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the farm

Posted 11/14/2007 2:08am by Leaf Myczack.

In last week's blog, I discussed ways in which we cut our farm's petroleum consumption while retaining much needed soil moisture for our shade trees. As expected, I stepped on the tail of a sacred cow of tradition-mowing the "American dream lawn." The tradition of the closely cropped, mono-cultured grass lawn as a status symbol will be a hard one to overcome for most people. However, with mandatory water restrictions in effect in a growing number of communities, now is the time to be thinking of more environmentally friendly alternatives to the sterile and largely lifeless grass lawn.

This week I want to discuss the other major source of energy consumption on the farm, utility purchased electricity. We use between 350 and 400 kilowatt hours per month at a cost of 10+ cents per kilowatt hour. Our most recent bill was $36.12. For us that means it costs the farm one gallon of honey or 14.4 dozen eggs per month. This is an acceptable expense for the energy we currently require.

The biggest electrical energy consumption occurrs when we convert electric current into heat such as the hot water heater, the cooking stove, heat furnace, and a clothes dryer. Our response to this normal energy use is to seek alternatives where possible. The easiest is replacing the clothes dryer with a good, roomy clothesline. Free sun and wind dry all types of fabrics wrinkle free and without harm to the washload or the environment. Clotheslines are significantly cheaper than electric dryers and operate virtually maintenance and cost free.

Electric heat furnaces and heat pumps can really spin the meter, but are rather inefficient outside of a narrow temperature operating range. A well insulated and sealed dwelling is a must to hold down living space heating costs. Passive solar heating has no operating costs and is effective over a wide temperature range. We had to do a moderate amount of retrofitting on the south side of the house, adding windows, a full windowed mud room, and a greenhouse / solar heater pod. The effort was well worth it as we can heat the bulk of the house on a sunny day just with sunlight streaming in. On cloudy days and at night, we provide our heating needs with a very efficient and clean wood burning stove.

Cooking our food is done in a variety of ways. Our many options include an outdoor solar oven (currently being rebuilt), a four burner propane gas stove in a protected outside "summer kitchen," on top of the wood burning heating stove, a low wattage electric crock pot, and finally on a conventional electric stove. With all the above options available, we can make significant cuts in electricity usage and still enjoy hot prepared meals.

Heating water has been our biggest challenge due to the existing location of the water hookup to the street main. It comes into the basement on the shadiest portion of the house. We are still mulling over ways to use a rooftop preheater and limit the distance we have to plumb. In the meantime we use a conventional water heater tucked into a well insulated (recycled) concrete block closet-like room. We also have an outdoor solar heated 20 gallon shower that we use during the summer months. We do laundry with cold water, so hot water demand is limited to washing dishes and showering. The under the counter mechanical dishwasher was shipped out to the thrift store long ago and has been replaced by human hands grateful to be soaking in warm water.

Both the refrigerator and clothes washer are energy star* rated efficient models that use half the energy of conventional models. Lighting is provided by a hybrid system of both AC and DC electricity. The AC (from the TVA) circuit is uniformly outfitted with energy saving florescent bulbs, while the DC service is provided from solar modules and a wind generator. The computer work station lighting and the workshop area lighting are both powered by the sun and wind.

Landscaping to provide summertime shade, and wintertime protection from cold winds has been underway for a few years. Evergreens have been planted on the NW and NE corners of the house, while deciduous trees have been planted on the east, south and west sides. One of the first changes we made was to use excavated soil from the basement root cellar to earth berm the two exposed basement ends of the house. The difference was most notable as the inside temperature stabalized between 60 and 75 degrees in spite of the extreme range of 20 to 95 degrees outside.

Additional electric use comes from using power tools in our construction and renovation work. Over time this usage should diminish.

Lastly, the pumping and moving of water on a farm can be a significant user of electricity. We solved that challenge by designing our cistern system to operate by cost free gravity, and by using 12 volt DC pumps that run off of sun charged batteries.

Our long-term goal is to continue to use the sun and wind to even greater advantage as we seek to become more energy sustainable and therefore an economically viable small family farm.