Internet! Lights!

As those of you following me on Facebook or Twitter would know, the big news this week is that Serenity Valley has Internet! In the previous post, I said I was going to get an iPhone, but I changed my mind. I went into town just after midnight on the night of the 2nd (early the 3rd) to pre-order a Verizon iPhone, but failed to do so because I have a pre-paid account which isn’t eligible. By the time I was able to switch my account to post-paid later on the 3rd, the first batch of iPhones had already sold out, and I would’ve had to wait until the 9th to get in on the 2nd batch. That, I decided was too close to my planned Day Zero for Project 31, so it was time to switch to plan B. Additionally, I decided that I didn’t really need an iPhone. I have a first generation iPhone that was given to me for free as an award when I was working at Yahoo!, but shelling out $200 for a new one? And get locked in to a 2 year contract where I have to pay $75/month? I eventually decided that was too rich for me right now.

So, I decided to get a Verizon MiFi. With a 1 year contract, it’s $70 + tax (came out to a tad over $90 with various fees), and $35/month for 3GB ($10/GB after that). If I also have a pre-paid phone, that will only cost me about $15/month, so for $50/month, I can have internet & phone service. Plus, I can keep using my old iPhone as a mobile internet device by using the MiFi’s wireless connection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the MiFi, it is a thin, credit-card sized device that does one simple thing: it connects to the internet via Verizon’s wireless network, and turns into a WiFi base station (you can see it in the photo above, where it hangs near a window). To put it in simpler terms, I push a button on the MiFi, and then I hop on my laptop, connect to the MiFi’s wireless network, and presto, I’m online! And, I have to say, it works beautifully. The connection is fast enough to deserve the label “broadband,” though it probably doesn’t hurt that nobody else in my area is using that network (so, ironically, connection speeds may be lower in the city).

The speed is really a mixed blessing. Because it’s so fast, I can use the internet as I would on any broadband connection. Except, I have a 3GB cap (or, rather, would have to pay if I exceed the cap). On the one hand, this is somewhat frustrating. The connection is fast enough that I could watch TV shows on Hulu. But I have to restrain myself if I don’t want to exceed my limit. On the other hand, I think this works well for me. I have a finite amount of resources on my property, including a finite amount of electricity. It only makes sense that I have a “finite” amount of internet as well. When I’m in the city, I’m horrible at regulating my internet consumption behavior, so I’m actually glad that my electricity and bandwidth limits will force me to restrict my internet usage, at least when I’m on Serenity Valley.

Also, Hut 2.1 has electricity! By which I mean, I got a 100ft extension cable to draw AC power from my “power station” (solar panel + battery array + inverter, located in a clearing) all the way to the cabin. In the picture above, I’m using a 13W CFL bulb, but I’ll be switching to the LED bulbs soon. I also recently got battery-powered LED spotlights, but I’ll write about those in a separate post.

In other news, I’m getting better with the stove. In the last post, I wrote about how I was having a hard time keeping a small fire going. This problem has now effectively been solved, by doing two things. The first was to fill in a big hole in the stove with aluminium foil, so that the only place where air can get in is the actual air intake. So, now, I can actually control the air flow, which helps control the fire. The second thing I did was to put some rocks in the combustion chamber. What was happening before was that, as soon as a “log” (in my case, a peice of mountain mahogany 2-3 inches in diameter and 6-8 inches long) finished burning, the remaining hot coals would scatter over a large area, and the dispersed heat would be insufficient to burn the next log. By filling about a third of the combustion chamber with rocks, I am forcing the glowing embers into a smaller area, and the concentrated heat is sufficiently hot to get the next log going.

With these two changes, I can now keep smaller fires burning longer, and keep the hut at a comfortable 65F (18C) degrees. The one remaining issue is that, while it may be nice and warm up in the loft (which is great), it’s a good deal colder downstairs. This may be less of an issue once the floor is insulated, but I’m also planning on running some ducts and fans to circulate the air and even out the temperatures. (Question: should I blow hot air down, or cold air up?)

With Project 31 approaching, and with this strange spell of sunny weather bound to end with it (I mean, it just has to), I’ve been thinking about how much firewood I should store up. After all, if the weather gets wet, I may not be able to harvest more fuel for a while. But how much wood is enough? Well, that depends on how much I burn. So, to get an estimate of my burn-rate, after I got a couple of backpack loads (second load was less than full, so call it 1.75), I split the wood into smaller piles of 5 pieces each, with each pile weighing probably 4-5 pounds. I ended up with 13 such piles, which lasted me 4.5 evenings (though, a few of the evenings were pretty warm), burning 2.5-3 piles per night. So if 2 backpack loads give me 5 evenings’ worth, for 31 days, I should have 2x(31/5) or about 12 backpacks’ worth.

Having done all that work, though, I can’t remember exactly how many backpacks’ worth of wood I have right now… But I’m out of space under the hut, so, well, I hope what I have is enough. The nice thing about this mountain mahogany I’ve been harvesting is that its bark is usually stripped, leaving the hard wood, which doesn’t seem to soak up much moisture. So even if it snows (or rains), I should be able to find reasonably dry fuel, especially from trees that are dead but still upright (and therefore won’t accumulate much snow).

Update on Project 31 Preparations

A quick update on preparations for Project 31 (though, in reality, it’s hard to say what’s just part of my life and what counts as “preparation”…) I still haven’t decided on the exact start date, but I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-February.

Water
It’s been surprisingly dry for the past few weeks, but it’s quite possible that the weather will get wetter during Project 31. I have about 30 gallons of rain water so far, so even if there’s no precipitation, I can probably live off of that for a month if I don’t shower (I also have 55 gallons of potable water as backup). As for sanitizing collected water, I have a length of PVC pipe, along with some sand, gravel and charcoal to make a filter out of. For actual drinking water, I’ll pass the filtered water again through a Britta filter. It might not remove 100% of contaminants, but that should make the water clean enough to not kill me in 31 days.

Shelter
Progress on Hut 2.1 has been slow but steady. I finished putting up the last of the exterior rigid insulation boards last night, so practically every square inch of the walls and roof are insulated at this point. The next step is to put in the insulated raised floor, and continue with the interior “furnishings”. But I can work on that during Project 31, so I’m not in a huge rush.

Electricity
I had a bit of a scare yesterday & this morning, when I realized that the charge light on my charge controller was conspicuously off, even though the batteries had run down to 12.5 Volts. My multimeter showed an unusually low voltage across the solar panel cables, which lead me to believe that the solar panel had stopped working. After trying a few different things today, I realized that the solar panel’s voltage was fine, as long as it wasn’t hooked up to my charge controller. In other words, when it was connected to my charge controller, some kind of anomalously huge resistance was dropping the voltage to almost zero, without actually sending any of the current to my batteries (I’m guessing a short of some sort). In fewer words, my charge controller is broke. Fortunately, I had another charge controller lying around, so once I did a little rewiring, I got some juice flowing to the battery array again. The broken charge controller is still under warranty, so I should be able to send it in for a replacement, which, hopefully will arrive before I start Project 31.

This incident had me thinking that I might want a back up to my 100W solar panel, in case it did decide to break. A week or so ago, I bought a 45W solar kit from Harbor Freight because it was on sale, but I ended up returning it because it didn’t seem like I’d need the additional capacity. But it might be a good idea to have another set of panels as backup, just in case. Without a backup solar panel, my backup-backup would be to use my car battery, but that would require running the engine to keep the battery charged.

Also on the topic of electricity, I ordered a Xantrex ProSine SW600 pure sine-wave inverter, which should be arriving soon. It’s only rated for 600W, but I don’t think I even own any appliances that use anywhere near that much power. The most power hungry device I own is probably my laptop, which should pull no more than 85W.

Heating
I’ve been using the stove every night since I finished the chimney, and it’s kept me nice and warm even when it got down to 15F (-9.4C) outside. In fact, keeping the heat low enough has been the bigger challenge, especially when I’m only burning wood. It’s hard to have a small self-sustaining wood fire that doesn’t burn out in 10 minutes, yet stays hot enough to ignite and burn bigger chunks of wood. I’ve been burning a mix of charcoal and wood, and might look into making my own charcoal once I’ve burned through the bags I bought for my previous experiments. I’m also continuing to gather firewood while the weather is relatively dry, with the goal of actually stocking up on a month’s worth, so that I won’t have to worry about fuel even if it gets wet and cold during Project 31.

I’ve also tried to cook using the stove, but that’s proving to be a little harder than I’d anticipated, because the cabin gets uncomfortably warm if I get the stove hot enough to cook with. I also only have the wood stove going in the evenings, so I’d need to use propane to cook meals or heat water during the day. This isn’t a huge problem, but I might need to revise my projected propane usage up, since I might be using my propane stove for cooking more than I’d anticipated.

Communication
I was originally thinking of getting a Verizon MiFi for internet, but I’ve since decided to get a Verizon iPhone, since it has the same capability as a MiFi but would allow me to cancel my AT&T iPhone plan, and have one phone instead of the current two (I have an AT&T iPhone which doesn’t work on my property, and a Verizon feature phone on a prepaid plan for when I’m on my property). The Verizon iPhone goes on pre-order tonight, and becomes available on the 10th.