Resources & Notes for Off-Grid Living

During my time this summer at Two Fish Farms,  the alternative energy system was not fully installed (a windmill and second solar array are now up and running), so all power use had to be very carefully managed. Irrigation was the primary power draw, and ensuring the pressure tank remained pressurized without stressing the batteries was key.

When rainy and cloudy days came, and without nighttime charging options, keeping my phone and tablet fully charged became challenging. Plugging in a device at night and having it charged in the morning is a real luxury. I’ll likely pick up a 10,000 mAh or larger two USB port battery pack (making sure to get a fully iPad compatible one, with a 2.1 amp USB port). Zendure (a kickstarter project), Hyperjuice, and RAVPower make some interesting solutions. Many battery options have been showing up at significant discount lately, so check a deals site like Dealmac for sales.

Some of the gear I found particularly useful includes:

I prefer a LED bulb and CR123 batteries for flashlights, as LEDs are very efficient with high output, and CR123 batteries don’t discharge in storage. I carry a SureFire G2 Nitrolon, which also works well as low-end weapon light. Rechargeable batteries are recommended.

A headlamp proved essential for getting around at night, particularly when cooking or visiting the outhouse in the dark. LED is the best option for optimal battery life. I’d like to upgrade to a CR123 battery headlamp, for compatibility with my flashlights, but the cheap AA battery model I have didn’t run through one set of batteries despite near daily use.

Food & Cooking
I highly recommend rocket stoves from StoveTec. I used their 1 door ceramic stove, which is a very economical model.  These stoves burn just about any type of biomass, and I primarily used scrap wood from the schoolhouse remodel, orchard prunings, and other dead wood from the property. The one door stoves need quite a bit of monitoring when cooking to ensure the fire keeps burning well. Basically, this amounts to pushing in sticks as they burn and adding more (or pulling some back) to adjust temperature. The leftover charcoal after cooking (biochar) makes a good soil amendment for all types of soils.

The key to maximum efficiency when using these rocket stoves is using a skirt on cooking pots, and an adjustable skirt is included with the stove. Some pots, particularly small ones, can be difficult to skirt well. A great option, well worth buying, is a Super Pot from StoveTec. This is a large, skirted pot well-suited to the size of the stove.

I also used a BioLite stove, a very nice backpacking sized biomass stove. This is extremely cool tech, using a fan powered by a rechargeable battery to aerate the fire and a thermoelectric generator to allow charging of devices by USB. (Yes, you read that right, this stove charges devices via USB, how cool is that?) This was my go-to stove for morning coffee. Depending on the fuel used, it usually had a moka pot brewed before the thermoelectric generator was ready to charge devices. I didn’t do a lot of charging with this stove, but it would generally add 5-9% of a charge on an iPhone 4S without adding much fuel. New accessories include a grill attachment and a kettle style pot that doubles as a stove carrier, both of which I intend to try out. Biomass is burned completely to ash, thanks to the fan.

With a cooler the only refrigeration option, and block ice a 24 mile round trip by bike, I had to be somewhat creative in cooking. Peanut butter and kale sandwiches became a mainstay, as was camp stove espresso over granola. Fortunately, neighbors were generous in sharing veggies. Early on, there was plenty of kale, chard, and last year’s garlic. Kale and chard can be kept with cut stems in water to extend the shelf life without refrigeration. Kept in a cool, dark place (like a basement), they will keep well for several days. Later, there was an overabundance of garlic scapes (which are quite good when harvested early and chopped finely, but quickly get tough if not harvested). And of course blueberries and strawberries, which both had good crops this season.

I used a lot of red lentils as a base for meals. Use 2 1/2 to 3 cups of water per cup of red lentils, and cook for about 25 minutes, until tender. With garlic, kale, beets, and whatever other veggies were on hand, it makes a great, quick-cooking rocket pot stew.

I also ate lots of mushrooms, both fresh and dried. From locally foraged oysters to farmed shiitake, I’m was happy to eat them. Sauteed with garlic scapes and a little olive oil, mushrooms took on extra delicacy when cooked outdoors. They are great in omlettes, with rice, or with pasta. Do note that proper ID is essential for wild harvested mushrooms, and this may require making a spore print. As there are some fatally poisonous mushroom species, it’s never worth the risk of eating a wild mushroom not properly identified.

Mountain Bike
I resorted to mountain bike transportation (and the occasional borrowed vehicle) after my 11 year old VW diesel’s engine bit the dust. I ride a Trek Wahoo 21 (with 29-2 tires to fit my tallness). After I got my first flat, I installed kevlar tires and have been flat-free ever since. Fortunately, within 4-6 miles were several small towns and access to nice Lake Michigan beaches.

I was surprised at how quickly mud from the dirt roads can rust a chain, and a waterproof oil to treat the chain is essential.  Even moderate hills can be very challenging on sandy back roads, due to lack of traction in uncompacted sand.

I highly recommend McLain Cycle & Fitness in Traverse City. It’s a great shop, with good service.

I used a phone app, MapMyRide, to keep log of distances when biking, and to determine how far it was to various stores, farms, and restaurants. It’s a good app, but the battery drain from GPS use made it impractical for logging every ride, given my limited phone charging options. It only took a week to get back into decent biking shape, and I was riding 6-12 miles or more on most days.

My AT&T iPhone 4S generally had good reception, but there were some dead zones in a couple areas I frequented, including one where wi-fi was available. I signed up for a Google Voice number, and used an app called Talkatone to force the phone to use a wi-fi connection with the Google Voice number. It worked quite well, and I found it a mostly reliable, free option. (I also use the GV number for texting non-iPhone friends, as AT&T charges me per text.) The texting interface is much clunkier in both the GV and Talkatone apps compared to Apple’s Message app, but it’s definitely workable.

A.M. Leonard brass hose quick couplers are great when you need to switch hoses or hose end attachments frequently and quickly. I spent a lot of time hauling hoses to water garden and new tree planting areas, and these were a huge time saver. Highly recommended.

A good pruning saw is a great tool to have access to. After I snapped the blade on my well-used Felco folding saw, I replaced it with an A.M. Leonard 7 inch tri-edge folding saw.  I like this saw, and have found it a good, economical option.

But I went back to my old Sandvik (now Bahco)  pruners, after being disappointed with the steel in the blade of a pair of low-end pair of pruners from A.M. Leonard. This is the only A.M. Leonard tool I’ve been disappointed in (and it was a freebie with an order), so I do still generally recommend A.M. Leo branded tools.

My daily carry pocket knife has been a Spyderco Sage for the last several years. I don’t like to skimp on quality for an every day carry (EDC) blade, even if it’s primarily used for opening boxes. Higher end steel holds its edge much longer than cheaper steels, and requires less-frequent sharpening. But as I’ve gone through two of these in just over two years (one lost, one stolen), I  picked up a Spyderco Persistence, which is a more affordable option (about 1/3 the price of the Sage). It uses Chinese-made8Cr13MoV steel, which is reportedly very similar to AUS 8 steel.

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