Monday, December 24, 2012

DIY Fake Real Christmas Tree

Here's a fun little project to celebrate the holidays MFW style.  All you need is some scrap metal, a drill press, a mig welder and some more important projects that you really want to put off for a bit!

Introducing: The DIY Fake Real Christmas Tree!

I used some scrap 1 1/4'' tube steel to make a frame in the rough shape of a tree.  According to the internet, the platonic ideal proportions for a christmas tree are height = 2 X width.  I went with six feet tall and three feet wide.  Each limb has three or four 1/2'' holes drilled in it, as does the top of the trunk.  In retrospect, being more liberal with the hole drilling would have given me more room for creativity when it came time for filling it in, so next year I'll perforate this thing like swiss cheese.

Each hole is then filled with the trimmed branches of a real tree.  This way you don't have to dig up a living tree, and you have a fun incentive for doing that trimming you've been ignoring since fall!  Now yes, this is assuming you live in an area with enough coniferous trees around to trim, but it really doesn't take all that much.  I filled this tree in with the trimmings from one medium sized limb I had to a take off of a cedar a couple weeks ago.  As a bonus, our yurt now smells of sweet, citrusy cedar!  

Not only can decorating the tree be a fun family project, but now harvesting the branches can be a new outdoors holiday tradition!  I know it looks a little sparse this year, I did this while Christy has been out of town and she's really got the eye for this sort of thing.  We'll keep working on it.  Maybe next year we'll go with doug fir....

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Land Poor

in need of ready money while owning much land.

Seriously, look it up.  It really pertains more to farmers than schmucks like us, but it's definition is pretty spot on for our current situation.  When we started this here blog, we promised to be upfront about our finances, owing to the fact that in all of our research prior to this grand undertaking, that valuable knowledge always seemed to be skipped over, or only vaguely alluded to.  Of course any one person's situation will be drastically different from another's, but we want to offer at least some anecdotal evidence, to be taken with however much salt seems fit.  For anyone shy about talking finances (*ugh-hum* Christy), go ahead and at look at pinterest for a bit, 'cause I'm about to get into it!

I'll be the first to admit that we came into this game with a financial leg up.  Owing to my father's passing, and the antecedent commercial success of More Than a Feeling and a couple of other classic rock anthems, we started this project with about $210,000 in the bank.  (As mentioned in an earlier post, Mellish Fields West was christened so, in a round-about way, in my father's memory).  Roughly $130,000 of that went into buying the land outright.  We own it.  That left us with $80,000 to build a house.  Of the few numbers we could ever find, the rough estimate of $100 a square foot plus labor came up most often.  We wanted a house close to 800 square feet using our own labor, so things seemed to be coming together quite tidily.  

Man were we close!  That money went pretty equally into the plans, foundation, framing materials and septic system, with another equal portion covering all of those other little expenses which, forgive the cliche, really add up.  As of a week ago, we gave our last dollar to an electrician.  We're framed, dried in, septified and mostly mechanized.  We have 90% a house and no debt!  Again, we are blessed and I am in no way belly-aching about this.  The reason I'm explaining this is to illustrate a weird financial purgatory that we didn't know about, but have found ourselves in.  If you have any intentions of building a house, take note.

We had been striving to finish the house debt free, because we're thrifty little beavers and it seemed doable.  While we never talked about it, we both assumed that if we needed a little extra to kick it on in, a bank would be happy to loan money to such thrifty little beavers with so much equity.  We owned land, after all! Land with 90% of a house on it!  The shop alone was appraised at $30,000, three times what it cost us to build! (Most of that money came as a very generous donation from Christy's father, and the shop is officially called the Rick Penney Amphitheatre).  It was with this confidence that we approached the local credit union, of which we were already members, to ask about construction loans.  Their response was.... surprising.

In a word, "No".  That's not really how construction loans work.  If a bank is gong to have a vested interest in your building project, they intend to a have a big say in it's going-ons.  They want a say in the plans, they want to inspect each step, they want to pay contractors and they almost certainly want a flushing toilet.  They want nothing to do with our small, DIY and eco-striving house, and they wouldn't have wanted anything to do with it even if we had approached them before breaking ground (which is when they want to talk to you anyways).  Not a problem, though!  We have all that equity, that ought to get us a sizable loan, right?

In another word, "Nope".  Banks won't loan money on an incomplete house.  There's been no appraisal, there's no certificate of occupancy and they have no way of confirming it's going to be worth squat.  For some reason that I still don't quite understand, they don't loan money on land either.  Or Rick Penney Amphitheatres.  To the eyes of anyone and their underwriters, we own nothing.  "You can take out a loan against the value of your cars" they told us.  It took a lot of effort not to burst out laughing at the thought of using my rusty, 22 year old toyota pickup truck as our only collateral.  

So there's the purgatory: we can't borrow against our house until it has a certificate of occupancy, but we can't get a certificate of occupancy until we borrow money.  Weird, huh?  Even the banks (we went to a few) admitted it was weird.  We are generally exceptions to rules.

I'm gonna wrap this up quick.  Knowing that we are close (about $10,000 away) from owning a house and five acres worth in the realm of $250,000, are both gainfully employed, and classic rock appears to never die, a thinking person can see that we are safe candidates for a loan.  We approached family with an offer of earning a higher interest rate by loaning money to us than they get from keeping money in a bank.  I know, I know, I hate to take Mitt Romney's advice of asking your family for money when you need it, but it seems like a copacetic arrangement, so we don't need to feel like we're taking a handout. We are aware of how incredibly lucky we are to have family in a position to be able to help and if we did not then we would be forced to open credit cards to finish the house.  Once we get our Certificate of Occupancy (a term that is taking on a reverence these days), we can borrow against it with a bank, pay off our family  in full and probably pay off the bank in a year or two.  *Phew!*
Happy Mayan Apocalypse, everyone!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Curious Tale of the Troublesome Aspen

The past two weeks have really solidified the "misadventure" part of this experiment. We have run into problems followed by more problems. The Main one has been with our wood stove. We bought a little Aspen from Vermont Castings about two years ago with the intention of warmth in the Yome.  We weren't sure if it would go in the house since it may be too small for the height of our ceilings, but we have always planned on a small guest cabin and figured the stove would be useful there.   Now, for those of you who do not realize it , when you build a new house with a wood stove said stove must be brand new. Meaning you have to prove you bought it from a dealer, within a certain time frame for EPA standards. That being said we bought a brand new small stove knowing we could use it for a few years and then install it in the house , pass inspection, and then figure out what wood stove we would like to have.  Except the Aspen has never worked correctly.

When we first used it in the Yome we could not get it to work right but we decided that it was user error. John nor I had ever worked a wood stove before and while it is not rocket science there is a bit of a learning curve.  Long story short, we took down the Yome, stored the Aspen, and have not given it a second thought for the last year and half.

Until the last two weeks. The first challenge included figuring out how the inside stove pipe connects in the ceiling to the outside insulated stove pipe.  That meant finding and installing a "roof mounting package".  It came with instructions and seemed straight forward and for the most part it was.  It was a metal box that shields the rafters from the heat of the pipe and allows both pipes clearance for attachment.  At the very top of the picture below you can see the black box attached to the rafters. That is the roof mounting.   Installing the outside stove pipe was as precarious as it sounds, but was rather uneventful, if you consider John and I on the steep metal roof trying to pull the outside pipe through the box and get it bolted to the roof in a level fashion uneventful. We do.

This is a picture of the installed stove and the entire inside stove pipe.  Anyway, we get it all installed and are so excited to get it cranking so we can be warm and also so we can start drying out the inside a bit before we insulate.

We prime the flue, we light the fire..... and the whole house fills with smoke. Streams out of every window, every door,  every unfilled crack and every joint in the inside pipe. But not out of the outside stove pipe.

The next three days are spent doing pretty much the same thing. Light a fire, watch the fire smolder, watch smoke stream out of the windows and doors and make frantic calls to ..... everyone. Chimney sweeps, the store that sold us the stove, a Vermont Castings rep.  We learned SO much about how wood stoves work and one thing that everyone agreed could be a problem was the height of the outside pipe with the steepness of the roof.  If the outside pipe isn't tall enough then the smoke gets forced back down the pipe and creates a downdraft that pushes the smoke into the house.

So we bought 4ft more of the insulated outside pipe and up it goes.  Notice the difference?

We thought that would surely solve the problem. It did not.  We did get it to burn once for 5 hours but it  was difficult, smoky, and never got above 110 degrees.  I started to panic. I read many reviews online that talked about this stove having problems like this. None of them sounded nearly as bad as ours, but problems with the fires going out and smoke coming out when you opened the door were common complaints.

Now, I built props for theaters for years and one thing I never did was to give an actor an unfinished prop. If said prop were to give the actor a splinter or fail in some way, the prop would always be blamed and would never work after that. I called it the emotional splinter. I was starting to feel an emotional splinter wedged between me and the Aspen. I wanted it gone.  John and I convinced ourselves that the stove MUST be broken. What else could it be? All of the pipe was brand new, we had added 4 ft to the pipe, we know how to work wood stoves after living with one for the last year and half. Was the pipe too long? That's crazy.  It had to be the stove.

After many pictures, video and emails sent to the very very nice Vermont Castings Rep, Brad, he came out to look at it.  He did find problems with the stove. The dampener was not functioning correctly. He fixed it and we lit a fire together. Smoke filled the house.  Brad was perplexed but not to be deterred.

This next part is a bit embarrassing. Through all of this we were so SURE of the pipe. It was Brand NEW!  Nothing was clogged! NO!

Yup. Brad had us take apart the stove pipe and shove a 20ft piece of 1x2 lumber inside. And out fell the nest.  During the 3 days we had the pipe on the ground before we installed it.... something built a nest. A nest big enough to withstand the installation, the fires, and the addition of the 4 ft.

But when John whacked it with a 1x 2 it fell. And it was huge.  I have never been so embarrassed.  Misadventures indeed.

The fire we lit then worked perfectly. The Aspen works! The house is warm and drying out. Christmas came early.  As stupid as I felt , I also felt a huge weight being lifted and sheer joy.

On a bright note here is the project 2 years ago and today!

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Homesteading Entertainment

We feel pretty strongly about not having a television in our house.  We won't have cable or a dish, and there will be no screens to stare at in any communal areas.  This isn't to say that we don't occasionally indulge ourselves in movies or TV shows, we do.  On miserably wet days, sick days, or when we're both feeling totally beat, we'll stay in bed late, or get in bed early to watch something on the computer.  To be totally honest, sometimes we both feel so whooped that we'll take a day to not get out of bed at all.

I assume you're familiar with those days, particularly our fellow obsessive DIYers, so at this, the beginning of the miserably wet and cold season, I'd like to offer a recommendation for such days:

The Good Neighbors is a British sitcom from the 70s following a suburban couple, Tom and Barbara Good, as they transform their life and home to be more self sufficient and sustainable.  What a ripe plot that is....

Oh, it's easy to recognize ourselves in the over-the-top characters, filling their backyard with livestock, building a methane-powered generator in the basement, brewing and getting drunk off of pea pod wine, selling their produce on the corner and inventing ridiculous gadgets.  It might as well be a documentary.  We end up laughing at ourselves as much as the show.  It occurred to me that any other homestead-y types out there might get a kick out of it as well.  It's streaming on Amazon for free, so keep it in mind for next time you don't want to get out of bed because it's pouring down rain and you're hung over from too much home made booze.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Know Your Power Sources

Now that we're working inside the house, the time has come to make some decisions we've been putting off:

How do we heat our water, and how do we heat our radiant floors?

Way back when we were still in the designing stage, I had talked to a plumber about the existence of a propane-fired, on-demand water heater with two closed loops, which would simultaneously heat our domestic hot water, and heat the water running through our slab.  When I recently got back in touch with said plumber to talk more specifically, he gave me a bid of $9,000(!) for a system that upon further inspection wouldn't really work.  Needless to say, we began looking elsewhere.  I've been doing a whole lot of research and have come up with a solution that is essentially the complete opposite of our original idea: two electric tanks.

Perhaps you're thinking "but why electric?".  It struck us as odd as well.  There are a few reasons.  The biggest reason has to do (surprise!) with sustainability.  I had always thought that electricity was an inefficient means to generate any sort of heat.  And technically it is, compared to natural gas or propane.  But to really know how efficient it is, you have to take into consideration the inherent energy involved in the production of the source.  We don't have access to natural gas, so our other option is propane, which while an industrial by-product, is still a fossil fuel source.  And while in some places electricity is generated from burning natural gas, petroleum or coal, most of Washington's energy comes from hydroelectric, with nuclear coming in a distant second.  Electricity is our friend up here.

The next consideration deals with self sufficiency.  Since we still plan, at some point in the future, on putting up solar panels to offset our electrical use, with electric hot water we can work towards generating it ourselves.    We can't make our own propane.    The third reason comes down to price.  Where as propane prices used to be considerably lower than electricity, that's not so much the case any more.  Gases are also subject to wider fluctuations in price.  With all of this factored in, we've decided, as conscientious, compact-fluorescent-buying, tote-bag-having tree huggers, to heat our water and home with electricity.  Weird, huh?

Now that that's taken care of, you may still be wondering why we're using two separate tanks, instead of one unit with a heat exchanger built in.  I sure did.  The reason is our wood stove.  I'm not trying to be obtuse, the fact of the matter is that we still plan on using the wood stove as our main source of heat.  In the summertime, or when we're running the wood stove consistently, we'll be able to simply turn off the tank that goes to the radiant floor.  Not relying on the exchange of heat also means we can keep our domestic hot water at a cooler temperature*.

Lastly, why tanks?  Since we've decided on using electricity, that decision became a lot easier.  There aren't as many on-demand options with electricity, and what is out there seems to be less efficient, and uses much more electricity than a simple tank.  Since our tanks will be located inside our house (under the stairs, next the kitchen), instead of in a crawl space or garage, any heat loss will stay in the house.  Again, not what we had imagined, but I think it makes sense.

Not that it factored into our decision all that much, but this set up is also cheaper up front, doesn't require any venting, and doesn't include the noisy power-blower that a gas fired system would have required.  All plusses.

We should get around to getting this all in within the next week or two.  The electrical is already roughed-in and we're sneaking up on framing inspection time, the last step before insulation!  Oh yeah, and about that wood stove, get ready to hear about that debacle.  Yes, it's officially a debacle.  A smoke-streaming-out-of-every-window, John-throwing-stuff-at-stuff, second-third-and-fourth-attempt debacle.  I'm gonna let Christy write that one.

*In case you haven't checked lately, a lot of people tend to keep their water tanks hotter than needed.  If you're mixing a lot of cold water into your shower, you're spending more money than you need to keeping that tank so hot.  A friendly tip.