The cost of country living

You’ll have to excuse me today. I have a bit of a rant.

I said last week that I am most looking forward to getting to the payback stage of our solar panels. Friday night, we came home to an envelope from the hydro company. Inside was not a payment, but a bill.

The panels use a little bit of power to operate. Once our account is fully set up, this amount will be deducted from the total we generate. The payment side, though, isn’t set up yet. The billing side is. Funny how that works, eh?

Delays in getting our payments are not my complaint.

Country living is not simple, and it’s not cheap. One of my biggest surprises in moving to the farm was how much electricity costs.

Well, it’s not so much electricity. The rates are the rates. What changes depending on where you live is the delivery rate. In the country, where the population is less dense and there are fewer houses, delivery (the cost to get electricity from the generating station, through the lines and up to my house) is more than half my regular bill. Ouch.

I’m willing to suck it up and pay for the privilege of living where I do. However, this latest bill for our solar is completely out of whack. Look at the numbers.

Hydro bill

We used 1 kWh of electricity. One. Delivery was $5.40. Five freaking dollars and 40 freaking cents. Oh, and let’s throw 70 cents of tax on there just for fun. The total bill of $6.10 does not include a charge for using any actual electricity. It’s all just delivery and tax. Ridiculous.

Ask Matt and he’ll tell you that I’m a little bit bitter about the delivery charge. I’ve hated it for pretty much every hydro bill during the last two and a half years. I cannot wait until the hydro company finally starts paying us for the electricity we’re generating.

Going solar – Show me the money

It’s time for the final post in our solar panel saga. As we all know, going green costs green. Today, I’m going into the numbers (in a slightly artistic fashion).

Read on to find out how much our solar panels cost, how many kilowatts they produce and all of the other details for our solar system.

Solar panels cost and output

Obviously, our solar array and its associated dollars and cents are specific to the Ontario microFIT program. I expect some of our numbers will translate, though, for others who are setting up their own systems.

The last outstanding part of our solar project is to receive our first payment from the hydro company. I have to say I’m looking forward to moving on to the payback stage of this project.

Going solar – I’ve got the power

This week, I’m sharing all of the details on our solar panel project. For the first post, click here.

When we last left off, we finally had an approved application, and we’d made it through a wicked winter. But we were running out of time to complete our panels by the end of our contract.

Preparation

The first step to get ready for the install was an engineering assessment. We had to make sure that the barn was strong enough to hold the weight of the solar panels. Even though the barn is (at best guess) more than a hundred years old, it’s rock solid, so there was no concern there.

The second step was the building permit. Again, there were a couple wrinkles in the application paperwork, but our contractor was able to straighten them out

Installation

The actual solar install finally started at the end of March. First step was the inverters. These “convert the DC (Direct Current) power from your panels to AC (Alternating Current) before feeding it back into the hydro grid.” Our contractor’s web site calls the inverters “the brains” of the system.

Solar panel inverters

Then came the panels. Solar panels work best if they face south. The sun is strongest and hits them most directly from this direction. Fortunately, the back roof of the barn faces exactly south. Given the long delay in our application process, we had lots of time to observe the barn, calculate sun and shadow patterns and determine the optimum position for our panels. We have a long row of very tall pines along the west side of the barn. They’re so tall that in the late afternoon they cast a shadow on the upper barn roof, so we decided to install the panels on the lower lean-to roof as far away from the pines as possible.

Solar panel install on the barn roof

Three rows of racks went up on the lean-to, and then came the panels. We have a total of 40 panels, the maximum we’re allowed under the microFIT program. Panel install took about three days.

Connection

After the last panel was installed, it took another two weeks before the snow had melted enough for the trench to be dug between the barn and the hydro pole. Remember we’re feeding all of the power we generate back into the grid, so connecting into the hydro pole was essential.

Of course, it wasn’t simply a matter of waiting for the snow and frost to melt so that the trench could be dug. The trench was more than 300 feet long. Over that distance, we needed a special heavy-duty type of wire, so that we didn’t lose power. Pulling the wire through the trench was another bit of fun. When the trench was dug, the excavator laid a conduit in the bottom. It looks a bit like weeping tile.

Trenching for solar panels

There’s a rope running through the pipe. The trench is back-filled and the conduit is completely buried. To get the wire from the panels to the pole, our contractor had to pull it using the rope in the conduit–a heavy, 3-person job.

April 23 was connection day. Inspections had to happen. Power had to be shut off. Wires had to be hooked up. And everything had to be turned back on again. There were two or three different groups involved, along with our contractor. This was another instance where I was very glad for professional help. I would not have wanted to coordinate everyone.

But it turned out all of the scheduling didn’t matter.

Meter connection for solar panels

Connection was a no-go. The hydro inspector wanted to see the wire and conduit laying in the trench, but the trench was back-filled. The excavator had installed a T with a small section of conduit that looked down to the bottom of the trench and the wire, but that wasn’t enough. A section of the trench had to be dug out down to the wire so that the inspector could see it. Fortunately, the trench was re-excavated April 23, and by April 24 we were connected.

April 25, our contractor came out and walked us through all of the equipment and how it worked. He flipped the breakers and we were live.

In the infamous words of Snap, I’ve got the power!

Going solar – If at first you don’t suceed…

This post has been a long time coming. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write this, but it’s finally here. Everything you wanted to know (and more) about our solar system.

… I mean, our solar panel system… the one on the barn… not the one in the sky.

Solar panel array

In fact, now that I’ve started writing, I have so much to say that I’m breaking it up into several posts. In today’s post, we start at the very beginning.

How solar works in Ontario

The provincial government operates a program through the Ontario Power Authority to encourage people to install solar panels. The program is called microFIT. It’s micro because it gives people “the opportunity to develop a small or “micro” renewable electricity generation project (10 kilowatts or less in size) on their property.”

Under this program, we enter into a 20-year contract with the government. We produce and deliver electricity to the province’s grid, and we’re paid a guaranteed rate per kilowatt for the term of our contract.

So we’re not “off the grid.” All of the power we generate goes directly back to the grid. We still buy the electricity that powers our house from the grid. This might seem weird to people. I’ll go into the numbers more later this week, but here’s the basic explanation: the government is paying us $0.396 cents per kW for what we generate. We’re paying the government $0.075 cents per kW (off-peak) for what we consume.

Hydro rates in Ontario

Our solar contractor

Once we made the decision that we wanted to go solar, we started meeting with contractors. Given how the microFIT program works in Ontario, lots of companies are full-service when it comes to solar installs. They take care of all of the applications to the government, they install the system, they monitor your system, they fill out all the paperwork along the way, they arrange for all of the inspections, they even help you apply for financing if you need it.

We found companies to contact through road side signs (there are lots of solar installations in our area). The company that we chose is called Hayter. Hayter had great service, had been around for a long time, offered a decent price, and the people we met with were very knowledgeable and down to earth.

Hayter solar

Application process

This was not a quick project. We met with Hayter for the first time in July 2013, liked them and decided to go with them. They submitted our application to the government. Our application was rejected about three times due to minor clerical errors. The microFIT forms are very complicated and missing even the smallest check box causes your whole application to be thrown out. We were very glad to have an experienced company working with us and taking care of all of the paperwork. I cannot imagine having to figure that out on my own.

Finally, our application went through. But that wasn’t the end of the bad news. In September, the government suspended the program. They were going to re-evaluate the rate that they paid per kW. When the microFIT program first started, the government paid about $0.80 per kW. When we applied, the rate was $0.55. The suspension meant that our application was dead, again. After re-evaluation in September, the new rate was $0.396. The decrease was very disappointing for us, but we decided to proceed anyways. We’d still be earning more for what we generated than we were spending on buying electricity from the grid.

We resubmitted our application. By mid-October, we got the good news that we were in. October 31, we made our first payment to our contractor, and they paid all of the fees with the government. And then came five months of nothing. Our solar company had said that they could work through the winter and complete our install before spring. However, the winter of 2013-14 wasn’t a normal winter. Between polar vortexes, ice storms and snow, nothing could happen.

Weathered picket fence in winter snow

Under the terms of our agreement with the government, we had six months to complete our install. That gave us until April 30. As spring slowly rolled around, we anxiously waited for work to begin.

Ooooh. Such a cliff hanger ending. Tune in next time to find out if installation begins and whether we meet the deadline.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them in upcoming posts.

Looking to hook-up

Today is connection day.

We have a very long, very expensive wire running from the solar panels on the barn, into the inverters affixed to the wall, through metres of conduit, along the 300+ foot trench and up into the box on the pole.

Solar panel wire route

Today is the day our feed makes it to the top of the pole, into the power lines and back into the grid.

Hydro pole

That is, as long as everyone shows up when they’re supposed to, the work passes all of the inspections and the right wires get plugged into the right spots.

Keep your fingers crossed for us. Tomorrow when the sun comes up, we should finally be generating electricity.

(And yes, I will do a post with all of the details on our solar project once we’re up and running).

What exciting happenings do you have going on this Wednesday?

Update: Connection was a no-go. The hydro inspector wanted to see the wire and conduit laying in the trench, but the trench was back-filled. The excavator is back sitting in the driveway and the trench has been dug out. We have a conditional pass, but we can’t connect until he inspects the trench. We’re still crossing our fingers.

Let the sun shine

A few people guessed that last week’s Guess What? post had something to do with solar. They are absolutely right. As of Friday night, we had 24 shiny new solar panels installed on the barn roof.

Solar panels on the barn roof

We have 14 more to go before our array is complete. I’ll be posting a full project breakdown once everything is installed and wired, but I’m too excited not to share the news with you now. We’ve been waiting a long time for this day, and I’m so excited that it’s finally here.

The equipment that you saw on Friday is the inverters. The company that’s managing our install calls the inverters “the brains” of the system. Their web site explains, “Inverters… convert the DC (Direct Current) power from your panels to AC (Alternating Current) before feeding it back into the hydro grid.”

What are these?

The panel install started on Thursday. Here’s our empty barn roof on a dim grey morning.

Barn roof before solar panel install

And here’s how it looks currently, mid-way through install on a much nicer day.

Solar panel install on the barn roof

We need that sun to keep on shining. The power generation aspect is obvious, but we have a more immediate need. The panels have to be connected to a hydro pole so that our power can be sent back to the grid. The pole is 300+ feet away from the barn. We need a lot of snow and ice to melt so that the trench can be dug from the barn to the pole and we can be wired up.

Hydro pole for solar panel installation

Say it with me people. Let the sun shine!

Are there any exciting projects happening at your place this spring? Do you have any solar experience to share?

#IceStorm2013

Happy new year! I hope that you all had a great break. Thanks for waiting while I took a bit of an extended holiday. Our break ended up being a bit unusual, so for today I want to spend some time (okay, it’s kind of a long post, so perhaps I should say a lot of time) looking back before I dive into all that is new in 2014.

For some reason, I had my last post–my Christmas post–all set up more than a day in advance. I always have posts written a couple of days ahead, but I usually schedule them just a few hours before I want them to go live. I don’t know why I changed it up for this post, but I’m glad I did because by the time the post went live on Dec. 23, we’d been without power for about 24 hours. There was no internet on the farm.

However, it wasn’t just about not having any internet. We also had no heat. And we also had no water.

As many people are probably aware, a big ice storm rolled into southern Ontario on Dec. 22. Freezing rain coated trees and hydro wires, knocking out electricity to hundreds of thousands of people.

Power outages are not that unusual for us, so we weren’t too concerned when we heard the telltale beeps and clicks in the middle of the night as phones and other devices warned us they were no longer receiving power. By the time we woke up Sunday morning, the house was a little cooler than normal, so we snuggled down under the covers for awhile longer.

The fine print on the dogs are not allowed on the furniture and definitely not in the bed rule notes that exceptions are made during power outages on chilly winter mornings.

Snuggling in bed with the dog

Morning Sunday: We were all disturbed from our cozy nest by a tree crashing to the ground right outside our bedroom window. Fortunately it missed the house, though I’m still not quite sure how. While Matt was content to investigate the situation from inside the house, Baxter and I headed out.

Ice more than a quarter inch thick covered the trees. The soundtrack to our morning walk was crack, crash, thump as branches broke, plummeted through the ice coated canopy and landed on the ground. We stayed well away from the treed perimeters of the fields, but I still consciously reminded myself which direction to run in case I heard a crack too close.

As we walked down the driveway to drag some fallen branches out of the way, we were surrounded by the scent of pine from the raw wounds on the trees in the forest beside the house.

Ice storm collage

Mid-day Sunday: We dug out the batteries to fire up a radio so that we could get an update from the outside world. I found the emergency number for the hydro company only to discover the line was too busy to reach even the automated system. We donned our hats and extra clothes. I sampled paint colours on the hall, kitchen and foyer. Matt graded papers… something he normally wouldn’t do until the very last minute. Baxter and I went for another walk. The crashing and cracking of trees continued. I flushed the toilet–muscle memory, I couldn’t help myself–and we were officially out of water.

For those not familiar with country living, we are reliant on our well for our water. Our well is reliant on its pump to provide us with that water. The pump is reliant on electricity to run. When the electricity runs out, we have the water in the pipes and that’s it. No more is flowing.

Evening Sunday: Darkness was falling, and the house was getting colder. We decided we needed a hot dinner, so we pulled the barbecue out of hibernation, hooked up the propane tank and retrieved a battered pot from our camping gear. I pulled out every candlestick we own and filled them with candles. Two cans of soup, some crackers, some cheese and pickles from our rapidly warming fridge, and we had a not-at-all romantic candlelit meal.

Eating dinner by candlelight

The only problem was, it was only 6 o’clock. We were done eating. Now what were we going to do? Scrabble followed by a marathon rummy session took us through to 9:30. I piled an extra comforter and two sleeping bags on our bed, and with hats on our heads, the dog curled between us and the radio playing, we went to bed in our 16 degree house.

Morning Monday: I have never been so happy to head to work on a Monday morning. Within 15 minutes of getting out of bed, I was out the door. That shower in the office bathroom was the best shower I’ve ever had. I had been wearing a hat for nearly 24 hours. I had not washed my hands aside from a cursory rinse in about 12 hours. I had gone for two vigorous walks with the dog. Let’s just say I was not at my best.

Evening Monday: Driving home my mantra was “Please let there be power. Please let there be power.” I turned into the driveway… and the house was dark. Matt had managed to get a shower at his parents house–they were also without power and on a well, but they have a generator that was connected to their water pump–but he had spent most of the day in the cold house marking papers and calling the power company only to be told they had no idea when our hydro might be restored, but we were one of 1,150 houses in our area without power. He transferred perishables out of the fridge and into the mudroom. With the window open, it was colder there than it was in the fridge.

Keeping food cold in the mudroom during #IceStorm2013

Our limited menu of cold food or barbecued soup did not sound appealing that night, so we tucked Baxter into his bed and headed out to find a restaurant where we could get a hot meal under electric light. It was easy to pick out the powerless people in the restaurant. They were the ones wearing the massive sweaters, yet still hugging themselves–both for warmth and for comfort. They were the ones with the hat hair–or the ones who wouldn’t take off their hats. They were the ones with the haggard faces. They were the ones that headed into the public bathroom after dinner to wash their haggard faces before they headed back to frigid pioneer-land.

Night Monday: Despite how hard it was to arrive back at that frigid pioneer land, Monday night was easier than Sunday night. We thumbed our noses at carbon monoxide poisoning and fired up the camping lantern for an hour, so I had enough light to read. Matt continued to mark by candlelight. I carefully made the bed, smoothing the sheets and layering the sleeping bags. Even though the temperature was 12 degrees, we slept well burrowed in our cocoon.

Morning Tuesday (Chrismas Eve): We were wearing our winter coats and could see our breath whether we were outside walking the dog or inside eating my cereal (with nearly frozen milk). We were down to 8 degrees inside. Matt continued marking, sure that the gods were just waiting for him to finish before they turned the power back on. However, as he wrote the last grade, the gods did not relent. We were still powerless 57 hours and counting.

Thermostat showing 8 degree temperature inside the house

Afternoon Tuesday: We were slated to go to Matt’s parents for Christmas Eve, so we decided to arrive early. We packed pyjamas and sleeping bags in case we decided once we got there that we couldn’t bear to abandon the luxury of heat and running water.

As we left the farm, we saw two hydro trucks at either end of our road. They were the first trucks we’d seen in our area, and we were so happy to see evidence that they were finally working on our lines. We followed one truck, which eventually pulled over. We rolled up beside him, and I leaned out the window and requested an update. The driver in the truck said that they were working on our block that afternoon and we should have power back in a few hours. We were ecstatic. We were going to have Christmas at home in our warm, lit, watered house.

Matt wanted to return to the farm to be there for the big moment, but I wanted to be warm that instant so we continued on to Matt’s parents’. Thanks to their generator there was warm running water so we could shower, and thanks to a woodstove we didn’t have to wear our coats and hats–Baxter included. We even watched a Christmas Carol—our annual Christmas Eve tradition—before we headed back to the farm.

The dog keeping warm during #IceStorm2013

Night Tuesday: Driving along the dark country roads with the headlights glinting off the ice coating the trees, we would catch occasional glimpses of lights through the trees. Some people seemed to have power. I tried not to jinx it, but may be we would too.

We turned into our driveway… and everything was dark. The light that we left “on” for our signal was not lit. We opened the door and flicked switches just to check. There was still no power. The temperature on the thermostat read 6.5 degrees. It was not a happy Christmas Eve.

Matt called the power company. There were now just 36 households in our area without power. And we were one of them. The ETA for return of the power? Boxing Day at 10pm. Nearly 48 hours away.

This moment was my lowest point. I was over it. This was not an adventure. I just wanted to be comfortable and home. But my home was completely uncomfortable. I was not going to stay in my frigid water-less house. We packed up some clothes, got back in the car and returned to Matt’s parents’ house.

The whole drive, Matt kept trying to say, “Well, at least we… ” I was not in the mood to look at the bright side of the situation. This was not how I had envisioned spending Christmas.

Ice storm collage

Clockwise from top left: Shattered ice caking our Japanese maple. The poor broken willow at the bottom of the driveway. Our Rose of Sharon, which is usually as tall as the dining room window. One of our new little trees bowed under the weight of the ice.

Morning Wednesday (Christmas): My father-in-law cooked breakfast on an electric frying pan plugged in to the one outlet powered by the generator. My mother-in-law and I walked up and down the road, looking at the ice coated trees, downed power lines and fallen branches. I sat next to the woodstove and read magazines. When I refused to leave the warm house, Matt headed back to the farm to check on the situation.

There was still no power, so he drained the pipes as best he could and poured antifreeze into the toilets. The temperature was now 4 degrees inside.

Afternoon Wednesday: Christmas dinner was to be at my parents’ house, so we headed out early to take advantage of their powered house. My parents had lost electricity as well, but only for about 24 hours. My Mom was able to cook dinner for 19 people, and we were able to enjoy a hearty meal.

Night Wednesday: Hope springs eternal, so after dawdling over the dishes for awhile at my parents’ we headed back to the farm. We turned into the driveway, and the outside light was on. As devastated as I was on Christmas Eve, I was equally elated on Christmas night. I nearly cried at the prospect of moving back into my house.

We walked in, and the thermostat already read 16 degrees. After the temperatures that we’d been living with, 16 degrees felt positively balmy. According to our blinking clocks, the hydro had come on at roughly 2:15pm–close to exactly 3 1/2 days after it had gone out. While Matt headed back to his parents’ to grab our things, I stripped the bed and threw all of the comforters and blankets into the washing machine.

Yes, the thing I wanted to do most after moving back into my house and being without power for half a week was laundry. The washing machine didn’t stop running for nearly two days, as I laundered bedding, towels, clothes, jackets, hats, mitts, sleeping bags and everything else we used during the outage.

As miserable as I was for my powerless Christmas, there were people much worse off. During the outage, I thought a lot about the farmers around us who had to take care of their animals without power or water. In Toronto (where I guess they probably had running water), some people were without power for the whole week.

I think for many it didn’t feel like Christmas. I know it didn’t for us. But now it’s a new year, and we’re all safe and sound and warm and watered. We’ll have a mini-Christmas celebration in a few months when we get a generator… ’cause you know there’s no way I’m going through this again.

Were you one of the powerless this Christmas? Were your holidays particularly memorable this year? Have you ever gone through a long power outage?

Wee-wee-wee all the way home

You might think from the title of this post that we are adding some little piggies to the farm. However, the opposite is actually the case. We are getting rid of some pigs… pigtails that is.

Pigtail light fixture

Most of our lighting in the basement is still pigtails—much to Matt’s annoyance. The conversations go something like this. “You can’t say the basement’s done until it’s all done. Including light fixtures.” Finding the right light takes time though, so rather than choose the wrong fixture, I’m fine to live with pigtails.

Matt, not so much.

However, in my defense, I bought the lights for the long room nearly six months ago. They’ve been sitting in their boxes stacked in the corner beside the shop vac for just that long. Yes, I could install them myself, but under the division of labour in our marriage, Matt is the electrician.

Well, the electrician finally got fed up with the pigtails and decided to send those little oinkers packing.

Replacing pigtails with flush mount ceiling light fixtures

Better, right?

Obviously, it’s still not “done” (the absence of furniture and art, the unpainted closet door, and the shop vac still in the corner kind of give it away), but baby steps, people. Or maybe piglet steps.

How to install pot light trim

The end stage of a renovation involves a lot of little tasks: put on the cover plates, caulk the trim, touch up the paint, clean and dust everything. One of the little to-dos on our list was to put the trim on the pot lights.

My post on how to install pot lights is one of the most frequently accessed posts on the blog. But it’s unfinished. The housing for the pot light is just one part of the fixture. The other part is the trim, which goes on after the ceiling is finished.

Without the trim, the pot light looks a bit rough.

Pot light without trim

Our trim-less pot light

The first step in installing the trim is to wash a summer’s worth of drywall dust off of them.

Pot light trim in the sink

This step may be optional for some installations.

The trim should be made up of three pieces: the baffle, trim ring and spring or hook.

Pot light trim spring

This spring connects the trim to the housing

Step one is to attach the hook to the baffle. There should be little holes in the narrow end of the baffle specifically for this purpose.

Spring attached to pot light baffle

The end of the spring without the loop should be hooked to the baffle.

The next step is to connect your baffle and trim ring.

Putting trim on the baffle

This is probably the simplest step. Just slide the the trim ring over the baffle.

Remove the light bulb, so that you can reach into the housing. If necessary, adjust the height of the socket so that your bulb is recessed as much or as little as you want.

Adjusting the socket in a pot light

Loosen the wing nut, and the metal socket will slide up and down. Tighten it back up when the socket is positioned where you want.

To connect the trim, insert the baffle into the housing, stretch the spring and hook it into the cut out on the pot light.

Pot light trim hooked in place

On our pot lights, the cut out looks like a candy cane

I found I was able to reach into the housing and hook the spring by hand. If your hands aren’t as small as mine, needle nosed pliers may come in handy.

Screw the light bulb back in and admire your trimmed pot light.

Pot light

All done!

The trim reduces the brightness of the light somewhat and directs it downwards. I may adjust the height of the bulbs if we feel we need more light once we’re using the basement.

However, for now the pot lights are bright enough for me to admire our nearly finished basement. Is it weird that I stood there for nearly five whole minutes on the weekend just looking at the rooms and remembering how far we’ve come?