I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’m a little bit obsessed with my
energy usage. I thought I’d share a typical Sunday at Sunflower Farm
Off-Grid Retreat with you, to give you some idea of just how obsessed I
am. Well, a typical day in my mind anyway. Believe me, Michelle looks at
the world radically differently than I do.
We had friends over for breakfast. I boiled water and cooked potatoes
(for the home fries) on the woodstove. When the potatoes were cooked
enough I put them into a huge cast iron frying pan with onions, again on
the woodstove. I also had a few kettles of boiling water on the
woodstove to be used for our tea and coffee. I cooked the rest of the
meal on our induction electric stovetop. It was a sunny morning and the
batteries were already fully charged so I had power to burn. I toasted
our bread in the electric toaster.
Of course the energy used to cook our food is only part of the
picture. Lots of energy is used to ship food from where it’s grown to
where it’s consumed. That morning our potatoes and onions had come from
our garden. The cream in our coffee and the eggs were local. The bread
was from a local bakery – if I’d grown and processed more wheat this
past year, it might have also come from our garden! The worse energy
offender on our menu was the coffee, which was not grown within 100
miles of our place. As meals go, it was pretty low on the carbon scale.
Later that day Michelle was working on accounting, and trying to
listen to the radio. She kept losing the station though, so I turned on
the TV/satellite dish which offers about 100 music channels including
hits from the 1970s, the 1980’s, blues, jazz, dance, you name it. It was
a mid-winter day and I was able to leave the TV on all day! How great
is that? Once my batteries are charged I’ve got to use the excess juice
some way or another!
Solar panels work best in the cold. It was -22 ° C (- 7°F) that day.
The panels also work best with the type of clean air we have this time
of year. During the summer, we often experience a “haze” of pollution
wafting in from Toronto and the Ohio valley. It’s surprising how much
particulate in the air can restrict the output of my PV panels in the
summer. This time of year we have lots of snow on the ground, which
reflects even more light at the panels. All of these conditions were
working to our advantage and when I checked my Outback Charge
Controller, it indicated that there was 2320 watts coming in from my
panels. This is close to the rated capacity of all the solar panels on
my two trackers, so was pretty exciting to see how well they were
On a day like this I have way more power than I can use or store in
my batteries, so I divert the excess electricity in to a hot water tank.
Actually, the electric tank is my second hot water tank. Our Enerworks
Solar Domestic Hot Water Heater (SDHW) heats the first tank. Even though
it was -22°C that day, the Enerworks panel was heating water. If my
home was hooked up to the electrical grid I’d be able to send my excess
power to the grid, but the grid is 4 miles away and I won’t be hooked up
any time soon. Our third hot water tank is powered by propane, but with
all the hot water coming into it from tanks heated by the sun and our
excess electricity, it won’t be coming on for a while.
Our water pump is a big electrical load, so by noon I’d filled three
huge pots with water and put them to heat on the woodstove to use that
night in the bathtub. I also filled 5 buckets with water and left them
near the woodstove. They didn’t get very warm, but they were warmer than
water coming directly from our well. Every little bit helps.
That afternoon I headed to the bush to haul firewood (as I wrote about in my “world’s most sustainably managed woodlot blog here.) Harvesting firewood sustainably from our 150 acres is one of my favourite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.
When I’d hauled enough wood, I sat down to watch a bit of the NFC
Championship Game. Then I watched at bit of the AFC Championship and
then it was time to run Michelle’s bath. I carried all the water that
I’d been heating on the woodstove into the bathroom. Michelle enjoyed a
wonderfully hot bath in our deep claw foot bathtub. The water was heated
with wood that I’d hauled out of the bush last winter. No fossil fuels
were burned. In fact the bathwater was so hot that she didn’t even have
to any from the tap. How great is that!
At 8 p.m. that night we started watching the movie “Sex in the City”
which was on TV. I guess the networks know that all the guys will be
watching the channels with football, so they might as well put a “chick
flick” on the other channels. We’ve often noticed that during the
Superbowl, the other channels run Hugh Grant movies. Now we call it
“Hugh-per Bowl Sunday”.
I used the bath water after Michelle was done and then I watched a
bit of the movie. Michelle left the room to surf the ‘net so I got to
finish watching the football game. Then the game was over and Michelle
went to bed and there I was watching Sex and The City all by myself.
Luckily our nearest neighbor lives 4 miles away so there was no chance
anyone would walk by the window and witness this. I would have
vehemently denied it!
So by 11 pm the TV had basically been on all day, all of our hot
water tanks were full of water heated by the sun, our batteries were
fully charged, and all of our cooking had been done without propane. I
left the bath water in the tub so that it could help to heat up the
bathroom (which is on the north side of our house and tends to be
chilly.) In the morning I’ll flush the toilet using buckets of bath
water since it’s going to end up in the septic tank regardless, and it
means less water needs to be pumped.
Here the energy meter shows that our panels generated a total of 13.6
kWh of electricity that day. We can get by using about 5 kWh a day, but
when we’ve got the energy I use every last drop of it. Nothing is
Sometimes my obsession with energy drives Michelle nuts. But she is a
wonderfully patient woman. As we watch our propane bills get
progressively smaller every year and we move closer to our goal of
eliminating them completely, she’s a little more understanding of my
obsession. She still likes to tease me about my “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
routine of moving water buckets from the woodstove to the bathtub. She
also likes to remind me about a new invention called a “tap.” But the
way I look at it, carrying all of this water is a load bearing exercise
and this is what you need for strong bones, right?
I know what you’re thinking… this guy’s obsessed about energy. You’d
be right. If you’ve got to be obsessed about anything, I think it should
be energy. Our use of energy is where most of us are having our
greatest impact on the planet. It’s all that coal that’s burned for your
electricity and all that natural gas you use for cooking and heating
and making your water hot. It’s all carbon that was trapped in the
ground and released when you use it to make your life better. My life is
absolutely fantastic spending my days making sure I’m not releasing any
trapped carbon that I don’t have to. If the worst anyone can say about
me (and it’s not) is that I am a little bit loopy about the whole energy
thing, I’m good with that.
Photos by Cam Mather.
For more information about Cam Mather or his books visit www.cammather.com or www.aztext.com.