From Dead Hybrid to Plug-In Hybrid

We recently purchased a 2001 Honda Insight Hybrid to replace our aging 1999 Chevy Metro while we wait for the eventual production of the Elio Motors trike we reserved two years ago. Paying only $1000 we weren’t expecting a lot from a car with 275,000 mile on it and a mostly nonfunctional hybrid traction battery pack. But after some rather extensive, but low-cost work we now have a fully functioning, very high-mpg, plug-in hybrid. To see the details, check out this PDF, also found on our website’s Transportation Page.



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Second Edition

Good news! We just completed the 2015 revisions and additions to our book, “Feeding Ourselves – The Four-Season Pantry from Plant to Plate” and it’s back from the print shop. This second edition is eight pages longer (194 pages) and it includes more about home-grown nut crops, grains, and legumes. We also did extensive tweaks throughout the text to clarify, correct, modify recipes, and generally just make it a better book. You can order it from our website in the hard cover version for $20 plus shipping or you can download a PDF for $10.


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Never-Dead Camera Batteries

How many times have you picked up your digital camera to catch some fleeting scene and ended up with a low battery warning? It happened to us far too often. We refuse to use disposable alkaline or lithium batteries, so the options become pretty limited. Most of the disposables have a voltage of 1.5 volts or higher and most cameras use either two or four batteries, usually “AA” size. The Ni-MH (nickel metal hydride) rechargeable batteries commonly available top out at about 1.2 volts, and that drops off at about 15% per month or more, so they work best only immediately after charging. This isn’t great when you want something ready NOW. Lithium batteries, on the other hand, only self-discharge at about 1% per month. We ended up purchasing these “14500” lithium rechargeable cells from, along with some “dummy cells” from Radio Shack (in metric notation “14500” converts to 14mm diameter and 500mm length, the same as a “AA” cell).

If you search for 14500 size lithium rechargeable batteries on the Web you will readily find a few companies that sell these, and the appropriate charger. This one is from Nitecore, model i4, capable of charging both Ni-MH and lithium batteries from either 120-volt AC or 12-volt DC sources, from tiny AAA size up to “26650” lithium (giant 5 amp-hour) cells.

The rechargeable lithiums are full at about 4.15 volts, while “normal” AA batteries are full at 1.5 to 1.6 volts, so the fake batteries simply pass power through without affecting voltage. If your camera normally uses two AA cells, you simply insert one lithium battery and one dummy cell. If it uses four cells you use two batteries and two dummy cells. The camera always sees a super-full battery and stays full of charge seemingly forever. Works great, and no more missed photos!














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An Off-Grid Energy Storage Option

This winter we had a number of neighbors using off-Grid solar whose battery banks were nearing or at the end of their usable lives. They all were using what are known as “wet cell” lead-acid batteries, not much different than the original 1859 cells designed by Gaston Plante, and improved through the use of paste lead positive plates instead of sheet lead in 1881. These batteries last around 10 years in a properly sized home power system as long as you:

  • Keep the water level above the metal plates by adding distilled water on at least a quarterly basis, but only when the batteries are fully charged (if you add it when they are partially charged they may overflow sulfuric acid, leading to severe corrosion of the battery terminals).
  • Do a monthly “equalizing” overcharge, where voltage is allowed to climb over the normal “full” reading of around 14.4 volts, causing lots of corrosive vapor and explosive hydrogen and oxygen to be vented off. This keeps the specific gravity and resting voltage of each individual 2-volt cell in the batteries at roughly the same state of charge. Hopefully your battery box or battery room is well ventilated and the battery terminals, along with everything in the vapor’s path, are protected from gaseous corrosives.
  • Keep the battery top surfaces clean so power doesn’t leak across them, and make sure you don’t see any corrosion on the terminals, which usually shows up as a blue-green (copper sulfate) or white (lead sulfate) powder.

That’s a lot of maintenance and, speaking as someone who has had to repair the results of missed maintenance in several systems, it often gets neglected. Once the batteries near the end of their life they begin to “gas off” even more than usual during normal charging. They also show symptoms of “sulfation”, where lead sulfate builds up in the bottoms of the battery cases and large, hard, insoluble lead-sulfate crystals build up on the plates, both reducing battery capacity. You’ll know which batteries exhibit this by measuring higher than normal voltages (and heating of the case) on some cells/batteries during charging and lower than normal voltages during discharge. Time to look for replacement batteries!

This fall, all of the batteries I used for replacements were Deka Dominator lead-acid gels. Gel batteries are:

  • completely sealed
  • require no addition of water
  • There are no gasses to vent
  • no equalization is either needed or allowed
  • their gelled sulfuric acid electrolyte is leak-proof even if the case is punctured.
  • their self-discharge rate is only around 1% per month, about 5-10 times lower than other lead-acid cells, and on-par with lithium batteries

And some added phosphoric acid gives them some other unusual traits. They can be completely discharged without damage and they can be recharged at any time (not immediately as wet cells require) without sulfation. And their “cycle-life”, defined as the number of discharge-charge cycles to a given depth of discharge, is roughly three to four times that of a wet cell lead-acid battery, giving them extremely long service lives.

The downsides?

  • they require tighter voltage control when charging. At room temperature this means nothing over 14.1 volts in a 12-volt battery, so you’ll need a charge controller that is either set for gel cells or has adjustable charge voltages.
  • they absolutely cannot be allowed to fall below -22 F or they will freeze and the plates will be damaged.
  • they are slightly more expensive than wet cell or AGM (absorbed glass mat) lead-acids.
  • they are slightly heavier than other lead-acids of the same capacity.

Best of all, these batteries are not some exotic beast requiring special ordering and high shipping costs. Around here our local Fleet Farm store carries them as in-stock items, ordering fresh, new, fully-charged ones from the factory if you need more. They even offered a quantity discount for the larger systems. And they accept the replaced batteries for recycling, probably the hardest part of this process on my back!

We have used these batteries for a little over 4 years now and life off-Grid has certainly been easier. We even used them in our all-electric-converted Porsche 924, but learned quickly about frozen batteries. In the winter of 2013-2014 we had a string of days below -25F and one of the battery heating tapes in the car  malfunctioned, causing three batteries to get damaged. The remaining ones are now in our home power system, adding to our storage capacity, decreasing the depth of each day’s discharge, and adding to the whole pack’s longevity. The Porsche awaits some much lighter, but far more expensive, lithium batteries. Dream on little Porsche!


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Clearly Superior

We were not entirely sure that we would get around to it this fall, but we recently completed the replacement of our clear polycarbonate hoop-shaped greenhouse with a better built, glass-glazed greenhouse. We were getting worried about the old glazing since it was getting more stress cracks around the fasteners, but the polycarbonate hadn’t yet yellowed after 11 years of use.

If you compare it with the old design seen here,

it is no longer hoop-shaped, now having a peaked roof, operable indoor vents at the peak of that roof, and taller doors. It has roughly the same footprint of the older model but we removed the insulated pit on the north side and added to the height of the concrete block retaining wall. We had built an 8′ by 3.5′, “twinwall” polycarbonate cold frame last year and we have used that in the northern half of the new greenhouse to help protect plants being overwintered. The glass panels that make the south wall are 3 foot wide, single-glazed doors purchased from a local building recycling center for $3 each.

Both the front and rear now have rain collection troughs to send water into a mostly-buried 55-gallon polyethylene barrel so we always have a ready water supply during the active growing season. And the steel roof on the north side has both a layer of “reflectix” (bubble-foil) insulation under it as well as an interior layer of recycled “kalwall” (glass fiber-reinforced polyester) over the red cedar, 2-by-4 inch, roof joists. And to help protect the angled glass from summer hailstorms, we recycled the old steel “cattle-panel” fence sections, that once helped support the old greenhouse’s polycarbonate sheets, into “sandwiched” panels of steel panels with aluminum window screening between them. They also help to shade plants in the summer since the screens cut solar gain by about 50%.

It may not be bigger or better insulated, but we have found that this size works well enough for us and it fits the space we have. And using acrylic blankets over the plants during cold winter nights has kept cold-hardy vegetation alive even during last year’s repeated bouts of -25 F. This one is just more sturdy, more wind resistant, less “drippy” from the ceiling, more rot-resistant, and easier to access. We look forward to another winter of fresh greens!


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Why Blog???

It’s been many months since we’ve posted anything on this blog.  Our last posting was to announce the changes to our two websites, both the .com and the .net.  Since then we’ve been hard at work with projects around the homestead.  We rebuilt our little greenhouse, cleaned the dead boxelder bugs from our solar air heat exchanger, and all the usual gardening and homesteading tasks of summer and early fall.

Meanwhile, we’ve noticed that there is still traffic to this blog.  And so, before launching back into our usual postings, we wanted to query you who venture here to read our ramblings.  Do you have any questions or topics you would like to see discussed here?  What do you like or dislike about our blog?  We would appreciate hearing feedback from our readers to find out if you are really there and not just a virtual “phishing” robot (we have had quite a bit of “suspicious” hits in the past and don’t want to waste time blogging for data miners).  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

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Website Changes

After having a website for many years (2008, I think) we decided it was time for a major overhaul. Those of you who may have looked at lately will have noticed some drastic changes. Despite all of the work involved in getting a garden planted and thriving this spring, we still managed to divide the site into two incarnations. If you were wondering why there were no blog postings since April, now you can see the results.

Our old .com site now deals exclusively with gardening, foods, homesteading, and more specifics of what we have done and continue to do here in SE Minnesota. You will quickly discover its new face-lift, using a new style, fonts, and formats.

The other site, called, deals exclusively with Earth Energy and Electromagnetic Radiation. It is broken down into 5 pages related to each topic and each page covers much more detail.

But every improvement creates some consequences. Since the new editor we are using would not allow us to use the old page file names, your links to familiar pages are no longer valid. For instance, the Food Preservation page formerly labeled as is now broken up into four food-related pages dealing with four-season eating, live-storage, solar food drying, and low-energy cooking, canning and juicing. But Google has site-mapped all of the changes and should be able to quickly directly to what you’d like to see.




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Lettuce Be Green

Spring has traditionally been the best time of year for salads, driven by the human craving for something fresh and green after a long winter’s dreariness.  But you don’t have to wait until the warm days of spring to enjoy  lettuce on your plate.  It’s not much of a challenge to grow lettuce indoors during the coldest months, and extra early spring crops are the easiest of all.

In the photo you can see two plantings, the oldest plants in the background were seeded on January 29th and have been harvested since March 12th.  Their final harvest is today, April 27th, after which the next planting, in the foreground, will be taking its turn on the table.  These plants were seeded on March 1st and spent the first few weeks in the house, moving out to the sun porch when the temps were staying above the mid 20’s F.  A cold frame would do as well in early spring or late fall – a greenhouse or sun porch isn’t essential to success.  Each plant takes about one quart of soil to reach full size at maturity, but some varieties need more space than that to sprawl.  The current crop is in plastic, but our favorite planters are clay window boxes that are 17″ long, each holding three plants.  To improve their functionality for lettuce we coated the insides with wax by rubbing paraffin into the surface and setting the planters on the wood stove to melt the wax into the clay’s pores.  Then we also “whitewashed” the exteriors with some watered-down exterior latex paint.  This helps keep the planters from overheating in the sun, making the lettuce happier.  We also “mulched” the soil surface between the plants with some white ceramic wall tiles to conserve moisture. Recycled planters can also work well and creative scroungers can probably plant a salad crop in most anything that will hold some soil.  So get yourself a bit of earth and celebrate Earth Day with some green, or even red!

Italienischer in foreground, Cracoviensis, our favorite for all year round adapability, is behind.

Red Eared Butterheart in foreground, New Red Fire, our second most versatile variety, is behind.  New Red Fire gets more red when grown in direct sunlight outdoors.

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Hot Wax

It’s been very cold this winter, almost enough to be disheartening even to a hardy Minnesotan.  But we know that this season is crucial in getting ready for spring, even if it leaves us chomping at the bit.  As winter nears its end, the garden plans are finalized, hand tools are cleaned and sharpened, some seed has been started, and yet there are more tasks left to prepare for eventual warm summer days.  It’s a good time to do a “hot wax” before the busy-ness of spring intervenes.

Before you may get the wrong idea, we’re talking about wax for wood preservation. Specifically, wax melted into the wood framing of our solar food dryer’s screen trays.  It’s been many years since the wood was last attended to, and it finally made it to the top of our “to do” list.

We had plenty of old, low-grade beeswax from several years ago stored in a pail in the shed.  After getting it melted and most of the debris screened out, we had our raw material.  We decided to melt it into the pores of the cedar wood frames.  First we rubbed a chunk of wax liberally over the surface, kind of like using a crayon.  Then we used a technique that Bob learned when he worked for many years in a ski shop, long ago. Pine tar is normally applied by brush to the bottoms of wood skis, using a propane torch to pull the tar into the ski, preserving the wood. While this works great for a non-food surface, beeswax is far better for the dryer frames. Fire the torch on a high setting, keeping the flame moving in a circular pattern, or use a flame-spreader tip to prevent burning the surface. You can see the wood’s pores push tiny air bubbles up through the wax and suck it in as the wood cools. The heat eliminated the need for a solvent such as turpentine to get the wax to penetrate the wood.  The trays now look ready for many more years of heavy use.

As for wax, low grade wax from dead hives or from brood comb works as well as the good stuff.  Or you could make use of burned down candle stubs.  If using candle remnants, be sure to use only those without added fragrances or dyes so you don’t risk possible food contamination.


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Aging Infrastructure

Ringing in the New Year brings with it an implied acknowledgement of the fact that everything on the homestead is another year older (hopefully).  There’s always a “to do list” of repairs and maintenance to keep everything functioning well.  But since human labor is so integral to our systems, we also need to attend to our own aging abilities, preventing down-time due to injuries by recognizing our age-related reduction in strength and stamina. To that end, we spend a fair bit of time assessing what we need to keep this place running and implement improvements to systems that will make life here possible well into the future. Not to say that you should wait until your senior years approach to make these changes.  On the contrary, it makes more sense to design systems up front so there is less wear and tear on even a younger body. This can also extend the longevity of the homesteader’s lifestyle (and, possibly, their life).

One of our most physically demanding tasks each year is making firewood.  Even though we minimized our needs for heating by building a passive-solar, strawbale home with a masonry stove, we still require about 1.2 cords of wood annually.  That takes a bit of work to cut, haul, buck, split, stack, and finally haul indoors to feed the stove.  Here’s some of what we’ve worked out to make our annual wood supply with minimal resource and energy inputs:

1.  Sawing & Hauling:  We’ve gone entirely to electric chainsaws run either off the house inverter or a newly acquired battery saw.  To extend the cutting time on this new saw, we also plug it in to the 36-volt battery pack on our GE Elec-Trak.  This will allow us to fell trees out in our woodlot far from the house.  This battery saw replaced the need for a 36-volt inverter on the tractor to run our 120-volt Makita saw (the existing $800 inverter was toast and not repairable) .  The electric tractor can also pull a wagon to haul wood back home where it is cut into stove length.

2.  Lopping:  In addition to the saws, we use rachet loppers with telescopic handles to trim off branches 2″ or smaller in diameter.  This wood is reduced to stove length for kindling.  A portable tool bench to hold the lopper makes for less bending while working – kind of like a big paper cutting board.

3. Splitting:  Swinging a maul is a skill that takes careful mastery.  Splitting logs with a manual, hydraulic splitter is a safer way to get a little upper body workout.  It works with two handles that are moved in a push/pull action, a little bit like using your poles when cross country skiing.  We first saw one of these devices at a friend’s homestead and knew it would be a good addition to our firewood tool kit.  No gas engine, just a little effort on our part.  Actually, with the masonry stove we can burn almost any size wood, even all small stuff if that’s what we have.  Felling small diameter trees is easier all around and eliminates most of the need for splitting wood in the first place.

4.  Moving Wood:  Firewood is heavy fuel.  Having a wagon to haul logs back from the field gets it to the wood shed.  But from there it needs to make its way to the stove.  We do keep a couple weeks supply of wood in our porch and were stocking this with our 2-wheeled wheelbarrow.  The problem was in getting that through the 36″ door without wrecking the door or frame.  From the porch, carrying a log tote to the stove also entailed maneuvering through another 36″ doorway with a screen door added into the mix.  Using a narrow log cart would make this task easier, so we shopped around town and only found one type, a metal frame with large pneumatic tires made for moving wood stacked crosswise.  The trouble is that we burn a lot of small sticks daily.  Our masonry stove is only fired in the late afternoon, which necessitates kindling, as there are no coals to start the fire.  The log cart was only designed to haul firewood, and we reasoned that a narrow multi-purpose cart would be handy to move produce from the garden to the root cellar and house, especially where there’s not enough room for the garden wheelbarrow.  So we purchased a hand cart (dolly) made for moving 5 gallon buckets.  It’s heavily built, has wide, inflated tires good for rough ground, and is nimble enough to get through doorways with ease.  We strapped on a galvanized 1/2 bushel tub, big enough to haul a day’s firewood (about 25 pounds worth of boxelder).  The hand cart can also accommodate a metal garbage can which will come in handy when moving compost in the garden or harvesting squash.

Now that we’ve got the firewood process better thought out, our next system analysis is snow removal.  We’ve bought an ergonomic shovel for starters.  More thoughts on this later….

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