The Straw House Blog


New Panels

Last month we installed two more 175W solar panels to our array. For those keeping track we now have eight 85W BP solar panels, four 165W Sharp panels, and two 175W Sharp panels for a grand total of 1360W.

Unfortunately one of the realities of building an array piecemeal is that the sizes of the panels change from model-to-model and year-to-year. We really didn’t want to buy new racks so we decided to modify the existing racks that hold the BP Solar panels. We added two new mounting rails and moved the two existing rails to the sides. The new panels squeeze quite nicely in the middle.

This required that new holes be drilled to mate the horizontal rails to the rack uprights. If you look closely you can see a piece of wood we were using a blocker to prevent us from accidently drilling into the back of a panel. With Dad, J.P. and I it took most of the day to get the racks modified, panels mounted and wired.

Most of the time that we worked Declan played outside in the sand pile (side note: a pleasant side effect of straw bale construction is that you usually end up with enough leftover sand for a good play area.) He’s a remarkably self-sufficient kid.

We’ve been really lucky, so far this fall and we’ve had lots of sun. We call this time of year the “100 days of grey” because we typically go from late October to early January with little or no sun. In the last four weeks we’ve had many sunny days and have really seen the benefit of our new panels. Here’s a picture of the readout form our Outback MX-60 charge controller. You can see that the panels are bringing in 31.4A but the MX-60 is upping that to 38.3A. Typically we have to run the generator weekly through the 100 days of grey to keep the batteries charged but in the last four weeks we’ve only run it twice. In addition to saving money on gas, we really appreciate the peace and quiet.



The House in Pictures

I’ve put together an overview in pictures of the house from the day we broke ground (August 2002) to when we moved in (May 2003).



Something new every day

It’s a cliche but everyday I’m at the house I learn something. Today Pete was teaching me some better stuccoing skills. We were filling in cracks on the walls, as well as the gaps where the straw/stucco settled over the winter. Once the cracks and gaps are filled we can start applying the white marble stucco mixture. I’m hoping to help with that tomorrow, and learn some super smooth stucco skills.

Jo and Mom spent the afternoon priming various walls, Dad did some electrical work, wiring up the back room electrical outlets. We also took down the kitchen lights, to protect them from accidental… collision.

Tina has fallen in love with our dog bath. A while back we decided to have the dog bath serve dual use as our utility sink. We had it plumbed with a service box that includes a hot and cold water tap, connected with a Y-hose. This set-up allows us to fill buckets, clean tools, and bathe dogs. I suspect Pete’s gonna get a request to build one for Tina real soon.

Here are some things we have learned so far, maybe they can help others:

  1. You cannot plan enough. Check, then check again. It’s forgetting the little things, then having to go back and fix them that really eats into your time.
  2. Buy the big box. We started with a 50 pound box of 3” spiral nails. Figured we’d end up with leftovers. Bought a 25, innumerable small boxes, and then another 25. We should have bought a second 50. We’re going through the same thing with drywall mud.
  3. The lowest quote is rarely the best. Find the best people, hire them. Use your quotes as a reference, and to make sure everybody’s price is in line. In every case when we have hired solely based on price we’ve been sorry.
  4. There is absolutely no limit whatsoever to the varieties of awful smelly things that a work site dog can find to roll in on 100 acres. Two weeks ago Gator rolled in something so foul it made your eyes water when he got close. Get a hose plumbed ASAP.
  5. Unless you have tested them, the wires are live.
  6. Some retailers have credit cards that save money on your first order. If you time things right you can use the card to save on a big purchase. If we had used such a card for our insulation purchase we’d have saved around $600.00.
  7. The plans are never complete enough.

Today, we took pictures, imagine that.



Lazy Sunday

Not a whole bunch to report today. Jo and my mom went to a baby shower for my cousin, Dad and I stayed at the house. Ian came down and with his help we managed to get the last of the drywall up in the back room. We had lunch and Ian and I went out for a nice long walk. It was a beautiful day, sunny, clear, and perfect temperature.

We have the fridge hooked up and running now. The fridge is the biggest electrical load in just about anybody’s home. When it’s running the fridge presents a load of 4 amps. Right now we’re holding steady with what we are generating off the solar panels, that includes the use of various lights and power tools. We’re producing about 50 amp hours per day. By my calculations (inexperienced and rusty) that means we’re generating 2.4 kilowatts per day (50 amps X 48 volts). Please, someone, correct me if I’m wrong. The wind generator will be some very nice icing on that cake.


Happy Birthday Jo

Yep, today’s her birthday. I’m not telling how old.

Pete and Tina got two sections done today, they’re back on Monday. Phil brought Joanne up, helped put up one piece of drywall, helped bring in the shower base, and then had to leave to go to a job interview. He got the job, but it’s a night gig so he says he can still come out and help us. We need the muscle.

For some reason Dad really wanted to have the kitchen lights up in time for the tour today. To get the lights up they had to be rewired, which involved cutting off the old leads and soldering on new wires. We removed the metal rods and hung the lights from the new wires. They look amazing, and we’ll leave them up for tomorrow, then take them back down to protect the glass.

The tour took up a good portion of the afternoon, so we didn’t really get much work done. Everybody seemed quite impressed with the house and the land.



At low ebb

There are times working on this project when I just don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. The task is so huge that, as close to the end as we are, it still seems like there is way too much to do. Our Easter move in date is long since history, we’re looking at the end of May right now. Our landlord wants six weeks notice on our apartment so if we want to move in at the end of May we have to give notice next week. It’s a bit of a gut check to give notice when we have no appliances, no water, and the whole place is covered in dust. We really can’t afford to bring in any help at this point, so it’s all up to us.

Here’s the laundry list for today:

Mom put the first coat of urethane on the bathroom walls, and the Wiremold conduit covers. She applied stain to the shower back wall since Dad’s experiments showed that fibreglass will adhere to stained wood.

Dad worked on the outside walls of the bathroom. It looks like we’ll have just enough of our wood to finish.

I put the third coat of drywall mud on the back walls, sanded the outside walls of the bathroom, and built the dog bath.

Dog bath? You can see it in the pictures.



April in Ontario

Not a lot of work got done today, lotsa driving around in fairly crappy weather. Over the course of twelve hours about 8-12 inches of snow fell around southern Ontario. Our driveway has 12” of snow on it, and it hasn’t been ploughed. I managed to get in with the truck, but it wasn’t fun. So the roofing guys weren’t there, the plumber couldn’t get in, and Joanne is stuck in Toronto, since all Go trains were cancelled this afternoon. The weather people are calling for more of the same tonight.

Dad and I went into Peterborough to pick up our Wiremold conduit and glass for the doors. We got the conduit but the glass place was closed, probably due to the weather. So, as has become the norm for this project, we’ve pretty much lost a week. Good news though, we were hoping to do the outside window trim in Western Red Cedar, because it would match the doors, and because it contrasts with the grey exterior stucco so nicely. Turns out that the quantity we need will only cost about $300. For the interior window trim we’re going to use either our own oak or maple.

Dad’s got the cedar up on the outside face of the south end of the bathroom, we’ll stain that tomorrow. He also did a test of laying the fibreglass over the stained cedar. It sticks fine, so after we finish staining the shower wall we can apply fibreglass.



Easter? Ah, no.

We had an interesting weekend.

The driveway is nearly impassible, if you don’t have 4-wheel drive, don’t even bother. Thirty acres of fields with at least 3 feet of snow are currently melting across our driveway. I spent the morning on Saturday walking along the road with a shovel trying to clear some of the crown and ruts that were blocking the flow of water across the road. On the one hand when you have a lot of water flowing across the road you risk it washing out and just disintegrating into the fields, but on the other hand where it pools the road can get very soft and in some places the mud nearly swallows the truck. We have come to the conclusion that we really need to dig some bigger ditches, and probably add a few more culverts, that or for two months of the year we park at the road and walk in. It’s only 900 metres, do you think Joanne would mind? Yeah, me too.

So we have an wrecked driveway, there’s still 2 feet of snow on the road to our gravel pit, which is soft at the best of times, and there’s a 5 ton weight restriction on the county roads. All of which means that we won’t be able to dig a septic system until mid-May or early June, and that means we won’t be moving for a little while yet. So Easter was just a dream.

We were up Friday and Saturday this week and we got quite a bit done. The bathroom is now ready for plumbing, the shower base we ordered won’t be in for 10 weeks but that’s the only real hold up, we’ll be able to bathe anyway. We’ll start staining/sealing the cedar next weekend and Pete will be stuccoing the walls when he does the rest of the interior. It’ll be nice to have running water. We’ll also be hooking up the dog bath in the back room, given the amount of mud around the site that’s going to get used quite a bit.

We also installed the fans up in the cupola, and they look fantastic. I couldn’t be happier with them. I installed two pot lights in the front bathroom and I’ll install the pot lights in the back bathroom next weekend. The back bathroom is just going to be storage for the foreseeable future, but at least it will be well lit.

The fellows at Eurolite sold us these great florescent fixtures that we’ve installed in the back room and the systems room. They use the small T-8 tubes and have this super high quality reflector and an electronic ballast (so they don’t buzz). They throw off this great light and have really improved both of those rooms. One of the problems with the grey stucco walls is that they just eat up light, there is almost no reflection off of the walls so you need a really bright fixture in any area that doesn’t have a lot of natural light. Or you need to paint the walls white, which we’ll get around to some day.

I’m hoping that the week after next we’ll be able to get the truck up the hill and get that wind generator installed. We’ve noticed already with the slightly longer days and the different solar angle that we’ve been getting more power off of our panels, but it still isn’t quite enough, and if we had a fridge running, we’d be in trouble. We’re in a shoulder period now and we need the two systems working together.


Drywall Part Two & fun in the snow?

Taped and mudded today. Joanne came up from the city in the morning. The first coat is done. The second tomorrow, if we have time.

Monday, Simon’s coming up first thing to give us a lesson on the off-grid system. Then we’re up to Pete and Tina’s for lunch. Pete’s done some examples of his stucco with marble dust for us to check out. We’re hoping we can get that done soon.

We had many guests today. Paul came by with his friends Jill and John. He wanted to check out our progress. He promised Jill and John a pleasant snowshoe around our land. What he didn’t tell them is that we got another six inches of snow last night and that we don’t exactly have any groomed trails. Even with snow shoes it’s not easy going. The extra snow certainly didn’t make things any easier for the dogs. Both were porpoising around just to get anywhere.

When we got back Mike Cooper and his wife Karen were there. Mike hasn’t been to the house since before the New Year. He was pleased with what he saw, and gave us some advice for the drywalling.

That’s it. I’m about as tired and sore as the dogs.



Drywall Part One

Saturday. Beautiful day. Sunny, warm (-2C). The panels were pumping out 10 amps (which is about the max). We ran the generator all day to refresh the batteries. The timer seems to be working, Dad ran the generator on Monday, and it wasn’t run again until today. The batteries seemed to be just fine.

I got lucky again at Eurolite, somebody returned five of the lights we wanted to use in the kitchen, so they gave us a deal. Earlier we lucked out with the fans. We like Eurolite, they’re good people.

So today I hung the first kitchen light to see what they’ll look like. I’m going to Photoshop in all five at the proper heights, I might post the pic. We also took delivery of this really fantastic Italian florescent fixture, two 4’ skinny tubes and one hell of a reflector makes a bright bright light. Plus an electronic ballast for low noise. So I put that in the battery room and it really helps.

Mom continued her taping, she’ll be happy when that job’s done. Dad worked on the bathroom doors. And then, after lunch, we drywalled. Yessir, nothing says fun like drywallin’. We got one wall and the ceiling done, taping and mudding tomorrow. We’re thinking of doing the entire west wall in tongue and groove cedar. After we got home Dad and I spent a couple of hours planing and jointing some of our cedar. It looks like we’ve got enough for the west, north and south walls. “But Glen,” you say. “What will you do behind the shower?” Hey all of that boat building experience hasn’t gone to waste, we’re going to put a layer of fibreglass and epoxy over the wood in the shower stall.

This morning and this afternoon I took the dogs for a walk. Apparently all of the rain that we got in Toronto last week was snow up here. The snow is up to my knees in the bush. That’s a serious impediment to the dogs. They are exhausted.

Last, but absolutely not least, a big congratulations to Steven and Laurie who just gave birth to their first child, an (undoubtedly) beautiful baby girl named Malaika. Way to go guys!

I have no pictures of the baby, but I did take pictures at the house.