Our warm wood cookstove & a stack of firewood – 11/12/19

As I write the most recent posts for our farm website that will become part of my fifth book on farming and self-reliant living, I have been working to reinforce my rationale for supporting the retirement homesteading lifestyle we have chosen to live and the traditional folkways and core values that frame it.  As you will note from reading those posts, I have based most of my defense for it on what I hope is rational and sensible reasoning.  Unfortunately, regardless of how carefully I explain and defend my reasoning, many people will still dismiss or ignore it simply because it is not consistent with their own adopted beliefs.  In today’s highly charged political and social environment, I recognize that personal beliefs can be difficult to sway regardless of whether they are based on reasonable and rational thinking or not.  “Show me the ‘science’ behind it,” most people will say.

I also recognize that many people today will contend that scientific thought is being unfairly attacked and rejected, when it is actually the interpretation and validity of the professed “science” that is being scrutinized and questioned.  To me, the efforts to confuse or muddy a debate on the “interpretation” of science and scientific data by accusing the challenger of “denying” science is just another deceptively clever and argumentative way of disguising the fact that we are still debating personal beliefs.  People who use this tactic tend to be smarter about how they argue than they are about what they argue—primarily because they seek to discredit their opposition to avoid debating the facts.  I have refused to engage in those debates because I recognize that the more our “science” is based on complex computer models driven by a bewildering array of general assumptions and interpolated data, the less rigid, accurate and reliable the alleged “scientific” results will be.  The true scientific process relies upon reasoned debate and critique regarding the validity of fuzzy assumptions as much as it does on verifiable, accurate data to make certain it is rigorous and defensible.  Without such healthy “scientific” debates, our science is merely an extension of our own fallible personal beliefs.

Fortunately, I’m a New Hampshire-born and raised West Virginian with a Missouri attitude.  By that, I mean I am a self-reliant, fiscally conservative Mountaineer who demands to be shown the facts, not just the “science.”  In the spirit of that reasoned, critical inquiry, I have decided to document how our self-reliant homesteading lifestyle is more economically practical and environmentally sensitive than can be typically found in modern urban society.  I make that bold statement because I have done the research for myself.  I don’t ask you to blindly accept what I assert to be “science”, because I encourage you to do the math for yourself based on your own actual data.  I will just give you the hard data I have for our own living conditions to compare with your own so that you can prove my point for me.

A few days ago, we received our May 19, 2021 power bill from Monongahela Power.  The billing statement includes a “usage history” that details our actual power consumption and billing for each of the prior twelve months—as I’m sure your own monthly electric bills also do.  If you wish to compare apples to apples, you can simply ask your power company to provide you with your actual consumption and cost data for the same one-year period as I am referring to (June 2020 through May 2021).  I have compared our usage data with average annual residential power consumption data for the United States that I obtained from the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) website at www.eia.gov.  Although the data they provide is from 2015 figures, it is consistent with numerous other sources I have researched and—since it is based on nation-wide averages—will not vary significantly over the past six years.  Finding more current data is difficult because it takes time to obtain and recalculate nation-wide averages, but you are welcome to prove that to yourself as well.  The EIA also claims to be an impartial source of data, which I find no obvious reason to contest.

According to the EIA’s 2015 data, the average annual residential home consumes about 11,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year.  Regional variations exist depending on climate factors and the general level of electrical use.  You can expect a higher average household power consumption rates in colder climates where homes use more electrical power for heat and in warmer climates where electric air conditioners are used.  Our home is located in the middle latitudes, but at a relatively high or climactically cooler elevation (1,375 feet above mean sea level) than is typical for households in our region.  Even so, our actual power utilization between June 16, 2020 and May 19, 2021 was 5,887 kWh.  That figure is only 53.5 percent of the amount used by an average residential household in the U.S.  What’s more, the figure I’m citing for this past year is not inconsistent with our annual power consumption patterns since we retired to live at our farm full-time in February 2017.  How, you might ask, can we do this without sacrificing our standard of living?  That’s where the self-reliance comes in to play.

Many of the newest homes today, to a large degree, use electricity for heating and air conditioning.  The high and escalating cost of oil-burning heat systems (which we used in my childhood home) has encouraged many older homes to convert to electrical-based heating systems, especially heat pumps, which use electricity to produce both heat and air conditioning.  According to EIA’s data, the four most consumptive uses for electricity in residential dwellings are as follows…

1.  Air Conditioning (16.9% of total average electrical consumption)

2.  Space Heating (14.8% of total average electrical consumption)

3.  Water Heating (13.7% of total average electrical consumption)

4.  Lighting (10.3% of total average electrical consumption)

Our retirement farmhouse, which I designed and we built, uses standard lighting and an electric water heater.  However, to minimize our monthly cost for those uses, I made sure our house has windows on all sides (to let in more natural light and promote better natural air circulation) and our water heater is housed in a heated location in the main living area to minimize power demand fluctuations in the winter months.

Our Pellet Stove – 5/30/21

Where our house is significantly different from the average modern home is in our heating and cooling systems.  We have no central heating system (by today’s standards).  Our primary heat sources are a pellet stove (on the north end of our house) and a wood cookstove (on the south end of our house).  We have a centrally located back-up LP gas heater in the middle of our house, which was required by our homeowner’s insurance company to satisfy their definition of a “reliable” (stable) source of heat during the winter months.  They don’t want our home’s water lines to freeze if we should be away from the house long enough in the winter when we can’t keep our pellet and woodstove functioning—even though the specific design of our house makes that situation highly unlikely.

Each of these heating systems is designed to heat the entire house independently of each other, and our experience with them has proven that to be correct.  However, the important point is that the only one of these three heating systems that consumes electricity is the pellet stove, and it uses only a small volume of electricity to start the system and power its fans and thermostat.  We also use our five ceiling fans (distributed throughout the house) operating continuously on the lowest speed setting during the winter to circulate the heat efficiently throughout the house.  These systems (specifically the pellet stove and woodstove) require work on our part to keep them fed with pellets and wood and to keep them properly cleaned.

I know some people will point out that burning firewood, pellets and LP gas releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  However, our wood cookstove is a new and state of the art model that has been designed to minimize smoke emissions.   We also make sure we burn only well-cured wood, which minimizes smoke and soot.  Furthermore, we gain an additional free cooking and baking benefit when we burn our wood cookstove to heat the house, which allows us to avoid using our LP gas range or, if we had one, a less efficient and energy consumptive electric stove.  As for our pellet stove (which serves the bulk of our winter heating needs), it is designed to produce efficient heat with minimal discharges.  Our retirement house uses only 1-1.5 tons of pellets per winter as opposed to the 4-5 tons we routinely consumed to fuel the pellet stove at our former house in New Creek (even though that house was smaller).  Our LP gas heater is only used as necessary as a back-up for our wood and pellet stoves, so we can turn it off for long periods of time.  Consequently, when you consider all these design factors, our overall “carbon footprint” for these heating systems is not as great as you might casually assume, especially when compared to burning oil or electricity as sole heating sources.

Our sole cooling system is a whole-house attic fan, assisted during the warmest and calmest nights by ceiling and window fans to facilitate air circulation.  On the warmest, most humid summer nights, we run the attic fan all night long, but most nights when the temperature falls to 62 degrees or lower, we can adequately cool the house by running the attic fan briefly in the late evening and again in the early morning just before sunrise.  I made sure the house was well insulated to retain the heat in the winter and the overnight cooling we can achieve in the summer, thereby making the house feel just as cool as an air-conditioned home for most of the day (especially when ambient humidity levels are low).  This pattern of home temperature management becomes another incentive to get up early and get the heavy work done before the heat of the day builds to uncomfortable levels.  In other words, it complements very nicely the homesteading lifestyle we practice.

Although the various fans we use to cool our house rely exclusively on electricity, they require far less energy than a standard air conditioner—and they require the use of no fluorocarbon gasses.  The greatest comfort difference between the two is not the temperature levels they can achieve, but the humidity control.  Our fans do not reduce ambient humidity levels, but having lived without air conditioning for the past four summers, I can attest that the number of hours in an average hot summer day that our house is at all uncomfortable is just three to five hours in the evening after the heat of the day has passed and the indoor temperature begins to exceed the outdoor temperature.  In those situations, I tend to take a brief, cool shower before going to bed to reduce my body temperature so I can get to sleep.  By the time I wake up in the morning, the house has cooled, and I can feel just as refreshed as I would if I had slept in an air-conditioned home.  However, to apply this temperature management strategy, you have to open and close the windows and carefully manage the times that the fans operate so that you capture only the coolest temperatures in the house.  In other words, it doesn’t all happen by itself while you vegetate on a couch and play video games.

Now that I have explained how we heat and cool our house, I’ll explain how cost-effective it is.  According to our May 2021 power bill, the most electricity we consumed in a single month occurred, as you might expect, in the July-August 2020 billing period, where we used 602 kWh for a total cost of $66.03.  The second highest month occurred during the December 2020-January 2021 billing period when we consumed 600 kWh at a cost of $65.28.  The billing period with the lowest power demand occurred in the June 2020 billing period, when we used only 410 kWh for which we were billed $46.77.  The difference between these winter and summer peak power demands and the lowest power demand is driven primarily by our pellet stove use to heat in the winter and our fans to cool the house in the summer.  There will be a slight difference in demand for lighting in the winter months because the days are shorter, and a corresponding reduction in lighting demand during the summer months.  However, the decrease in power consumption for lighting in the summer is probably offset by a corresponding increase in power use to irrigate our vegetable garden.  Otherwise, there are few other seasonal power demand changes to affect our monthly power bill.

As a result, we can safely assume that all of the increase in summer power demand can be attributed to our efforts to cool the house and roughly 90% of the increase in winter power demand can be assigned to our pellet stove.  That results in a $20 per month cost for summer electrical consumption and a $17 per month cost for winter electrical consumption.  Our total summer costs for electricity to cool our house would be about $60.00 ($20 per month over the three hottest months), while our total winter costs for electricity to heat our house would be roughly $76.50 ($17 per month over the 4.5 coldest months).

We also consumed one ton of pellets and 1.5 cords of wood to heat our house this past winter.  We will have to pay about $275 to replace the pellets we consumed and $200 to replace the firewood we burned in our wood cookstove.  We also burned roughly $200 worth of LP gas to operate our back-up gas heater this past winter.  This means that our total cost to cool our house during last summer was $60 and our total cost to heat our house during the winter was $751.50 ($76.50 for electricity plus $275 for pellets plus $200 for firewood plus $200 for LP gas).  Now, compare those seasonal cooling and heating costs to the amount you had to pay during the same year for your own home and tell me which of us paid less.  Understand, that difference in cost is what our self-reliant lifestyle allowed us to save over your more modern lifestyle of convenience.

If you want to factor in the carbon footprint impact of our respective lifestyle choices, you will need to consider the fact that we demand less processed food (because we grow and preserve our own vegetables), less processed milk (because we can now produce our own), and we buy fewer consumer goods to support our self-reliant lifestyle.  Actually, we probably deserve a greenhouse gas credit for planting our own 4,500 square foot vegetable garden that removes carbon from the atmosphere and releases oxygen into the air.  Since the commercial/industrial production of the manufactured goods you buy for your essential foods and goods results in the production of greenhouse gasses that we can avoid causing, you must credit our lifestyle with savings for those emissions, as well.  Since we are retired, we also don’t commute to work twice daily and we don’t go shopping as often, which results in additional greenhouse gas savings—although I can’t calculate exactly what that difference would be.  Therefore, even if your more expensive heating and cooling systems may generate slightly lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions (which is not guaranteed), our lifestyle may still result in a smaller carbon footprint because of savings we realize from other aspects of our lifestyle.  I feel very confident that our lifestyle will result in a lower carbon footprint at a significantly lower annual cost than most other homeowners living in or near the major cities can possibly achieve.

As I suggested above, we obtain additional cost of living benefits from our vegetable garden, which not only provides us with fresh vegetables during the summer months and canned food for the winter, but also pays for itself through our farmer’s market sales. As many of my previous farm website posts document, we are privileged to enjoy living in a scenic rural setting that surpasses anything we were able to obtain from our prior homes. What more can we ask from our retirement? This is a good example of the monetary and intangible benefits we have achieved by the self-reliant homestead lifestyle we created here at Peeper Pond Farm. It certainly makes good financial sense to us, and I sincerely hope it will to you as well.  Can you now see how the lifestyle we promote here at our farm has real value to us in the twenty-first century?