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Where At The Off Grid Modern Prefab House I Watch Our Off Grid Life Explode. THE CHRISTMAS EDITION.

Well, our off grid prefab house's world was rocked.
The Pips are finally well again. (Yay.)
But our off grid systems are not.

If you recall, we recently installed a generator to provide peace of mind over the 2-3 weeks of winter cloud cover. Let me be clear: this generator was only to be used in those rare, dire circumstances, to provide, again, PEACE. OF. MIND, over those weird 1-2 times a year that *might* happen.

Instead, the generator has totally wrecked havoc on our battery bank. Now, instead of 5ish days of power storage, we have... ONE DAY.

Here's what happened, according to Handsome Husband: 
  • the battery bank consists of three parallel strings of batteries and was missing the jumper from the first to the rest of the strings, interrupting the flow of current
  • the negative connection to the battery bank was made to the first rather than the last string
  • with the last two winters containing polar vortices and long stretches of cloud cover, discharged our battery bank below 50%, which you never want to do
  • being dependent on the sun only these years, we weren't able to equalize the batteries regularly (equalizing requires that the batteries reach 100% charge AND you have enough sun left to do a controlled overcharge)
Disaster, schmaster.
[Ahem. I had no idea the batteries were not regularly equalizing.]
4 1/2 years and a generator later, the batteries will not hold a charge.

Suddenly, the HRV automatic switch stopped working.
Suddenly, our off grid Sundanzer freezer, which always worked fine, went on the fritz- there was power, but it was not freezing. Some people might not understand: "What's the big deal, her freezer died." Here, when your freezer goes down, after carefully filling it for winter, it IS a major crisis. The freezer contains our next year of organic, carefully grown / sourced food, hundreds and hundreds of dollars of food that we RELY on over winter especially when snowbound for days at a time with the nearest grocery store twenty+ miles away.

With sick kids and the most extreme winter months bearing down, this week I watched our off grid lifestyle... explode.

It's Christmas.
Winter is supposed to be when we're supposed to be all curled up, relaxing in the off grid house, contentedly eating our way through the carefully filled freezer and pantry...

On Christmas Eve, instead of languidly relaxing, enjoying family time... we were on the phone frantically trying to fix and troubleshoot our off grid systems, then scurried to neighboring friends' farms to stash our freezer contents in their own spare freezer spaces.
BIG THANKS to our friends
who lent us freezer space this week!

(And lots more on our off grid systems drama, after the Christmas Dinner jump.)

Well Our Off Grid Prefab House Might Have Been Having Solar / Off Grid System Issues, But That Didn't Stop Santa, Or Christmas Cheer!

Winter's cook stove season is in full swing at the off grid prefab house, and, after two weeks of illness, we are on the mend, and cheerful, even with a broken freezer!!!!
We decided to have Christmas Eve's seven course dinner with items ONLY FROM OUR FREEZER / PANTRY. (Da da da DUMMMMMM...)

Seven Courses From Mah Freezer
Like many of you, I saw the cutest video on children being served a seven course meal and thought, "Oh, how fun, I wonder if I could make a seven course meal from my freezer?"
And so the challenge began, especially as our freezer is broken.

I rummaged around and saw ravioli Handsome Husband and I made a few weeks back, herbs I picked, freezer jam, fresh frozen veggies from the Amish auction, chicken legs and necks, venison, and hmmmmmmmm...

Course 1 Appetizers
For the kiddos, tea or cider we had on hand; for us, *duh*, a cocktail: martinis.
Spicy chickpeas (Ok I raided the pantry, too. Soak, cook, then sautée chickpeas with o/o, allspice, cumin, salt and chole masala if you have it.)
Homemade Potato Chips: Thinly sliced potatoes, lightly hand-rubbed together with good olive oil, sprinkled salt, pepper, and sweet smoked paprika.

Course 2 Soup
Foot soup. Just kidding, kinda. Washed the chicken feet, peeled 'em, simmered them in water a long while (remember, it's cook stove season, I can do that), removed the feet, strained, then added ginger, onions and carrots. Make sure the broth is at a higher ratio than carrot. I always keep a bulb of ginger in the freezer, it's easy to keep and easy to shave off as much as you want to use. Salt, pepper... Puree.
Course 3  Fish or Pasta
There is no fish in the freezer, because we eat all our seafood when we're actually on the bay. But behold: That ravioli we made a few weeks ago!!! That ravioli we made was amazing- homemade pasta filled with sauteed onion, ricotta, parmesean, ham... with a dusting of nutmeg. I sauteed it in butter and topped it with pasta sauce I canned earlier this summer with lots of fresh basil, garlic, tomatoes, onion in it...

Dance party.

Course 4 
Lamb with Sweet & Sour Pumpkin
The Lamb Chops Saute first diced onion, add a touch of balsamic, once caramelized push to the side and add the lamb, season with salt, pepper, rosemary. (I have a huge rosemary bush!) Top with onion.

Sweet & Sour Pumpkin: I always have long winter squash that are like really long butternuts on hand - Tahitian melon. I cut a little off at a time and use as I please through winter. And LO and BEHOLD against the east corner of the prefab home I found a few leftover leaves o' mint!

Refresh: Ooooo! I found frozen whole tomatoes! And a tub of minced basil in oil! Quickly wash the tomatoes in hot water which makes it easy to remove their skins, then shave into small mounds of "ice"- and top with a dot of the basil oil!
Course 5 Salad 
Kale Chips With Garlicky Tahini
I always freeze lots of kale, and corn, knowing how much we use it. Frozen corn tastes so much better than canned... often I just toss it onto salads, uncooked, and it gives a memory of summer, in winter. Make kale chips, drizzle with tahini. Yum.

Course 6 Dessert or *Cheeses*
Make white cheese & serve with b
Sparkling cider...
We froze a *bunch* of blackberries this summer! Now... what to do with them...
Pip 2: "Blackberry thumbprint cookies!" Ooooooo.
OR I could just forget about this course, remember it later, and eat a cookie instead.

Course 7 Fruit
We always have oranges on hand... drizzled with some of summer's jam syrup, just a touch.

End with herbal (SLEEPY TIME... go to bed now, kids...) tea for the kiddos, and a digestif for we adults.

Here's some other recipes from the week:
Remember all those green tomatoes we gathered in fall?
Yep, here it is Christmas and we're using the last ones up, slowly ripened to red; now perfect to top off heavy black bean soup, with promises of summer.

At this point some of the tomato's seeds are even sprouted within; that makes it even more fresh, nutritious, delicious.

Winter Warmin' Black Bean Soup
Sautee LOTS o' minced garlic, onion, add in washed dry beans then hot water to cover well; throw in some bones with fat you've saved in the freezer, salt, pepper... simmer simmer simmer... add cumin, coriander, cilantro, and lime juice. Top with some grated cheddar... At this point you're craving not just comfort food but freshness- hence the lime juice, and if you have fresh tomatoes / lettuce (or fresh parsley / cilantro) then top each bowl with shredded lettuce / diced tomatoes.

Reading Club:

Despite the off grid systems saga, and Dominion Resources Grinch-ness to private landowners and citizens, the holidays continued. We were in off grid systems disaster denial, which is easy to do when you visit relatives in the city.
This too, used to be a country house! That's now a city house,
moved in the 1920s.

There is something amiss in his attire...

It's a CanJo, y'all.

Here's the silver-lining cool thing we learned from our off grid battery disaster: We like our system size just fine.
I always run on and on about how MINIMAL our solar system is. But when we, due to this snafu, evaluated our wants and needs for off grid systems, we were...
"Meh, we like it as it is! Naw, let's not get bigger."
(And my off grid battery bank disaster summation, after the arts and culture jump!)

In the meantime, we used the city visit to culture up!
A visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the exhibit on the Forbidden City, tied great into our studies on ancient China this year.

The China theme segued into greater Asia- to a contemporary exhibit upstairs where a current Japanese artist, Miwako Nishizawa, painted her impressions with traditional Japanese methods on Twelve Views of Virginia. Beautiful.

We enjoyed Maymont as always, during the "off season."
"Pet me! Pet me! Pet me!
Show these city people where my scratchy parts are!!!!"
OH the irony of leaving the country
to go to the city to pet donkeys, goats, and horses...
so I stood, scratching UNDER the chin,
showing kids where
the scratchy parts are vs. molesting the ears...
he was SO appreciative...

We Nutcrack'd.

The city is fun to visit, but now, we are home.
Even with snafus, we *love* our off grid life...
My Off Grid Battery Bank "Disaster" Summation: 
The average monthly residential electricity bill in Virginia is $124, which ranks 8th in the nation. and is 15.89% greater than the national average of $107.  Almost five years ago we paid $335 for 8 solar batteries that now need to be replaced. $335x8= $2,680 divided by... wait a second. Why does my post that lists our own off grid project costs dated January 2008?  Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. So we bought the batteries in the New Year of 2008? So that means $2,680 divided by SIX years? Ok...
$2,680 divided by 6... let's round it to $450 a year.

So. The average monthly Virginia electric bill is $124 (not counting other utilities, which for us, are free!), times 12, that's $1,488 a year.
Doing the math, we paid $450/year for utilities. For... everything- water, heat, electric... which aren't accounted for in this.
Handsome Husband debates the battery bank purchase date- he thinks it was later so I will humor him- let's say it was 2010 instead of 2008 (for the sake of argument because y'all know I'm right, right?!?) we purchased the batteries- that still would bring us to $670/year, still more than half the average cost per year.
(You know I'm right, by the way... right? Anyone?) 
Even with off grid learning curves, with batteries incorrectly set up, I call that success.
Next week: The next off grid system steps, in detail.

And: One last recipe, due to the H's stopping unexpectedly in on their return from southwest Virginia holiday travels-
Disaster Chili
Loads of minced garlic, lotsa onion, sauteing in olive oil in a dutch oven / great soup pot on the stove.
Heeeeeeeeeey: Is that... BACON in the fridge, still? Ohhhhhhhh yes.
Cut the bacon small, sautee along with everything. Wash and add various dark and light pinto / kidney beans. Add in water to cover. Add in my typical onion/tomato/ salsa-ish sauce. Look through the fridge since your freezer is empty to see what other odd and ends you can add in to add taste. (Oooooo is that some leftover pizza sauce?) Add salt, chili powder, cumin. Ohhhhh siracha. Top with grated cheddar. Everyone: "THIS IS FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Sometimes, during disasters, great things happen.
He is handing his IP Lawyer her retainer... with lots of love.
We are so grateful for all our fantastic friends who have stepped into our children's lives to grow them. Our friends assure them they can dream to be whatever they be. 

From the B's, A's, ALL the H's... Pip 1's Java AP programmer Fairy Godmother fussing over him at the coffee shop, the IP lawyer who, smiling, accepts her "retainer" for an invention, the science teacher who stands over making sure they are challenged and respectful to their harried mom when she needs a break... 
We are so, SO grateful.

It might be a challenging time at the off grid prefab house; but we are having a blast, and, as always, so grateful for our friends.

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Off Grid Passive Solar Prefab Home : Fresh Air Exchange, Illness, And Rag Fashion. Chock Full O' Recipes, Y'all!

We are always so toasty in our extremely energy efficient off grid prefab house we have to remind ourselves that it really IS cold outside... On an average winter evening, I fall asleep, the cook stove burns quickly out... and we are without heat, with outdoor temperatures in the 20s, all night.
In the morning, I awake- it was in the 20s all night...
...yet we are still totally comfortable, in the high 60s indoors. Once I get the stove started I  halfheartedly feed it one... log... at... a time... because, well, it drops into the 20s but we're always so... overheated in this "average" winter weather that rises into the 40s in daytime.

In these winter temperatures it is easy to be warm, even with minimal off grid systems!

At the off grid prefab house, last week was not all wine and roses.

Ho Ho Ho!
One child had pneumonia, the other, bronchitis!

With childrenz afflicted by The Vapors, it was time to pull out some low tech toys to keep them busy without resorting to become one with the internet-movie-gaming-ether. The two biggest hits were Legos they hadn't even touched in about three years, and a big lump of clay.
(Yes. A lump of clay. Get it for about $10 at a craft store and watch them go to town.)
Clay and paint and pjs.

Thanks to washable markers, we even had a mysterious dinner guest, Mister Moustache!
He just showed up at the table...
Mister Moustache was full of quips.
Paaaaaaaging Salvador...

Thankfully, the medicine kicked in, and their spirits rose quickly.
And with dawn, a new day! Everyone get better!

We made LOTS of soups and stews this week.
Make You Better Soup
Ohhhhh ho. I am going to get you BETTAH.
Sautee loads of minced fresh ginger, lots of garlic, tons of onion in olive oil. Add in two shiitake mushrooms (or more), then water to cover it all (even better: broth if you have it on hand). I had roasted a chicken with root vegetables in days prior and picked it. Now I took that remaining chicken and sliced and diced it up, threw it into the pot. Cut a generous amount of cabbage in tiny bites and add it in. Let it all simmer together. Once soft remove the mushrooms and slice up tiny, return to pot, add glugs of apple cider vinegar to taste and plenty of salt and pepper. (I would add sriracha for myself as well.) Serve with Papi's homemade bread.

And it rained. Oh boy, did it rain.
I gathered the day's wood in just as the first fat raindrops fell. 
#Winning #It'sTheLittleThings
With the Pips sick and the roar of the downpour, it just didn't seem like a "Regular School Day" so we kept our pajamas on and did chemistry- we made toothpaste and cheese- while reviewing subjects we've already studied with the fun Crash Course videos (beware though that because it is geared towards high school / college to make reviewing history fun, they do use the words cr*p and *ss sometimes but we overlook it because well, the Pips love these videos... the key is watching them AFTER you study the subject...)...

Homemade toothpaste
And then there was more chemistry:

Irony: This video on a day when we're making cheese.
So Grandma, there ya go, watch that video, you've been outed.

As the week ended, Pip 1 came down with pleurisy
And finally, I too fell ill.

Our dear friend and retired-contractor Mr. B was concerned that our extremely air-tight energy efficient prefab might not have enough fresh air exchange.

"Good news, Mister B! Because we have a SIP house, we knew we had to have an ERV or HRV for that exact issue!" 

Here are some articles on how to determine how much fresh air exchange an energy efficient home needs:

  • Formula for air exchange
  • The heat recovery ventilator (HRV) and its close cousin, the energy recovery ventilator (ERV), can often make a home more efficient. Find out here what these boxes do and if your house needs one.
    "There are various recommendations for sizing mechanical ventilation systems. An older one called for 0.35 air changes per hour (ACH). Alternate recommendations are based upon a recommended airflow per room. Recommendations vary by manufacturer, but the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which sets standards for good residential indoor air quality, recommends continuous ventilation of 0.01 cfm per square foot of living space, plus 7.5 cfm per person. So a 1,500-square-foot home with four residents would require 45 cfm."
    "HRV or ERV?
    The decision of whether to use an HRV or ERV can be confusing. Traditional wisdom suggests ERVs in climates where there is a significant mechanical cooling needed and dehumidification is required, such as in the Midwest, in the eastern United States, and the Southeast. During summer, it’s desirable to retain the coolness and the aridity of the inside air. Moisture and heat from incoming outside air is transferred to the exhaust airstream, and the ERV becomes a cool recovery ventilator.

    Well-sealed houses in heating-dominated climates can experience high indoor humidity levels. Therefore, HRVs are recommended, since additional moisture isn’t usually desired. "
  • From

    "SIP buildings are extremely airtight and require mechanical ventilation. Ventilation systems bring fresh air into the building in controlled amounts and exhaust moisture laden and stale air to the outside. By limiting air exchange to controlled ventilation systems, SIP homes allow for all incoming air to be filtered for allergens and dehumidified, creating better indoor air quality. Proper ventilation is important in all homes to preserve indoor air quality.

    How do SIPs improve indoor air quality?
    The airtightness of the SIP building envelope prevents air from gaining access to the interior of the home except in controlled amounts. A controlled indoor environment is both healthy and comfortable. Humidity can be controlled more easily in a SIP home, resulting in a home that is more comfortable for occupants and less prone to mold growth and dust mites."
While the Passiv Haus standard requires 0.6 air changes per hour (ACH) conventional wisdom is satisfied with 0.35 ACH. The volume of a Casa Ti is about 12000 cubic feet. 35% of that is 4200 CF.
Our HRV averages 156 CFM i.e. it can replace 156 cubic feet of air per minute. SO: We need to run the HRV for 27 minutes every hour to exchange the recommended amount of air (4200/156).

And... By the way: Pip 1 & 2 Programming And Why It's Important, Especially If You Want To Live Rurally.
After the doctor visits, the kids were STARVING. We ended up in a restaurant talkin' to a great kid from Honduras. He was teaching the kids spanish- and the word for french fries- "papas fritas!" I responded, "Oh, like pommes frites in french!" to which he responded in french, and then in which we happily conversed.

It got me thinking. "You know, if I could give you one piece of advice, since you are good with languages..." "Yes?" "You should study programming. If you don't have the money, you don't have to go to college for it... you can get certified... it is a field where experience offers growth."

We get a lot of flack in the country for raising kids who program.  
I'd like to point out that in rural areas, jobs are in short supply.  
In short: Learn skills where you can live ANYWHERE and earn an income.  To live in the country, most people have to drive 1+ hours to work. Our theory is: Don't be tied to where the job is, let something you love flourish where you want. Programming is a good career skill to have if you want to live where YOU want, not where a company is located.

As I explained to our nice waiter, " can often take a programming job with you to Honduras for a few months if you wanted to see your family!"
The average USA wage index in 2013 was $44,888.16.
The median income of Java Developers is $84,564.
"Not bad for a 12 year old kid!" aspiring "Java King-I-Will-Found-The-Next-Google" Pip 1 crowed... (Um, patience, grasshopper.)

Soooooooo.  If you want to live in a rural area and not drive 1+ hours to work, your choices are limited. You can hopefully get one of the few jobs that pay in your community, you could program or telecommute in a similar career, or... you could be Amish. : )

Things I learned from an Amish friend today:
When they ride, their saddles have horns.
"Soooooooo that means YER A COWGIRL!"
(She giggled.)
I am still sitting with my friend, once or twice a week. When I come, I bring food. And because I'm not Amish my food is different, and then we discuss it. SOOOOOO many of my friends are so different... I appreciate that, and that we all listen to each other. So today, B. had her first lasagna! And I learned to drive a buggy! And we smiled over Pip 1's "dress" made out of recycled rags:

For Pip 1, who loved the lasagna so, here's how it's done:
Momma's Lasagna
Boil lasagna noodles (stirring so they don't stick, every now & then!) until not-quite al dente. Flexible enough to work with, but not "done" because that happens when you bake it all at the end and you don't want them too soft/overdone then, no? Take 'em out and let 'em cool. I spoon 'em out with a pasta server, leaving the water boiling, because you never know when you want more lasagna noodles as you assemble the final product, y'know? And then there's that hot water still going so you don't have to start again. (Ahhhhhhhhhhh haaaaaa.)

In another pan, at least 2" deep, sautee lots o' minced garlic, onions, then add in ground beef, sautee until beef is browned, and then at least 2 cans of canned pasta sauce (my usual tomato / basil / garlic / onions I do every summer). Add salt and pepper and fresh basil if you have it in the freezer (I always freeze a bunch).

Well first, duh: Oil the pan. Or rub some butter on it.
On top of the pasta, spread ricotta, salt & pepper, fresh parsley, really good parmesan... any other cheeses you fancy.
Add the meat sauce.
Another cheese layer as above.
Then layers as you run out, topping with a pasta and cheese / whatever meat sauce is left & juice / any fresh parsley as garnish. (That leftover juice actually helps cook the noodles deliciously, fyi...)
Bake, covered. Turn halfway through, especially on a cookstove!

We Made Calzones...
Just make dough, and you can fill 'em with anything- this time, a ricotta/ parmesean/ sauteed onion/ ham/ salt & pepper/ chicken mixture + layer of my canned sauce, topped with parmesean.

And p.s. Pips: That Moroccan Tangine of Lamb we made that you loved after we watched the documentary on Morocco? I it got from here, except since I didn't have preserved lemons, I used some of the jam syrup we had leftover from canning + lemon juice, and also used a red cabbage which made it very pretty.

It's now a family favorite.

With Illness Slowly Ebbing, The Pips Kept Busy.

Pip 2: "Momma, can I learn to cut hair?"
"Sure! Pip 1, get ovah here!"
(He's clearly thrilled.)
Thrilled, thrilled thrilled.
After: "Wow, you really did a good job!"
[And it was free!]

Pip 1 spent time delving into Python and Arduino, since he was too sick to take his Java class.

Pip 2 not only discovered my Secret Stash Of Rags, and sewed together a dress...
...but also a heart pillow and scarf for her sick brother...

...and a gown out of bedsheets.
It's official, we have a meme: #RagFashion

And finally: Thinking about going off grid?
Johns Hopkins engineers created a computer model to predict the increasing vulnerability of power grids in major coastal cities during hurricanes. Is your city on the list? Find out -->

While y'all chew on that, I'm chewing on hickory nuts.
In fall, we race the squirrels for them, gather them up, then enjoy, a few at a time, over winter. A lotta work, but isn't it fun to smash stuff with a hammer? A mess, sure. Delicious.
... and full o' B6.

Hope y'all have a good week. We still might be lying low awhile in our pjs, at the cozy off grid prefab home.
...won't you guide my sleigh, tonight?
"Y'all have two whole weeks off!" Pips: "Can we still do a little school, every day?" Sure. But you're officially off. But that's all I ever wanted to instill in my kids: The love of learning.

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