Introduction and background
This is my ninth attempt to describe “the ideally equipped homestead.” In the classic writer’s block tradition, the other eight – some 50 pages – are in the trash.
What’s so difficult about making a list of the tools and gadgets that might equip the ideal homestead? I’m glad you asked.
- Whose ideal? That of a 20-year-old single male? A 65-year-old couple? Or a pair in their 40s with a brood of children still at home?
- Whose ideal? A minimalist who, like Thoreau says, “moved to the woods so I could live deliberately;” or a neo-hedonist who wants to drink wine (homemade, of course) in the hot tub (wood-fired, of course) after a hard day on the homestead which is fully-equipped and electrified (with alternative energy, of course)? Or someone who merely wants enough conveniences and amenities to be able to live a fairly “normal” conventional lifestyle, but within a homestead framework?
- Whose ideal? An Earth-child protesting and wanting to escape from the planet-destroying industrial complex, or a survivalist or Y2K refugee who has dragged that world along to their country retreat? A neo-Luddite who wants nothing to do with any technology more advanced than a kerosene lamp, or a nerd who thinks anything with lots of wires and diodes and LEDs and meters is way cool?
We could add more – people who took all their money out of the bank and stock market in anticipation of Y2K or a crash and didn’t know what to do with it so they went on a homesteader’s shopping spree… or the people who were already up to their ears in debt and had nothing even before losing their jobs and then breaking a leg in a traffic accident that totaled their only vehicle and they had no insurance. They will certainly have different expectations, different goals, and different ideals.
And then too, if I like my Ford truck and you like your Dodge, and I prefer goats while you prefer cows, who’s to say what’s ideal?
Surprise: We’re all different
The fact (and the problem) is, COUNTRYSIDE has readers in all of these categories. What’s “ideal” to one could be disgusting to another. You want it all? You’re a disgusting sybarite. You want none of it? You’re a disgusting barbarian.
But then, what’s the purpose of such an exercise, anyway?
There’s an entertainment factor.
Drooling over the seed and poultry catalogs is fun! And so is paging through the many hardware catalogs, dreaming about our ideally equipped homestead (whatever our ideal might be).
Perusing those catalogs can be educational as well as entertaining.
How does a water ram work? What’s the difference between sine wave inverters and modified sine wave inverters? How does a solar panel make electricity? What’s the latest scoop on fuel cells, does anybody still make 100 gallon cast iron kettles and by the way, doesn’t anybody sell a machine that makes rolled oats? (The answer to the last two: yes.)
A third purpose is a back-door way of showing that homesteading doesn’t imply living a life of squalor and drudgery. We want those who equate homesteading with toiling all day just to get enough to eat, or trying to read by candlelight, or scurrying to the outhouse in the middle of the night in winter (they always bring up the outhouse) that there are other options for those who are so inclined.
And this leads us to another purpose: What is the future of homesteading, and how might it become a commonly accepted way of life? Putting it another way, what tools and technologies are available, or on the horizon, that are compatible with the homestead philosophy and attractive to those who currently assume that that philosophy demands a return to the Dark Ages?
And as an added note… how can ordinary people even afford to look at this stuff?
We could define “ideal” in these terms and set ground rules for the hardware we select. Instead, let’s trash the ideal idea. Let’s just call it the “Ultimate No-Holds-Barred Forget-the-Cost What’s New Fully Equipped Homestead of the Present and Near Future You Can Buy Off-the-shelf Today.”
Even with that blessedly expanded franchise, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The most important or essential tools? The newest? Oldest? Most unusual or interesting?
Alternative energy – electricity – best suits our purposes for two reasons.
First, starting with the more “traditional” homestead tools, like those found in the Lehman, Cumberland and similar catalogs, would only reinforce the notion that homesteaders, like the Amish those catalogs were created for, are admirable and quaint but not to be envied – much less imitated.
And second, one of the most frequent objections we hear from people with a mistaken notion about what homesteading is, is that it necessarily involves a life of endless drudgery and hardship… beginning with a lack of electricity, which means no running hot and cold water, no electric lights, no radio or tv or tapes or CDs, no electric tools or appliances or computers… and no indoor toilets.
Modern homesteaders use electricity. They just don’t get it from fossil fuels or nuclear power plants.
Solar panels are the most common source. First developed in the 1950s and perfected for use in space, they have been decreasing in price and increasing in availability ever since.
There are numerous options in both the panels themselves and the components that make up the systems: inverters, batteries and such. So many, in fact, that if being technically impaired isn’t enough to deter a prospective buyer, sorting out the choices and possible configurations probably will.
Several companies overcome this barrier by either offering prepackaged kits, or by suggesting what components to purchase for typical applications. The former includes Alternative Energy Engineering.
Their ready-to-install photovoltaic (pv) systems range from a 1080 watt utility intertie system to a 2700 watt stand-alone system. Intertie systems are connected to the grid: they use commercial power when necessary, and send surplus power to the grid when its available.
The intertie systems consist of 12, 24 or 36 BP595 90 watt modules, or solar panels. These require one, two or three aluminum roof/ground mounts (12 panels per mount). Each includes a Trace inverter.
Inverters are an area of mysterious technical esoterica in themselves to most of us. In simple terms, they change direct current (dc), which is what solar panels and windmills produce, to alternating current (ac), which is what most conventional tools, appliances and electronic equipment run on. Synchronous inverters can send electric ity to the commercial grid. Stand-alone inverters can’t. Multifunction inverters can be used either way.
You will also hear about sine wave and modified sine wave inverters – and you’ll have to learn about them before you start using solar power. You can get this education, and much, much more, in Alternative Energy Engineering’s catalog. (See source list at the end of this article.)
The three systems described are priced at $11,440, $18,600, and $26,300.
This doesn’t include batteries, which aren’t required when the pv system is tied into the grid, although they are commonly included in case of grid power outages. Some systems with batteries can’t sell power back to the grid. (It depends on the inverter used.) These are generally found in remote or off-grid locations.
Alternative Energy Engineering also offers several remote power and utility tie packages that can function both alone and with the grid.
Again, they include anywhere from 12 to 36 panels. But they also include batteries providing 950 amp hours (24 volts) to 1482 amp hours (48 volts). Prices: $13,490 to $31,900.
Another supplier, Backwoods Solar Electric Systems, doesn’t offer packaged kits as such, but it does provide helpful suggestions for putting your own components together.
For example, for a “starter solar power system” that can operate a couple of superefficient lights, a dc stereo and tv, and a dc water pump, they suggest the following:
Solar panels, 50-200 watts,
plus mounts $350-$1,300
Charge control $125
2 or 4 Trojan
T-105 batteries $150-$300
dc fusebox $160
Inverter: “Maybe none needed,
or 200 or 400 watt” $0-$100-$300
With this system you could power a small cabin or weekend retreat… or a very “electrically primitive” homestead… for as little as $785.
Most people accustomed to modern creature comforts would opt for a slightly more elaborate system. This one can operate as above, but you could also add a color tv, vcr or satellite receiver, stereo, vacuum, sewing machine, hand held power tools, computer, blender, etc. (But don’t try using all of them at the same time!) In this example a clothes washer, deep well pump and table saw run on an ac gas or diesel generator (not included in the price).
Solar panels, 300 watts,
plus mounts $1,875
Charge control $200-$285
Trimetric meter (optional
but recommended) $185
Main fuses and wiring $100
4-8 Trojan T-105 batteries
with cables etc. $300-$600
UX series or DR1500 $650-$995
Total: $3,310 – $4,295
It continues, with what they describe as a “conserving family home” (a year ’round home for 1-4 people) with a small 12vdc refrigerator. This runs from $5,810 to $8,670, again without a generator which would be especially needed in northern climates with little winter sun.
Next comes the “active family solar home” ($10,265 to $13,965); the “large home/small business” ($17,755 to $20,660); and finally the “true sine wave high power system” ($27,620 to $28,840).
Real Goods offers two deluxe prepackaged systems. Both include 12 Siemens SR100-watt modules and a Wattsun active tracker. The tracker keeps the solar panels in constant alignment with the sun for maximum efficiency. Eight or 10 Solar Gel 8D batteries are included, with Trace inverters to match. System I, rated at 5,500 watts, is $17,350. System II, at 8,000 watts, is $21,000.
Real Goods also offers newer (and still somewhat controversial among solar power purists) items such as Uni-Solar pv shingles (86.4″ x 12″, $139).
Real Goods is also a source for many useful, smaller and less expensive solar devices. You can keep your vehicle’s battery fully charged with a 14.5″ x 4.8″ module that plugs into the cigarette lighter ($29.95). The Sunwize Portable Energy System delivers 9.9 peak watts for powering laptop computers, cell phones and similar devices ($369). Or for $29.95 a Solar Super Charger will charge your AAA, AA, C or D nicad batteries. And they handle the Sun Oven, an uptown version of the homemade under $2 solar oven described in 82/5. Price: $249.
Even renters and apartment dwellers can learn about, get experience with, and use solar energy.
In areas where winds are reliable in both velocity and duration, wind electric generators are a popular option. Even better is a combination of wind and solar: the wind often blows when the sun isn’t shining, and vice versa.
As with solar, wind options can blow you away, and you’ll have plenty of homework to do before you lay your money down.
Should you choose a Whisper windmill from World Power Technology? If so, the 500 watt model (with a 3-blade 5-ft. propeller, $990 plus shipping from Backwoods Solar); or the 900 watt one with 7-ft. blades ($1,590 plus shipping); or the 1000 watt ($2,490) or the 1500 watt ($3,390)?
Or you might decide on a Bergey BWG 1500 (1500 watts) at $5,150 (12, 48 or 120 volts)… or a small Air 403 for as little as $525.
Windmill towers (Bergey, from Backwoods Solar) range from $1,495 for one 40 ft. high to $2,975 for the 100-ft. model. Alternative Energy Engineering has parts for guyed tower kits, 25-47 feet, for $360-520 (2-1/2″ schedule 40 steel pipe not included).
Alternative Energy Engineering also offers both Whisper Wind and Air wind machines (from Southwest Windpower), and additional models. But there are many other sources to check out. As with seed companies, you’ll have to browse through ads and catalogs to get the most information, the most choices, and the best prices.
Home power isn’t limited to wind and solar. Among the other possibilities are hydro – perhaps the most desirable “preferred” energy source of all, considering its environmental cleanliness and 24-hour-a-day production. It’s a minor source, however, because homesteads with the required water flows are few and far between. According to the Alternative Energy Engineering catalog, a flow of 100 gallons per minute (gpm) falling 10 feet through a pipe, or 5 gpm falling 200 feet through a pipe, can supply enough power to comfortably run a small household. If there’s a mountain stream outside your front door, look into hydro. More of us should be so lucky.
Infra-red photovoltaic generators are new. The Midnight Sun produces electricity when pv cells respond to infra-red radiation from a propane fired emitter which provides heat. This was developed in Norway, above the arctic circle, where both wood and winter sun are rare commodities. $2,500 from Backwoods Solar. The use of propane eliminates this from our present discussion, but the generating technology is worth mentioning. It’s an example of what we might see in the future – and it already has other implications. (See Ecofan, page 46.)
Steam power is another possibility, and another whose growing popularity can be credited largely to Y2K. But steam requires even more personal involvement in terms of both education and labor than the other alternatives.
Its advantages include the ability to produce power regardless of sun or wind conditions and its use of a cheap and renewable resource as fuel. Disadvantages include the time and labor involved in processing and handling that fuel, smoke, the absolute necessity of monitoring boiler pressure (you can’t walk away from it like you can with a solar or wind system) and attendant potential safety issues. For some applications and some individuals, steam is ideal.
Owner directed energy
While steam arguably requires the most personal involvement of the alternative energy options, it should be apparent that all of these options are considerably owner-directed. Anyone can flip on a light switch, but producing the power for that light demands a great deal of study and attention. Most people today aren’t willing to commit to that. Let’s face it: If you don’t take proper care of the battery in your car or truck – because it’s too much bother… and you don’t know how a battery works or what “proper care” is anyway – how are you going to take proper care of a whole battery of batteries?
Most people will wait, not so much for costs to come down, but for alternative energy systems to get simpler. And already a variety of almost turn-key systems and an army of experienced installers are entering the marketplace, helping to spread the use of preferred energy to this kind of user.
Find the experts
We can’t even begin to report on what’s new, or even just available, in an article like this. And it is neither our goal nor within our capability to tell you what system or components you should get! (Believe me, someone is going to ask.) Read ads, send for literature, check web sites, visit alternative energy expos… and read Home Power magazine and the books they (and others) can provide. Home Power also has CD-ROMs of back issues that are fully indexed and a veritable college education on preferred energy. (See sources at the end of this article.)
You now have home-produced electricity. With the larger systems we’ve looked at you can live, even in a remote location, just like your city cousins.
Almost. There are a few reservations.
Electric stoves are energy hogs, and aren’t suited to homemade power. Ditto for electric water heaters, and usually, air conditioning. (However, the proprietors of Backwoods Solar Electric Systems recently said they produce so much solar power during the sunniest months that they installed air conditioning just to keep it from going to waste!)
Gas stoves are preferred by most independent power producers. However, they do not use ranges with glow-bar ovens, which will not light without electricity and which can consume as much as 400 watts whenever the oven is on. If the range has an electric clock, it’s disconnected to eliminate the phantom load, and lights are replaced with energy-saving compact fluorescents. (Phantom loads are power drains that continue 24/7 whether the device is being used or not: stereos, tvs, answering machines etc. have phantom loads and are disconnected when not in use to conserve battery power. (See article on page 68.)
Memo to inventors and entrepreneurs: It’s interesting to note that there are no practical “alternatives” for kitchen ranges. Wood cookstoves are wonderful, but not in summer, or for people in a hurry. Solar cookers work well – when the sun is shining. Electricity is out (as of now) and most homesteaders would prefer to do without LP. How long before somebody fills this gap? You can already buy stoves aimed at campers and backpackers that can boil two cups of water in under 90 seconds… burning only a handful of twigs. (The secret is the built-in battery-powered fan that has a blast furnace effect.) It’s only a matter of time until a homestead tinkerer devises a way to bring something similar – or better – into the kitchen.
Ordinary refrigerators and freezers have been greatly improved since the 1970s, again showing what businesses can do when it’s necessary or expedient and there’s a market. But these still aren’t efficient enough for home power. (Refrigeration can account for as much as 70% of typical household electrical consumption.) Propane refrigerators are popular, but homesteaders don’t produce propane, and it isn’t a renewable resource.
Alternatives are high efficiency super-insulated refrigerators and freezers, available in either 120vac or 12-24vdc.
The hot name in cooling is SunFrost, which uses an amazing one-fourth as much power as comparably sized standard refrigerators. However, during most of 1999, thanks to Y2K, backorders were running one full year behind! This is in spite of the fact that their 10 cubic ft. model with 3.9 cubic ft. freezer sells for $2,500.
(As of late October, some sources say the Sunfrost backlog has been reduced to four months.)
The efficiency shows how far brand-name manufacturers still have to go. The price and backlog suggest that other entrepreneurs will step in to balance the supply and demand.
However, other options are available. Novakool makes a 5.5 cubic ft. refrigerator with a 2 cubic ft. freezer selling for about $985 plus freight (Backwoods Solar). It runs on 12 or 24vdc. Real Goods handles the Norcold and Explorer brands. These and similar units are designed primarily for recreational vehicles and boats which, incidentally, use several other products attractive to people interested in conservation. Many homesteaders use LP kitchen stoves, lighting, refrigerators, toilets and complete plumbing systems found in RV and marine catalogs and stores… as well as in used recreational vehicles, in which case they are often dirt cheap.
Where is the so-called “hardship” and deprivation? Certainly not in the realm of refrigeration. You can be a modern homesteader and still drink cold beer.
Most sections of the country require home heating. Some demand a lot of it. But the modern homesteader uses a minimal amount.
Many say the ideal home is underground, or at least earth-bermed. This provides excellent natural insulation as well as geothermal heating and cooling. (The temperature a few feet below the ground surface is steady: warmer than the air in winter, and cooler in summer.) Homestead homes are well-insulated in any event.
Many use solar energy, often passive. Heat comes through windows on sunny days and is stored in the mass of the interior, sometimes in special constructions of stone or other materials. After sundown, heat can be retained in the house with insulated window coverings which are sometimes quite elaborate and decorative.
The home can incorporate an attached greenhouse. The greenhouse helps heat the home during the day, the home helps heat the greenhouse at night, and the greenhouse provides food as well as the physical and psychological benefits of green plants in a living space. Such practical symbiosis is a homestead ideal.
You don’t “purchase” passive solar heating: there are no special panels or other hardware. You design it. One source of information is Arctic Glass.
Active solar heating involves heating a fluid in solar panels, often on the roof or side of a building. Propylene glycol is a common solar collection fluid. It is food-grade safe, nonflammable, and doesn’t freeze. It’s diluted 25% to 50% with water, depending on the climate. (Dyn-O-Flo, from Real Goods, 4 gallons for $95.)
One system in Wisconsin – not the best location for active solar heating – uses propylene glycol which is pumped (with a 10 watt 12vdc solar-powered pump) through tubing in the floor. The tubing is about two feet beneath the floor and buried in several feet of sand which provides thermal mass. This mass is heated during the summer when plenty of sunshine is available, and released during the darker colder months. A separate loop is located close to the floor surface for quicker backup heating.
Wood: Renewable energy
Wood is the preferred fuel in areas of the north where winter nights are long and cold, winter days are often cloudy as well as short, and wood is abundant and cheap, often a by-product of forest cropping or timber stand improvement on the homestead itself. Traditionally, five acres of woodland in the North Central states were said to keep a family in firewood on a sustainable basis. Today, with better insulation and more efficient heating appliances, it’s undoubtedly less. Using fast-growing hybrid trees, grown like corn or any other crop, but for fuel, reduces that even further.
Some see pellet stoves as the homestead heat source of the future. Pellets are made from sawdust and other waste products such as cardboard and corn husks. They’re easy to handle and require less work than wood, they burn clean, and in some places they’re cheaper than cordwood.
Until recently, special stoves were required to burn pellets. Now devices are available that allow pellets to be used in most wood-burning appliances. (Prometheus pellet fuel basket, Real Goods, $189 to $239.)
There are many kinds of high-efficiency wood-burning stoves, fireplace inserts, and furnaces, including several types of masonry stoves. (See 83/5:97 for COUNTRYSIDE’S latest article on these.) These use what some might call “sticks” rather than logs – and in very small amounts. A very hot fire, usually twice a day, heats a thermal mass which then releases the heat slowly. There is less work, less pollution, and less fuel is consumed.
Masonry stoves can be designed to also be used for cooking and baking. They are custom-made and relatively expensive, but most users say they are worth the price. (See source list.)
Outdoor wood furnaces provide clean, even heat without the household mess and 4 AM feedings some people associate with wood.
Heat pumps extract heat from air or water, even when it’s relatively cold. They can be likened to refrigerators working in reverse. (When they do work in reverse, they provide air conditioning.) At present they require too much electricity for most home power installations, but with continuing improvements in both, heat pumps have possibilities.
The Midnight Sun propane stove which incorporates an infra-red photovoltaic generator (mentioned in the electricity section above) has a baby brother. This small device produces electricity from the heat of the woodstove (with a thermoelectric generator) which runs a fan which then distributes the heat throughout the room more effectively. The Ecofan (Alternative Power and Real Goods) retails for about $99. (See photo.)
Water is essential for life, but in the homestead view, too many people today use too much of it. Nevertheless, modern homesteaders have enough for their needs… and contrary to what some people think, they don’t haul it into the house from the well or spring in buckets.
The fortunate few have gravity-fed spring systems. Most of us are not among them.
Larger solar power systems can operate conventional 120vac pumps, but there are other options. There are 12 and 24vdc pumps, above-ground and submersible, that can be tied into conventional pressure systems. Solar electric pumps are available. (Running a pump directly from a solar panel, without batteries, requires a special controller. These cost from about $400 to close to $2,000 for top-of-the-line models. A storage tank is also necessary for when solar power isn’t available.)
Prices range from just over $100 for the types of pumps used in recreational vehicles to around $2,000 for the highly efficient SunRise solar submersible. (Real Goods.)
But you don’t need electricity to pump water. Some people use the old stand-by, the water pumping windmill. Water is fed into a storage tank which provides pressure by gravity and a water supply when the wind isn’t blowing. O’Brock Windmills and Topper Co. offer several models.
Baker Manufacturing, Stalwart Emergency Hand Pumps, and Simple Pump Company all provide the means to get water from a drilled or driven well. The Simple Pump Company also offers a 12vdc option. It can be tied into regular household plumbing. The hand pump is around $500; the electric option about doubles that.
And then there are water rams. This is a very clever – and very old – device that uses the pressure of running or falling water to lift a portion of it to as much as 500 feet. The distance of lift depends on the fall: about 15:1.
(For a description of how a ram works, see COUNTRYSIDE 83/1:42.)
In the modern world, hot water is a necessity, not a luxury. The typical American home uses 10,000 to 15,000 Btu worth of hot water per person every day. Hot water might be even more necessary for homesteaders, who have dairy, canning and other equipment to wash. So modern homesteaders have hot water. And guess what? Yep, they have options.
The most primitive might be the “solar showers” aimed at campers. This is basically a black bag holding a few gallons of water that is heated by the sun. Its limitations are obvious, but you can’t beat the price… unless you make your own by painting a 5-gallon bucket black (which is not uncommon). Solar showers are available from most suppliers of camping gear for under $20. A pressurized version is $45 (Real Goods).
Another type of pressurized shower operates on 12vdc.
Solar water heating has been used for decades in places like Florida and California, especially for swimming pools. These can be fairly simple devices. Many homesteaders have made their own. One method is like the camper’s solar shower, encased in a glass-covered black box to increase efficiency, and perhaps hooked into the household plumbing. Another involves running the water through black tubes… similar to heating water in a garden hose lying on the patio on a sunny day. A third method is to circulate an antifreeze in a closed loop, then transferring the heat to the domestic water supply.
Naturally, it can get complicated, and expensive.
Progressiv/Tube makes a simple, passive, 40-gallon batch-type heater that preheats incoming water to reduce the load on your conventional water heater. Basic price: $1,295.
For a top-of-the-line solar water heater that can be used in freezing weather, take a look at the Heliodyne pv-powered closed-loop systems. Anti-freeze (food grade propylene glycol) flows through a closed loop to collect heat which is then transferred to the domestic water supply. One 4′ x 10′ system with an 80-gallon tank, adequate for 2-3 people, is $3,559. (Real Goods.)
The do-it-yourselfer will want to check out such components as hot water pumps, circulators (to circulate the fluid in closed loop systems) and natural convection check valves (which prevent night-time backflow). All are available from Alternative Energy Engineering.
Water can be heated with wood… or corn cobs or pine cones. These heaters are available from Hot Products, Inc.; Controlled Energy (Aqua-Star); and others. Snorkel Stove Co. makes woodfired hot tubs.
Using hot water
As for using that hot water, low-flow shower heads have become the norm, and there are new innovations in the laundry room. Along with environment-friendly washing powders and “improved solar clothes dryers” there is a “Super Wash Pressure Washing Machine” that cleans small loads of clothes quickly and with little effort, uses less water than automatic washers, and uses no electricity. (This is another item designed not for homesteaders, but for RV users. Available from many RV supply houses, and from Real Goods: $49.)
The James hand-washing machine is still available too. In the 1980s I gave a local ladies’ club a tour of the Countryside General Store. Most couldn’t believe that anyone would actually use a hand-washing machine like the James. When I pulled up the records showing how many we had sold, they were aghast. Today the Real Goods catalog advises (without mentioning Y2K), “We expect long lead times on this product. Call for availability.”
And that’s with a price tag of $315… plus $129 for the hand wringer; $298 without the wringer or $449 for both from Lehman’s. (Note on inflation: In 1974, the Countryside General Store catalog listed the James Washer at $77.50, and the wringer at $30. That’s 414% inflation in 26 years.)
A recent newspaper article said the old corrugated washboards are back in production and selling like hotcakes… as homestead-chic decorations. But modern homesteaders don’t have to labor over a scrubbing board and galvanized tub to have clean clothes.
Let’s dispose of this one quickly. One reason: we have heard from more people who are satisfied with their outhouses than from people who are completely satisfied with their composting (or other alternative) toilets. And the better composting toilets use electricity, for heating and for venting gasses and odors.
The Composting Toilet Book by David Del Porto and Carol Steinfeld (Chelsea Green Publishing) holds a contrarian view. Read this for all the poop on this household essential.
To be sure, composting toilets have been used for decades. During that time there have been great improvements and price reductions, but don’t expect to get much change from a $1,000 bill. Many run twice that. The name brands here include BioLet, Sun-Mar, Phoenix, and others.
Other types of toilets boast of low water use – as little as a pint per flush. These are connected to RV-type holding tanks (for later composting) or directly to composting units.
Another common type of unit incinerates waste with LP or natural gas.
As with kitchen stoves, toilets present great opportunities for developers. With toilets, a great deal has already been done, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Interestingly, much of this is coming from homesteaders who are thinking outside the box by improving not on the flush toilet, but on the outhouse. One of the leaders here is J. C. Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook. (See review in COUNTRYSIDE 80/2:77.)
A related area is dealing with greywater… wastewater from dishwashing, laundry, bathing and other household water uses. We haven’t found any commercial hardware devoted to this, but some homesteaders (and others) have been tinkering with it for years. Basically, it simply involves arranging plumbing drainage to divert the greywater, which can be filtered and cleansed for use in irrigation or safe disposal.
One of the most promising cleansing methods involves moving the water slowly through an ecosystem of marsh plants that purify the water. This is currently being studied by academic and commercial interests, and we’re sure to hear more about it in the future.
Tools of production
We have looked at electricity, heat, water, and sewage disposal. And we have seen that living on a modern homestead can be just as comfortable as living in a conventional home. The main differences are in how those conveniences are produced or provided: on the homestead, by the homesteader.
Homesteaders strive to produce as many of their own needs as possible. This leads us to our next category… one which is quite different from most typical homes: tools of production.
This is a broad classification with some interesting twists which once again blur the differences between homesteading and the mainstream.
Most homestead food comes from the garden, which requires at least a few tools. But millions of Americans garden, and have those same tools! (Ironically, flower gardeners often have more tools than serious food producers!)
Much of this food is canned, frozen or dried, and stored for the winter. But millions of non-homesteaders can, freeze and dry food!
Homesteaders are involved in many other production processes: sewing, making wine or beer, and of course cooking and baking from scratch. But… you know the rest.
Homesteaders don’t do things other people don’t do: they just do more of them. Some nonhomesteaders are better gardeners than the average homesteader. Others can sew better, or make better beer. While many homesteaders do have favorite specialties they’re very good at, they also want to be competent with several others, and at least familiar with all of them.
It’s possible to have a good vegetable garden using nothing but a garden fork, a rake, and a hoe. But there are tools that can make the task easier. Most homesteaders enjoy gardening and don’t mind the work. But on the modern homestead the goal is to produce as much as possible with as little input as possible, including time and effort, so the homesteader is not “slaving all day just to get something to eat.” Gardening is a lofty occupation and a pleasant past-time, but we also have other fish to fry!
For most people, the first time- and labor-saving gardening tool to come to mind will be a good tiller. But the modern homesteader has a better idea. It’s a method that will save more time and effort than a tiller – and require fewer natural resources, produce no pollutants or eventual scrap, and cost less besides.
You don’t order these from an ad or catalog or pick one up at the garden center (although some companies do sell components). They must be planned and constructed with personal effort, and usually with a great deal of time. But once in place, a raised bed will eliminate the need for a tiller… and probably a hoe, and perhaps a garden hose or watering can as well!
The soil in a good raised bed is very fertile because it’s “made” by the gardener, with a good compost base. It’s loose and friable because it’s never compacted by walking on it… and because it’s never tilled. It can easily be stirred up with a digging fork or even a rake. It’s very easy to weed because of these factors, and because vegetables are planted so close together they discourage weeds. Fewer weeds means fewer weed seeds meaning even fewer weeds in future years. The raised bed garden just keeps getting better and better, while demanding less and less work.
Raised beds are well-drained, so they can usually be worked earlier in the spring than conventional beds. This is important to anyone striving for food self-sufficiency, but it also brings us to one of the next “most important” tools, at least in the garden chronology. These are season-extending tools.
For some homesteaders this is as simple as covering individual plants early in the season with plastic milk jugs with the bottoms cut out. Some raised beds have sides made of vertical planks held in place by pipes driven into the ground. These “stakes” are directly across the bed from each other, about three feet apart. Lengths of pvc (or other flexible material) are thrust into these pipes, creating a series of hoops that can be covered with plastic. The raised bed becomes a cold frame or tunnel greenhouse.
As anyone who has looked at a gardening magazine or supply catalog knows, there are many season extenders available today that were unthought of only a few years ago. At the same time, some old devices that disappeared are back again.
The bell-shaped glass cloche was used as early as the 1600s. You might have seen pictures of rows of hundreds of them lined up in European market gardens several years ago. Now ey’re available in the U.S. in several sizes. (The largest, with a 15″ base and 11″ high, is $14.95; Lee Valley Tools.)
Digging tools that have been around for thousands of years are also enjoying new popularity. Italian style and vineyard hoes that have been used for ages in Africa, Europe and South America are now being seen in North America. European-made versions are available from Lee Valley Tools ($13.50 and $16.50). They also carry the ho-mi digger (hoe-mee; ‘little ground spear” in Korean). This multipurpose tool seems ideal for those who don’t care for planned obsolescence. It was used back in the Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago.
From the same source comes a much more recent and much-talked-about U-bar digger. (See COUNTRYSIDE 82/5:72; photo on page 48.) This is another replacement for the rotary tiller that does a more ecological job, doesn’t use gas, and always starts. ($74.50. Lehman’s has one for $135.)
On the more technological side we have the now-familiar Remay floating row covers, plastic row covers, and Wall-o-Waters (cylinders made of plastic tubes which you place around plants and fill with water. The water gives the cylinder stability, and collects solar heat during the day, releasing it to protect the plant at night).
Even more space agey is the heat-activated window opener. One of the problems with even a very simple homemade cold frame is not being around, or forgetting, to control the temperature by raising or lowering the cover. Gardeners hurrying to work are reluctant to raise the frosted lids of cold frames in the morning, but when they return in the afternoon their seedlings have been broiled to death.
A device made in England uses an adjustable temperature-sensitive gas-charged cylinder to open or close a cold frame lid or greenhouse window, automatically and without electricity. ($39, Lee Valley Tools.)
A ready-made self-venting fiberglass and Western red cedar cold frame using the same technology is available from the same source for those who would rather pay $139 than build their own.
Watering a garden might not be necessary with a modicum of rain and good soil that retains moisture (see 83/5 for factors that determine this) and mulch. But if you water, several tools are more efficient than the old-fashioned watering can, hand-held garden hose, or worst of all, the garden sprinkler. All involve drip irrigation.
One of the simplest for small gardens or important plants is the Aqua Spike. This is a pointed hollow plastic 8″ long tube with holes, to which a recycled 2-liter plastic soda bottle can be attached. Thrust it into the ground near a tomato, pepper or other high-value high-production plant. The water in the bottle slowly filters into the soil at the root zone, eliminating evaporation and run-off. (6 for $12.50; Gardener’s Supply Company.)
You can find perforated hoses and tubes and fittings used for drip irrigation (or “soaker systems”) with conventional pressurized water supplies. A variation on this, developed for third world countries, uses 5-gallon buckets.
Providing plants with the water they need to feed your family need not be wasteful, or a time-consuming back-breaking chore.
These are just a few examples of the many productive tools modern homesteaders use to grow their own food without working at it 24 hours a day. There are many others, but those listed demonstrate that homestead tools can be old, or even ancient, or they can be as modern as tomorrow’s computer program. Homesteading is neither living in the past, nor is it glomming onto anything that’s new just because it’s new. We don’t care, as long as it does the job the way we want it done.
Many homesteaders will continue to garden effectively and efficiently with nothing more than a good digging fork, a rake and a hoe. Some will demand that their hoe be of a certain design: collinear, or loop, or one of dozens of others.
With raised beds, a long handled claw might be all that’s needed.
And some will continue to use not only rotary tillers, but the entire range of gardening tools… and toys, of which there are hundreds. There are no rules in homesteading.
Some of these, and others yet to be invented, will be a part of the homesteads of the future, where gardeners produce much of their own fresh, wholesome food without leaving home, spending only a few minutes a day.
Food processing, preservation and preparation
One area where homestead equipment does veer sharply from the norm is processing, preserving and preparing all that homegrown food.
Even here the lines are sometimes blurred: Think bread machines and pasta machines. Although these do indicate some deep-seated desire to become personally involved in providing certain necessities, many old-line homesteaders dismiss them as yuppie toys. They might be. There are probably more bread machines, and certainly pasta makers, gathering dust in closets than there are making bread and pasta on a regular basis. On the other hand, such tools as the Victorio and Squeezo strainers (used for canning tomato and apple sauce), once the province of homestead-type people, are now widely used.
Nevertheless, many of these tools are what still set the intentional peasant apart from the masses, and even the growing numbers interested in peasant and from-scratch cooking. And catalogs such as Lehman’s and Cumberland General Store are the premier wish books on most homesteads.
Whether you’re looking for a cream separator or a butter churn, a kraut cutter or a sausage stuffer, a 100-gallon cast iron kettle (Lehman’s, $2,599 plus freight) or a strawberry huller (three for $4.98), you’ll find it in one or both of these catalogs, as well as from other sources.
Which of these are essential for the “well-equipped modern homestead”? That depends on what you do, how you want to do it, and how much money you want to spend. For the minimalist – or one who thinks rugged pioneer living is the very essence of homesteading – almost none are essential. But those who want to provide as many of their personal necessities as possible (and enjoy doing it) – and still have time for other tasks and interests – will pick and choose those tools that will best help them reach that goal.
And they’ll be ready to try new ones as even more nonhomesteaders discover the benefits and pleasures of even partial self-sufficiency.
The general catalogs such as Lehman’s and Cumberland have almost everything the average homesteader could wish for. But most of us also have special interests and concurrent special needs. There are many places you can get the basics for making cheese, or cutting wood, or sewing or many other tasks. But if you’re really interested and involved in one or another of these specialties you’ll probably find many useful items in the specialty catalogs.
The seed, nursery and garden supply catalogs are paramount here, and there are dozens of them.
But if goats are your passion, you’ll want the catalogs from Caprine Supply and Hoegger Supply. For dedicated cheesemakers, it’s New England Cheesemaking. Bakers will study the brochure from The Country Baker and woodcutters will appreciate the catalog from Bailey’s. (Although aimed at commercial loggers, this is where we found the “Homesteader” 4′ and 5′ crosscut saw [$194.95 and $219.95] with a new design suggesting that even the most fundamental old-time tools can be made easier to use without compromising their basic integrity.)
There are catalogs for wine and beer makers, sausagemakers, rabbit raisers and beekeepers that go far beyond the more general merchandise books that might offer related equipment and supplies.
You don’t have to have a special interest to use these though. They can be educational, and you might find a valuable tool you didn’t know existed.
This broad but brief overview has not shown us what tools are essential for the ideally-equipped homestead, or even what that ideal might be.
But we hope it has made it clear that homesteading, and its tools, cannot be equated with dawn-to-dusk sweat labor just to provide life’s necessities. That’s not true today, and it will be even more self-evident in the future.
Some selected sources of tools mentioned in this article:
12 volt pressurized shower: Jessie McGee, HCR 61 Box 140R, Bonners Ferry, ID 83805 208-267-9829
Alternative Energy Engineering, PO Box 339, Redway, CA 95560 800-777-6609 www.alt-energy.com
Alternative Power, 104 N. Main, Viroqua, WI 54665 608-637-2722 www.nopowernoproblem.com
Antique Stoves, 415 Fleming Rd., Tekonsha, MI 49092 517-278-2214 www.antiquestoves.com
Arctic Glass & Window Outlet, 565 County Rd. T, Hammond, WI 54767 800-428-9276
Backwoods Solar Electric Systems, 1395 Rolling Thunder Ridge, Sandpoint, Idaho 83864 208-263-4290 fax 208-265-4788; www.backwoodssolar.com
Baker Manufacturing Co., 133 Enterprise St., Evansville, WI 53536 800-356-5130
Biolet USA, 45 Newbury St., Boston, MA 02116 800-524-6538 www.biolet.com
Central Boiler, RR 1 Box 220, Greenbush, MN 56726 800-248-4681 or 218-782-2575 www.centralboiler.com
Controlled Energy (AquaStar), 800-642-3199 www.cechot.com
Cumberland General Store, 1 Highway 68 Dept CM8, Crossville, TN 38555 800-334-4640 www.cumberlandgeneral.com
E.C. Kraus, PO Box 7850-DS, Independence, MO 64054 800-841-7404
Four Dog Stove Co., 25909 Variolite St. NW, St.Francis, MN 55070 612-444-9587 www.fourdog.com
Hoegger Supply Company, 160 Providence Rd., PO Box 331, Fayetteville, GA 30214 800-221-4628
Home Power Magazine, PO Box 520, Ashland, OR 97520 800-707-6585 www.homepower.com
Hot Products, Inc., Dept. CTS, 300 Broadway, Eureka, CA 95501 707-444-1311 www.hotpro.com
Knox Stove Works Inc., PO Box 751, Knoxville, TN 37901 865-524-4113
Lehman’s, PO Box 41, Kidron, OH 44636 330-857-1330
Masonry Heater Assn of North America, Beverly J Marois, RR 2 Box 33M, Randolph VT 05060; 802-728-5896; firstname.lastname@example.org
New England Cheesemaking Supply Co., PO Box 85CC, Ashfield, MA 01330 413-628-3808 www.cheesemaking.com
Northwest Manufacturing, Inc. (Wood Master), PO Box 124, Red Lake Falls, MN 56750 218-253-4328 800-932-3629 www.woodmaster.com
O’Brock Pumping Windmills, 9435 12th St., Dept. CS, North Benton, OH 44449
Phoenix Composting Toilet, 888-862-3854
Real Goods, 555 Leslie St., Ukiah, CA 95482;
Simple Pump Co.; 877-782-0109 775-267-0770 fax 775-267-9879 www.simplepump.com
Snorkel Stove Company, Wood Fired Hot tubs, Dept. SD 99111, 4216 6th Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98108 www.snorkel.com
Southwest Windpower, 2131 N. First St., Flagstaff, AZ 86004 520-779-9463 ext. 330 fax 520-779-1485 www.windenergy.com email@example.com
Stalwart Emergency Hand Pumps, RR 1 Box 88, Hanston, KS 67849 316-623-4081 Paul
Sun-Mar Composting Toilets, 600 Main St., Tonawanda, NY 14150 800-461-2461
Sunwize Technologies Inc., 800-817-6527 www.sunwize.com
Taylor Manufacturing Inc.,PO Box 518, Elizabethtown, NC 28337 800-545-2293 www.taylormfg.com tmi@intrstar
The Country Baker, Denise M. Fidler, 8751 North 850 East, Syracuse, IN 46567 219-834-2134 fax 219-834-3993 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Sausage Maker Inc., 1500 Clinton St. Bldg. 123, Dept. 20009-04, Buffalo, NY 14206-3099 888-490-8525 fax 716-824-6465
Topper Co., PO Box 30369, San Angelo, TX 76903 915-658-3277
Who can afford this stuff?
The modern homestead can be independent of outside sources of energy and still enjoy all the comforts of the typical modern home. But at what cost?
It’s a certainty that some people’s eyes popped when they saw the prices on some items we discuss here. Others started doing mental calculations on payback times. And a few moaned, “Drat it, now even COUNTRYSIDE is getting like those slick yuppie “country” magazines!”
In the past we have tried to justify some of these costs by talking about the true costs (to the environment and society) of your so-called cheap grid power or fossil fuels. We have mentioned homesteaders who live some distance from the power lines (and sometimes not very far at all) who have been quoted grid hookup prices that make even the best solar systems look like a bargain. We have talked about possible, even likely, future energy shortages (with prices to match) that could lead to people with alternate systems living like royalty while those dependent on fossil fuels freeze in the dark. And we have talked about the satisfactions of security and independence.
But while researching this article, I suddenly realized something very odd. In trying to select the most important, the most practical items, I mentally revisited the people I know who actually own and use this equipment daily, people who live the life of the homesteader of the future, today. And I was amazed to discover that every single one of them lives on an average or below-average income!
How do they do it?
With two words: Money management. They set their priorities and allocated their resources accordingly. Putting it another way, they decided not to spend money on some items so they could use that money for something else.
I know a dozen people who live in homes that are every bit as comfortable as typical suburban homes, but at a fraction of the cost. (And there are undoubtedly hundreds, perhaps thousands, like them.) These are on marginal land, which was cheap when they bought it, even if it’s not now. And the houses are owner-built.
The average new home in the U.S. today costs well over $100,000. The average! Not many people can afford to pay cash for a home like that – and if they can, they’re much more likely to have a $1,000,000 house! So they have a mortgage, and pay interest, which further increases the cost of their home. They need all the typical appliances and services, which today frequently lead to credit card debt. With all these monthly expenses, naturally they need a job, or two.
The people I know who actually live with all this “expensive” alternative energy (and many of the other tools discussed here) have none of these costs. Those who have shared some of their finances with me have invested far less than the average in their homes, they have wasted nothing on interest, and make no monthly payments.
How much do you spend on a mortgage or rent? If you didn’t have to pay that, how long would it take to save enough for the alternative energy system of your dreams? Include your utility bills and credit cards and it gets even better.
What’s more, none of these people have “jobs,” in the sense that they go to work for someone else or every day. They don’t have to!
One of the results is that they have time to tinker. They don’t need ready-made off-the-shelf systems, because they have taken the time to study and learn. Many of them have assembled and set up their own systems, often with low-cost used components.
Many people reading this will immediately want to know where they can find cheap land, and how they can build their own mortgage-free homes or they can escape their credit card debt… and quit their jobs. This is not only beyond the scope of this article: maybe it begs the question. Is this simply another search for an easy-out, off-the-shelf, ready-made solution… not for equipment, but for a life?
Both – acquiring equipment and acquiring a life – involve an awful lot of study, thought, and work, which the average person isn’t able or willing to undertake. Maybe they simply haven’t learned how to make the necessary decisions. Maybe they can’t make them because of their catch-22 situation… the trap of the debt-job, production-consumption vicious circle.
But again, that’s another topic. Our point here is, don’t think you have to be rich to be a modern homesteader, or to enjoy and benefit from even the more expensive tools discussed in this article. Many people of modest means are doing it, simply by thinking outside the box: not like Industrial Age producer-consumers, but like homesteaders. – Jd