I wish I could show you a photo of the house today. It is buried in snow. Unfortunately, Leanne’s computer is still too full and I can’t download the photos from the camera yet.
This photo from New Year’s 2017 will have to suffice.
We thought this was a lot of snow. (Ha!) Besides less snow, the other thing that is different in this photo is all the lights are on.
Over the past weekend, due to heavy snow breaking branches, we have had 6 separate power outages.
They are not the most relaxing events, but the kids love a good black-out. We light candles and revel in the adventure. “I love Earth-hour!” says my daughter.
Beneath the fun of it lies my worry that the decisions we have made on the house leave us vulnerable to power outages. Specifically, back-up power.
I have this insecurity that there is a silent mass of onlookers waiting for us to fail. “Let’s see how this ‘Forever House’ handles a power outage” they say in my head. “Bet they wish they had a gas generator!”
Well, I must admit it was a bit shaky, but we did okay and I remind myself that we’re not done yet.
Surprising to many, my master plan calls for no fossil fuels and no wood-burning. I want to keep the brick fireplace but insert an electric fire that looks good and gives a little heat. When the power went out, however, it was very comforting to be able to light a fire. It reminded us of the winter of 2014 when we challenged ourselves to live without buying more fuel oil and so we relied on wood and a little electric heat.
Leanne wants to keep the fire, but we don’t have to decide now, because we have a lot of other things to do before we come to that.
The fact is, we moved in before the house was done. I am not finished insulating and sealing the basement and top floor. The root cellar door is not sealed and insulated as well as we plan to. I’d also like to re-apply the weather-stripping to the windows, seal up the stained-glass transom lights in the front rooms, and improve the front door.
All this insulation and sealing is key, because we are counting on it to keep our heating bills down.
At the moment, our heat is supplied by the same water heater that used to heat our tap water before the renovation. Hot water is pumped through pipes stapled to the underside of the main floor and it warms the floor above.
Heating water with electricity is 100% efficient, but it is expensive, so I have been steadily trying to finish insulating wherever I haven’t reached yet.
The first time the power went out for more than an hour, I was anxious that putting our eggs in the electricity basket had been unwise. However, we noticed that the house did not cool very quickly. The insulation we had done so far was having an effect. It was the front rooms with their thinner walls and heritage windows that cooled the fastest and that’s where the fireplace was.
I also noticed that the bathroom floor, where the water heating pipes are embedded in concrete just below the tile, stayed warm for two hours or so. I realized that one great advantage to heating with underfloor hydronic pipes is that once the water is warm, it continues giving off heat for some time.
Once the house is finished, we will be able to last a long time without feeling the chill, but maybe you still think we need a back-up source of heat for longer emergencies. They tell you to be prepared for 72 hours without assistance.
My answer to that is my father-in-law Dave’s idea which he has helped us implement: the Toyota Prius as back-up generator. Read more about how we’re doing that here. When the wiring to the garage is complete, we can use the Prius or any other hybrid or electric car to power important stuff in the house like the fridge.
A more obvious solution is a large storage battery like Tesla’s Wall. Charge it in the daytime with solar panels and charge your car from the battery at night. If there is not enough to completely charge the car, BC Hydro will tip it up.
Incidentally, this is the same principal we hope to implement with the solar hot water panels someone handed down to us: heat a large tank of water in the heat of the day and use it (or simply let it warm the basement) in the evening.
It seems I have to get used to the idea that the house will be completed bit by bit. There will probably not be a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That fantasy of moving back in with all systems working perfectly is just that, a fantasy.
Meanwhile, it looks like it will be sunny tomorrow so the kids will go back to school. Then, later in the day, another winter storm is expected. At least now we know we can handle it.
Oops, we’re a little low on dry firewood…
Anybody got some?