#plant15

Over the winter, I connected with a few writers who specialize in the agricultural sector. Most of them have a background in farming. From them, I learned that when people ask me what kind of farm we have, the correct answer (so that I don’t sound like a complete city slicker) is “cash crop.”

This year’s cash crop is soybeans.

However, I should be clear that this is not our cash, nor our crop. We’re still too citified to farm our own fields. I’d have no idea where to even start. And we definitely don’t have the equipment.

Everything that’s gone into the fields and all of the plants that are currently in the fields belong to our farmer.

The soybeans are now knee high to a puppy dog.

Baxter standing in the soybean fields

There are still a few tiny blossoms here and there. We should be seeing bean pods soon.

Soybean blossom

I’m too much of a city slicker to know whether things are looking good. From afar, they’re looking very green.

Soybean fields

Farmers with much more knowledge than me are sharing their crops at #plant15. I encourage you to check it out to see the ups (and downs) of the growing season so far.

Wonky wiring and a pair of pendant lights

At some point today, an electrical inspector will knock on my door. (Hopefully. It’s one of those “sometime between 8 and 5 things”). It’s been awhile since our electrician was here, but I’ve been putting off the inspection because my day job was requiring me to be in the office. I finally got a break at work and am working at home today, so the inspection can happen. I also finally got my fingers in gear to tell you about this update.

Matt and I had upgraded from the boob light in the kitchen to a school-house pendant some time ago. The fixture wasn’t in the right spot, though. It was off centre with the island and a single pendant didn’t look quite right.

Single school-house pendant over the kitchen island

I had ordered a second pendant back when we installed the first one (February 2014), but I didn’t want to tackle adding it on my own.

When we had the electrician here to move the light switch in the master bedroom, I had him relocate the existing kitchen light and add the second.

The wiring in this house is wonky. When the electrician took down the first pendant, I remembered exactly how wonky. There was no box to house the wiring. Instead, the fixture was attached to a couple of plates that were screwed to the drywall, and the wires–which wasn’t the right type either–just stuck out from a hole in the ceiling.

How not to wire a light

Obviously, it wasn’t right, but Matt and I had installed our new light anyways, knowing that we’d hire a professional to fix it soon. Well, soon turned out to be more than a year, but better late than never, right?

I was surprised when the electrician hypothesized that there was another light somewhere else in the ceiling. A close look at the drywall showed us a patch that I had never noticed. When he climbed up into the attic, he discovered the light (disconnected, thank goodness). This one had a junction box. It also still had the socket lamp holder attached to it. The light had just been turned so it pointed into the attic and not through the ceiling. What were they thinking???

Light fixture in the attic

The electrician drilled two new holes, inserted two new boxes and ran the new wires–and did all of it properly.

Wiring pendant lights over the island

I was happy to have a professional electrician fixing all of the mistakes. I was also happy that he was the one crawling around in the attic, not me. I like my DIY, but I’ve learned where to draw the line. Things that are beyond my skills or just plain unpleasant (and this hit both of them) are a clear time to call in professional help.

If you’re in the Guelph, Hamilton or tri-city area, I highly recommend Agentis Electric.

Electrician going into the attic

I did patch the hole in the ceiling on my own though (but I haven’t painted it yet). And here’s the finished product: pair of pendants, properly positioned–and properly wired–over the island.

School house pendant lights over the kitchen island

How do you decide when to bring in professional help? What’s the wiring like at your house? Do you have any light fixtures lying around just waiting to be installed? How do you handle lighting in your kitchen?

One Room Challenge Week 5 – Professional help

We’re heading into the homestretch on the One Room Challenge.

One Room Challenge

Next week is the big reveal of my master bedroom makeover. Here’s where we’ve come so far:

The One Room Challenge is largely about DIY. It’s not a requirement, but most of the other bloggers participating are painting, sewing, carpentering all on their own like I am.

However, last week it was time for some professional help.

One of the quirky elements of this room is that the light switch was behind the door. When we used this room as a guest room, people would always walk in and reach for the light switch. I’d have to explain that no, it’s not where you’d expect it to be. You have to reach around behind the door.

Light switches behind the door

Apparently, I didn’t mind making things inconvenient for our guests, but now that we’re the ones living in the room, I wanted the light switch where it should be.

Matt and I discussed doing this ourselves, but the electrical in this house is a bit wonky. Plus, relocating the switch would involve lots of time in the attic–and lots of time with the insulation in the attic. Not fun. We also had some other minor electrical work on our to-do list, so we decided to bundle it all together and call in a professional.

When he first saw the bedroom, our professional questioned whether there was space for a switch. There’s a very narrow wall between the door and the edge of the closet. We had no way of knowing how the studs were configured. He got out his stud finder, picked a spot, and I held my breath as he punched through the drywall.

There was a narrow cavity. It was nearly the width we needed for the box, but just a bit too narrow.

Cutting drywall for a new light switch

Fortunately, it was close enough that a quick trim with the sawzall allowed the box to fit and didn’t compromise the stud.

Tracing the wire from the junction box in the ceiling to the switch turned out to be another bit of fun. There’s a join in the wiring somewhere, but the electrician wasn’t sure where. It looks like there’s a junction box in the closet of the bedroom next door, so that’s my guess. When we do our big whole house reno, we will definitely devote a portion of the budget to fixing all of the wiring.

Our electrician couldn’t get rid of the original switch behind the door. It’s a crowded box that appears to be feeding some other areas of the house. But a blank cover on the missing switch is something I can live with.

Blank plate covering a light switch

I’m just happy that I no longer have to live with the switch behind the door… although I still reach for it when I go into the room. This new switch, on the right side of the door, with a dimmer (can I have a hooray for dimmer switches?) is so wonderful.

Bedroom light switch with a dimmer

The bedroom is coming together. All of the cosmetic updates are looking really good. However, this little functional improvement is equally awesome.

Thanks to our awesome electrician. And thanks to all of you for following along so far. Only one week to go!

To check out the other ORC participants, be sure to visit Calling it Home.

Farmhouse fieldstone fireplace

There’s lots of discussion these days about adding character to our houses. I believe a home should reflect both the people that live there and its setting. For me, this is one of the misses with our house. Our ranch-style bungalow looks like it could be in any neighbourhood from the 1970s. Inside and out, it doesn’t reflect its farm setting. So my mission since moving here has been to inject a little more country into the house.

Just before Christmas, the living room got a huge (literally) injection of country character with our new stone fireplace.

Fieldstone fireplace with barn beam mantel

Whew. That’s a lot of philosophy for a fireplace. More pictures.

Old wagon wheel hub on a stone fireplace hearth

The fireplace is beautiful, safe and, best of all, it works.

In a time when people are painting and white-washing over brick, tiling and drywalling over surrounds, a huge stone monolith like this is not necessarily in style. However, for me, this is one of those timeless designs that is about the farm, not the trend.

Fieldstone fireplace with barn beam mantel

The stone is Bluewater by Natural Stone Veneers. It’s real stone that’s been sliced to form “tiles” about 1 inch thick. You can order both corner pieces and flats. It’s a way to get the look of a stone fireplace for much less cost and much less labour. In fact, as my mason was doing the stone, he commented how close the Bluewater was to the fieldstone that’s found naturally in this area. Exactly what I was going for.

Just like real stone, the veneers are irregularly shaped. Our mason had great attention to detail in putting this stone together. Take a look at the upper half of the fireplace near the centre. See the diamond-shaped stone? He saw the special shape of this stone and worked to feature it in the middle. He chose the stone directly below the diamond specifically because of how its notch fit the bottom of the diamond.

Fieldstone fireplace with barn beam mantel

The mantel is barn beams from our own farm that we had milled at a local sawmill. We used two beams sandwiched together to get the depth we wanted. They’re finished with three coats of clear polyurethane.

The woodbox was a mid-project addition. This is why it’s important to be present during renovations like this. As he was building the fireplace, my mason said, “You have a lot of space here now that we’ve removed the chimneys for the decommissioned furnaces. Do you want a woodbox?”

Woodbox in the side of a fieldstone fireplace

I hadn’t even considered that possibility, and now I can’t imagine the fireplace without it. It’s really handy to have a place to store extra wood, but it also makes really nice visual. This is the side of the fireplace that faces the kitchen. As much as I love the stone, the woodbox breaks up the monolith and makes the view much more interesting.

The wood bucket is an old washtub that Matt and I bought at an antique store several years ago. I take the whole bucket outside, fill it with wood and bring it back inside–really heavy, but a really easy way to bring a big load of wood inside in only one trip.

Initially, I had a very, very plain rectangular fireplace screen in mind. However, since having this one, I find I like the contrast of the arched top with all of the other straight lines we have going on. It’s simple to move the screen to the side when I need to tend the fire. Surprisingly, the handles never get hot.

Fireplace screen

The grate is from my grandmother’s house. It sat outside at my parents’ house for years until my Dad brought it up to the farm one day last month. It fits as though it was made for the fireplace–just another example of how things work out the way they’re meant to.

We’ve had the fireplace for less than a month and already it’s been well-used. I’ve split wood, cleaned out the ashes and had lots and lots of fires. Last week temperatures were in the -20s. It was so nice to come home from work, light a fire and have dinner in front of the warm glow.

Deer antlers and Ikea Borrby lantern on a barn beam mantel

For me, nothing beats a real wood fire. In its function, as well as its fieldstone facade, it’s a perfect fit for our country farmhouse.

And just to remember how far we’ve come, here’s the full 14-day project:

Fireplace renovation animated gif

Soooooo much better.

Fieldstone fireplace with barn beam mantel

Getting fired up

So remember back in November when I said, “No more projects until 2015”?

And remember before that when I talked about the living room fireplace? And before that when I posted my Home Goals 2014? (And 2013?)

Ummm, yeah. So we’re doing the fireplace.

Right now.

The stone–six skids of it–was delivered a week ago. Ralph signed off after a careful inspection.

Ralph inspecting the chimney pieces for our new fireplace

Yes, I believe Santa will fit down this chimney.

We gathered the various barn beams we have lying around (yeah, we’re lucky like that) and picked out a couple of contenders for the mantel. Since they were closer to tree trunks than lumber, on Saturday my Dad and I took them to a local sawmill and had them squared off.

Barn beams on the forklift

Matt and I removed the extremely heavy metal insert yesterday. We emptied the living room to get ready for demo and taped off all of the openings with plastic in a (probably vain) attempt to contain the dust and soot.

I should be clear that this is not a DIY project for us. We do not possess the expertise to build a fireplace. However, a close family friend does. He’s a professional mason, and he did all of the brickwork on my parents’ house, including their fireplace, and worked with my Dad for years. We’ve hired him. So when I say we’re doing the fireplace, I have a loose definition of we and doing.

I’m off work today to help with the take down, and I’m planning to work from home a couple of days this week, but my involvement will be very limited.

Regardless of my minimal contributions, we should have a new fireplace by Christmas.

Now that’s what I call a present.

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.

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?

My new pet

There’s yet another new addition at the farm, and this one is soft and fuzzy and warm and brings me much joy.

Standing on carpet in barefeet

These are happy feet, in case you can’t tell. The novelty of going down to the basement without first putting on shoes still hasn’t worn off.

Our new carpet was installed on Friday, and the difference it makes in the basement is amazing.

After the nasty, stained, old carpet that came with the house and the bare concrete that we’ve been looking at for the past 8 months, even just the sight of the underpad going down was an incredible transformation.

Carpet underpad

Our installers likely thought I was slightly odd given how I cooed over the underpad as soon as it was installed

Between the underpad and the carpet, the basement floor is extremely cushy on our tootsies–and our tushies, which is handy given that we currently don’t have any furniture.

Carpeted basement

Matt and I have both spent time sitting on our imaginary couch across from our imaginary TV. The shelf standing in for a TV stand is real, for anyone who’s wondering if they’re seeing things.

When it comes to selecting carpet, the array of choices is somewhat befuddling, in my opinion. Matt and I made our decision very quickly, mostly because we wanted the carpet installed as soon as possible so that this renovation could be finished as soon as possible.

Here’s the details:

Who: Alexanian in Burlington, Ontario. They have a good local reputation and had been used by a few people we know, including Matt’s Dad.

What: Spillguard underpad, the thickest offered by Alexanian, topped with a nylon cut loop carpet in a light beige colour

Why: For the coziness. I know carpet isn’t a lot of people’s first choice for flooring, but for a basement, it’s at the top of my list. In terms of the specifics of what we chose, I probably would have gone with a Berber or loop carpet. However, Matt prefers the plusher feel of the cut loop carpets, so I deferred to him on the texture while I chose the colour. I may regret going with such a light colour someday, but I really wanted something neutral.

Where: The whole basement, about 1100 square feet, including 11 stairs.

Carpeted stairs

All of the stairs, including risers, stringers and treads, got carpet.

Carpet installation is a major milestone in the basement renovation. We still have some paint touch-ups to do, light fixtures to install, (don’t talk to me about the bathroom that needs to be tiled), and a few other finishing touches, but overall the basement is now livable and useable. And it looks fabulous.

As much as I disliked that concrete floor, it did have one nice element.

Matt + Julia 2012

A secret message commemorating our renovation

Is it too harsh to say I’m hoping that we never see this message again?