorinate the water). Once the tank water was ready, we set the fish in while still in its container from the pet store. This step is to get the fish used to the temperature of the water without stunning it. 

After 10 to 15 minutes, we opened the container and set the fish free in its new home. He seemed happy and swam around joyously out of his tiny pet store container. We named him Morrissey, turned out the lights and headed home for the night.

Set-up (Day 2)

Morrissey is dead.  This was devastating.  We thought we had done everything right!  Scooping him out of the tank and heading back to the pet store, we traded our dead fish in for a live one and decided to try again.

“New fish”, as we called him for three days, was set free. Now it was on to installing the plant part of the system. We washed the grow stones and prepared them to be put in the individual containers on top of the tank. We turned on the pump and water began to spill out into the top compartment to feed our prospective plants. After placing the stones on the tank, it was time to plant some seed, but first we had to soak our wheatgrass seeds overnight before placing them on the grow stones.

Planting (Day 3)

Walking into the office warily, we went to see if the new fish had survived the night and… he did! Relief. The wheatgrass had also become waterlogged, but this was the point of letting them soak. Covering the grow stones evenly with the seeds, now it was time to wait for our seeds to grow!

Growth (Day 4)

Well that didn’t take long.  We came into the office to find that the wheatgrass had popped up over night!  How cool.  It had only grown a bit, but we couldn’t believe that it had grown so much in just one night.

Harvest (Day 6)

This lovely little self-cleaning, self-maintaining (besides feeding the fish) aquaponic system had produced about six inches of wheatgrass and it was time to harvest some for a salad! James did the honor of cutting some and sprinkling it on his salad. I had already eaten lunch, but I will try it soon!  

In all, it was a bit of a bumpy start after losing Morrissey, but from day 2 we’ve had great luck with our aquaponic system! Marlin, fish #2, is happy as a clam and stares at James frequently. I’m pretty sure they have staring contests in his office.  The wheatgrass is growing beautifully, and everything in this little environment seems happy. Our next venture is learning how to fill the tank every so often. The water evaporates and is fed to the plants so it slowly dissipates, but I’m sure this won’t be a problem.

We are very happy with our aquaponic system that so graciously donated to us for our office experiments. Stay tuned to the blog! We’ll be posting about our homemade (or office-made) apple cider vinegar, ginger beer and we’ll keep you updated on our hydroponic system!

Check out the FAIR website at and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for fun how-tos and FAIR updates! 

How to Assess Your Own Site for Solar Potential

With the current federal tax credits and some local utilities offering incentives, tapping into solar power is more affordable and pays off sooner than it did four years ago. Before you bring a solar energy expert out to your house, take some time to check your site yourself. Evaluating your home for solar is simple: Just follow these four easy steps.

Check your paperwork.
To be eligible for the solar incentives from the government and/or utility companies, the person who owns the system (you) must own the property where the solar array will be installed. The utility account for the property must be in your name as well.

Check the orientation.
Southern-facing roofs are optimal; west-facing is the next best. Do none of your roofs face the best directions? Fear not. There are solutions. Many people use pole mounts and racked panels to maximize their solar production.

Check your view.
Even a little shading can create a big problem. There are systems designed to deal effectively with some shading but there is a limit. There are ways to deal with shading challenges. Obvious solutions are mounting panels to poles or racks. For one Olympia, Wash., family the best place for their system was in their backyard. So, they built a pergola and used the photovoltaic panels as shading.

More dramatic (and often less desirable) solutions to shading would be removing trees that cause shading. A good solar installer will be able to give you a reasonable estimate of how effective tree removal would be before you break out the chainsaw.

Check your structure.
Outside: If solar panels will be installed on your roof, you need to take a good look at the roof itself. If the roofing is due to be replaced in the next 10 years, get it replaced before you have solar installed. To save money, roofers can replace just the area where solar panels are being installed. The rest of the roof can be replaced down the line.


Your roof and its supporting structure needs to be in good condition. Solar panels’ additional weight is minimal, but damaged and/or aging roofs require a different approach. If your roof is sagging, bowing or crumbling, getting your home safe and solid should be the highest priority.

Inside: Your home’s wiring needs to be up-to-date. The panels’ electric requirements are pretty low, but it’s best to make sure your home’s system is able to handle the additional needs.

Bonus step: Check the low-hanging energy conservation fruit first.
Before you go solar, take a good look at how you can save energy today. Seal air leaks in your walls and around windows and doors, properly insulate your roof and under your home, and use an efficient heat source. These fixes make a significant difference and cost less than a full array of solar panels.  


Kirk Haffner of South Sound Solar provides his solar power expertise to Washington state’s South Sound. South Sound Solar hosts free workshops covering the steps for DIY site evaluation in greater detail. These workshops also include information on the effectiveness of different systems and full information on available incentives and rebates. Check out the solar workshop page at