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Sun-Powered

Sun-Powered

This article was published in my free newsletter, Ready for Rain.

From the moment we decided to move to Orcas Island, I became fascinated with the idea of self-sufficiency. I dreamt of using water from a well, growing food, owning a home-based business, and learning to build and repair some of what we need. That dream is becoming more real each year.

Some elements of self-sufficiency are built in at our location. We don’t have the option to connect to community gas, water, or sewage, so we have well water, a propane tank (below, left) and a septic system (below, right),

I take some satisfaction from knowing that my water, for example, is independent of a city water system. It still amazes me that it comes right out of the ground, ready to drink.

Solar energy was always part of the plan for the property, but a lower priority in the midst of ​building Flattop​. At the time, some government subsidies and incentives were being phased out or were uncertain. We continued to say “someday” and added a conduit from the roof to our electrical panel to make future installation easier.

The Reasoning

At our latitude, solar energy is not a slam dunk. The equipment is expensive, we have short, cloudy days in the winter, and lots of tall trees. The alternative, power from the grid, isn’t terrible. It’s mostly clean energy from hydropower and relatively affordable. We spent months debating the options.

A reality of island life is more frequent power outages than the mainland. Our electricity comes from the mainland through an underwater cable and is part of a network across the San Juan Islands. In stormy weather, a fallen tree on another island can take out our power for hours. Before recent infrastructure improvements, many homes were built with diesel generators for powering homes in blackouts. They’re expensive, require regular maintenance, and are not clean energy sources.

For the first three years at Flattop, we did without backup power. Batteries, a chest freezer, cell phone service, and a propane stove could get us through. But we soon discovered a bigger problem: our well and septic pumps depend on electricity to function. To put it mildly, these systems are required and motivated us to consider alternative energy sources. We needed a battery for storing power to use in a blackout.

We met with a local solar installer and learned about all the new subsidies and incentives. The “Build Back Better” bill (2021) reset ​federal incentives​ to install solar and/or battery systems. The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on the cost of the project (materials and installation) until 2032. That’s huge. At the same time, the state of Washington doesn’t collect sales tax on the materials. Our local power co-op also offers a 10-year financing plan at 2% per year. It felt like everything lined up. We pulled the trigger and began a 14-month wait for solar panels and a battery system installation.

The Investment

These projects ideally pay for themselves over time. The big question is: how long will it take? Our installer estimated that solar would cover about 90% of our annual power bill and we’d likely pay it off in 9-10 years. That 90% number may sound surprising. Here’s how that works:

Our connection to the electrical grid is now a two-way system. We pay for the energy we use and can sell the excess energy we generate via solar back to the power co-op. The power we sell back is then credited against our power bill. The excess power from long summer days will offset our winter electricity use. Another factor is that the cost of grid electricity is likely to increase over time. A solar and battery system insulates us from potential increases.

The System

In February of this year, a team installed 37 panels on our roof, which equals almost 16 kilowatts of potential power production. In the photo below, the roof is recovering from a huge amount of pollen this year.

The battery system has two batteries and together hold 13 kilowatts of power. To put that into perspective… Our home, right now, uses between 20-40 kilowatts of power a day. In a power outage, we can reduce our power consumption to make those 13 kilowatts last 2-3 days.

The batteries are connected to the grid, which keeps them continually topped up. In a long power outage in the summer, the solar panels can charge the batteries and power the home. Then, battery power can easily get us through the night. This is more difficult in the winter when the sun is scarce.

We expected the installer to ask for specific circuits to power, like the fridge, etc. That didn’t happen. They connected everything to the battery, except power-hungry systems like heating, clothes dryer, etc. Now that the system is up and running it doesn’t require any maintenance, aside from washing the spring pollen from the panels.

The Outcomes

A week after the panels and batteries were installed, we were streaming a movie on TV when one of the lights dimmed for a split second. The movie continued, the digital clocks remained correct, and we shrugged it off. A few minutes later, we received an alert that said, “Your batteries are powering your home”. We had no idea! It was working! Because the batteries powered the TV and internet connection, we could keep watching.

Today we have phone apps and a tablet in our kitchen that display real-time data for the solar system: what the house is using and what’s powering it. It’s fascinating and satisfying. Our home is a generator! Sachi of course, watches the data every day and this time of year is exciting because we’re breaking records each week. On recent sunny days, we sold back twice the amount of power we used.

I see the romantic attraction to living “off the grid” like a homesteader in the wilderness, but that’s not the goal. What we want is a home and lifestyle that’s reasonably sustainable, self-sufficient, and balanced with convenience.

The Wood Shed

The Wood Shed

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The first time we had wood delivered was in 2018 and we were living in the yurt. We had never really used that amount of firewood before and looked around for where to store it. We found a decaying old frame sitting by some trees that was apparently for stacking wood. It seemed odd at the time. Would we really keep wood out in the rain? Shouldn’t it be, like, dry?

Not knowing what else to do, we moved the frame into the garage and against the wall. This way, in my mind, it would be dry, safe, and sound. When the wood arrived, Ed Stone, one of the island’s wood entrepreneurs, was surprised I wanted to keep it in the garage. He said, “I don’t know why, but firewood does better when it’s left out in the elements.” By that time, I already had wood sitting on the frame, so that’s where it stayed for the season.

After that interaction, I started to notice other homes’ wood sheds. They were all very similar: A small roof, a floor with wide gaps, and no walls. In some cases, a tarp was used on top of the wood instead of a roof.

With the house built and fireplaces in action, I needed to learn more about the raw material: firewood. What does wood need or want? What can I do to treat it well?

Along with local knowledge, I consulted two books:  Norwegian Wood and  The Wood Fire Handbook. This put me on a course to making the most of our wood and one big idea stood out: we needed a wood shed. Firewood burns hotter and cleaner when it’s dry and dry wood comes from wood that can breathe. That’s why it was weird to keep it in the garage. By being out in the elements, it could naturally release moisture or “season”. In fact, rain isn’t a big problem as long as moisture isn’t trapped where it can create mold and decay.

The clock was ticking. We had two cords sitting in the garden, which was fine in the dry summer weather. It couldn’t stay there long in the wet winter.

Dump truck with wood
One cord, delivered

We started to consider what kind of shed we wanted and learned that our friends Paul and Erika recently built a very nice shed that seemed to fit the bill. In fact, they used free plans by Fine Homebuilding  that we could adapt to our needs.

A couple of weeks ago the work started with a shovel and pick. The shed needed to be level and that meant leveling the ground under it. Digging is always hard, but our ground is probably equal parts soil and rocks. One minute you’re digging, the next, you hear and feel a THUD and realize that a 20 pound rock has to be removed to keep going.

We dug holes, placed concrete piers, tried to get them level, and then realized the fence line we used to line them up wasn’t square. We shook our fists at the sky, and then started over. Leveling and squaring those damn piers was painful. All along I kept reminding Sachi that it was only a wood shed.

We finally got it set and the fun could begin. That meant setting the floor with space for air flow.

Then we built the walls all at once and slowly applied them.

Next was purlins, which are boards that sit vertically under the roof. I had never driven 5″ screws through the thin side of 2X4s, but it worked surprisingly well.

With a few more supports and some galvanized roof panels, the shed was ready and we could finally stack the wood that had been sitting in a pile for a few months.

After years of being on Orcas, our wood finally had a home that should last our lifetimes.

caption for image
Filet of Sole ? ?

Filet of Sole ? ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Sometimes it seems like we missed the good fishing in our region. From the native people to generations of settlers, salmon was plentiful and remains a big part of PNW culture. Unfortunately, the salmon runs are not as prolific as they once were and the seasons are highly regulated. Recreational fishers may only get 1-2 king salmon per year.

Salmon harvest
Total Harvest of Chinook or “King” Salmon Over Time (Source)

Despite being called an Orcas Island Fisherman, I had never done any real fishing since moving to the island. As much as I wanted to fish for salmon, it never happened, in part because the best salmon fishing is done from a boat with a contraption called a downrigger, which we don’t have. For us, fishing would begin with lake fishing rods on Short Story.

The prized species, like salmon, halibut, and lingcod, were all out of season, so we focused on what was legal to catch this fall. As it turns out, bottom fish season is always open and each person can take home 15 fish per day. We watched YouTube videos, visited a local outdoor sports store, and set our sights on flatfish, like flounder, sole, and sand dabs.

Last year we caught a Pacific sand dab in our shrimp trap (below) and didn’t know what it was. I took the little guy home, fried it in a pan, and found the meat to be delicious. These fish all have flaky white meat like a flounder. Since then, we’ve learned that sand dabs are considered a west coast delicacy.

Pacific sand dab

We talked to a couple of friends who told us where to go and what to do. We needed a “high low rig” which has two hooks and a weight. You drop the line to the bottom and then use the current to drift the bait across the bottom. We were hopeful but skeptical. Everyone said it can be easy, fun, and very productive. They were not wrong.

From the moment my line hit the bottom, a fish hit the bait. It was a smallish sand dab. The next time, I pulled up two fish at a time. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was like a carpet of flatfish were just waiting for something to float by them.

sand dab fishing

In a couple of hours, we hauled in about twenty fish, mostly Pacific sole and Pacific sand dabs. You can tell the difference because flat fish are either “right-eyed” or “left-eyed”. This relates to which side of the fish faces the bottom. A pacific sole is right-eyed because it lies on its left side on the bottom. As flatfish mature, the downward-facing eye migrates to the upward-facing side of the fish. How weird.

Pacific Sand Dab
Left-eyed Pacific sand dab

Once we got home the cleaning process began. I watched more videos and we formed a production line. Sachi scraped scales; I gutted and cleaned. It was messy and awkward in the beginning, but soon I got the hang of it. In fact, I filleted a few of the bigger fish for the first time. It was not pretty, but I didn’t need stitches, so that’s a win.

Sand dab sole filet
cleaned sand dabs

With all the fish cleaned and refrigerated, we could plan a few experimental meals. We started with the classic pan-fried fish. We coated them with egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in cast iron. These were whole fish, with bones. It reminded me of the fish called “spot” my parents and I used to catch on the coast of North Carolina.

pan fried sand dab

Once on the plate, you can remove the meat from one side with a fork and easily lift out all the bones.

fish bone gif

We also deep-fried fillets, which were my favorites in fish tacos.

fried sand dab filets

Lastly, we coated the fish with a thin mayonnaise garlic sauce and baked them in the oven. Delicious!

over baked sand dabs

We ended up eating every fish we caught in one form or another. Like all fishing, it was messy to process. Cleaning and filleting the fish can be tedious and time-consuming. But that’s just fine. We fed ourselves with fish and caught a short ride from home. Unlike salmon, flatfish are plentiful, always in season, and easy to catch. I’m surprised we hadn’t done it sooner.

I don’t know that we’ll fish for flatfish all the time, or that they will compete with the protein and enjoyment we get from crab and spot prawns. But this kind of fishing helps us learn, promotes self-sufficiency, and keeps us on the water. Maybe next year we’ll give salmon a try.

City Life Versus Island Life ?♻️

City Life Versus Island Life ?♻️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


Moving away from Seattle has shown us the wide variety of things we took for granted. It’s been a full year, and they seem to become clearer each day. In the city, trucks and sanitation workers arrived every week at our house and took away our garbage, recycling, and yard waste. The water from our taps seemed as infinite as the hole into which it disappeared. Natural gas was piped directly into our homes from a city-wide network that I never really understood. Is there a giant tank somewhere?

These features are not unique to Seattle, or any city really. These services (and taking them for granted) are a standard part of American life. It’s easy not to pay attention to garbage when a truck reliably takes it away.

Moving to Orcas Island was a stark reminder of how one lives without the services of a city. While there are waste, water, and gas systems on the island, they are mostly limited to more densely populated areas around Eastsound, the island’s main commercial area. Living where we do, twenty minutes from town, means we’re on our own for the most part. We use the same electricity and internet networks as everyone else, but that’s about it.

This means that managing garbage, for example, is something that has become a bigger part of our lives. Because no truck arrives to whisk it away, we transport it ourselves. There is probably no better way to get acquainted with the waste you and your family produce than collecting it, loading it into your vehicle, and driving it to a transfer station (or what some call “the dump”). It works like this for us today…

We have a couple of small trash cans outside the guest house for garbage and pet waste. The status of these cans is our indication that a trip to the transfer station may be required. Inside, we collect recycling in large dog food bags and store them in a downstairs closet the dogs can’t access.

We don’t buy beer in bottles anymore because they are big and heavy. Instead, most of our beer comes from refillable growlers or cans that are rinsed, crushed, and collected in a paper grocery bag. We could just throw them in with the recycling, but we recently learned that separating them is more cost-effective for the organization that runs the recycling service.

Like most people, we usually wait until the last possible moment to take the trash away. The closet where we collect dog food bags of recycling is tiny and used for other storage, including our little chest freezer. Three or four bags can make fetching chops for dinner a bit more difficult. Five or six become a problem.

Yesterday, we packed the car full of trash and recycling for the trip. This was the first trip with new waterproof floorboards and a cargo liner that protects the back. The carpet ones were not going to fare well in this situation. This will be even more important when crabbing season comes around.

On the way, I asked Sachi, “How often do you think we do these runs?” She said probably every two months or so. An SUV’s worth of trash and recycling every two months didn’t seem too bad.

The Exchange

The transfer station on Orcas Island is called The Exchange and has a beloved on-site thrift store where a bit of bartering is sometimes required. On my first visit, fresh from Seattle, I was not aware of this fact. I was interested in something and asked about the price. The attendant said, “How much do you think it’s worth?” I stuttered. While a colored sticker gave me a price range, I had no idea what to say and threw out a number designed to seem respectful and fair: $20. The person smiled patronizingly and said, “You don’t know how this works, do you?” Apparently, I had unknowingly high-balled in a situation where a low-ball was expected. Islanders cherish the idea that at The Exchange, you can pay what you can afford.

Using the trash facilities is based on the honor system. We pulled up to a small, portable office that had recently been retrofitted to include the now-ubiquitous plexiglass sneeze guard as protection for the worker inside. The smiling woman inside said, “Whatcha got?” and our reply was, “Two trash, one recycling”. This meant that we had approximately two 32 gallon containers of trash, and one of recycling. Our total was $31, which is about one-third of what the average Seattle household pays in two months. We paid by credit card and backed up to one of the multiple 48 foot long dumpsters placed below ground level for trash and recycling. After two months of collecting, it all goes away in less than a minute.

The whole operation is run by a non-profit called Orcas Recycling Service. The trash leaves the island by boat, is then transferred onto rail cars and transported to a landfill in Eastern Washington. We pay the highest rates in the state to get rid of our trash, so it’s no surprise that there is a huge emphasis on recycling and reuse.

All-in-all, it’s not a bad or expensive process, as long as you don’t mind being in the same car as your garbage every once in a while. Open windows help. So do pick-up trucks, which I can imagine being in our future. For us, it’s another form of self-sufficiency. We are our own sanitation workers.

This has been on our minds as the new house is coming together. For over a year now, our main trash can has lived under the kitchen sink. In the guest house, it’s in a corner cabinet with an awkward double-swing door. It’s fine, but the idea of a pull-out trash can seems like the pinnacle of luxury. Having a dedicated place for recycling sounds dreamy. We spend a lot of time dreaming these days. 

The past week has seen the infrastructure of remote living take shape at the house. A 1000 gallon propane tank is now buried just outside the house that will help us cook and stay warm even if the power goes out.

Propane

Beside it is a big hole containing a 1750 gallon water storage tank which will fill with well water and give us a buffer if the well can’t produce for some reason. Yet another hole will soon be filled by a septic tank. As always, these holes were created with a noisy excavator. Our poor neighbors.  

Water Tank
Water Tank

Between on-site propane, a well, a septic system, and our trash runs, we’ll be pretty self-sufficient in terms of utilities. Eventually, we’ll also have solar and start to eat away at the electricity delivered to the house. The fiber-optic internet connection will prevail.

Over the many years we expect to live on Orcas, one reality will remain. No truck will ever arrive to carry our trash away. We will always have to load it into a vehicle and take it to the transfer station every couple of months. I don’t mind. For us, it’s a game. We want to produce less trash and those runs are the metric. It feels like we’re doing our part as islanders to learn and experiment with ways to produce less of it.

It helps that today, taking the trash away feels like a field trip and a chance to be out in the world during a quarantine. There are friendly people there. And our masks… they help with odor too.