It’s 5:00 AM, and I’m just sitting down to work. It’s going to snow today, so I opened the vents on our big black wood cookstove to get the embers from last night’s fire heating again. The running of the stove has become a rhythm that’s as comforting as the heat itself, but it getting to this point has been an education.
A friend of mine is the co-owner of one of Vermont’s finest country stores. On any given weekday morning, a thick circle of pickup trucks and cars surround it as contractors and carpoolers stop in for pastries, beverages and – if they have the time – some steaming hot politics. Weekends are just as crowded, especially during ski and foliage seasons, and you can always hear the store’s owners giving directions as first time visitors absorb the atmosphere. They chuckle at the jauntily decorated mannequin by the register and the plastic sign that reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” The owners manage to keep the place constantly smelling off fresh cookies or fried foods, and wide creaking wood floors complete the ambience.
The store’s welcoming atmosphere is why so many tourists, wandering the aisles, find themselves suddenly contemplating a move to Vermont. They’ll start asking the locals and the proprietress about real estate or schools. She always answers them honestly and good-naturedly, but she ends every Q&A with the same admonition, “Just do your homework.”
I was lucky enough to join a writing group with this woman and a few of her friends, and she and they became my first close friends in Vermont. She was one of my many sounding boards as we began considering and then building an earth-sheltered, off-grid house. She listened to our idea and my excitement, and, after encouraging me, put her hand on my arm and said very solemnly, “Just do your homework.” So we did.
As we designed and planned and sub-contracted, I got to know every off-grid site on the web. I acquired a three-foot high stack of magazines and books on everything from ‘High Thermal Mass Construction’ to ‘Heating Your Water with Your Woodstove.’ We had every issue of Back Home Magazine (a periodical for do-it-yourself off-gridders), and every time I met someone who was using solar hot water or solar panels, I ambushed them with a barrage of questions.
Almost a year after we broke ground, we moved in. The walls were primer-ed and the rudimentary kitchen (which I later added to with tag sale cabinets) had only the bare necessities. We had a pantry with no shelves, and were sweeping and mopping up dust for the first three weeks. But the first day in the new house was a glorious, sunny June day, and we were overjoyed to see what we had hoped to see. Our solar panels were charging the new batteries beautifully – even with our appliances plugged in. We figured we had made our energy calculations accurately, and hugged each other. Then the sun went down.
Suddenly the fridge we had brought from our old house made its presence known. We watched the energy meter numbers plummet from the 30s to the minus 20s. It didn’t take much calculating to realize that at this rate, our batteries would be sucked dry by morning. We knew we didn’t want to keep our old fridge, but finances had kept us from buying the ultra-efficient one we wanted right away. We also knew, however, the key to our success would be keeping our consumption low. So it was off to the appliance store where we bought the least-consumptive fridge we could find. It was also the smallest fridge that could still be called a fridge, but it did the trick.
Again, we congratulated ourselves on our research and problem-solving, but we had just begun to scale the learning curve – and it was about to get steep.
One of the key components of our winter off-grid plan was our wood cookstove. We had purchased it from a store that catered to the Amish community in Montana, and our plumber had installed water jackets in it for us. These jackets would circulate water from our domestic tank to the stove using only the heat in the jacket water to propel it up and around the circuit. The first day it was cold enough to have a fire without turning the house into a sauna, we lit one. What we got was not a sauna, but a swimming pool.
About an hour into the first fire, we heard a roar from the back of the stove. When the my husband (a.k.a the Big Guy) and I recovered from our shock, we went over to see what had happened and, as we stepped in a massive puddle, realized that the stove’s pressure safety valve had gone off, releasing the gallons of water that had heated to the boiling point.
This was not supposed to happen. We had researched this thoroughly – we thought. The Big Guy has an engineering background and, working with the plumber, quickly realized that our original calculations missed a variable when deciding where to put the stove. Several weeks of cold showers later (we had to stop the water flowing to the stove) they re-installed the welded jackets and a small motor to propel the water. The stove has given us a toasty house and piping hot showers for almost seven winters now.
Over the years, off-grid living has taught us a lot, but mostly it has taught us about ourselves. Naturally, we have learned – as our friend still advises – to do our homework. We have learned about the necessity of finding the delicate balance between principle and practicality. We have learned how to make do and to do without. We have learned patience. But we have also learned that the most fundamental education comes when you take the test, and while Life is pass or fail, as long as you’re still trying, you’re passing. In any other venue we might be getting a strong C, but it’s a score we’re proud to post on our new super-efficient fridge.