Green Homes
Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

Health on the Homestead: Indoor Exercise Bike that Helps Power the Farm

SportsArt Recumbent Bicycle

 Photo courtesy SportsArt

Like so many homesteaders this past year, we pivoted digital, implemented contactless deliveries for our organic fruits and vegetables, and found ourselves implementing many, if not all, of our emergency preparedness protocols. Our once, highly profitable agritourism operation of Inn Serendipity was severely impacted by the covid-19 pandemic and a climate change-induced extreme weather calamity: a hail storm that took out windows and dented up our metal roof. At least we didn’t get the land-based hurricane known as the derecho that hit parts of Iowa just 125 miles away.

We recognized, almost immediately, in March of 2020, what we were up against with the pandemic in the US. Like many Mother Earth News readers, we prepared for something like this. So, we committed massive cost-saving cuts and embraced the reality of life on the farm, rarely leaving the safety of the homestead. Besides pivoting digital with an online course like my wife Lisa Kivirist’s How to Start a Food Business from your Home Kitchen, or virtual events like the Home-based Food Entrepreneur Virtual National Conference, we re-crafted our health and wellness routine.

Today, my wife starts her day with a brisk morning exercise regimen, followed by yoga later in the day. My young adult son devised his own “bucket-with-weights work-out” that ended on a pull-up bar added to beams in our strawbale greenhouse.

After exploring various options for indoor exercise bikes so that we could invest in our health and remain fit through the long Wisconsin winter, we opted for the SportsArt G575R Recumbent Cycle, an older model we lucked out in finding. When plugged into a standard power outlet, our physical exertion generates power that is converted to utility-grade electricity. SportsArt Eco-Powr cycles have integrated micro-inverters built in. The company is the first of its kind to harness the power of human energy and put it back into the grid.

Besides providing exercise without ever having to leave the homestead, or even the farmhouse, the innovative SportsArt Eco-Powr technology in the bicycle allows us to generate electricity while biking, and therefore, helping offset some of our carbon emissions. As a completely solar-powered homestead, we watch every Watt of energy consumption. So, to be able to work out, keep fit and generate electricity with every hour we’re on the stationary bicycle was a boost to our overall farmstead sustainability efforts.

By continuing our average, daily, hour-long bicycle workout, at the current production level of about 80 Watts per hour, by the end of a year, we would have met 29.2 kWhrs of our house electricity needs. The sturdy, well-built SportsArt G575R Recumbent Cycle features a vented padded back seat and molded for more comfort and support. Both the seat and back are adjustable and handles easy to reach. The bike includes two USB ports, allowing us to recharge our electronic devices with our own pedal-power.

SportsArt recently released the Vatio G516 Indoor Cycle designed for gyms and cycling classes, featuring sleek angles and state-of-the-art energy generating technology to produce an engaging workout. It’s a slimmed-down version of our older model cycle, but with the same Eco-Powr features.

“If someone does a one-hour work out on the Vatio and they produce 80 watt-hours (Wh) per workout, they’ll have produced 560 watt-hours in total, which is the equivalent to about the same amount of electricity a 50” LED 4K television would use in almost two days,” affirms Ruben Mejia, SportsArt Executive Vice President. This puts it in perspective, given all the lockdowns and sheltering in place going on over the past year and increased TV viewing by many.

“Just like any device that is plugged into an outlet, the Vatio will draw power while it is idle,” adds Mejia. “However, each of our ECO-POWR machines come with a sleep setting that turns off the unit when it is not in use. This setting can turn the machine off as quickly as one minute and up to sixty minutes. With the Vatio, turning the pedals is how you turn on the unit.”

We found our well-built exercise bicycle an excellent value given that we no longer needed our annual YMCA membership cost of around $800. After less than four years of use, it should offset the cost of the gym membership. It also saves us the time and energy used to drive into town to go to the gym. Finally, staying more fit during the pandemic may save us many times more due to the rising cost of healthcare. From our perspective, a home gym is always safer, providing us piece of mind. Our workouts are pragmatic and focused; we never went to the gym for social purposes.

As a bonus, once it's safe again to open up the B&B, we now have a new amenity for our guests.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the sun. Both have been speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, a 10.8 kW solar power station and millions of ladybugs. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

My Tiny House in the Woods: Choosing to Live Without Electricity

Full-sized lemons and limes grew indoors, on plants shown.

In 1996, I purchased a piece of bush land in Eastern Ontario, Canada. I wanted to raise my son, Jordan (then 4 ½), away from the things of man. I wanted to live a simple, down-to-earth life, filled with the wonderful happenings that occur when one lives surrounded by nature and positive energy. I wanted to teach him independence from the world.

I knew I didn’t want hydro lines on my property. Electricity was only invented a short time ago. My parents didn’t have electricity on the farm in Holland. I’m the first generation that was raised with electricity. Everyone who lived before me, lived without electricity, and I keep hearing “I don’t think I could live without it!” That’s scary. I’d like to think I could. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Taking my laundry with me when I go to town, and using public computers (when they existed).

In 1999, I helped a builder construct a simple timber frame on my lot, from logs I had acquired in a trade. I hoped that someday, when and if I ever had any money, I would add on to it. A year later, Jordan and I moved into the shell of our cabin in the woods.

There were no windows yet; only a few open areas in the siding, where the only thing between us and the great outdoors was a thin sheet of Typar®. That let in quite a bit of light, when the sun was shining. The front door had a small window, but it was covered in thick plastic to keep out the draft. Still, we felt fortunate to be in our own place. We counted our many blessings. We were warm, cozy, well fed, playing board games and reading by the light of our own homemade beeswax candles. Although 14-by-18-feet is tiny to most, this was plenty of room for us, as we had been living in our 9-by-9.5 -foot garden shed for the past few summers.

‘Old World’ Look Using Recycled Materials

Putting in a kitchen island a small area might seem to most to be a ridiculous, space-wasting thing to do, but I’m happy I did. I look to commercial buildings for my residential designs. Following the path of a retail establishment gives a room a professional feeling. If I want the best kitchen to work and eat in, why not design it like a quaint restaurant? When I need ingredients, I enjoy shopping in my own kitchen. Everything I need, at my fingertips. Imagine gathering fruits, veggies, herbs and berries in an adjoining greenhouse, overlooking the garden and orchard…

When I look through real estate magazines showing million-dollar homes and kitchens, I shake my head.  Such large, impractical, and cold feeling places. I want to create spaces where everyone immediately feels good.

My kitchen takes you back in time; back to a simpler time.  The warm terra-cotta colours, natural materials and recycled items, give it an old world feel. I will admit having staged the kitchen somewhat for the photo that’s included in this blog; one should not store canned goods near the ceiling — it’s far too warm!

The root cellar was built 10 years after we moved in. I hid the door to the root cellar in the north wall, between the shelves of food. Although the interior of it still needs to be finished, we’ve adored our “walk-in fridge”.

Root cellar door, hidden behind mirror. Guzzler® water pump, secured to post, left of door.

Heating and Cooking with Wood

Our cookstove is an essential part of daily life. It cooks the food, heats the house, heats water for bathing and dishes, and boasts a large oven. A cookstove requires almost constant feeding. It’s not the same as an air-tight woodstove.

If I loaded up the fire-box with too much wood, or too much of certain types of wood, the stove would melt and the place would burn to the ground. Being 20 years old, framed in 6-by-6-foot cedar, completely covered in pine, with oversized baskets hanging from the ceiling, and pounds of beeswax — the place would go up like a torch!

Stove made in southern Ontario by Pioneer Maid®. Brick and tile by the author.

The Loft

The upstairs of the cabin is sleeping quarters, clothes and linens, storage and, since Jordan finished high school and moved out to work in Ottawa, my work-space. I’ve since added an audio recording booth (which looks a lot like a blanket fort).

I have very few personal belongings and clothes, so tiny house living suits me just fine. I’ve had up to three people, as well as my Jo of the Woods greeting card business, occupying this modest space. High ceilings, mirrors and lots of windows are the trick.

A year ago, when I started blogging for Mother Earth News magazine, I decided to make an audio recording of each blog. My friend Eldy Gouthro, who gave me my laptop, is a retired soundman who has traveled the world, recording. Eldy got me in touch with his friend in Ottawa, voice coach Michael Hicks, and he gave me some great tips. After covering my work table with a quilt, and stapling two blankets to the rafters, my sound booth was ready. A small solar panel, power inverter and marine battery, supply power — when the sun is shining.


The table slides back into the closet when not in use.

The Development of a Rural Homestead is Worth the Hard Work

Although a lot of landscaping has been accomplished on my property, this land is still a diamond in the rough. I’m enjoying the journey of polishing it up. It has its roses and it has its thorns.

I’ve seen a large male moose from my bedroom window. A loon once spent an hour calling and diving in the creek, while I watched from 50 feet away. But the ticks are terrible. I’ve suffered chronic pain and limited mobility from flare-ups of Fibromyalgia or Lyme disease (depending on who you talk to, doctors or healers). Also, the humidity in Ontario is very high; bad for arthritis. The cabin is far from finished. Keeping up with things is a full-time job.

Jordan bought a chainsaw last year, and has started clearing trees in an area which was once field. I want the elderberry to make a comeback. This will also require the removal of hundreds of tree roots. I’m happy to say: I just made a deal to buy two pigs next month for that job.

Life in the woods is hard work, but incredibly satisfying. Strenuous physical labour, fresh air, and the feeling of accomplishment, result in a good night’s sleep. I’m usually up and down with the sun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I thank my heavenly Father every day for the blessings bestowed upon me. I’m surrounded by His amazing creation, and have the opportunity to discover what it means to live close to the heart of our dear Mother Earth. What more could one want?

The couch becomes a bed; the trunk contains bedding.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Lessons Learned from an Air-Source Heat Pump with Fuel Oil Integrated System

MEDIA Heat Pump With Fuel Tank

The author’s air-source heat pump resembles an air conditioning unit, and it pictured here alongside one of the heating oil fuel tanks. Photos by Adam D. Bearup

The following story covers our recent upgrade to an air-source heat pump, which works in conjunction with our fuel oil furnace. The efficiency of heat pumps has improved in recent years and most of our building projects that do not have access to natural gas now have propane forced-air furnaces with heat pumps instead. The heat pumps provide heat and can help to conserve propane.

The heat pump that I am writing about is an air-source heat pump and it looks very similar to a conventional air conditioning condenser unit like those that sit outside of a house. According to the United States Department of Energy, “an air source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy than the electrical energy it consumes”.

An air-source heat pump is efficient, because it does not generate heat, but rather, it transfers heat. The heat pump unit that sits outside of the house pulls heat out of the outside air — even if the temperature is below freezing — and puts the heat into the house. In the summer, the heat pump reverses its action and will cool the house. Keep in mind that if you currently have a propane forced-air furnace, then this story may apply to you as well. This is our story.

The Cost of Heating an Old Farmhouse with Oil

We have lived in our old farmhouse for nearly 10 years, and it took this long to finally decide how to combat the expensive fuel bills that we pay each year to heat our house. When I say “heat our house,” what I really mean is to keep our bedroom at 67 degrees Fahrenheit (the thermostat is in the bedroom) and the rest of the house is what it is. We do run a wood burner in the living room area of our house to keep that area warm. We have an older forced-air furnace that uses fuel oil.

I work out of town and lived away from home for most of the years that we have owned this charming, old, drafty manor. After working a full week, I would come home on Friday evening and walk directly to the fuel oil tank to see how much fuel oil that we had used while I was gone. On the coldest weeks, my heart would sink to see nearly a quarter of a tank was gone!

For years, my mind was always on how much fuel oil we were using to heat our house and we were finally ready to upgrade to a more efficient heating system.

We have paid a wide range of prices per gallon for fuel oil throughout the years — from $1.85 per gallon to $3.45 per gallon — and when we go through as much fuel oil as we do, that really adds up. To be fair, I will average the cost of fuel oil over the years at $2.65 per gallon and if you multiply that price by 500 gallons (full tank of fuel oil), the average cost of a tank of fuel oil is $1,325. Some years, we would go through three 500-gallon tanks of fuel oil at a total average price of $3,975 for the season! If you have fuel oil heating at your house, then this story may seem familiar to you.

I have been a sustainable builder for close to 20 years and during that time, have been part of many cutting-edge, super-energy-efficient projects. Can you imagine my response when people ask me what kind of house that I live in? My normal response is that I live in a drafty old farmhouse, because I love the tall ceilings and all of the outbuildings. Normally people look at me oddly; even I cannot believe that I live in such an un-energy efficient home. The reality is, my wife and I have a passion for growing and raising our own food and my career is just a small part of who I really am. Every year, we make improvements to our house and each year it becomes more energy-efficient. Our farm help us to live out our passion, and this is why I could justify to myself that spending that much money on fuel oil was ok.

Top of the air-source heat pump unit.

Would an Air-Sourced Heat Pump Work for Cold Michigan Winters?

As the years went by, my mind increasingly searched for a solution to our heating bills. Over the past few years, I started to hear more and more about heat pumps being used as part of forced-air heating systems. I did not get very excited about using heat pumps on our projects until I learned that certain heat pump units would work down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I was always told that these kinds of heat pumps would not work below about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so I never considered using them.

The heat pump that I am talking about looks very similar to an air conditioning unit that sits outside of a house and is connected to a forced-air heating system. This kind of heat pump provides air conditioning and heat (within certain exterior temperature ranges.)

The benefit of this heat pump system is that the heat pump can provide heat instead of the fuel oil or propane forced-air furnace during certain temperature ranges. I mentioned the three oil tank refills each year. For a bit more detail: here in Michigan, it is not uncommon to start using the furnace in September. Throughout the years, I started to recognize that we would use a 500-gallon tank of fuel oil before the end of December in most years. This meant that we would need to come up with another (on average) $1,325 to fill the tank with fuel oil so that we could have heat for part of the actual heating season. We would need to fill the tank yet again in March to have enough fuel oil to provide heat through late Spring.

Could a Heat Pump Integrated with an Old Fuel-Oil Furnace?

My hopes when looking for a solution to use less fuel oil was to find something that ran on electricity to provide our heat during the non-winter months. We do not have access to natural gas, and I wish we did. I contacted the fuel oil company and asked them if they had any programs that would cut the cost of fuel oil. Their response was that they have a yearlong payment plan to spread out the large amount of money that we were spending on fuel oil, and that they would just fill the tank up as many times as we needed each year for a set price. I tried not to sound upset on the phone when the lady mentioned that option, I could not help but think about all of the people who must be wrapped up in that payment program with no other option.

This past summer, I contacted a heating contractor that I use on our building projects and asked him to look into getting a heat pump installed on our older fuel-oil furnace. I asked this guy because I know that he likes a challenge and that he is very good at figuring out issues with furnaces. He first sounded like I had gone mad for suggesting that we add a state-of-the-art component to an old furnace. Thankfully he said that if I sent him pictures of the current fuel oil furnace that he would talk with his supplier to see if adding a heat pump was even an option.

After a few days, the heating contractor called me and told me that they would be able to get the two systems to work together. The heating contractor sounded more confident when I told him that we had a contractor service our fuel oil furnace a few years before to clean the furnace and make sure that the furnace was running properly.

I was relieved to hear that his supplier told him that our furnace was not that old and that there were still parts available for the furnace. The supplier also said that this fuel oil furnace was a nice, reliable unit and that it was 65% efficient, like most fuel oil furnaces of that era. To put this into perspective, a 65%-efficient furnace only utilizes 65 cents out of every dollar spent on fuel oil. That means that the remaining 35 cents of every dollar basically goes up through the chimney and does not go to heat our bedroom to 67 degrees. To build the case even stronger for investing in a heat pump, 35% of our yearly fuel oil usage — roughly $1,391.25 (35% of $3,975) — was wasted. One full 500-gallon tank of fuel oil wasted each year!

Can a Heat Pump Supply Air Conditioning and Heat?

This was the year that I was finally going to decide on a way to save money on our fuel oil bill. The current air-conditioning unit that we had was outdated and had been crushed by ice falling off of the roof, and we needed to get a new air-conditioning unit installed. This helped me to grow more comfortable about replacing that old unit with a heat pump, which would be extremely more efficient for air conditioning during the warm months than the existing unit.

The dual-function heat pump would also provide heat during the months before and after winter that would normally use so much fuel oil. As I talked to the heating contractor, he mentioned that we would need a 5-ton unit to be powerful enough to heat and cool our old farm house.

How Much Does a Heat Pump Cost?

The cost of the installation and heat pump would cost $5,000, which I didn’t think was too expensive considering that the price of a new air-conditioning unit and labor was about $3,800. The price for the heat pump included extra funds for the heating contractor in case he ran into trouble or the installation would take more time and components than what the supplier had figured. I was ok with the extra amount for the heating contractor, because it seemed like it made the heating contractor more comfortable, and I knew from all of our projects over the years, that projects such as adding a state-of-the-art heat pump to an aging furnace would not be easy.

My wife and I discussed the amount and agreed that the payback would be relatively quick and that we could not go any longer buying so much fuel oil. I explained to her that the upgrade to our heating system would take just three and a half tanks of fuel oil to pay for. My wife knows how excited I get about things, especially when it comes to making houses use less energy to run. My wife and I agreed that we would not know for sure how much the new unit would cost each month until we started running it.

Which Contractors Install Heat Pumps?

When I told our heating contractor that we wanted to have him install the heat pump, he didn’t sound very excited. He mentioned that it wasn’t going to be easy but that he would do it for me because we knew each other. I was used to this response, because our building projects usually require an open mind and willingness to step outside of the box.

I asked for the model number of the heat pump ahead of time so that I could download the installation and use manuals ahead of the installation. I was hoping that I could catch any issues before they occurred.

The night before the installation, I noticed that the unit required a 35-amp dedicated circuit with a shutoff switch next to where the heat pump unit would sit. When I looked at the shutoff for the existing air conditioning unit, I noticed that the circuit for that unit was only 20 amps. This meant that I would need to run a new wire and shut off before the crew showed up in the morning. I highly recommend hiring a licensed electrician to do this work if you are considering upgrading to a heat pump. It was past dark when I finished the new shutoff switch, and I slept easy that night knowing that I had handled the issue before the installation crew knew about it.

How the Heat Pump Regulates Temperature

The thermostat that is used with a forced-air heating system and heat pump works with the on-board computer that the heat pump has as part of the outside unit. There are eight wires that connect the thermostat to the furnace and heat pump and those wires control everything from the furnace fan to the heat pump and everything in between.

We do not have internet at our farm, so the thermostat uses an outside temperature sensor to determine which heating system will be used for heating the house. Had we had internet at the farm, there is a thermostat that goes online wirelessly and that thermostat uses an online weather service to determine the outside temperature. The outside temperature is important, because the thermostat can be set to a specific outside temperature that will switch the heating system from the heat pump back to the fuel oil furnace.

The heat pump has a coil inside of the furnace, just like an air conditioner has. With a heat pump, the heat is produced in the outside unit and pumped into the coil that sits at the top of the furnace unit. The furnace fan turns on and off with the heat pump, just like it would if the fuel oil burner was running. The fan blows the heat through the duct work and also draws the air inside of the house back through the return air ductwork.

The heat produced by the heat pump is not as hot as the heat produced by fuel oil, so as a result, we had to get used to cooler air coming out of the heating registers.

The thermostat paired with the new system.

Troubleshooting an Issue with the Installation

As the installers were dialing in the thermostat, I got excited to start using the heat pump! When they left that day, I felt liberated from the fuel oil company. Later that evening, the system stopped working, and I became very frustrated. I had to tell myself that I already knew that there could be “bugs” that needed to be worked out of the system, because of the old furnace and the new heat pump.

The installers came back within a few days and talked the wiring through with the manufacturer’s engineer and that is when they noticed that a wire was crossed. After the installers fixed the issue, the heat pump turned back on. I was back to being excited and relieved to be not heating with fuel oil.

The next day at lunch, I was sitting at our table and my wife was in the kitchen. The heat pump unit sits outside of the kitchen window and I was looking at my wife. I could see what looked like smoke rising up behind her. At that moment, she looked out the window and said nonchalantly, “Honey, your thing is on fire out there.”

I jumped up and ran to the breaker box and turned off the breaker to the heat pump. I left my lunch on the table and ran out to the outside unit, which was pumping out a big cloud of what looked like steam and not smoke. I stuck my nose over the unit and started trying to smell smoke. I was baffled, I had no idea what to think. I wanted to call the heating contractor and start yelling, because I was getting very frustrated. Instead, I went online and Googled “heat pump on fire” to see what would pop up.

The first link I clicked on explained that many first-time heat pump users freak out when they see steam pouring out of their new outside unit. As I read the information, I discovered that the steam pouring out of the unit was normal and was part of the defrosting process. The outside unit can get iced up as it runs and the defrosting process melts that ice, creating steam.

OK, I am a hero again I thought, and I went back inside to turn the heat pump’s breaker back on and eat my cold soup. My wife is very used to my getting up from the table and taking off running. Sometimes it is because there is a big buck out back sneaking through the tall grass or a hawk will fly over to check out our chickens that are out foraging in our yard. “Everything ok?” She asked under her breath, and I responded with a confident “oh, yeah, the unit is defrosting, perfectly normal to see all of the steam.” I didn’t see her role her eyes but I am pretty sure she did.

It is difficult when you upgrade anything in life and I understand why people won’t change the way that they do things unless absolutely necessary because it can be stressful to learn a new system or process. In this case, we had to make the upgrade because we could not spend so much money each year on fuel oil.

Cost to Operate a Heat Pump System

We started running our heat pump for heat in late September and when we got our electric bill in October, we noticed that keeping the bedroom at 67 during that time had raised our electric bill by about $75 for the month. We did not use any fuel oil during that amount of time and we were very happy, although our electric bill looked different and that concerned us at first.

The temperatures during the month of October ranged from the low- to mid-60s during the day to the mid- to upper-40s at night. This means that the heat pump wasn’t running all of the time and most often times, just ran at night when the thermostat called for heat. In past years, during the same time frame and temperature range, we would use about one third of our 500-gallon fuel oil tank, which equates on average to about $437.25 (165 gallons x $2.65). If we minus the $75 electric bill from the average fuel oil expense of $437.25, our net savings by using the heat pump over fuel oil during that month was $362.25.

This information helped me to predict what kind of savings that we could expect during the other months of the heating season. I thought that the $75 to run the heat pump was not that bad in terms of cost, but I knew that as the colder days and nights arrived, that the heat pump was going to run more often, thus costing more to run.

The basic logic is that the colder the outside temperature gets, the less efficient the heat pump would be and the higher the electric bill would be. My hopes were that the electric bill would be only about double the cost of the October bill during the coldest months of the heating season. This additional $150 on the electric bill for the coldest months would help us save fuel oil, because the heat pump would heat part of the time and the fuel oil furnace would heat our house during the coldest days.

Coils inside the heat-pump unit.

Operating Our New Heat Pump System

November and December came and went and the heat pump heated our house every day and night except for two nights when the outside temperature got down to 18 degrees. We had the thermostat set to turn the heat pump off when the outside temperature dropped to 20 degrees. I called this stage of our heating system upgrade the “experimental stage”, because we had no idea what the ideal settings were for our heat pump. My guess was that we should have the setting at 26 or 28 degrees for the cutoff temperature, because I was noticing that the heat pump ran more when the outside temperature got below 28 degrees.

We noticed that the air coming out of the heat vents in our house was cooler when the outside temperature dropped below 28 degrees and warmer when the outside temperature was above 28 degrees. Our bedroom was still at 67 degrees as we had the thermostat set for, but I could tell that the heat pump was working harder to make the heat.

How I Protect the Heat Pump Unit from Falling Roof Ice

I built a structure around the heat pump to protect it from falling ice from our roof. It would take an enormous effort to stop the ice from forming on our roof and building a tough structure would take less time and money then addressing the ice build-up issue. Maybe someday I will tackle the reasons why the ice builds up on our roof, but we will save that for another time.

The structure that I built looks more like a fortress (my wife thinks that it looks like an outhouse and hopes that no one mistakes it for one). The heat pump has specific requirements for spacing of walls and the roof of the structure, which in our case, was 4 feet above the heat pump unit and 10 inches from each side. That means that the structure that I built has a roof about 9 feet off of the ground, I used 2-by-10 lumber that I had laying around to build everything. My father-in-law stopped by when I was building the protective structure and thought that I had gone crazy until we discussed how important it was to protect the heat pump from falling ice.

The enclosure the author built to protect the heat pump unit from falling roof ice resembles an outhouse, according to his wife.

Costs to Operate a Heat Pump During the Coldest Months of the Year

When we got our electric bill for those months, the bill reflected how the heat pump was working and had increased both months to about $125 per month for the month of December. Keep in mind that the fuel oil furnace also works harder during the lower outside temperatures and that means that we would use more fuel oil to heat during that time frame also.

The increased electric bill amount for running the heat pump for heat was still extremely less than what the fuel oil would have cost during that same period of time. On average, we would have used the rest of the fuel oil in the tank during that time period, which would be about 335 gallons, or $887.75 (335 gallons x $2.65 per gallon). We would have had to come up with another $1,325 to fill the fuel oil tank up at this time, so we were feeling really good about our investment into the heat pump because the fuel oil tank was still full from using the heat pump for heat.

The outside temperature was starting to get really low as we progressed into the month of January, and I started to notice that the heat pump was running and defrosting many times per day. We received our electric bill and when we opened the enveloped and looked at the amount, we were taken back at what looked like an enormous increase in our electric bill.

I sat down with a calculator and started to add up what we were running with electricity. I wanted to know what the heat pump was costing to run during the cold months. I determined that the heat pump cost about $175 that month to run to keep our bedroom at 67 degrees.

How Much We Saved Switching from Fuel Oil to Heat Pump

This amount was a little higher than I had hoped for but still extremely less than using 250 gallons of fuel oil, on average, during that same time period had we run only the fuel oil furnace. The fuel oil cost would have been about $660 during that time frame — versus the $175 that we paid for the additional electrical usage from the heat pump. That is a savings of $485 for the January heating time frame.

We knew that we would have to get used to the way that the heat pump worked and the cooler air that it pumped through the ductwork. I also knew that I had to tweak the settings until I found an acceptable compromise between using the heat pump and using the fuel oil furnace for heat. I changed the setting on our thermostat to an outside temperature of 26 degrees which would shut the heat pump off and turn the fuel oil furnace on when the outside temperature got to 26 degrees.

We decided that we needed to still use the fuel oil furnace for heat and that instead of using three full tanks of fuel per year, that we were ok with paying for and using one tank of fuel oil per year. This is exactly what I had hoped to do for many years and we are very happy that we upgraded our heating system.

Lessons Learned

The dual system is best for us. We could have gutted our heating system and put in a higher efficiency propane furnace, but I firmly believe that our old farmhouse needs the hot fuel oil heat to keep us warm during the coldest months of the winter. I really wanted to keep the fuel oil furnace and add something to it that would make more sense during the starting and ending months of the heating season.

Set realistic expectations. I tried very hard to practice what I preached with the homeowners that I build houses for and that means having realistic expectations when it comes to hoping how much money we would save on heating fuel each year. In other words, there are limitations to everything and the heat pump is no different. We must understand that the fuel oil furnace will need to run at certain times during the winter no matter how much we hope that it doesn’t.

Upgrade insulation too. The heat pump is a way for us to only use the power of fuel oil heat when it is needed. We have insulated our house the best that it can be, given the way it was built in the 1800s and, after seeing how little effect the upgraded insulation had on our fuel oil usage, the next step was for us to look for ways to limit the fuel oil furnace from coming on.

 Solar could offset electricity further—but at a cost. In areas that do not have access to natural gas, I have used heat pumps and propane-fueled forced-air furnaces on all of our new builds and remodels over the past few years. In several instances, we have had solar panels installed to offset the amount of electricity that gets used by the heat pump. We hope to have a large solar array someday at our farm to offset our electrical usage, but that takes a considerable investment.

The upfront cost is manageable. The debate for years has been on how to use less energy without spending an unjustifiable amount of money to do so. My hope is that by making a smaller investment, like our heat pump, that we can drastically reduce our energy bill without breaking the bank.

The quandary is: How can we ever save enough money to invest in upgrading a system to be more efficient if all of our money is being spent on paying the cost to operate the system that needs to be upgraded?

In a perfect world, we would all just buy what we think is the best fit solution to use less energy, and in reality, that is only an option for a very small part of the population.

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project MichiganAdam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Finding Ground: Patience and Persistence Pay Off When Purchasing Rural Property

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The land around Sonoita, Ariz., has amazing grazing and beautiful vistas. Photos by Renee Benoit

Don’t Tell Me It's Under Contract!

We’re living on a fixed income so this is the way it goes: you look and you look. You look at this property here. Too much clean up. You look at that property there. The soil is not soil, it’s rocks. Then you find a property that looks perfect, you call the agent and it’s already under contract.

My advice to you is cultivate patience when you have to stick to a budget in the purchase of property. In contrast to the city where there are many homes on the market, in the country the homes are few and far between, and to make matters more challenging in our particular situation, we have to find property that is suitable for horses. No sides of mountains for us!

How Our Property Search Began

We sold our small ranch in the Central Valley of California in 2020. We did all right. We had fixed the place up very nicely and within five days we had four offers. We accepted one offer and 45 days later it closed. We banked our profit against the time when we would want to settle down so we would have a hefty down payment. Then we hit the road in our travel trailer to:

1. Have fun, and

2. Scout areas where we might like to live.

The first place we found that we both loved was Montana. What a beautiful state! However, we ruled out Montana because of the hard winters there. Then we saw some nice areas around the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming but ruled that out for the same reason.

Then we wended our way south through Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and eventually settled on southeast Arizona as a really good area to check out in depth. Because of the altitude and southerly location, it had the right weather – not too hot and not too cold. The elevation helped with the heat and the southerly latitude helped with the cold and, believe it or not, Arizona has some mighty fine soils and water depending on where you look. For example, around the delta of the Colorado river near Yuma it’s a truck farming paradise.

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A beautiful field of yummy broccoli near Yuma, Arizona

Finding an Affordable Country Property

Then it came down to finding affordable property. We had $150,000 in cash which means we could make a hefty down payment and finance a little bit to make up the difference.

We crunched the numbers to see if we could buy bare land and add in the basic necessities: well, septic and power. It turned out that buying something that already had utilities was going to work better for our budget. For example, drilling a new well is not 100% predictable. Drilling is charged by the foot and you never know how deep you will have to drill and even if you will actually hit good potable water! Your local well driller will have a ballpark idea.

Power can be very costly. If power is already on the property you’ll be ahead of the game. If it’s not, then you have to pay the power company to put in a pole and conduit. If you can’t bring the line from the pole to the house yourself then you have to pay the power company to bring it. This can be very costly. There’s the alternative of off grid with solar and wind but keep in mind that this has up-front costs, so it all depends on your situation. If you’re way off the road, off grid is most likely the best solution. Otherwise, it’s a toss-up. Hopefully, the power pole is at your property line and not across the road or, heaven forbid, a mile away.

In the final analysis we decided that finding a property with everything already on it made the most financial sense to us.

There is so much that goes into buying property and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, this will give you something to think about. People get emotional about property purchases but unfortunately the cold hard truth is that you can’t afford to get emotional. Yes, love your property but don’t let it overwhelm your ability to think about the truth of it. If the truth is not 100% positive then you need to cultivate the ability to walk away. The good thing is this: the earth is big and there will always be another property. Be patient. It’s like baseball. Just keep stepping up to the plate. You might get a foul, strike or walk but eventually you’ll hit a home run.

Renée Benoit is a writer, artist, ranch caretaker and dedicated do-it-yourselfer who currently lives in a 26-foot travel trailer with her husband, a cat, and two dogs while they travel the Western United States in search of beautiful, peaceful vistas and hijinks and shenanigans. Connect with Renée at RL Benoit, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

When Recycling Stops, Go Zero Waste!

Photo by RikaC on Pixabay

Even though new recycling policies were put in place about a year ago for my region of North Carolina, I have only recently learned about them. My county's recyclables are now limited to Number 1 and 2 recyclable plastics, newspaper, cardboard, and aluminum cans. The city I live in no longer accepts glass, mixed paper, or plastics 3 through 7.

When I found this out, I was shocked. I thought this was just my county not wanting to spend the money anymore. The real reason for the cutback was the fact that many countries stopped buying our recyclables due to the adverse environmental effects. The U.S. had been selling its plastics to other countries for years. This cutback made me interested in how I can help make up for the extra plastic going to waste in my household.

What are the Barriers Preventing a Zero-Waste Household?

I started to research composting and zero-waste options. The main problems with these options are inconvenience and price. A good composting bin can go for well over 50 dollars. Choosing to go zero waste means you are also very limited with what you can order online as most orders come with lots of extra packaging.

When going to the grocery store, items not in excessive packaging are few and far between, and usually cost a little extra. If you tried to find a bulk store with zero waste options in this town, you would no doubt have trouble. Even when you do acquire the tools to go zero-waste, you have to carry them everywhere you go or risk having to accept plastic that will go in the garbage. Going zero waste and composting also require additional research that many are not willing to do.

Consistent Composting Requires Proper Procedures

A few years back, my family tried composting, but it started to smell unpleasant, so we stopped. It was only recently that I learned how to compost correctly. Proper composting does not cause an odor and is very easy.

I use a bin-style composter. I found a regular tub in my garage and went to work, setting it up. I first layered in brown materials (dirt, twigs, leaves, etc.) and added a little moisture. Then I placed a small bucket in my kitchen, in which my family could put their food scraps. After the bucket is full, I empty it into the compost bin and mix the scraps with the brown materials. It is a very simple process, but even the extra little steps turn people off from composting.

Addressing Garbage at Home

I also recently have started attempting to reduce my trash on a journey to become zero waste. This concept is often very daunting for most people, and many may think of a video that became viral a while back about a girl who had her trash from the past five years in one mason jar. The truth is zero waste does not have to be that extreme. I have had metal straws for a while now, and my family uses reusable rags instead of paper towels for the cost-benefit.

To reduce your waste, all you need to do is grab fruits and veggies that don't come with extra packaging. Take a look around before buying something to make sure you are getting the least amount of waste possible. Cut back on buying things you don't need that come with extra packaging. Grab a few reusable bags before you head out to the store.

Even these little changes can inspire others to make changes to their lifestyle, too. Sixty percent of trash in United States landfills is plastic or compostable — this shows changes like composting and using less plastic can make a huge difference in how our landfills stack up.

Emma Martin is a junior in high-school who plans to go into college for a degree in environmental engineering. She’s a dancer, a runner, a cheer coach, and an environmentalist whose goal is to make the Earth a better place for all living things.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Repurposing Milled Lumber, Tractor Implements, Fire-Damaged Trees and More


On our homestead, we repurpose whenever we can. “Repurpose” is utilizing something for a use other than what it was originally intended. After something can no longer be used for its original purpose, the user envisions putting it to another use where its function can be renewed in a different form. Our homestead is far from hardware stores, so we are especially attentive to possibilities of repurposing.

Small or Large Items

We repurpose coffee cans to hold nuts, bolts, nails, screws and such. We have also found that dog biscuit plastic containers can be reused for the same items that coffee cans are repurposed for. The clear plastic ones are especially valuable to reuse because when the label is removed I can see what is stored inside. From cans to tractor implements that are broken and not repairable, we repurpose whenever possible.

Broken Tractor Rear Blade

One example was what to do with a broken rear blade for our tractor. It had broken at a critical point and I had it welded back together. Regretfully, the second weld broke at the same place and that was the last that the implement would see any service. I disassembled the blade and found a use for most of the parts. The blade is used as an anchor to hold down the end of the tarp that covers our tractor. Another piece was used as a stanchion to hold firewood at the end of our woodpile.

New Portable Firewood Holder

The remaining pieces were used to fashion a portable firewood holder (see photo). In the winter when the wind blows and the snow accumulates and gets deep, getting to the woodshed can be difficult. Now we can locate the repurposed firewood holder close to the back door. That way we have a reserve stash of firewood close to the door where it is more accessible.

Wildfire Damage

I have written in the past that we had a major wildfire two years ago. (Spring Creek wildfire, the sixth largest in Colorado history). The heat was so intense, many trees were incinerated; however, some aspen trees, being mostly water, were spared albeit the bark was burned. The wood under the bark was heat dried and can still be used as excellent firewood if you don’t mind the mess.

 Burned Aspen Trees Still Have Value

The bark is burned and has an alligator-back appearance, but we found the underlying wood makes excellent firewood. (See photo) That is repurposing something that appears to be totally worthless due to wildfire damage into something that is still useful. Most people avoid this wood as it is dirty to handle but we wear gloves and use pulp hooks in handling to avoid the mess. It is thoroughly dried out and cuts and splits easily. It provides excellent heat and does not burn faster than undamaged trees. It has also had most insect activity removed by the intense heat.

Lightning Damaged Tree To Doors

In another instance we repurposed a tree that had been struck by lightning just outside our back door. A very large chunk of the tree was blasted out but the tree was approximately 22 inches in diameter so some lumber was a good possibility. I used our portable wood mill to mill lumber from the tree. I then used the lumber to make two interior doors to replace existing doors with a better quality door. After milling out the lumber to 1-inch thickness and squaring up all edges, I used a biscuit joiner to line up the pieces and then glued them together.

After I cleaned up the glue lines, I then cut the doors to size. I applied two coats of oil and wax finish when the doors were dry. I attached the bathroom door to the door jamb with self closing hinges and added a door handle. The pantry door was mounted with door hinges and a closing spring. We now had two interior doors that matched and were attractive.

Repurposed Glass Trinket

I had an oval beveled glass ornament with an etched hummingbird that we picked up from a craft show long ago. It was repurposed and mounted in the bathroom door so we would know when someone else was using the bathroom. (See photo)

Woodstove Fence to Gate

Another repurpose project was making a gate to keep the dogs from trying to climb the spiral stairs that go to the sleeping loft. German Shepherd dogs look at those stairs as a challenge. Some years ago we ordered a fence to go around our wood stove to keep the dogs from accidentally getting bumped into a hot stove. We ended up with two sections of fence that were unneeded. To keep the dogs from using the spiral stairs we repurposed one of those unused panels of fence. (See photo.) It serves as a gate that keeps the dogs downstairs to avoid the dangers of spiral staircases.

Sliding Glass Door To Functional Window

The contractor who built our cabin shell put a sliding glass door in the loft wall where there was only a one foot ledge to step out on. We took the sliding glass door out, framed in the wall and put a conventional window in its place. Subsequently, I used the glass from the sliding door to put a window in our breakfast room (see photo). Our A-frame cabin doesn’t have many windows for light and this new window was very beneficial to allow much more light in.

Giving New Life to Old Trash

Repurposing items that have lost their initial function or would otherwise be thrown away is a very useful tool for homesteaders. We do it often and the practice has benefited us immensely. Before tossing something into the trash or dumpster, it may be worthwhile to consider if it can be repurposed.

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site at Bruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Evaluating the Best Options for Energy-Efficient Cooking

While cooking is not among the top five of your home's 'energy-hungry routines,' if it's something you do every day then there are many small steps, and a few big ones you can take to decrease its impact on your energy use. Your method of cooking is the root of how much energy you use, so to help you cook wisely, here is a rundown of some of the best options for sautéing sustainably:

Cook with Electricity

Photo by Tonya Olson

Whenever you read about options for energy efficient cooking, the question of gas versus electricity always comes up. The difference in energy use is actually pretty negligible, especially now that induction cooking is bringing electricity up to par with the speed of gas. This shift really does put electricity in front in the "green" stakes for the following reasons:

  • Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and while most electricity comes from coal-burning power plants, you can source sustainable electricity via solar panels.
  • Gas introduces air pollution in the form of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide into your home.
  • Cooking with gas produces a lot of ambient heat, often requiring the use of air conditioners, a huge energy user.

The best option for cooking with electricity is definitely induction, which is 84-percent efficient, compared to the 40-percent efficiency of gas. A ceramic glass cooktop, which uses halogen elements as a heat source, is a close second as both options deliver heat almost instantaneously, cutting back on wasted energy.

Choose Convection over Conventional

Convection ovens are more energy efficient than conventional ovens because the heated air is continuously circulated, so you can reduce cooking temperatures and times. It's estimated that a convection oven uses about 20 percent less energy than its conventional counterparts. Throw in a self-cleaning model, which has significantly more insulation, and you have a pretty efficient cooking machine—just don't use the self-cleaning feature too often.

Smaller Can Be Better

Using microwaves and toaster ovens, which are basically miniature regular ovens, can reduce energy use by as much as 80 percent. These are great options for reheating and cooking small portions. While microwaves and toaster ovens do use a lot of energy when working, because they slice cooking times to smithereens they are definitely the energy-efficient option when you can opt for one over firing up the oven. Slow cooking with crockpots is a great way to cook energy-efficiently. Once the crockpot is brought to temperature, its insulation can keep it hot for up to 6 hours while drawing only minimal additional energy. On the other end of the spectrum, pressure cookers cook faster courtesy of steam pressure and a sealed pot, meaning you can cook your beans in less than half the time you would in a standard pot.

Full Steam Ahead

Energy Efficient Cooking

Whether electric powered or stove top, a two- or three-tier steamer is a highly efficient, incredibly healthy method of cooking, as you are cooking two or three dishes for the "price" of one and eliminating the need for oils and fats in the cooking process while retaining all the nutrients.

Once you have your eco-friendly cooking equipment, make sure you get the most out of it by following these five guidelines, sourced from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy:

  • Match the cooking method to the meal: use a toaster oven for one slice of pizza and the whole oven for the whole pizza.
  • Match the pan size to the element; a small pan on a big burner will waste energy.
  • Buy flat-bottomed, good quality cookware. Warped pan bottoms loose energy because they do not have good contact with the element.
  • Choose high-conductivity materials, such as copper-bottom pans on the stove and glass or ceramic in the oven, for faster cooking times.
  • Reduce cooking times by defrosting food in the fridge (which has the bonus of helping your fridge use less energy), putting dishes in the oven while it's preheating, and turning the oven off a
  • few minutes before the time is up.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about green-home technologies for Home Depot. Jennifer provides tips to homeowners on how they can cut back on energy usage for large appliances, including gas and induction ranges.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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