Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

In comes the big gun!

After on and off discussion about whether we would ask our friend, Alvin, to come in and help us with the excavation, Chris and I decided to pay him a visit today to see what he was up to.

After a house inspection in Clearwater for one of our customers, we loaded up 41 tires at Clearwater Kal Tire and headed south again to Little Fort.

Alvin is a very experienced old time sawmill operator. In his late 60's Alvin has, in the last few years, mainly given up the sawmill racket and returned to his roots, literally. He has transformed his 20+ acres by the North Thompson river into a grain producing farm. He was born and raised in Saskatchewan and I think remains a prairie boy at heart. He grows wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa, and a number of other grains-using no chemicals! He has a grainery (home built) and keeps pigs and laying chickens, feeding them a mix of his no-chemical grains. He and his wife are superb gardeners, planting a tremendous amount of vegetables and fruit every year. We count them among our many "garden" resources, along with Jennifer, Monica, Karen, Florence, Linda and Lee-Ann and Henry.

We surprised Alvin at a late breakfast and got talked into toast made with wheat from Alvin's fields. Scrumptious. (And VERY strong coffee, which we don't drink much of anymore so we got nice and jittery!) We got caught up with the news (we hadn't dropped in to visit since before Christmas).

After an hour and a half I got down to brass tacks and asked Alvin if he'd sowed his fields, and if he had a few days to help us excavate while he waited for all his lovely grains to show their heads.

Alvin began helping us out at our sawmill about six or seven years ago. He was still running his own headrig at the time, but mostly by himself and not full-time. We bought some of his wood and did some planing for him. He eventually became our part time heavy duty mechanic, dirt mover when we were landscaping the grounds (he owns every kind of equipment one would need to move dirt) and it would not be untoward to put him together with my father in the "mentor" category when we were learning how to run a sawmill. We've had many, many good laughs with Alvin and hearing about his upbringing and experience running a sawmill in the good old days and raising four children has been very entertaining and interesting.

He admitted today that he was getting bored and agreed to help us excavate. I think it's more that he likes us and likes to help us and that's o.k. as a reason, too! He charges very reasonable rates and is always in a good mood when he works.

Best of all, he is FAST. Much faster than Chris and I will be, so we are hoping that in 2-3 days we will be able to start placing our first tire while Chris starts pounding. I, of course, will be taking the first photos of the first tires. (Of course).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I've spent the last couple of days pulling the stumps from the trees that I cleared off of the building site.

If I had to choose between the two activities I would take falling trees over pulling stumps! My neighbor warned me that birch trees (mostly what I cut down) have extensive root systems. Naively I did not pay attention to him at the time. The roots on these trees are massive; the main ones are literally thicker than the larger tree branches, and they are extensive. I admit I was getting bored limbing and bucking trees, but now last week looks like a dream job ...

The backhoe has been invaluable for this job. I have been digging a three to four foot deep hole (really a crater) around the stumps that allows me to cut the roots off. I have only managed to hit the house once during all of this. Sandra claims that I hit the house twice (the other strike was actually on the back stairs ... like that counts), and that the one that actually hit the house made everything rattle (really it was just a glancing blow). I did manage to drive the backhoe over a covered and back-filled service junction that I had forgotten about. The cover collapsed and tilted the backhoe alarmingly. It took a while to level the machine and get it out of that spot. Good thing I found that junction before it got dug up and damaged. I think the electrical and water lines run through it.

My list of tools on this job has grown to include the forklift, both chain saws, a shovel and all of my lifting chains. I now truly appreciate a forklift that can lift 20,000 lbs. The stumps come out of the ground pretty quickly chained to the forklift. The backhoe is too light to lift the stumps, and I have actually been working with a really large rock in the front bucket to keep the front on the ground while I am pulling stumps. This is possibly not an intended use for a BlueChip forklift, but it sure is impressive.

I have one more stump to pull tomorrow and then I think we are ready to layout the footprint of the building and start excavating!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Last two trees!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Have you seen this chicken?

If you buy chicken at your local super market the odds are high that you are intimately familiar with this bird. It is a Cornish Giant and according to the limited reading I have done this breed provides well over 90% of the packaged chicken that hits our grocery shelves in North America.

Our family started raising day-old chicks on March 19th. We chose 26 Red Rock layers and 25 Cornish Giant meat birds for our foray into raising chickens for food. The Red Rock lays a brown egg and is considered suitable for egg production and meat. The Cornish Giant is pretty much raised for its meat.

We finished building a coop for our birds and moved them in over a week ago now. The coop is spacious, providing close to 3 square feet of space per bird. We enclosed a run attached to the coop that allows them to go outside in the warm weather. When they are older we intend to allow them free range in our yard so they can forage. The chickens are young and are still hesitant to leave the safety of the enclosed coop.

We are feeding the birds feed purchased at the local feed store, and are introducing them to vegetable scraps from our table and worms from the composting bins.

When we got the birds they were tiny, fitting into one of the kids hands. The Red Rocks and the Cornish Giants were different colours (dark brown and white respectively) but were otherwise the same. Four weeks later I am beginning to wonder if all of them are really chickens.

The Red Rocks are fiesty little birds. They like to perch on the divider separating the two breeds and either watch or jump into the Cornish Giant enclosure. One of them, that has turned a deeper red colour, will actually peck at us when we come close, and has earned the nickname Little Red Hen from the kids.

The Cornish Giants are now on average 3 to 4 times larger than the Red Rocks. The Giants eat constantly, waddle slowly when they move and cannot perch because they are too big to hop up. These birds are a fascinating example of genetic selection. All chicken breeds have been domesticated and culled genetically for desirable traits for centuries. The Cornish Giants have been selected for their capacity to eat and develop body mass.

We lost one of the Red Rocks early when it was struck by a falling lamp. Otherwise, these birds are very healthy, and seem to be having no problems.

Over the last week we have been having problems with the Cornish Giants. Four of the birds seem to have injured their legs and are now having difficulty walking. The chickens like to huddle together when they sleep, and if it is cold they huddle closer. This huddle is like a rugby scrum, I have watched birds bowl over and walk over birds already in the huddle. My guess is that it does not take much to injure their already over-burdened legs as they get jostled in these huddles.

We have isolated the injured birds, and this seems to help with their recovery. Otherwise, the injured birds get trampled when they go for food or water, and eventually just lie down and stop moving. The separation gives the birds a chance to recover while they are not competing for food and water.

Unfortunately one of these injured birds died this past week. Our son Stephen took this very badly, insisting it was OK to slaughter them when they are fat and ugly, but they shouldn't die 'young and cute'. He has been very involved looking after the birds, and I suspect the slaughter is going to be an interesting day. Stephen and I buried both of the birds that have died. I realized a few days ago that Stephen has been raising little crosses on these sites after we are done.

The Cornish Giants are the product of the factory farms of the modern agricultural system. These birds are economically viable because they maximize the return on time, feed and money invested. In a small farm setting they have difficulties; they are slow, injury-prone and not very robust. Anecdotally, others who have raised these birds have told me similar stories.

I am reminded of a science fiction novel I read as a teenager (I do not remember the author or the book's name). The premise was a society that had consumed all of the open spaces left on the planet and lived in continent-spanning cities. The primary food source for these cities were genetically modified chickens (unrecognizable as today's birds) that provided the protein for the world's citizens. I now suspect this author was raised on a farm and had an over-active (but not totally far fetched) imagination.

I am not sure what all this means to me as a consumer of chicken meat. I now have a less-than-rosy image of the lives of meat birds raised and slaughtered by larger farm operations. I am uncomfortable watching these meat birds waddle around unsteadily in our own yard. Will I eat these birds? Yes. Will I raise them again?

Unhappily, one of our injured birds is not looking very good. Stephen does not think the bird will survive the night. I suspect I am going to see more of these over the next little while ... I just pray the dog does not figure out the significance of these markers!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tire count is...

449! More than half way!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Too much stuff!

Life has been busy since we got our building permit!

I spent so much time over the winter getting the permit that I did not give a lot of thought to what needed to happen afterwards to actually get started building the house.

We have had our site picked out for quite some time. We will build our earthship just behind our existing home (the shaded wall in this picture is the back of the house). We like this location the best and local by-laws require that the existing house be moved off-site or demolished when the new house is finished so one way or another the existing house will have to disappear.

Initially, we had planned to place the home in the same location as the existing house. This would have required us to move the house temporarily or move into a different house for the duration of the construction period. The location behind the existing house is better for a couple of reasons and it allows us to stay put. This is a huge worry lifted at the start of the project as moving was a daunting option.

Our first order of business was roughly locating the footprint of the building and figuring out south. We pounded a stake into the ground along the proposed south edge of the earthship and measured the stake's shadow in the morning and afternoon. When we got a morning and afternoon measurement of approximately equal lengths we joined a line between the shadow tips that (we hoped) was running east and west. It turns out that the existing building is facing pretty much due south.

The next step is clearing the building site so that we can start digging and levelling. We have a wooden deck back there, the compost piles and a string of partially rotten birch trees that all have to be moved.

In order to move the deck we first needed to clear a new spot for it. I went out in the morning expecting to get started fairly quickly and fired up our trusty backhoe.

I am actually quite attached to this machine as it embodies our new found frugality. It is a 1985 Case, and we are the third or fourth generation owners of this machine. We bought it from family friends for $5000.00 four years ago and spent another $5000.00 right away replacing worn out bushings and linkages. This machine has seen a lot of work! The backhoe has done too many jobs to count both for the business and personally, and we expect to use it alot over the next year!

Unfortunately, the machine was not used over the winter and it is never as simple as just firing it up. By lunch I had it running with all of its fluids checked and Sandra and I were able to clear a spot and move the deck that afternoon. Things did not go as quickly as I hoped, but we did manage to get it done and I was able to calmly enjoy a sunny spring day while I worked.

The next job was clearing the birch trees from the building site. The following day I immediately grabbed the Husquavarna gas chainsaw and headed for the trees, thinking this would be quick,easy and possibly fun. Within twenty seconds of firing the saw up the chain came off the bar. I calmly retreated to the shop and replaced the old, badly worn and stretched chain with a brand new one that Sandra found in our storage/maintenance shed. Fifteen seconds after starting the saw the second time the chain actually siezed and I had to remove the chain, file the drive teeth and try again.

After two hours of fiddling with the chainsaw I was ready to heave it through the shop window, retreat to the house and read for the rest of the day. I was no longer calm so I spent a few minutes admiring the beautiful spring day! I did identify that the drive sprocket was worn and Sandra ordered a new one later on her way into town.

Not to be thwarted by my gas chainsaw I blew the dust off the small electric chainsaw and went outside and got to work. We got the electric chainsaw for working on log buildings when finesse was required. It does a good job and all of the trees I was cutting down were within fifty feet of an electrical outlet. The saw worked for a couple of hours and then stopped. I flipped the breaker repeatedly and was still unable to get the saw to work (this is about as effective as speaking louder to a person who does not speak the same language).

I was now communicating with Sandra in clipped monosyllables, and inexplicably she decided she had better things to do in the house. Retreating to the shop yet again I proceeded to tear apart the electric chainsaw. The power cord had finally frayed inside from the cord being flexed so much, and consequently no electricity was making it to the motor. This was an easy fix and I was quickly back outside butchering rotten birch trees.

Spring is always the time of year that I spend way more time than I want to repairing stuff. This year most of that stuff has to do with our building project, but inevitably things tend to break down after a long winter of inactivity, moisture, and cold temperatures.

Over the last two years I have gotten rid of a lot of stuff; we sold our house property, shutdown our business, moved into a much smaller house and we used only one vehicle all winter. I have also tried to detach myself from the stuff in my life. After all, no matter how many times I curse or threaten my chainsaw it is just a chainsaw. To its credit it has never cursed me back and generally given good service except when I have skimped on its maintenance.

Most of the stuff that I own is very useful. I am going to use a lot of it to build my new home. However, maintaining all of this stuff is time consuming and at times emotionally draining... Ironically, I doubt the chainsaw feels cheated when I dont sharpen its chain in a timely manner!

I am going to treat the last two days as valuable life experience. Regardless of what I want to be doing at any given moment the present activity is the reality and I might as well enjoy it.

Expenses update

Cost to replace the rear window (tinted with heaters through it) of Nissan pick up truck after somebody (o.k., me) hurled a two foot chunk of birch firewood through it: $475 plus tax.

Comprehensive deductible on recently re-insured truck: $500

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Falling trees

Stephen took some great videos of Chris falling a few trees that had been growing right out of where my bedroom will be. We (I) are having trouble transferring them from his SD card to my computer (which does not read an SD card).

Stay posted Jan, the video is for you!

Sine wave explained

So Chris just explained a sine wave to me (he just read my previous posting and eliminated some of my ignorance). All is clearer now.

For those of you who also did not know what a sine wave was (and those of you who did, but laughed at me), it is the wave pattern of electricity (alternating to be exact). If Chris' precise, engineering finger-in-the-air demonstration is anywhere near true, it looks like ocean waves. Not the waves that look like cursive "c's" over and over again but the rolling ones...

Regardless. Apparently inverters that change DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current) can be really good inverters or crappy ones. The crappy ones "clip" the sine wave. Again, according to Chris' graphic finger-in-the-air demo, this would look like the top of a rook in chess. Good inverters most closely mimic a sine wave.

So an inverter changing direct current from my solar panels has to feed the proper alternating current (sine waves) to my new washing machine, of which I'm starting to become extremely protective (I love it).

I can now see a research project on inverters sometime in my future...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Net metering with a solar sytem

Thought I'd post this link from BC Hydro's e-newsletter. It is from a year ago. I don't actually think our system will cost quite so much. It appears this family didn't initially reduce the power they planned for. We, however, intend to be ultra low users so our system should be able to be much smaller and much less costly to set up...

But the net metering is alive and well in BC!!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tire count is...


Getting ready to clear and excavate

This morning we shot levels with the transit and decided roughly where the earthship would be placed. We now have to take down and deal with three large dead birch trees. We have to move our pool patio and composters. The clothesline has to be moved. We are not sure how long this will take although I suspect the root systems on the birch trees are extensive and they may be our biggest challenge. We hope to start excavating early next week.

Washing Machine Update

Today we bought a new washer! This morning was not pretty...the vibration caused several items in the cupboard on the other side of the wall to fall on to the floor and several wine glasses jiggled off their rack...none broken this time. However, after we stopped the machine and ritualistically cursed it, all the water emptied onto the floor.

After some intensive research on the internet we left to take Katie to the District finals of Battle of the Books (her team placed third out of eight!) we dashed to Sears and then to the Future Shop.

Our research showed us a few things. First, front loaders are more energy and water efficient (we knew this). What we didn't know was that the kwH on a washing machine assumes that the water in the unit is being heated by electricity. In other words, a unit with an internal heater might be rated 130 kwH but only if you heat the water. We've never used the internal heater on ours, preferring to wash in cold water. Studies by an electrician in the U.S. (sorry, can't remember who he is) showed that many washers using only cold water should have actually been rated at around 60-80 kwH.

The other thing we learned was that we had to be aware of sine wave. I can honestly say I don't have any clue what this means but Chris assures me that it has to do with whether we can make do with a 600w, 1200w or 2400w inverter on our future solar power or something like that. Hmm. I don't like it when I don't understand something.

Michael Reynolds' books point out that almost any front loader washing machine can be supported by a solar electrical system, but that a stripped down unit should be purchased (no bells and whistles). Also, the unit should turn off completely when the wash is done. In other words, no lights drawing power when the unit is done its work.

So our search found us considering two brands: Kenmore and LG. After salivating over the Bosch and Miele units we decided that a unit at less than 1/2 their price would be sufficient for us. Both washers were priced at around $800.

We ended up purchasing the LG because all of its lights turn off at the end of the cycle and it seemed to have fewer options to confuse us. We have other LG appliances and have been happy with the quality. We purchased the floor model (and got 10% off, how frugal is that?) Its kwH rating is 160 kwH. When we bought our Asko 10 years ago it was cutting edge for kwH and it was a whopping 235!

We delightedly hurled the ASKO out the door (Chris did) and I am gleefully considering all my possible methods of demolition in the coming days. The LG is installed and is so quiet that we are not sure it works properly. The drum is quite a bit bigger and it sounds like a hummingbird when it spins. As you can tell I'm still in the honeymoon stage of our appliance purchase...

And the dryer debate? Chris won. For now.

I found a really well made and sturdy retractable clothes line from Australia that will be available to purchase in Canada in a few weeks. For this year we will continue to hang our laundry outside and use our ASKO dryer (turns out it works without the ASKO washer but not vice versa). Once we are in the new house this fall or next spring/summer, we will evaluate whether we need a new dryer.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Expenses to Date

As promised, our earthship expenses to date:

HPO $425.00
Building Permit $1,504.00
Septic Approval $157.50

Sub Total $2,086.50

Tomorrow we figure out where to situate the building (trying to find true south!)

Washing and Drying Clothes in an Earthship

There's a standing joke in our house. What's the other name for ASKO (a Swedish appliance manufacturer)? Answer: POC (Piece of Crap).

Almost 10 years ago we bought an ASKO washer and dryer. We paid almost $3000. The property we had just purchased at the time had a water problem. Turns out the 475 foot drilled well had a recovery rate of about five gallons an hour. The well report when we purchased the property estimated 1/2 gallon per minute. Ha.

After suffering through trying to figure out why our taps would stop running and why the washing machine stopped filling 1/2 way through the beginning of the cycle, we realized what was going on. At the time we had two infants, both in cloth diapers. And no money to drill another well.

So we dithered between a BOSCH washer and dryer and an ASKO set. the ASKO set had a slightly bigger drum (front loading), used slightly less water per load (about 8 gallons max) and was slightly less expensive. Turns out we should have spent a bit of time reading consumer reports. Although we loved the set for most of the first two years, the romance cooled when the motor brushes cabbaged on us. The shop that sold it to us took it back (under warranty) and fixed it although we paid about $60 for labour. We picked it up late one afternoon in 2001 (when our third infant in cloth diapers was a newborn) and the next day the shop went bankrupt.

The next closest repair shop for ASKO was Kelowna, three hours away. The next eight years saw us repair the dryer belt twice (we took the unit apart to repair it), the bearings twice on each of the washer and dryer, bypassed some electrical switch on the dryer, replaced the struts and the water pump. Once we got internet we were aided greatly by searching, "I hate my ASKO washer and dryer, how do I fix it" (True). This was the era in my life when I learned all my new curses.

Once when the dryer kept over heating and we had the whole thing in pieces strewn down the hallway of the trailer we used to live in, I desperately searched the web for a solution. A lady in Wichita Kansas posted on a fix it site by saying she washed the lint filter with soap and water and the dryer stopped over heating. We put the unit back together and followed her advice. It worked.

For the last six months we have turned our back on the washing machine and dryer. Our latest repairs brought us to the cross over point of PITA and economics. The struts have never worked properly after we replaced them and after spinning, the washer drum is either tilted to the right or left. Where once I would hold Stephen in my arms and lean against the spinning drum to put him to sleep while Katie held on to it and hummed (all true), our washer now sounds like a jet engine taking off in our living room and it seems to have lost its ability to balance a load, throwing the drum against the outside of the unit. You could lose a limb if you get too close. The vibration slowly moves the dryer back until the legs slip off the washer and the dryer partially falls off the washer. The dryer lint trap has broken and hangs properly only in the closed position. Last night the temperature dial (which we never use) came out from the vibration. Last night was also the first time the program dial ended properly, instead of on a fault code (we turn off the power and reset the dial when this happens).

The best part? The washer power plugs into the dryer, so it is impossible to ditch only one appliance. Go figure.

I am SO ready to "buy, buy, buy". I have gone beyond frugal. I have crossed over and have declared that the POC has cheapened my life...I am ready for the adrenylin rush that can come only from dropping a thousand dollars plus on a nice pair of shiny stainless steel boxes. (After a bit of research of course).

There's a problem, though. Chris doesn't think we should buy a dryer. It will suck every bit of sun power out of our new home. He's right, of course, but only if I plan on using it regularly.

We've already committed to line drying in spring, summer and fall and we did this successfully last year. We have also committed to line drying in our utility room in the earthship in the winter. HOWEVER, I think that we should have a dryer for the odd time that we really need it (guests, unexpected nights with vomiting kids, etc.)

By unspoken, mutual consent we have set aside this disagreement until the ASKO tanks. After a particularly violent load of laundry finished last night, Chris, to my delight, declared, "I think that's it!" But, this morning, I started another load and not only did it work, but it was quieter than usual.

In the meantime, while we wait for it to expire, I am setting myself to researching new unit(s). We, of course, want something energy efficient. As we are using our bountiful well water (35 gallons per minute!) it's not as crucial in the water efficiency department. However, the water is going through our greywater system, so we do have to think about it to some degree.

I'll eventually post pictures of me, the sledgehammer and the ASKO appliances when they are good and dead. Until then, help me get started on finding good replacements!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Which came first, the coop or the house?

Today being the first day this week we have not been running around collecting tires or driving our children to Battle of the Book competitions (Katie's team placed first in zones; yay!), we worked on the chicken coop all day!

Why the coop and not the house? The chicks are taking up our shop floor. They stink and they are not so cute anymore. We often find one or two of the layers perched on their brooder wall beaking off (hey, a joke) at their neighbours the Cornish Giants, on the other side.

We think for practical purposes we will license the truck this summer and the truck needs some break work and the shop is our chosen spot to curse and swear at the vehicles. It has a big roll down door so we can swear very loudly (and play music) without the kids hearing us.

So the coop is becoming important.

For the last several days all of us have been working on it. We moved it into place next to our sheep barn and Chris and Stephen framed one wall. We are going to have an entrance area with shelves. This wall will be insulated and we have sided the outer side with #2 log siding that was laying around.

Here's the first part of the framed wall.

The framed wall with door. Yes, it looks a bit rough. I have some dark stain to treat it with

Cutting the chicken door. Hit a blue ox screw. Ouch.

Cutting out the window opening. Much easier to allow for a window when the building is going up. Such is the life of retrofitting. Chris is using our small electric chainsaw. Although we don't use chainsaws very much on our machined log buildings, we have always had a good gas chainsaw. In 2003 when the wildfires came through our valley we purchased the electric one to minimize the danger of fires from the gas machine. The electric chainsaw is a bit more responsive in small places.

Here's the chainsaw coming out the other side. That would be alarming if you weren't expecting it!

Chris finally got ticked off with the little electric Stihl chainsaw and brought out the Husquvarna. The white dots are sawdust specs flying at the camera. The hole wasn't as smooth, but it finally got done.

Here's the hole for the window. Still one more round to remove; it was being held by blue ox screws and we had to take the bolt cutters to them.

Here's the window installed in the back wall of the chicken coop. It's pretty fancy. It's made out of clear douglas fir wood and is gridded and screened. It was one of many windows we used to sell in our packages. This one suffered water damage a few years ago and because we had always been so busy, it wasn't worth our time to fix it. Now we had the time. It's still not in good enough shape to put in a house, yet it's takes the coop "uptown". Chris has since put on trim, which I will take off soon and paint barn red to match the tin of our sheep barn. We still have to put red tin on the coop.

We insulated the ceiling inside with 2" rigid insulation. We still need to finish siding the inside of the framed wall and build the enclosure out of the stucco wire we bought today. All in all we spent $210 on the coop (roof insulation and stucco wire). The remaining materials we had on hand from our house renovation project 18 months ago. Tomorrow we will finish these jobs and move the chickens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The GSI Vortex Blender (non electrical)

For the last half year I have been searching for a hand crank food processor or blender. My Osterizer kicked the can last October when Chris decided to puree the worm compost. While my 18 year old blender could crush ice without one mechanical whine, Chris discovered it did not like corn cobs, cabbage stems or wooden spoons.

He then proceeded to strip the gears in our KitchenAid stand mixer (the 5 quart-I-can-make-great-bread-KitchenAid) by sending the compost through the food processor attachment. KitchenAid had a backlog of orders for replacement gears and it took several months to fix my bread mixer.

Now compost only makes one short stop in our kitchen.

Knowing that the demand on our solar power system will require prioritization, I proceeded to start an internet search for hand cranked food processors and blenders. I found some interesting food processors on stores that sell to the Amish (I guess the on-line stores are for we Amish-wannabees; the Amish must order some other way as I'm pretty sure computers don't figure into their lifestyle).

I happened upon Lehmans ( which has a number of hand cranked items for those of us faced with finite electrical. Ice cream makers, food and grain mills, even gas powered refridgerators and composting toilets are featured prominently in this store.

All of it was pretty neat. But I was looking for something that would puree vegetables, make peanut butter and churn cream into butter (margarine was banned from our house more than a year ago, google "the truth about margerine and butter").

High on my wish list was a non-plastic appliance.

I did find plans to convert an electric blender to human powered but it involved a bicycle and a car battery. I was after something simpler.

A few days ago Chris and I were checking out kayak/camping supplies at Wholesale Sports in Kamloops and as I was methodically going up and down the isles a black and white box with a picture of a blender caught my eye. A blender with a HAND CRANK. I picked it up and read the bumph on the side.

It began: "Increase your popularity. Make new friends. Pick up ladies. These are just the hidden benefits of owning our hand-cranked blender. This amazing little unit is an outdoor party in the making. And it also mixes up healthy smoothies, sauces and pancake batter."

I could always use new friends but with three girls in the house we were done with ladies. The marketing hyperbole ended with "...this blender can take anything life throws at it and make lemonade". Wow, I'd really like to meet the marketing communications writer who got paid for this.

The blender container is plastic (polycarbonate, but BPH free) and the stand is metal as is the hand crank. I was impressed that there was so much metal in it, frankly. The mechanism is geared for two speeds. When disassembled, the stand nestles inside the container. Nice touch. You can order most of the parts as replacements should something wear out or break (I hope not!)

I took it to the cashier and explained why I was interested in it (we are finding that if we explain we are building a sustainable house with tires, we usually get somebody's attention right away). I asked if I could return it if it didn't perform the functions I was buying it for. Sadly, no, it could only be returned if it was defective.

As I was walking back to show it to Chris, a very personable sales person (Richard) asked me if I needed help. I explained my dilemma. He offered to open it up and set it up. While he was doing this we had a good chat about earthships (I'd say that 95 percent of people are very curious about our project). Richard let me crank the handle on both speeds and I asked questions about the metal parts and he answered quite knowledgeably.

How wrong could I go? So I bought it. All $130 of it (with taxes).

And here it is.

Making nut butter was a bit of a challenge. Without the power of an electric motor, the nuts (everything but peanuts) got caught in the blades and I had to rock back and forth in low gear. Adding grapeseed oil (which I usually do) helped it a bit but and I did eventually succeed. I think chopping the nuts up quickly before processing them would help a lot.

Here's the nut butter.

My next test was churning butter. I'd been doing it quart by quart in a canning jar and that was taking about 45 minutes. Mind you I'm not sure I've really got the temperature nailed yet, which apparently makes a difference to how long it takes.

I was able to whip my cream at high speed and at about 15 minutes the crank seized. This was a good sign; the butter had separated from the buttermilk. The kids and I worked up a little sweat and they gave up easily but I was able to process more than a quart of cream at a time.

Here's the butter.

And Katie's 20 seconds on the crank.

GSI Outdoors is a Spokane company ( but nowhere on the product or the packaging does it say where the product is made. I have a sneaking suspicion that the marketing lingo points to it as being made somewhere....not in North America.

The company lists this product under destination camping and the subcategory "party", along with 5 or 6 hip flasks and stainless steel martini glasses. I'm left wondering if they really think people buy this because (according to their pamphlet inside the box), it is a worthy addition to "tailgate" parties. Despite the fact the pamphlet comes with Daiquiri and Margarita recipes, and I love an ice cold drink at the end of a day of kayaking, this product is definitely something you don't want to pack too far. It is hefty.

So far I'm quite pleased with it, although I do wish the container were glass. But, as I am not GSI's target market I can understand why it isn't.

I'm always looking for suggestions for other appliances. Next on my list: a real butter churn and an ice cream maker.

Human Powered Appliances

Stay tuned for my review of GSI Outdoor's hand cranked Vortex blender!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Moving sheds to make way for the coop

Chris spent most of Saturday with my father and friend, Mike Casey, moving our small shed in McLure to our site here in Darfield. The shed had served as our promotional sign coming into Barriere, but as we are not actively drumming up business we had other plans for it.

I spent the day at the kids sheep husbandry day which I always find a lot of fun. I don't think the male lambs do, though. It was ear tagging, castration and tail docking day. The 4-H club has a potluck for lunch and it's always nice to visit with friends. I have to say that although the club means a lot of work for the parents, it does create an amazing sense of community.

We spent today cleaning out and moving our various storage sheds to make way for our larger shed as our chicken coop. According to our "master plan" as Mike calls it, we will be able to separate the meat birds from the layers in the coop and let them have an enclosed run on the days we are not here. We plan to free-range the chickens when we are on site. Having said that, the meat birds are almost 4 wks old (Cornish game hen size, apparently) and are HUGE. Another six weeks doesn't really give them much time to free range! We really do have to move them soon. Mike says that KFC chicken is all 6 weeks old. I can believe it; these birds eat their weight in grain in a day, it seems.

Here is a picture of Chris moving the larger shed to its new home.

Friday, April 3, 2009

We have permission to land!!!!

The Earthship is cleared for landing! We received word today that the permit is all ready for us. We are quite excited and I know that Chris has been sorting shovels, starting equipment up and worrying about our tire count.

We do have to pay an additional $904 for our permit. The building authority bases the permit fee on square footage AND cost to build. Of course, I put $60,000 down for cost to build (that is what we are aiming for, as we have heard of others building for a little less and a little more). However, even that won't fly with the building authority. So based on 2250 square feet and $100/square foot (which the building authority decided based on some figures out of Michael Reynolds books).

So the entire permit fee is $1544 which includes a refundable $200 if we complete the house within 2 years.

Please stay posted as we begin to make plans to start construction!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

One layer chick lost...

I'm quite choked about this. After keeping all 52 chicks alive for three weeks, I accidentally dropped the heat lamp and it landed on one of the layer chicks, mortally wounding it. Katie was with me so I had to be cool and collected, but had I been alone I probably would have had a little freak-out.

Stephen was also very upset and after insisting on looking at it, claims it was one of the ones he named (great). So now I'm the one who "killed" the chick. I keep explaining it was an accident while at the same time wondering how long it will take for everybody to stop glaring at me...

We are in real trouble when the time comes to butcher the meat birds...

Still waiting...

Yesterday we submitted the last two documents that our building authority requested. Unfortunately the building inspector who is plan checking our project is not in the office until Friday but will look at it then. We are assuming that the final check is simply routine as both documents we submitted were sealed by professionals. Chris has already revved up the equipment and is ready to begin excavation as soon as the permit is in our hands...

For the next few days we will move on to projects we have had to set aside: building our chicken coop, preparing our skis for summer storage, gathering more tires...

Tonight the kids pick out their market lambs. Although they won't get them until May, they will choose them now at about 2 weeks old (cute!).