THE NEXT LESSON learned

When we were doing our research, and watching our YouTube videos, and feeling pretty smart for preparing as best we could, we learned many things. (By the way, I want to give a shout out to Mark and Trish from Keep Your Daydream for inspiring us and teaching us and making this whole adventure more fun. You should definitely check out their blog, their YouTube channel and check them out on Instagram too.)

But back to our next lesson. One of the things we learned from all our research was that it is critically important before you take your rig out on the road, that you know exactly how high your rig is off the ground. This is so that you know for sure whether you will fit under certain overpasses and such that might have low clearance. It is especially important you know this in advance, because at the moment you are rolling towards a low overpass is NOT the time to wonder about it. I knew I should have gotten up on the roof of our travel trailer and measured its height. I had planned to do just this. You can probably see this coming, but I never got around to measuring anything.

So now here we were, off on our first major vacation in our new travel trailer. We had taken a one-week shake-down trip close to home, but this time we off on a real adventure. Our plan was to drive from Maine, all the way down to the Virginia/Delaware area for three weeks, staying in three different campgrounds while there. This was a big deal for us, and represented the first real test of our ability to live and work on the road in our new rig.

For many years we were involved with a motorcycle club, and as a result we have taken many trips south or west from Maine over the years to points around the country. We are therefore very familiar with all of the route choices presented to us for our journey south. What we failed to appreciate however, is that most of those trips south or west from Maine over the past 20 years were done on the back of a motorcycle. You see, when you are on the back of a motorcycle, you think about very different things than you have to think about when towing a thirty-five foot long travel trailer. Major highways with six lanes and lots of traffic are not the most fun thing when you are on a motorcycle. We tended on those trips to seek out alternate routes that had less traffic and were more scenic. Better all-around for a motorcycle.

Those years of experience therefore had led us to prefer the Parkways that can take you through New York State to any of the major highway options. Among our favorites was the Sawmill River Parkway, because of all the beautiful historic stone bridges you go under when you are on it, and the fact that it is just two lanes with a lower speed limit. Perfect riding for a motorcycle.

So back to our adventure. We were rolling south through upstate New York. It was after dark, and it was (of course) raining. We had been on major highways all day and we were tired. Finally, out of the gloomy darkness we spied the sign for the Sawmill Parkway. With relief I put on my blinker and took the exit, looking forward to the relative peace and quiet of two lanes instead of six. As we rolled onto the parkway, we passed a sign that I only noticed out of the corner of my eye, but that seemed to indicate some sort of rule about “Passenger Cars Only”. Ginger noticed the sign too and looked at me pointedly. “Are we a passenger car?”

Looking back now, I realize that it might be possible I answered this question a bit too hastily. “Of course we are dear. This is a pick-up truck I am driving, and that my love is a passenger car. They mean commercial trucks and stuff.” Remember those words as our story un-folds, K?

Of course the flaw in my logic was that even if I decided my pick-up (which is rolling on 35’s with a 5″ lift) is still a passenger car, that does not take into account the 35′ long travel trailer I was hauling. With the bliss that can only come from ignorance, we rolled onto the Sawmill Parkway. In the dark. In the rain.

Things started out well as we enjoyed the relative quite of the parkway. The first bridge we passed under was no problem – I think the clearance was 11 feet or so. The second bridge we passed under gave me more pause with a clearance of only 10.5 feet, but we sailed under that one too without issue. Things quickly went south from there however. Later, as we looked back on this whole experience I found this article about why the bridges over the Sawmill Parkway are so low. Turns out it was by design, but I’ll let you read about that for yourself.

The next bridge we approached warned of a clearance of only 9.5 feet. I am just shy of 6 feet tall, and envisioned that if I stood on my tip-toes I might reach something 9 feet high. There was no way I could reach the top of the rig from the ground. No way. With visions of having to back-up all they way down the Sawmill Parkway to the last exit, I jammed on the breaks, hit my hazard lights, and pulled the rig over into the shoulder.

There in front of us was a bridge, but it had a sign on it stating 11.5 feet of clearance. The warning for the 9.5 foot bridge referred to another bridge we had not reached yet. I was not sure what to do at this point. Roll forward towards a bridge I knew I would not fit under, and hope there was an exit that would allow us to get off this nightmare, or start backing up now until I reached the last exit behind us to get off the parkway. About then the rain started really coming down in buckets.

So there we were, sitting on the side of the Sawmill River Parkway in New York State, in the dark, in the rain, with traffic trying to move around us (as we could not help but block part of one lane), but slowly and surely beginning to back up behind us. It was clear we were going to have to do something here. It was just about then that I I noticed the blue lights flashing in my mirror as a New York State Trooper rolled up beside us. Not knowing whether I was facing a summons, or being offered assistance, it was with some trepidation that I rolled my window down.

Sitting in the squad car next to me was a very friendly looking female officer. She happened to be black, and was smiling at me the way I would imagine she would smile at one of her children if they had completely screwed up, but she was going to help bail them out anyway. “Sir?” she leaned over, shouting to be heard over the rain. “What are you doing on the Sawmill Parkway with that thing? This is passenger cars only!”

I contemplated all my possible answers, quickly scrolling through them for the most reasonable-sounding one. “I thought this truck was a passenger car!” I yelled back to her. She shook her head in the same slightly-amused, slightly-annoyed way and said “Not towing that thing you’re not!”. I nodded in solemn agreement and asked her what I should do now? “If you can fit under this bridge right here, there’s an exit just around the next corner. Take it!”. It was at that moment I knew that we were being protected by angels, or fairies, or some-such other ministers of grace.

I leaned out the window to thank her so very much for her kindness and noticed that the traffic had now backed up quite a bit in both lanes. “I will get right off this thing! Thank you officer!”. And with that she blocked the lane so we could pull out, then ran ahead of me, turned off her blue lights, and proceeded to lead us to the exit in question.

Unfortunately our adventure was not over, as this last-exit-before-disaster had dumped us out in what can only be described as a winding upscale neighborhood in suburban New York. The streets were incredibly narrow with no shoulders. It was all residential houses, with cars often parked on the street. Not at all an area I would want to navigate with the trailer, let alone at night. In the rain. Not only were these streets narrow and difficult to navigate, but they wound around and interconnected like a spider web, and our GPS kept insisting that the best thing for us to do was to get back on the Sawmill Parkway. This meant we had to constantly decide whether to listen to the GPS, or do the best we could with a map.

Before long we found ourselves headed down a steep hill, thinking we were making our way to a major highway when we passed a sign that said “Sawmill Parkway Ahead”. At the bottom of the hill, just visible in my headlights, it was obvious that this road came to a Stop sign, and we were going to have to chose left, or right.

I came to a stop right there, blocking the road for now. For a long terrible moment we sat and contemplated our situation while the rain started to come down even harder. Our choices were clear, if unpleasant. We could either back-up the hill we had just come down (a distance I guessed would be close to a mile before we got to a spot we could turn around). Or we could move forward, even if the road ahead WAS the Sawmill Parkway, and deal with one emergency at a time.

While I sat there for a minute weighing my options, Ginger, (having reached her stress-management threshold), busied herself with having a small break-down and began hyper-ventilating in the seat beside me. After some contemplation, I decided that even if that road at the bottom of the hill WAS the Sawmill River Parkway, I would only have to backup a little on the Parkway itself to turn around and head back up the hill we were on.

I rolled forward. As it turned out the Gods had decided they had had enough fun with us for one night, and the road below was in fact an access road that could have taken us back to the Parkway, but also gave us an option to get on the Interstate. We opted for the Interstate.

And so, on a dark and rainy night in upstate New York, we faced our first trial-by-fire with the new travel trailer. In the end we came out of it un-scathed, and learned a lot in the process. That is really all this is about – learning as we go. I know there is a ton more we need to learn, but I look forward to being out on the road again to begin the lessons.

Look for more updates on our RV adventures in coming posts!

TAKE THE ADVICE

When we were thinking, and planning, and dreaming of ‘one day’ owning our own travel trailer, we did a lot of research, and we got a ton of advice. One piece of advice that I kept hearing was to sleep in our travel trailer for a night or two, while it was still parked at home.

This seemed like a reasonable thing to do, as it would allow us to discover all those ‘little things’ that you don’t learn until you actually live in your new RV. Anything you might need or had forgotten to stock, home is right next door. Definitely a great idea.

I wish we had followed this advice. Sometimes however you just have to make the mistake to learn the lesson.

Instead of following that great advice, we fiddled about and stocked the trailer with everything we thought we would need. Did our research, learned what we thought we needed to know, and then we set off on our first adventure in our new rig. It just seemed like overkill to actually sleep in the new rig. Not when we usually sleep on a nice comfortable memory-foam mattress, right?

We got to the campground and survived the emotional and mental trauma of going through our first-ever, real-life, “in the field” setup of our new rig. We made a delicious meal, and even had s’mores by the campfire. After a wonderful evening it was time for bed. We climbed into the queen sized bed, and turned out the lights. That’s when the trouble started. Immediately we became aware that something was not right. It was not just that this mattress was firmer than we were used to. It wasn’t even that this was the firmest, hardest mattress we had ever laid upon. Oh no, this went farther then that.

I grew up on the coast of Maine. When I was in high-school, several friends and I got ahold of a half-gallon of Boon’s Farm wine and sat by the ocean one night drinking way too much for our age. I grew up on the coast of Maine, so this meant we were sitting on granite ledges that led down to the ocean, not a sandy beach. After finishing the bottle of wine we fell asleep right there on the rocks and spent the night. Those rocks were more comfortable than this mattress.

Later in college I took a semester off and back-backed around Europe with a friend. We were in Ireland and had met up with several other travelers as we entered Cork. The Cork Jazz Festival was going on, and every single hotel room, youth hostel and park bench in the city was already taken. We ended up paying a youth hostel their full nightly rate to sleep on the cold tile of the kitchen floor. That floor was more comfortable than this mattress was.

And so, after a night spent ignoring the pain and pretending to sleep, we knew something had to change. Part of our plan for this first shake-out trip with the new rig was to telework from the RV during the day. This actually worked out surprisingly well, and I plan to write more specifically about teleworking from your RV in a future blog post (so check back here!). As soon as we were done with work that first day, we piled the dogs into the truck and beat hell to Wal-Mart.

My plan was to buy a whole new queen sized mattress, preferably of the memory foam variety as that was what we were used to at home. We had no luck finding such a mattress, but they did have a 4″ thick memory foam “mattress topper”. We took what we could get. And it made all the difference in the world. The RV’s mattress was a hundred times more comfortable with the topper on it, and the sheets we brought even still fit. It was a win!

Crisis averted and lesson learned. When your experienced RV friends tell you to sleep in your new rig for a night or two before you leave home, don’t think for a minute you can ignore them. This is good advice so listen to them!

our maiden voyage

We recently purchased a new travel trailer. Specifically a Keystone Bullet Premier travel trailer. It’s 35 feet long, full kitchen, bath and bedroom. With plenty of room for the two of us and our three dogs. On our first trip in our new rig, we learned three things.

We spent several weeks watching YouTube videos, and joining different RV groups on Facebook. We had gotten lots of advice, had made a bunch of ‘necessary’ purchases, and we felt like we were ready for our first adventure! After over a week sitting in our front yard, it was time. Stocked with our clothes and necessities, the fridge full of food and beer, everything we could think of stowed away and ready to go. It was time.

The first challenge I faced was connecting our new travel trailer to my truck. I had of course gotten the whirlwind Reader’s Digest condensed version of instructions on how to connect everything from the salesman when we had brought our new travel trailer home. I did my best to remember what they had told me, and was able to get the trailer hooked up to my truck without major incident. One last check that we had everything we needed, and we were on our way!

Ready for travel! My 2016 Silverado 1500 had no problem pulling the new rig. Stopped at a grocery store for a few last minute items.

Taking the advice of our new RV’ing friends on Facebook, we chose a campground that was relatively close to the Homestead – traveling only about 50 miles over to a campground right on the coast of Maine called Searsport Shores. This was our first RV experience, but the folks there were super nice and friendly. After check-in, one of their staff led us down to our site and answered all our questions. He even hung around to make sure we didn’t need anything while we went through our set-up checklist.

First Lesson Learned:

We knew from our research that the campground only had 30-amp service. I had learned this was fine, and that you can run a rig with 50-amp wiring on 30-amps with no problem, and this was my intent. When I went to plug in my fancy new 50-amp cable that came with my rig however, I learned that 30-amp service uses a different plug than 50-amp service. You need an adapter to connect a 50-amp plug to 30-amp service.

For one terrifying moment, I contemplated what I was going to do. We were supposed to be there for a week, and absolutely needed power. Just as I was going through the list in my head of stores within a 100 miles that might carry a 30-amp to 50-amp adapter, the nice man from the campground (seeing my dilemma) offered to lend me one. That’s right, they kept spares on hand for just such occasions, and they were happy to lend us one, free of charge. That’s bonus points for the campground right there.

We spent a week there at Searsport Shores, and had a fantastic time. One of the things we were “testing out” on this first trip was our ability to work from our new rig. Both the Mrs. and I have been teleworking since COVID hit, and a critical part of this new investment was that we be able to continue to work. After sorting out a suddenly discovered shortage of 110v outlets inside the rig by running to the store for an extension cord and power strip, we were setup and ready to work.

Second Lesson Learned:

Check your rig for the little things like 110v outlets. We knew it had them, but had not bothered to inventory exactly how many there were, and where exactly they were located. Had we done this while the rig was at home I would have had time to plan a better solution. As it was the only usable outlet was in the kitchen. This meant running an extension cord across the rig to the table where we were working. It did the job, but was less than optimal. For the next trip, I will at least have a more permanent extension cord solution, tucked out of the way.

In the evenings after we were done working for the day, we would take the dogs (we have three – Zoey, our 9 year old Golden Doodle, Jelly Bean, our 3 year old Shih-Tzu/Yorkie mix, and Freya, our 10-week old Golden Doodle puppy) for a walk down by the ocean to watch the sunset. Then back to the rig for dinner and a campfire. One conclusion we were able to draw from this week is that we like the RV lifestyle. It’s just nice to be able to travel somewhere, and still have your own home with you wherever you go.

The campground offers a service to pump out your black and grey water tanks for you. After seeing this done for the rigs nearby a couple of times over the course of the week, I decided this was the way to go. After three days or so, our tanks were two-thirds full, so I called the front desk to schedule a visit. I thought they might show the next day, but the nice lady at the desk told me their guy could be there in 15 minutes. Score more bonus point for the campground.

Sunrise by the ocean.

A nice young man showed up a short while later. He seemed very knowledgeable, and set to work immediately. As he prepared to connect his hose to my grey/black water outlet, he removed the outer cap, and disaster struck. Apparently both of the valves controlling the grey and black water feeds were in the open position, and he did not notice this. I did not notice this either. Did I mention this rig was brand new to us? Instantly a gush of water – grey and black water mixed – came pouring out of the outlet pipe. Quickly the nice young man leapt into action, reaching in and closing the two valves before too much came out.

We both stood there for a moment, not knowing what to do. “Is this one of those things we have to call the EPA about or something?” The nice young man looked around a bit before answering, then said “No. This is one of those things we don’t tell anybody about.” Works for me.

Third Lesson Learned:

Know your rig! Take the time to learn how all the valves and controls work, and what they do. Take the time at home, before you are in the field to truly understand how everything works. This goes not only for the plumbing, but the electrical too. Know how things are connected, where the fuses are, what switch controls what. All of this is new, and can at times be counter-intuitive. Our particular disaster was relatively minor, and a good lesson learned. I can be sure I will never make that mistake with the valves again!

After a fun week on the coast, it was time to break camp, call our maiden voyage a success, and head home with our rig. Despite the lessons learned, and even after living in it together for a week, we were no less excited and looking forward to our next adventure. Stay tuned for more updates from the road!

UPDATE: There is another lesson around sleeping on the mattress in our new rig, but I will include that in my next post!

Birchwood on the road!

Like many working folks with dreams of retirement, Ginger and I have been planning for years to make an RV part of our retirement plans. We mulled over all the choices, and decided that someday we would love to own our own Travel Trailer. This was something we planned to invest in after we retired.

Then the COVID pandemic hit. Fricking Rona. The world was turned on it’s ear, and we were delighted to find that we were both sent home from our jobs to telework full time.

Telework? Full time you say?

We set up our home office, began working from home, and life settled back into a routine. Until it began to occur to us that this teleworking thing was working out SO well in fact, that we could literally work from anywhere…

Then recently, a local RV dealer floated an ad on Facebook for a brand-new 2021 travel trailer that seemed to have everything we had dreamed we would one day have. Despite our better judgement, we went over on one morning a couple of weeks ago, and fell in love.

Our new 2021 Keystone Bullet Premier Travel Trailer

Turned out the dealer had marked this particular unit down more than $10,000 and was offering a really attractive interest rate on financing. We were goners. We plunked down a deposit on the spot and we were done. A week later we picked it up and it’s ours.

We have spent the past couple of weeks furiously ordering from Amazon all the little things you don’t think about that you need before you go anywhere. I think I will do another post about what to know and what you need to buy as a newbie. For now suffice it to say we spent over $1,000 more on things we didn’t think of that we just had to have.

From the day we went to look at it on the dealer’s lot.

So we got the new travel trailer home, and in just a few days we are taking it out for our first RV’ing experience. We’re spending a week at a campground on the coast here in Maine. Sort of a shake-out, figure out how everything works trip.

Next it will be longer trips. We’ve already been drooling over destinations around the country that we have always wanted to visit. And the prospect of being able to take the dogs with us, and have our own little home wherever we go? Add in the fact that during this pandemic we can literally work from anywhere? Our ultimate dream would be to spend months on the road at a time, moving from beautiful place to beautiful place, as the urge strikes.

We will share all the cool things we learn about this whole new RV lifestyle, maybe even post some videos from time to time. So stay tuned for updates from the road!

Mead Making Made Easy – Part I

We are pretty avid mead brewers here at Birchwood. We have been brewing mead in our own kitchen for almost 20 years, and have come to realize over that time that the process can be much simpler than most people think. I will let you in on a little secret.

Don’t tell anyone, but making mead is easy. So easy in fact, that just about anybody could do it. I mean really. If we can do it, anybody can.

We participate in several Mead groups on Facebook, and I never cease to be amazed at the gyrations that some folks go through to produce a simple bottle of mead. Electronic monitors, meters, and gadgets of all kinds seem to be popular with the kids today.

Bunk.

Mead making can be the simplest process in the world. It is made with simple recipes, and simple ingredients, and should NOT require a Phd. to accomplish. In fact the basic recipe for mead is so simple, I am going to lay it on you right now:

Water + Honey + Yeast = Mead

After that, there really are only two variable you need to worry about:

  1. The ratio of Honey to Water (more honey = sweeter, less honey = drier).
  2. What (or if) you add anything else to enhance the flavor of the finished mead.

At Birchwood we brew mead that we like to drink, so ours runs a bit sweet. We have settled on a ratio of “2 parts water, to 1 part honey” – but you can adjust that ratio to your own taste.

That is seriously just about it, except for a few things that get thrown in as well:

  1. We add a few organic vanilla beans to every batch, regardless of other flavors. (This adds a nice spicy finish to every batch)
  2. We add a few cut-up oranges (peel and all) again, regardless of other flavors. (This adds citric acid, aids with some chemistry and such, and enhances the flavor – but all you need to know is: add some oranges).

Beyond those basic guidelines, the only other factor to consider is what you want your finished mead to taste like, and what you therefore add for other flavorings. We are partial to fruit, and usually add some combinations of berries and such to our mead for

mead-types

flavor. This technically means that what we brew here at Birchwood is a “Melomel”.

Now that I have described the basic ingredients, here is a nice simple graphic that describes the different kinds of Mead. There are more, sort of nit-picky sub-species of mead (like a mead made with rose petals is called a Rhodomel, and a mead made with traditional malted grains (like barley) is called a Braggot). But these are all things you can learn about if you really want to get scientific about it. Simple is always better.

To start with, just remember the basics: Water + Honey (+ Fruit) + Yeast = MEAD.

Equipment you will need to get started:

Again, we like to keep things very simple. You will need:

  • One brewing bucket (any size, but it 5 gallons is most common, and it MUST be “Food Grade” plastic, with a lid that seals tightly.
    • We recommend just going to your local brewing store, and buying one. Yes, you can make your own out of any 5-gallon, Food Grade plastic bucket, but the pre-made ones already have the hole drilled in the top with a little rubber gasket to accept your bubbler, and they also usually have a large rubber gasket around where the lid seals to ensure a tight fit. Do yourself a favor, and just buy one.
  • One glass Carboy. Again, any size, but it needs to hold the liquid that will come out of your bucket, so… 5-gallons is good.
    • You also need one (1) rubber stopper for the carboy (with a hole in it for the bubbler to go in).
  • You also need one (1) “Bubbler”
    • There are a couple of different types of Bubblers, and it is up to you which kind you buy. They all work the same, and do the same job. Personal preference here.
    • The last thing you will need is wine bottles to pour your mead into, and corks to seal the bottles. The corks you will buy from your local brewing store (usually by the 50 count). For the bottles, you have two choices:
      • You can recycle used wine bottles. This involves soaking them, and then scrubbing them etc. to remove the original labels. When you are done you will have a bunch of bottles (some whose labels would not come all the way off, no matter how much you scrubbed) that are all different colors and slightly different sizes.
      • OR, you can buy a brand new box of clear wine bottles from your local brewing store. A case should only run you around $20, and you are there anyway to pick up your bubbler and your corks, so DO YOURSELF A FAVOR.

The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!
The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!

And that’s it. You now have all the equipment you will need to make your first batch of mead. Now comes the fun part.

Once you have rinsed out your new brewing bucket, you are ready to combine and add your ingredients.

Here is a crucial bit of wisdom you should pay attention to: You do not have to heat your mead! Well, at least not much. The ONLY reason to heat the liquid up at all before you pour it into your brewing bucket is to 1) ensure the honey dissolves completely into the water, and 2) warm the liquid up enough so that the yeast will be happy and procreate.

Most meaders WAY overheat their mead before adding it to the brewing bucket. You only need to warm it slightly, and should still be able to put your hand into the liquid without it feeling “too hot”. Put your water, your honey, some cut-up oranges, a few cinnamon sticks and your fruit-of-choice into a large pot, and place it over a VERY LOW heat. When all the honey is melted into the water, turn off the heat. You are almost done.

One important step gets completed before you pour your mead into your brewing bucket and add the yeast. You must first PROOF the yeast. This just means you want to make sure that the yeast is going to like your mead (that it is not too hot, for example) and will go forth and procreate merrily. You do this by taking a small amount of the liquid out of your pot (important to make sure you have not heated it too hot), and pour that liquid into a small bowl. Add your entire packet of yeast, and cover with plastic wrap. Now go away for 20-30 minutes.

When you come back, the liquid under the plastic wrap should be covered with a foamy, yeasty layer that smells vaguely of bread. If this has happened, your yeast is happy and you are good to go. DO NOT PROCEED UNTIL THIS HAS OCCURRED. If your yeast does not proof, go back and try again with another packet of yeast.

2015-08-23 18.02.00

Now just pour that mixture of water, honey and fruit into your brewing bucket. Add a few Black Tea bags (for some Tannic Acid chemistry I forgot to mention earlier), and add a few Green Tea bags (because they contribute some anti-oxidants to your mead, as well as tannic acid), then dump in your bowl of mead-and-yeast-foam, and you are good to go.

Seal the bucket firmly, put some water in your bubbler and insert it into the hole in the top. Now step away and do not touch it for at LEAST three months. Six months is even better. You will know your mead is brewing merrily along by the speed with which bubbles escape from your bubbler. As fast as once every second in the beginning, but tapering off after about a week to stopping all together after a few weeks. Do not worry, this is normal.

In Part II of this Mead Making Made Easy series, I will talk about how long to leave your mead in the brewing bucket (WAY longer than you think!) and we will discuss transferring from your bucket to your carboy, and then later racking and labeling your bottles. Stay tuned!

Going Solar – Lessons Learned, Part II: It’s a Generation thing

This is one of those things that we did not consider when we began our solar project. I mean, we figured some day we would invest in a decent generator – you know, when we ready to be truly severed from the Grid of course. But for now – as we began our solar project – that was a cost we had planned to defer until later.

Briefly, you can either have solar panels that feed their power to the utility grid, or you can have solar panels that feed their power through a converter to a battery bank, allowing you to draw your power from there and be severed completely from the grid.2018-07-06 11.06.09

We had examined the battery market, deciding what type (lead-acid, or lithium-ion) battery we wanted here at Birchwood, and in the end had decided that the battery market was completely whacked, and needed time to settle-out into a more reasonable price range. As a result, we intended to feed our solar power to the utility grid, using the grid itself as our “backup power source” for when the sun was not available.

Then one day, our first solar contractor (who we fired – read about that here), mentions to me in a casual, passing way, that whenever the grid goes down, our solar array will detect that fact, and automatically shut itself down.

What the actual fuck??

“No no no”, I said confidently. “When the grid is down, I want a big switch I can throw that diverts my solar array power directly to my house”.

Sounds simple, right?

Well it turns out, that is not so simple. In fact, it violates code. The utilities have rigged it so that if you are feeding solar power into their grid, and that grid goes down for any reason, your solar array has to have an automatic cut-off to shut itself down until the grid comes back online. They claim this is so that you are not feeding power into the grid during a disaster-recover scenario. I think it is to make it as inconvenient as possible for those customers moving towards solar power as an alternative. Lesson learned, fuckers.

Having quickly realized that we would not be able to draw power from our own array if the utility grid was down, we decided that if one of our stated goals was to not have to rely on the utility grid for power, (but to be self sufficient from it), we were going to have to buy a generator. And a little one just would not do.

One thing that made us different from most folks who invest in a generator, is that we wanted one that would simply run everything. Not a subset of our appliances, or a portion of our home. Every. Damn. Thing. I will talk more about that in another post. Suffice it to say that this meant we needed a generator that could produce enough power to run our entire house.2018-07-06 11.08.14

This was apparently a concept that was foreign to well, just about anybody we discussed it with. It seems most folks just settle for running a subset of their lives when the grid goes down. Not good enough for us.

And so, we started shopping. I am not going to go through a blow-by-blow of every feature comparison and price-point we examined as part of this project. Do your own damn research. But I will tell you in the end we settled on a Briggs & Stratton ‘Whole House’ stand-by generator – the kind that turns itself on automatically whenever the grid goes down. This was a necessary feature for us, as we travel sometimes for weeks at a time in the winter, and need to ensure that the house has power no matter what is going on with the grid.

Ordering the generator and having it delivered (it is the size of a standard chest freezer) was not the hard part. The real struggle was having our local electrician install it and connect it to our house. This turned out to be yet another struggle that we had not anticipated, and ended up taking most of the entire summer of 2018 to get accomplished.  More about that struggle in a future post.

One pleasant surprise came about from this process. Our new generator runs on standard LP gas. We already had a single 30-gallon tank attached to the house to run the gas stove in the kitchen. We had to call the propane company to coordinate them showing up to make the connection from that tank to the new generator.

However, when they heard that we were installing this big fancy generator, they did not 2018-07-06 11.08.01want to connect it to our existing 30-gallon tank. Instead, they wanted to come out and install TWO 60-gallon tanks instead. Enough LP gas to run our generator 24/7 for a month. At their expense.

Yes, please.

So without even knowing this part was going to happen, we ended up with enough fuel onsite to run our whole-house generator around-the-clock for a month. Bring it on winter ice storms!

The lesson learned here? Don’t let anybody tell you what you need or want for your own home. Just because ‘everyone else does it this way’ does not mean you have to follow the same path. Homesteading is what YOU want it to be. What it looks like to YOU is all that matters. At Birchwood, when the Grid goes down, we wait for 30 seconds, and the generator kicks on. Life goes on as if nothing had happened. The way life should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Solar – Lessons Learned, Part I

Last summer in 2018, we realized a dream that we had for years and converted the homestead to solar power. To say it that way over-simplifies what was in fact a journey that took us almost eight months to complete. While the process has at times been painful, we have learned a lot from the experience.

I am going to try and go through the process, (and what we learned from it) in the hopes that others might learn from the many, many mistakes that we made.

Lesson Learned #1: Selecting The Right Company

The first and biggest challenge we faced was selecting a local solar energy company that 2018-05-17 17.28.17could handle all the work of installing the solar array, installing and wiring all the equipment both inside and outside the house, including batteries and everything we would need to sever our tie to the Grid (capital “G” to denote an evil connotation).

In our case, we went blindly forward with a “how hard can it be?” mentality as we invited three of our local solar companies to come to Birchwood and work up proposals for us. Two of the companies that responded had very scientific approaches to sizing, capacity, and load – and went through voluminous calculations before proposing their respective systems. Remember that bit, I will get back to it in a moment.

2018-08-17 13.08.39The third company that bid on our job had a different approach. SunDog solar. Rather than showing up with the fancy calculator and proceeding to do math for us, showed up in the form of a kindly old gentleman in a plaid shirt. When he gets out of the car, he let’s out not one, but two golden retriever dogs he has brought with him. This was our downfall. The dogs made themselves at home, and did what they were there to do. Win our hearts.

After some negotiation about the scope of the project we signed contracts with SunDog Solar (no link, because they do not deserve it).

And we were on our way. It did not take long however for us to realize we had made a terrible mistake. From scheduling, and the challenges we faced just to get them to arrive, to the disastrous day when they showed up to actually position the posts for the array.

Nothing seemed to go right. Finally, after more than 6 months of trying to get the job 2018-06-03 14.50.27done, we were left with just the solar array set up outside, but no equipment installed inside the house, no connections made, and no solar energy being generated.

After the multiple delays and frustrations we had had enough. We finally decided we weren’t giving SunDog Solar another penny. We called the 2nd choice bidder in our area that had come to the house originally.

Revision Energy to the rescue! (link proudly included). Like night and day. They came quickly, they came when they said they would be there, they finished our project for roughly half the money that SunDog Solar had wanted to finish the project. We could not be happier with Revision Energy. And they didn’t even pay me to say that.

2018-11-15 11.28.55In a matter of just a few weeks, they not only installed all the necessary equipment inside the house and out, but despite having to correct several shortcomings from the SunDog installation, (including the conduit that SunDog had installed between the array and the house, which was not even up to code), Revision still came in much cheaper.

And the quality of their work is exceptional. We could not recommend them highly enough. Only because of Revision Energy do we have a functional solar array producing enough power to run our entire household.

And so the moral of the story is, do not be seduced by a comforting manner, and a golden retriever. Harnessing solar energy and converting solar energy to electric power is no trivial exercise. It requires an understanding of not only the needs of the customer, but also the equipment and technologies that are used. They also need to have an ability to deliver what the customer wants. Be clear about what your expectations are. Make sure your contractor understands what you are expecting to have when the project is completed, and make sure they can deliver that. At the end of the day this one piece can be be the most critical component of your entire project.

So be very cautious. Listen to what these companies are promising you, and then do your 2018-05-17-17.28.46own math to make sure it all adds up. The more details they are asking of you up front, the more accurately they can size your system. Mostly, do your homework. Learn everything you can about the technology that is going to be at play in your home, and then hire a company that are experts in that technology.

In Lesson Learned #2, we’ll talk about finding the right electrical contractor. Not as easy as you might think!

~JTS

And Away We Go!

Welcome to our brand-spanking new website. Pardon the “new blog” smell. that should wear off in no time. This page is the evolution of an effort that began almost 20 years ago to bring photos and news of our children to doting relatives around the country.

Back in the day, I used to maintain our website manually – creating and updating web pages with photos, stories, and other tid-bits for the family.

Now it’s twenty years later, the kids are all grown and moved out, and Ginger and I are left here at Birchwood to do… well, anything we want to. I mean, there are no more grown-ups here after all…

And so we have decided to re-vitalize and update our website aspirations, and turn this into more of a blog that we can both contribute to. And Birchwood Homestead was born!

We will be posting various things about gardening, solar power, making mead, and bunches of other fun activities we engage in here at Birchwood.

Thanks very much for joining us. We are glad you have come along for the ride. Remember to click the “Follow” button over there on the right so you get all the updates from this page. ~ JTS

 

 

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