We live totally off the grid. This means no power lines, phone lines, gas lines, or water lines. Honestly, straight lines have also been kept to a minimum. We have an array of solar panels which follows the sun on it’s path through the sky. It powers lights and music in our house. We have a small inverter, which changes the voltage from the batteries to run normal appliances like this laptop computer. It’s a small solar system but since we live frugally anyway, we hardly notice. An even smaller system powers the strawbale, yurt, and outdoor kitchen.
We heat water with the sun too. Our selective surface heater is essentially two pieces of steel quilted together. It’s tilted towards the southern skies and hot water runs right into an insulated tank in our bathroom. We don’t need a pump to move this water; it happens naturally via thermosiphoning. In the summer we have a constant supply of hot water. In the winter it takes a couple hours of sun to heat it up.
Solar ovens are a major appliance here at Ampersand. Meals are easily cooked throughout the day with little attention. We access it from inside our south facing green house. The green house also provides heat for the rest of the house in the winter, food, and oxygen.
Our main water supply is rain captured from our rooftops. We pump it up the hill to our 2500 gal cistern. From there, pipes run underground to feed into our bathroom and to the central spigot which feeds the yurt and the shell.
We are very frugal with water. In the summer we never use more than 100 gallons a week between the two of us when we don’t have visitors. In the winter, our water usage can be embarrassingly low. We use all of our greywater to keep the garden and trees thriving. In a wet summer, additional watering is unnecessary.
All of our roofs catch rain water. As our catchment areas grow (rooftops get built), so does our water supply. The picture to the right shows our catchment off of the outdoor kitchen (the Shell). We use this particular water to water the trees and gardens around the center camp community spaces.
Overviews of some of our other systems
Here is our main cistern, which collects rainwater from the roof of our house. To the right is the thermosiphoning passive solar water heater, which supplies hot water to our outdoor shower. Thermosiphon systems use the natural tendency of heated water to rise and cooler water to fall to both heat and circulate. We use the same method for all of the hot water in our house.
The greywater leaving our outdoor shower to feed our Jerusalem artichoke bed. This is also where we’ve directed overflow from the cistern. We try not to waste a drop. Each use of water should serve at least two purposes (one of which is usually food production.)
An old railroad bed runs through the center of our compound. It’s made of coal tailings and slag, which is not normally considered the best planting soil. This historic feature of our property has been causing many erosion problems due to the way it bisects the natural drainage patterns. We took on a large responsibility for restoration by settling here. But in true Permaculture style, we have naturally prioritized our focus on shelter and basic living infrastructure. During this process we take the opportunities provided to improve the land.
The first big earth-turning project here, besides the hand-grading of the site for our strawbale cottage, was hiring a backhoe to dig a trench for our main water line. This provided a great opportunity to contour the land and improve the soil as part of backfilling the trench. We created several water harvesting planting sites across the south side of the cottage, and down to the yurt where the frost-free spigot was installed.
This water spout is in the center of our compound, feeding the outdoor kitchen, the yurt, and the outdoor shower further down the hill. It is situated in the middle of the ancient coal bed. We listened to the plants which had already managed to take hold on the coal bed, and created a spot in the center of life here to honor our keystone species’, the grasses.
By creating a microclimate of decent soil and water catchment, the grasses transplanted from our healthy meadow quickly took hold and are now spreading to reclaim the coal bed, and remind us of how wildness can take over our good efforts to restore the land.
We have a couple perennial growing beds that harvest stormwater and greywater too.
We also have a cold frame. Here’s a blog about our cold frame adventures.
There are many places on the land that we have been creating microclimates, nurturing volunteer plants, and adding our own additions. Amanda teaches a class on High Desert Gardening every year.
Due to our scarcity of water, we must make hard decisions to prioritize plantings. The extra water it takes to establish plants means we can only have a few new transplants at a time. But we have also found that with the amount of attention maintaining our lives and building our structures takes, those few plantings do get the attention that they need.
We mulch the barest land around the house, along the pathways, and in the water harvesting swales with “waste” plant material collected from several locations. We hopefully toss out seeds willy nilly, and when weather conditions provide, our land blossoms with abundance without extra watering.
The first spring we lived on our property, we noticed three apricot trees sprout up on their own. Our best guess is that the seeds originated from coyote droppings. With a little encouragement, these trees are now approaching our height. We planted a Locust tree near the center of things, and it shelters the herbs growing beneath it. We also have a Native Plum tree, a Golden Current bush, and a Nanking Cherry.
We have experimented with a variety of cooking tools and techniques. We’ve used and made reflector ovens, which are great for their portability.
The three sustainable cooking tools that we find most useful and versatile are the rocket stove, the ‘solar wall oven’ designed by Barbara Kerr, the Parabolic Stove, and retained heat cooking.
This design is called the ‘solar wall oven’ because it can be installed into the south side of your kitchen wall. That way you can tend your food without going outside. Ours regularly reach 275 degrees F in the summer and at least one of them is used almost daily. We like this design because it doesn’t need reflectors. The high winds in our area would make them difficult to maintain. Making solar oven pizza is a favorite.
Retained Heat cooking is basically using the heat already generated in the cooking food by the rocket stove or solar oven. Once the food has been simmering 5 minutes or so, we insulate the pot to keep it cooking with the heat it already has. Cooking this way will take up to three times longer and woks better with larger amounts of food.
We have a very large solar dehydrator that we built in 2009 or something like that. It is a favorite appropriate technology here at Ampersand. It can hold 60 lb of sliced fruit at a time. It would take 3 days of sun to dry that much.
The rocket stove is made of tin cans and operates at very high temperatures through the efficient burning of small twigs and branches. The main elements that make this stove work so well are an insulated combustion chamber and chimney, the pre-heating of incoming air, and a skirt which surrounds the cooking pot. There is little smoke and the cooking happens directly on top the the chimney, assuring efficient heat transfer. We only use this wood burning stove outside and with pots that we don’t mind being blackened. It’s great for heating stuff up quick and making things like pancakes but the fire does need to be tended continuously as the end of the sticks burn and must be pushed further into the combustion chamber. These can be made to be portable for back-country trips.
Sometimes we bury our cooking pot in a cooler packed with wool blankets. There are so many different ways to insulate a pot. We have found the more insulation the better, and keeping the ‘haybox’, airtight also increases efficiency. Retained Heat cooking can save a lot of fuel when it’s too cloudy or cold to use the solar oven.
And in 2015 we built a cob earthen oven. We stoke the fire for a couple hours, move the coals to the perimeter of the floor inside the oven, and we can cook in it for a good 6 hours or more. Pizzas first. We are experimenting with making all kinds of things in there. We love it.