The Cost of Convenience

21.42. That’s how many pounds of propane I’ve burned in the last year or so. I know because I’ve kept every single one of the 1.02lb propane canisters I’ve used. I’ve thought about switching to the bigger 20lb tanks, to save money and reduce waste, but the one thing I like about the little canisters is that it helps me internalize how much gas I’m burning.

Internalizing quantities is something we have a hard time with, yet, if we are to have any hopes of reducing emissions, it’s something we’re going to have to get better at. Unfortunately, in modern society, most of our energy consumption is abstracted away from us. When you pump gas into a car, all you see is a number on the screen, and you probably don’t even know how big, physically, your gas tank is. At home, the power and gas meters are conveniently hidden away. So, understandably, it’s difficult for us to even realize how much energy we’re using even in an abstract sense, much less in any tangible way.

I remember one time while I was pumping gas, I tried to visualize the quantity of that volatile liquid I was going to burn, by picturing all the gas being in 1 gallon milk jugs. Then, I pictured 12 of those jugs and imagined lighting it all on fire. In my mind’s eye I saw a giant ball of flame, and thought for a second that blowing up 12 gallons of gasoline might actually be more fun than using it to drive about 300 miles.

A rechargeable AA battery, at 1.2V, might contain about 1.5 Amp-hours, or a theoretical 3.3 Watt-hours of power. In practice, the voltage would drop too low to be usable after a while, so let’s say, generously, that you’d get 2 Watt-hours. An “efficient” CFL bulb might use 13 Watts, so if you left it on, you’d be using enough energy to drain more than 6 rechargeable AA batteries every hour. Fortunately, if you live in the city, all that power gets delivered to you with the flick of a switch. But next time you do, pretend you’re draining an AA battery every 10 minutes, and it might help you remember to turn lights off when you don’t need them.

In any case, I’m trying to reduce propane usage on my property. Right now, I use propane for my cooking stove (at a rate of about 1lb per week), and my lamp, which also doubles as a heater (which burns about 2lb a week). So far, I’ve had two separate offers from readers to buy me a propane shower, but I’ve resisted. Once Hut 2.1 is done, I’d like to switch to electrical lighting (charged by solar, and perhaps also wind), burn wood for heating and some cooking, and only use propane for the kind of cooking that can’t be done on my wood stove.

Some people argue that wood stoves aren’t so “green.” Burning wood can be rather dirty, especially in old stoves that are inefficient and don’t have catalytic converters. This is true. But, I don’t think it’s realistic to treat all wood burning equally. First of all, when you burn fossil fuels (which include “natural” gas and propane, as well as coal), you’re burning carbon that was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, and then re-releasing it into the atmosphere now, when, if left in the ground, it may not have been re-released anytime soon. When you burn wood, you’re releasing carbon that was absorbed in the last hundred years or so. And –here’s the important part– around here, if I don’t burn the dry tinder, it would eventually be burning anyway in the not-too-distant future. This isn’t true everywhere. As far as I know, forest fires aren’t part of the natural ecosystem in rain forests, and so felling and burning those trees artificially adds emissions. But, around here, it is almost a guarantee that, if left to nature, any patch of forest would burn once every hundred years or so. So, when I pick up some dead dried branches from the woods around me and burn it, I am releasing the carbon trapped in it the way it would’ve anyway. Granted, some of it may have eventually rotted away, or otherwise have gotten broken down biologically (via termites, and other organisms), so I may be boosting emissions slightly, but not by much. On the other hand, if I can clear the forest and minimize the risk of uncontrolled natural forest fires, I may help reduce emissions that way, thus balancing my footprint (though, perhaps not, because the way to clear forests is to –surprise surprise!– do controlled burns).

Of course, CO2 is CO2, regardless of whether it comes from burning wood or burning propane. So, arguably, the two may be considered to be comparable. The difference, though, is that propane is so much more convenient, and so much denser in energy, that it’s much easier to burn in excess when compared to wood, which, by virtue of being less energy dense than propane, takes more effort to move, even if you don’t do the chopping and splitting yourself. A 20lb canister of propane contains roughly the same amount of energy as 60 to 80lb of seasoned firewood. But which would you rather move? Which would you be more willing to go buy more of? When less is more (or better), taking the less convenient route can allow us to be more conscious of our consumption habits, and in turn, moderate such behaviors. If I rely on wood for heat, I’ll need to exert more effort into gathering fuel than if I burned propane. So, I’ll naturally want to burn less of it, and therefore reduce my overall emissions.

Moral to the story? Convenience has a cost, usually in financial terms, but also in environmental terms and even health. Cooking your own meals might be less convenient than eating out, but may be cheaper and healthier. Walking or biking to work may be less convenient than driving, but will be cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally healthy. In typical modern lifestyles, it’s not difficult to find ways to do good, by enduring –nay, by enjoying— just a little bit of inconvenience. So, next time you have a chance to chose inconvenience over convenience, give inconvenience a shot. Your wallet, your body, and your environment will thank you for it.

Insulating Hut 2.1

I posted some thoughts on insulation a while back, but now that I’m actually in the process of insulating Hut 2.1, I figured I’d do another post talking about what I’ve ended up doing.

As you can see in the photo above, I’m using R-5 3/4″ thick polyisocyanurate rigid foam insulation boards on the exterior. If you recall, I used that stuff on the roof as well, so basically the whole structure, save for the windows, door, and floor, will be encased in those boards. Normally, insulation goes inside the wall cavities, but I first thought of putting insulation on the outside while working on Hut 1.0, and implemented the idea in Hut 2.0. The reasons for doing so are manyfold:

  1. Putting insulation on the outside leaves the wall cavities available for use. I’ve filled in some of the walls with “shelves”, but I also have the option of filling them in with batt insulation if the rigid boards on the outside prove to be insufficient. The same applies for the space between my rafters, which I may fill with batt insulation later.
  2. Instead of using a traditional air barrier, I’m taping the seams between the insulation panels together so that the insulation panels themselves form an air barrier. The boards on the roof also act as a waterproof layer, in the event that moisture leaks through the roofing panels. This cuts down on building materials, which lowers the financial cost as well as the total environmental footprint.
  3. By wrapping the entire structure in insulation, I am increasing the thermal mass within the thermal envelope. That is, all the posts and beams and OSB sheathing inside the insulation act as a thermal mass, which can absorb heat and release it slowly. Obviously, wood isn’t as effective of a thermal mass as, say, a concrete slab, but I think it counts for something. The downside is that, if I’m heating the structure from a dead cold, it takes longer to warm up, because, for a while, the structure itself is going to be absorbing some of that heat.
  4. Covering every square inch of the exterior in insulation (again, except for windows and doors) prevents thermal bridging. Thermal bridging, in the context of structures, is when heat conducts through structural members, bypassing insulation. For instance, in a traditional 2×4 stud wall construction, only the space between studs typically have insulation, so the studs themselves can conduct heat in or out. While that may not seem like much, if studs are spaced 16″ apart, that’s 1.5″ out of every 16″, or close to 10% of the surface area that’s left uninsulated.

When I first thought of the idea, I thought it was all new and radical, but I’ve since learned that this exterior insulation thing is… well, a thing. For instance, a related and somewhat similar concept is SIP –or Structured Insulated Panel— construction, which is a fancy way to say “insulation boards sandwiched between structural sheathing.” The one interesting thing about SIP is that the insulation boards are glued to the sheathing, thus increasing rigidity and eliminating any gaps. Gaps in insulation are bad, because it could allow for air circulation, which can render insulation moot by carrying heat in or out. For Hut 2.1, I originally tried using a spray-on glue to attach the polyiso boards to the underlying OSB sheathing, but the glue I got didn’t stick too well. So, instead, I’ve been nailing the boards onto the sheathing, and, where possible, through to the 4×4 posts (the gray patches of duct tape in the photo above are where I’ve put in nails). That doesn’t eliminate the gaps, but, in my case, I’m not terribly concerned because those gaps will be inside the thermal envelope, and as I mentioned above, the foam boards should, in theory, form a mostly air-tight enclosure and relatively little of that heat should escape outside.

For the floor, I’m thinking of doing something different as well. Normally, batt insulation would be stuffed in the spaces between the floor joists. But, I don’t like fiberglass, and ever since I saw those cubes of recycled cellulose blow-in insulation at the hardware store (pictured below), I’ve been wanting to use them. The stuff is made of recycled materials, supposedly uses far less energy to manufacture than traditional alternatives, and is pretty cheap ($8 per bag), so it sounds pretty awesome all around. The current plan is to lay down more 2×4 “joists” on top of the existing floor (though running perpendicularly to the existing joists for strength), then put another layer of OSB on top of that, and fill in the 3.5″ tall gaps with the blow-in insulation, which should give me about R-13. Since the insulation will be sandwiched between two layers of OSB, I also won’t have to worry (as much) about critters getting in there or stealing my insulation, which I hear are concerns for the more typical exposed under-the-floor batt insulation.

So, that’s basically the plan so far. I’m considering getting some batt insulation that’s made of recycled materials, similar to the blow-in insulation I got, to stuff in between my rafters. But, I think I’ll hold off on that until I get my stove going, and see how well the existing insulation works (or doesn’t work).

Journal: December 19th, 2010

It started snowing last night, so I moved the car about a 3rd of the way back down the dirt road, past the worst bits where I got stuck last time. Later in the evening, a warm front moved in, and the snow turned to rain, accompanied by strong gusty winds. The storm kept me up for a while, as the winds rattled the loose Tyvek on the extension roof. Rain, sleet and hail peppered the south-facing wall and windows. Out in the woods, you can hear wind approaching from a mile away, like an oncoming freight train. The sounds –which travel faster than the wind itself– of air rushing by trees, move ahead of the actual pressure wave, and as I lay in the dark hut, under my blankets, could do nothing but to cringe as wave after wave of air tore through the woods and crashed upon my untested cabin. Hut 2.1, with its broad and high wall that faces prevailing winds, has a high wind profile, and that’s always been a concern to me, especially since the structure isn’t anchored to the ground. Fortunately, the hut withstood each assault with barely a shudder. Eventually, I drifted off, as I gained confidence in my dwelling, and the rattling of the Tyvek, and the pattering of the rain, and the roaring of the wind lost that threatening edge, turning instead to a calming lullaby, just another soundtrack of a life in a cabin in the woods. My last thoughts before falling asleep were “Man, if I had a wind generator, they’d be cranking out mad Amps right about now…”

Then, I almost got myself killed on the way out today. It had started snowing heavily just as I was leaving. Though the temperature was a few degrees above freezing, the heavy sticky snow accumulated quickly, and by the time I made it a few miles down the paved county road, the pavement was covered in half an inch of slush. Coming out of a gentle right-hand turn, I felt the car sliding as I tried to straighten out. I turned the wheel farther to the left, then suddenly the tires caught traction, catapulting me into the opposing lane and towards the hillside. With the car’s slip indicator beeping rapidly and franticly –as if I didn’t notice what was happening– I gave full right rudder, as the car straightened out with the left wheels rumbling on the gravel shoulder off the opposing lane. I slid, straight, half on and half off the pavement, as the side half-off the pavement tried to pull me farther off to the left, while the front wheels tried desperately and futilely to pull me back on to the right. After what seemed like minutes, but probably no more than 3 seconds, the car finally shuddered to a halt. I quickly scooted back to my side of the road, and pulled over on the shoulder with the emergency lights blinking. It was a close call. I’d scraped a bush off the side of the road, and my laptop had flown off the passenger side seat where it had been charging contentedly, but there was no discernible damage to car, contents, or person.

As I got back on the road, I reflected on what had happened. In my rush to get out before the snow got worse, I’d failed to notice the rapidly changing surface conditions — which had been wet, but not snowy, just a few minutes and a couple of miles prior. I was going way too fast for the conditions. The treads on my front tire are also worn down almost to nothing (need to get new tires, or at least rotate the back tires forward). I’d also braked too hard, though I’m not sure what the car’s fancy electronic safety systems were doing during that whole ordeal. I was also fortunate there was no oncoming traffic — that could’ve ended catastrophically.

Conditions got better as I got down into the valley, with the snow turning to sleet, then rain. But to get out of the area, I still had to go over a mountain pass at 4300ft elevation. There was at least an inch or two of accumulation on the road surface, with heavy snow falling steadily. I thought about waiting for a plough to come through and following it, but it was 3pm –an hour before sunset– with the thermometer showing 34F. That close to dusk, it’d get colder soon, and then icy. I decided to just take it slowly. Fortunately I made it up over the pass and back down to less snowy conditions without having to pull out my chains.

Normally, I’d just wait out a storm, since I have plenty of supplies, and usually, nowhere to be. But, I’m heading out of town in a few days to go spend the holidays with my parents, so I was actually on a schedule for once. It looks like I got out just in the nick of time, other than that brief sledding adventure.

So, that’s it from Serenity Valley for 2010. I’ll be back in January, but rest assured, I have blog posts lined up for the interim period as well. I also have a big-ish announcement possibly coming up, so stay tuned for that as well.

Update: After posting this, I realized that, while it’s just past midnight in Serenity Valley Time, and therefore the 19th, it’s actually December 18th local time. Thought I’d add an explanation in case anyone was wondering why the post is from the future…

Hut 2.1 video

I felt like making a quick video of Hut 2.1, so here it is. It’s not a terribly exciting video, and I wasn’t feeling particularly perky that day, but I figured it might still be of interest to some of you. You can watch it below, or in HD on YouTube.


I’ve set up a Donations page on the blog, which describes all the different ways you can contribute. You can now setup a PayPal subscription, for instance, which will automatically charge periodically, starting with $5/month on the low end. I also have a list of some physical things I could use, if you’d rather donate stuff instead of money. And I’ve listed a few ways you could help for FREE as well…

I’ll be honest, money is tight. I returned hundreds of dollars worth of chimney for a refund, and sold a couple of guns I don’t need. Combined, that raised enough cash to get me through the month. Next month, I’m planning on taking out an early disbursement from my 401k account. Obviously, that’s not ideal, but I’d rather do that than go back to the cubicle farm. But once that’s gone, and I haven’t come up with a better plan, the cubicle farm it’ll have to be.

I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I want to keep living off the beaten path. And I want to keep blogging, to share my story and the lessons I’m learning. Obviously, I haven’t figured everything out. But life’s short, and I’m not going to waste my days doing something I don’t care about.

If you can, please help.

Free shipping on calendars

I found a coupon code for Lulu (which makes my calendars) to get free ground shipping. The coupon says it’s only valid through 12/12, but I was able to use it right now, and saved over $10 on shipping. The code probably won’t work for much longer, so if you were thinking of buying one of my calendars, you might want to take advantage of this offer soon, and try entering the code HOLIDAY305 on checkout.

Update: That code might not work anymore, but reader Typhanee graciously shared a new coupon code she received when she bought a calendar: try entering RESOLVE355 to get another 15% off.

Journal: December 9th, 2010

I got all four windows up on the south-facing wall over the past few days, so Hut 2.1 is almost entirely enclosed. Once I put up one more window on the western side, it’ll be completely enclosed. There’s actually still one more window to put up, but where that’s supposed to go (the eastern side) is currently covered up in OSB, and I’ll need to cut out the opening (there was a last minute change in window locations). Few of my windows actually match, but that’s what happens when you go cheap. Of the 7 windows in the lower level, only 2 were bought new. Two more were bought in like-new condition from a salvage shop, but didn’t come with installation instructions, which would’ve been useful seeing how they don’t have tabs, unlike all the other vinyl windows I’ve seen. The remaining 3 windows I got from a friends’ dad, who’d rescued them from the dumper at a construction site. They’re actually really nice Low-E, double-paned argon-filled tempered glass that must cost a lot new, but only cost me a six pack of beer. They’re also unframed panes, but I improvised a frame, so we’ll see how that goes (yes, lots of weather proofing strips, caulk, and foam were involved).

Okay, boys and girls, I gotta get going, so that’s it for today. More in a few days…

Journal: December 7th, 2010

As I’d feared in my previous post, I did indeed get stuck on my dirt road on my way back to my property that day. Actually, I got stuck 3 times, and instead of getting the hint after the first time, or the second time, I barged on, undeterred, like a fool. In my defense, things didn’t get too bad until the 3rd time I got stuck. The first time, I reversed a few feet and gave myself some extra momentum to overcome a slick patch. The second time, I remembered to engage the differential lock, and muscled my way up an icy incline. The 3rd time, though, I got stuck on a particularly rough section of the road, where there’s a tight corner, steep grade, and some big boulders. I kept backing up, but not regaining any ground, until I was up against a bush. Eventually, I walked up to my camp, grabbed a shovel, and started shoveling compacted icy snow out from ahead of the tires. Fortunately, that did the trick. (By the way, if you were following my new Twitter account,@laptopandarifle, you would’ve gotten a real-time blow-by-blow of that incident…).

Other than that, life’s chugging along. Here’s something I wrote in my journal last night:

December 6th, 2010
I may be living a dream, but not every day is exactly rosy. I hit a rough patch today, when, for a while, it seemed like nothing was going right. I was already feeling frustrated with the slow progress, when I slipped and drove my cordless drill into my finger. It’s just a flesh wound, but combined with the crack on my thumb, I felt like I was slowly losing use of my hands, one finger at a time. Then, I screwed up installing a window. My feet are still constantly cold. I realized that I couldn’t put the chimney where I thought I could after all. I noticed that the door wasn’t hung square, and it was too late to fix. I worried about whether I’d be able to get my car back down the dirt road, and if I could, whether I’d be able to come back up. If I had to leave my car farther down the road, I may have to walk a quarter mile in the cold to go to bed. I suddenly wasn’t sure I’d finish Hut 2.1 before conditions forced me off my property. Dark clouds rolled in. A chilly gust blew through the open walls of my cabin, numbing my fingers as I tried to mark my next cut.

I wondered to myself why I couldn’t just be like everybody else, and be content working in a warm office, going home to a wife and kids. I thought about how crazy it is that I’m building my own house, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the cold, without any training in carpentry, construction, or architecture, on a shoe-string budget, in defiance of god knows how many building codes. I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Imperfections glared back at me. Unfinished tasks loomed in my mind, overwhelmingly. Doubts flashed through my mind — maybe I should let other people do the building, and just pay a mortgage, like everybody else.

But, eventually, I pulled myself together, and had a productive day. Out here, alone, I am the source of all my problems, but I am also the solution to all my problems. At least, I have to be, if I don’t want to get stuck. In the city, things that stress people out are the things they can’t control. Whether it’s their job, the cable company, the plumber or mechanic, or their noisy neighbors, peoples’ lives are so deeply intertwined with –and dependent on– others that they often have little control over the problems they face. Out here, nobody causes any of my problems, but I also can’t expect anyone else to solve my problems for me either. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, but at the end of the day, I overcome those challenges and feel better for it.

Indeed, I found solutions to my problems. I bandaged my fingers, and got back to work. I found a new place to put the chimney. I tore out the window and installed it satisfactorily. I ignored the pain in my toes — actual risks of frostbite are negligible. I devised a workaround for the door problem. I warmed up my fingers with a hot mug of coffee, picked up my saw, and kept cutting. After dark, I walked down the dirt road, shovel in hand, breaking up the ice along the way so that I could get out the next morning. And I got my bedding out of the car, heaved it up the makeshift ladder, into the loft of Hut 2.1. Last night, I slept in my new unfinished cabin for the first time. It was a bit draftier than the car, but if I want to get warmer, I’ll just have to finish the damn walls.

News Flash! Sales of my super amazing calendars have been lackluster. Maybe you guys don’t like me as much as I thought, or the calendar isn’t as awesome as I think, but maybe it was just too damn expensive for these lean times. Well, to see which of these is true, I’ve marked down the price by 15% to a more reasonable $24.79. That’s a whopping $4.38 off the original price! And remember, the more people buy a calendar, the sooner I can afford a warm pair of boots 😉 My toes thank you in advance. (If you’re convinced, here’s the link again.)

Journal: December 4th, 2010

Wow, it’s December already? Crazy. But, hey, it’s December and I’m still here! Last year, I only stayed until late November, so at least I’ve lasted longer this year. We’ll see how much longer I can keep going though…

I continue to make slow but steady progress on Hut 2.1. When I resumed work on Wednesday, the first order of business was to clear up the interior so I have space to work. Then, I spent at least a couple of hours mulling over the Chimney Issue.

Yes, the Chimney Issue. As I read the instructions that came with the chimney mounting kit, I realized that there were significant issues with putting the chimney where I had planned to put it. I was hoping to put it on the gable side exterior wall of the structure, and since the roof overhangs by about 6″ on that side, I assumed the chimney would clear it without a problem. Well, as it turns out, the instructions on the mounting kit explicitly prohibit such offsets, and judging by the big bold letters and the number of exclamation marks, I’m inclined to begrudgingly abide by this one. But, if instead of clearing the overhang by offsetting the chimney, I do as the manual says, and poke a hole in the overhang, that creates a whole other set of issues since now I’ll have a hole in the roof, half way up.

So, I decided that it would be easier to just put the chimney elsewhere. But where? I knew the chimney had to stick out the eaves side, or, I could use a different chimney kit and go through the roof, instead of out the wall and up. If I were to go through the roof, it’d make sense to stick it out the extension, since the roof there isn’t done yet. (Also, the kit doesn’t support steeply sloped roofs such as the one I have over the main section of my cabin, while the extension roof has a much shallower slope.) But the extension was supposed to house the bathroom and the kitchen, and if a stove were to go in there, the bathroom would have to go where the stove originally was supposed to go. On the other hand if the stove went on the Northern eaves side in the main section of the cabin (not the extension), the chimney would be dangerously close to an oak tree, thus creating a fire hazard.

At the end, I found the one logical (and safe) place the chimney (and therefore, the stove) could go: on the Southern side in the main section, with the chimney going up through the eves. I then decided it still made sense to move the bathroom to where the stove would’ve gone, which leaves the entirety of the extension available to be used as a kitchen. I’ve always wanted a nice big kitchen in my house, so I’m quite pleased with that change. Unfortunately, moving the bathroom meant I had to swap a couple of window frames, because the bathroom must have an opening window, and the window frame in the new location had been sized for one of my non-opening windows.

Long story short, I spent the better part of Wednesday evening cutting out window frames and putting up new ones, so that the right windows would be in the right places given the new layout. Overall, though, I’m quite happy with where things will end up being. Thursday night, I put up some horizontal crosspieces in vertical spaces between studs, posts and window frames. These pieces will add considerable strength to the walls, but really, I put them there to use as shelves (and it’s easier to nail those pieces in now, before the walls are covered). Last night, I got some more OSB sheathing up, and I should be done with that in another day or two. Then, the windows will go up, and at that point, the structure should be fully enclosed. Insulation will then go on the outside, and hopefully I’ll have a reasonably comfortable place to live.

My biggest concern is still the weather. This week’s been reasonably warm, with temperatures staying within a narrow range above and below freezing. It snowed about 5 inches a couple of nights ago, but much of it melted away the next day, when the temperatures climbed back up above freezing. The main concern is the dirt road that leads in and out of my property. It was pretty slick coming out today, and I lost control when my car slid down hill a few feet, but fortunately it stopped before hitting any trees. Other than that, I myself am keeping warm, though my feet are almost constantly cold, thanks to my leaky boots that are constantly wet from slushing through melting snow, and my double-layered wool socks have been soaking through. It’s impossible to keep my socks dry, so instead, I’ve just been wearing wet socks whenever I need to go outside, and switching to dry socks when I’m inside. Obviously, this could be a losing strategy for my toes if it gets much colder, but seems to be an ok short term solution. In the long run, I’ll apply a liberal coating of water proofing spray onto my boots the next time I’m in the city and they’ve had a chance to dry. Or maybe Santa will bring me nice winter boots… Overall, though, despite cold feet, my spirits are high, and I am happy to be doing what I’m doing. It’s beautiful up here, and working on my cabin at night, after dark, when all is silent but for the hissing of my propane lamp, engulfed by its warm radiance — it is a divine experience, worthy in and of itself.

News flash! I setup a new Twitter account: @laptopandarifle. This one’s linked to my Verizon phone, which gets coverage up on my property, so I’ll be able to post updates via SMS. So, go ahead and follow that, if you want up-to-the-minute updates from Serenity Valley.