Saturday, October 30, 2010

Essential Preparedness Tools of the Trade Part I - Faith

Sir Knight and I have talked at length about preparedness.  We have written lists, taken inventories and read about others' preparedness efforts.  We have had "off-grid" weekend experiments, done unit studies on "The Little House on the Prairie" and even went so far as to take the plunge and become "non-electric".  We have made a lot of mistakes and we have learned a tremendous amount.

One question that I hear a lot is "what is the best off-grid/preparedness tool"?  I used to answer that question flippantly with something like "our wood cookstove or Coleman lanterns or a generator".  Those answers, while accurate to a certain degree, fall short of communicating our greatest strength.

Our years of living off the grid, of struggling to be self-sufficient and independent, have, in reality, shown us how dependent we really are.  When we have exhausted our strength and money and resources and the generator breaks....again, we have to look up.  When we can no longer do it on our own, we have to ask the One who can do anything.

"Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God".  Psalm 20:7

We have learned that although we can stock up on food and fuel and equipment, our trust is not in those things, but in God alone.  We believe that God has called us to prepare, and we are heeding His call, but we have no idea what comes next.  And to tell the truth, it doesn't really matter.  Our only job is to do what He tells us.  Our trust is in Him, not in the mass of "stuff" we have collected.

If we ever experience TEOTWAWKI, all of the food supplies and preparations we have made will be a blessing, however, God himself will sustain us.  It is He that directs how those provisions will be used.  We have learned that we cannot put our trust in what we have, rather in Who we serve.

We have all heard "there are no atheists in foxholes".  The same goes for a global disasters, national disasters, local disasters or family disasters.  When push comes to shove, we all need something to believe in.  Our faith has seen us through a life-threatening ordeal with our infant son, a still-born daughter and the hardships of an off-grid life.  Our faith will see us through whatever comes next, be it years of tranquility or years of untold horror.

"Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh.  For the Lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken."
                                            Proverbs 3:25-26

Our Faith in Jesus Christ is our first, best preparedness tool of the trade.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TEOTWAWKI Lifestyle Change

One of the things my family and I have learned being off the grid for the last ten years is that it's all about lifestyle change.

When we used to dream about being off the grid, we would talk about having a 3.5 KW solar array, a 2.5 KW wind turbine, a gravity fed water system and a "backup" 15 KW diesel generator.  We would have so much extra power that we would charge the power company to buy our surplus electricity and we would have such an awesome set-up that, rather than having a plain old standard refrigerator, we would go with a walk in cooler.  We had it all figured out.  And then the lights went out.

The reality of life was that it was life, not a dream.  Our dreams gave way to the cold, hard truth and no longer were we the heroes of our own story.  Rather than Livin' the Dream with our 3.5 KW solar array, 2.5 KW wind turbine, gravity fed water and 15 KW generator, we started out with a 5 KW Generac generator (that lasted roughly a week), a 35 gallon barrel of water with a spigot on the bottom and two Coleman lamps.  Oh, and a camping toilet set up in a corner of our shed.

I would love to tell you that we gracefully accepted our reduced circumstances and turned lemons into lemonade, but sadly, we sucked on some pretty sour lemons before we figured out a crucial component of our post-apocalyptic lifestyle.  We had to change the way we did things.

No longer could we run to Costco and stock up on milk, cheese, eggs and meat.  We had no refrigeration.  We had to learn to go without.  I had to learn to can everything from bacon to cheese to lemon curd.  Things that most people take for granted, like unlimited electricity were highly valued commodities to be used only in rare and specific circumstances.  Water was a treasure.  It had to be used and re-used.  I would heat water on the wood cookstove for dishes and once the wash water was too icky to use any longer I would throw it out and use the rinse water for wash water and only get new rinse water.  The left over bath water could be used to flush the toilet.

We had to completely change the way we treated our clothing.  I did all of the laundry on a galvanized tub on the top of our wood cookstove.  It was impossible for me to keep up with laundry for a family of 5 (now 7) that changed their clothes every day.  We had to change the way we wore our clothes.  Our Sunday best was saved for Sunday.  Only.  We could wear our Sunday best numerous Sundays before they required a trip through the galvanized tub.  The rest of the time we wore our "grubbies".  Unless we tromped through the mud, we could wear the same clothes every day for almost a week.  We had to do things like wash our face, hands and feet before bed so our sheets stayed clean.  We girls would wear aprons so that our clothes didn't get filthy.  The guys wore coveralls over their jeans.  We learned that we couldn't live a 21st Century life in a 19th Century existence.  We had to change our lifestyle.

As Sir Knight and I talk to friends about preparing for uncertain times, one of the common themes we hear is, "We are going to have a 3.5 KW solar array, 2.5 KW wind turbine.......".  And our response is always, "you might want to be thinking about a lifestyle change".

Looking back, there were a few simple things that we could have done that would have eased our transition from "normal" to "off-grid".  We could have spent a number of "lights-out" weekends.  Turning the power off for a few days would have given us a glimpse of what non-electric would have looked like long term.  We would have known what kind of lighting worked best and what to expect with no refrigeration.  We would have known what "pacifiers" we were really dependent on and had the opportunity to wean ourselves.  Hind-sight being 20/20, we would have gotten a James Washer and practiced doing laundry by hand.  We did everything the hard way and really, we could have put more thought into basic necessities and made life far easier on ourselves.

The more planning we do to ready our families for uncertainties the better off we will be, however, the realities of life are that it is impossible to plan for every eventuality.  You have to take a good hard look at how you currently are living your life and be prepared to change just about everything.  TEOTWAWKI is not for the faint of heart.  It will require fortitude, perseverance and a willingness to do what it takes.  It will require you to look at any given situation and change your lifestyle to match your circumstances.  You can make the transition from your "normal life" to your "TEOTWAWKI life" much easier with a little pre-planning, a little thought and a lot of realism.

Enjoy your 21st Century life while planning for your 19th Century existence.  We did everything the hard way.  You don't have to.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


One of my greatest joys in life is watching my little boys take up the mantle of manhood.  The sweetness of little boys is balm to a mothers heart.  My little boys have brought crumpled wads of weeds to present to me as great gifts and it brings tears to my eyes.  My little boys love to give me kisses with gooey, chocolate covered lips and I welcome their adoration, knowing that some day they will choose to give their kisses to another.  But, what I love the most, is watching my sons embrace the character qualities of real men.  I love watching them take dominion over their environment.  I love watching them rush to protect their sisters if they perceive a threat.  I love watching them learn by their fathers side.

Yesterday, I was watching Sir Knight engaging Master Calvin in battle.  Master Calvin was watching every move his father made.  He copied his battle tactics exactly.  He held his sword, moved his feet and even made the same guttural sounds his dad did.  He was learning to be a man.  

Master Hand Grenade is also learning at his fathers side.  He is learning to work on engines, cut wood, clean and shoot rifles and help me in the kitchen.  He is learning to be "Job Foreman" when his dad is not home, and take responsibility to see that a job is done well.  He is learning to direct his siblings, but do it in a way that is just and merciful.  He is learning the way of a man.

Our sons are the future leaders of our families, our churches and our country.  I am so thankful that I have a husband who is teaching my sons to be men.  I look around at the alternative and it is unacceptable.  I do not want some school teacher, cub scout leader or movie star being the driving force in my sons' lives.  God gave them a father to show them the way.  No one is better suited, or has a better reason to see my sons become the men God intended them to be than their father.  He is uniquely suited for the task.  

My young men are Men-In-Training and their Master is their Father.  I am truly blessed beyond measure.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall Rituals

I'll admit it - I am a complete romantic.  I love the start of each new season and all of the rituals that have been passed down through the generations.  When spring arrives, I put up linen curtains, air feather beds and cook meals with asparagus, during the summer I roll up wool carpets, throw up the big door and start adding BLT's to our dinner menu, and in the fall, I re-dress the door, rearrange the furniture and make caramel apples.

The kids had fun seeing the original apple wraps,
however, we wanted to dip our own apples
When I was a little girl, my mom would buy those handy little apple wraps.  It was so exciting to get apples and cover them with a layer of caramel and sink my teeth into them that I wanted to share the experience with my kids.  I couldn't find apple wraps when my kids were little, so I tried, for many years, to perfect real caramel apples.  I tried every caramel recipe I could get my hands on.  Some was so runny, it wouldn't stick to the apples, some got so hard you couldn't bite into it, some just didn't have very good flavor.  Finally, I came across a caramel recipe that I love!  It is great for anything that needs caramel. I use it for caramel apples, the caramel layer in turtles and just plain old caramel candies.  I have found that the temperature is one of the most important aspects of caramel making.  A few degrees one way or the other renders the candy too hard or to soft.  I do adjust the temperature depending on what I am making.

Here is my favorite caramel recipe:

The BEST Caramel

1 C Butter
2 C Brown Sugar
1 C Corn Syrup
1 14oz. can Sweetened Condensed Milk
2 tsp. Vanilla

  1. In saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and milk; bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Cook and stir constantly until mixture reaches 248 degrees, about 30 to 40 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat; stir in Vanilla.
  4. Pour into buttered pan to cool.
  5. Cut into squares and wrap in waxed paper.

For Caramel Apples

  1. Insert wooden sticks into 8 - 10 apples
  2. Dip each apple into slightly cooled caramel mixture, turn to coat.
  3. Set on buttered, sugared wax paper to cool.

Mixing all the ingredients but the vanilla
Its starting to look like caramel!

Adding the Vanilla
Dipping the first apple (yes, we used twigs
instead of popsicle sticks)
Look at that caramel!
And the finished product

Happy Fall!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shelf life of Stored Foods

Sir Knight has been bringing wonderful gifts home from work!  Barrels.  I love them.  We have a number of barrels that have already been pressed into service for bulk foods, but as our family has grown, and we see a need reaching beyond our family for stored foods, we have looked to 55 gallon barrels for things we would normally store in 4 or 5 gallon buckets.

Rice, hard red wheat, rice, white flour, white sugar - these things we have been bulking up on for years, and 55 gallon barrels just make sense.  Recently, we have filled enough 4 gallon buckets with things like powdered milk, hard white wheat and turbinado sugar, to re-think our storage options.  It is becoming apparent that 55 gallon barrels of these commodities is not out of line, so into barrels they will go!

Last evening, Sir Knight and I were discussing the storage shelf life of powdered milk (we had just picked up another 75 pounds) and realized that we needed to reacquaint ourselves with the storage life of many of our stored foods.  We date everything that we put into storage, but what good is a date, if you don't have a baseline for when that food is out of date?!

Here is a partial list of the storage life* for some of our stored foods.....

  • Beans (black, pinto, white, kidney etc.)
    • 30 Years
  • Non-fat Dry Milk
    • 30 Years
  • White Rice
    • 30 Years
  • Granulated Sugar
    • 30 Years
  • Hard Red Wheat
    • 30 Years
  • Hard White Wheat
    • 30 Years
  • Dehydrated Fruits (apples, pears, berries)
    • 30 Years
  • Dehydrated Vegetables (carrots, green beans, corn)
    • 25 Years
  • Pasta (pre-packaged)
    • 30 Years
  • Oats (quick, regular, groats)
    • 30 Years
  • Onion Flakes
    • 30 Years
  • White Flour
    • 10 Years
  • Canned Meats (Some home canned meat was found and tested after 118 years and analyzed-it was still good!)
    • 5 Years
  • Canned Low Acid Foods
    • 2 to 5 Years
  • Canned High Acid Foods
    • 2 Years
  • Powdered Eggs
    • 5 to 10 Years

* Properly packaged and stored at 75 degrees or below

Like I said, this is just a partial list.  More to come.....

A well dressed door

As I have mentioned before, I always "dress" our garage door for winter.  Once we are done opening up the door to enjoy the temperate weather, I lock everything down and layer curtains and drapes to help keep the weather out and give us something pretty and romantic to look at.

Now that the temperatures have dipped below freezing, I have completed our yearly "door dressing" ritual and am ready to welcome a new season!

The Garage door in its "summer dress"

The first layer is canvas drop cloth

Next, I add heavy velvet swags (in deep burgundy)
They hide the new door snakes!

The fabric is draped over the cable
(as you can see, the canvas does not quite cover the door)

Next, I pin curtains to the velvet so that the
whole door is covered

The finished product, with all the layers!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cozying up

In my quest for a cozy shouse I have been busy putting up curtains, making door snakes and rearranging furniture.  Now, I know that moving furniture around doesn't qualify for any federal energy tax credits, but perhaps it should!

Our kitchen is a little unconventional, having a love seat, rocking chair and tea table, but we rather like it that way.  In the summer, we position the love seat and rocking chair opposite each other and put the tea table in the middle.   Now that the fall air has that tell-tale bite, it is time to get cozy.  To that end, I have re-arranged the kitchen furniture.

The first order of business was moving the hooked carpet right up next to the stove.  It is a perfect place for children to play, all snugly and warm!  Then, I pulled the love seat toward the wood cook stove, at an angle, to capture more of the enveloping warmth.  I moved the tea table out and replaced it with an old library podium positioned between the love seat and the rocking chair.  I slipped a wooden box, that houses a Petromax gas lamp, right up next to the love seat, so the person sitting on that end would have a handy spot to put her teacup.  Not having the tea table lets us stretch out toward the fire and warm our tootsies on a cold winter night.

I can't wait for the snow!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More pre-winter fixing

One of the great advantages of shouse living is the 8x16 foot garage door.  We have stunning views, beautiful sunsets and al fresco dining all summer.  The downside of the garage door is that it is very difficult to insulate the gaping holes of a door not intended to be a functional part of a "real" house.

Every winter, I "dress" the garage door in heavy drapes topped off with a super thick velvet swag.  It keeps some of the biting cold weather out, but truthfully, most of the sub-zero temperatures find their way around my best insulating efforts.

This year, I came up with the brilliant idea of making "door snakes" for the top and the bottom of the garage door.  I decided to make four of them, rather than two, because I thought two eight foot snakes would be rather unwieldy.

I had quite a bit of left over canvas painters drop cloth from the ceiling project upstairs, so I used it to form the casing of the snakes.  I cut four lengths about 8.5 feet long by 5 inches wide.  After cutting, I folded the fabric in half, length wise, sewed the bottom and up one long side and turned the "tube" inside out.  Using a canning funnel, we filled each 8 foot long snake with rice, folded the open end over twice and stitched the opening closed.

Cutting the fabric

Sewing up the side

Turning inside out

Filling with rice

New snakes on the top of our door

At the bottom of the door

When Miss Calamity and I climbed up to put the snakes in place on top of the garage door, I was shocked to find that there was an almost 2 1/2 inch gap at the top of our door!  It was huge!  No wonder we were always cold!

Already, the difference is tremendous.  So many times, it is the littlest things that make the biggest difference.  We often think that doing big things like putting in low e windows or getting a more energy efficient furnace will be the hot ticket, but in reality, it is often the tried and true methods of keeping out the weather that make the real difference.  Hanging insulated curtains, putting in weather stripping, installing storm doors and windows - and yes, making door snakes, will ensure that "old man winter" doesn't get the best of you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Day of Rest

Sunday Evening Tea
Sir Knight and I try to make Sunday a day of rest.  We are not always as successful as we would like to be, but that is the goal.  I have found, that it is hard for women to not work on Sunday.  There are always things to be done.  We have to make meals and do dishes, but, with planning, we can make our work load tons lighter.

A number of years ago, I took to making our "Sunday Dinner" on Saturday.  This makes so much more sense to me.  I make a menu plan once a month and try to plan meals according to what we have on hand.  Our Saturday dinner usually revolves around a roast a chicken or a ham.  I make rolls on Saturday, so we can enjoy them hot out of the oven with our "Saturday Dinner", but I also make extra so that I can heat them up to go with soup on Sunday.  Usually, I make a double batch of roll dough, so that not only do we have rolls with dinner on Saturday and Sunday, but also Cinnamon Rolls on Sunday morning.  Rolls are quick and easy and don't require a lot of effort, but they are well worth the effort they do require.

Sunday has become our "Soup Day".  I use leftovers from the day before, cut it up and make soup.  After a roast dinner, we have Beef and Barley or Beef and Cabbage soup. After a Roast Chicken dinner, it is Chicken Rice & Dumpling soup or Chicken Noodle.  When we have a ham, our favorite soup is Ham and Black Eyed Pea soup.  Occasionally we have Minestrone, Potato or French Onion soup.  Soup takes little time and can easily be stretched to feed a crowd when you have the unexpected joy of practicing hospitality.

Our Sunday meal is usually eaten early in the day, so about five in the evening or so, we all begin to feel a little peckish.  Rather than making another meal, we fill this void with Afternoon Tea.

As most of you know, Sir Knight and I have tea every afternoon when he gets home from work, but Sunday Tea takes on a different flavor.  Our usual afternoon tea consists of tea only, or tea and cookies.  But Sunday Tea is a little more substantial.  Crackers and cheese, French bread and cheese or our favorite, Welsh Rarebit (which, for those of you who don't know, is essentially toast and cheese).  Yes, we do go through a lot of cheese (you can see why I miss my cow!).  We accompany our main dish with cookies or scones or muffins - whatever I happen to have on hand.

My work load on Sunday is greatly relaxed.  I look forward all week to snuggling next to the fire with a good book or looking through magazines that I never seem to have the time to pick up during the week.  I don't vacuum, sweep or do laundry.  By Monday morning, my house looks like a hurricane went through, but I don't care.  My Sundays are God's gift to me - and I like it that way!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More fall fussing

I must be contrary.  Rather than do spring cleaning, like a normal person, I do fall cleaning. It just seems to reason that things need to be just so before the long winter months ensue.

I recently gussied up our entry way, since it is in constant use in the winter, but noticed that one thing was lacking.  Our entry way has no light.  Of course, because we live in a shouse, I can't just hang a light from the ceiling or add a new sconce.  Shouse living requires much creativity!

After noodling over the problem for a week or two (did I mention I was a little slow?) I came up with a working solution.  I hung a coat rack that Sir Knight had fashioned out of used horse shoes over our coat area, dug up a dainty chandelier, put rose hip branches through a link in the chandelier chain and hung the branches between the horse shoes!  I think that it turned out perfectly wonderful!

Notice - I soften all of my house photos so that you can't see all of the dirt on my walls.  Just think, this is what it looked like back before we had electric lights!

This is only a test

Getting used forklift batteries for our off-grid system has it ups (they are either free or really cheap) and downs (they have beat to death for years in a forklift).  Our batteries generally come to us too worn out to use in forklifts.  For the most part, they work great for our system.  A solar home requires practically nothing for battery storage capacity compared with the huge load a forklift requires.  Our battery capacity is tremendous when compared with most off-grid batteries, however, there is still a lot to be desired.

Deep cycle, lead acid batteries require maintenance.  You can't just bring them in, plop them into place and expect them to serve you well.  They have to be watered regularly, they need to be deep cycled (meaning that you have to drain the battery fairly low and then charge them) or they will retain a memory, and you will not have a large battery capacity.  Every once in a while, you may have to "acid adjust" them.  This is rare, but it means that you add battery acid to your cells to make them "hot".  Batteries need to be out of inclement weather and they don't respond well to the cold.  If your batteries aren't charged and they freeze, they will split their case and you will lose some, if not all, of the cells.  Talk about a mess!  Battery acid oozes everywhere and your batteries are rendered useless.

Our batteries, having a former life in an industrial setting, could use some re-energizing.  After reading a lot about de-sulphaters, and seeing on-line testimonials from one of our favorite off-grid equipment suppliers, we decided to take the plunge and buy one.  The idea is that it de-sulphates the lead cells, increasing the usability of the lead, therefore increasing the charging capacity of your battery, and ultimately increasing your potential battery life and efficiency.

Sir Knight checking the batteries

Using a hydrometer to check the specific gravity

Checking the voltage of each cell
(Sir Knight always uses gloves when dealing
with the batteries because of the acid)

Our new gizmo

It is called The Battery Life Saver

The paperwork that came with the "Battery Booster" claims that it will work in 2 - 8 weeks.  We took initial readings on our battery (acidity level and voltage) so that we would have a baseline and intend on taking readings every two weeks.  We plan on giving the battery booster the "acid" test!

Our baseline and first weeks' reading

In the first two week cycle we saw a modest improvement.  We will keep you posted and let you know if the battery booster really is a modern battery miracle.