Who loves the sun?

Sorry, coal.

One of our longtime dreams has been to provide our own energy. We’d really like to produce as much as we use, and between heating the place with the masonry heater, using wood we cut ourselves, and our new solar panels, this is likely to be the case.

Early last summer (Summer 2014), we decided we’d better get moving on the solar array. There is currently a 30% federal tax credit (not a deduction, a credit) for many types of solar systems. In addition, there are net metering laws in Michigan that make it worthwhile to tie to the electrical grid – basically, we bank credits during the long, sunny days of summer, and use those credits during the short, gray winter days. As solar becomes more common in the U.S., there also seems to be political backlash against it (apparently not everyone loves the sun!), so it seemed prudent to take advantage of the incentives while they are available.

In the interest of saving time, especially since I was out of commission for months following my foot surgery, we decided to contract out the solar electric work. A local outfit, Blue Terra Energy, has done a number of installs and had a good reputation, so we asked the owner, Dave Camps, to give us a quote. We had done a lot of research and know pretty much what we wanted – two pole-mounted arrays even with the front of the house, between the house and the fenced garden. This area has great sun exposure and  a little too much slope to use as garden. Also, it’s close to the house, particularly the utility room, which makes running the electrical cabling a lot easier.

Dave Camps’ crew started by digging a couple of holes below the frostline, putting massive sonotubes in each, and putting concrete reinforcement bar (rebar) inside the tubes. Next, they lowered the poles (8″ diameter!) into the tubes, staking them so they stayed level:

If I had a rocket launcher...

Next, concrete. Those tubes are 42 inches in diameter. You can imagine how much wind those arrays catch, so this did not seem like overkill.

Our terra is more reddish-brown than blue

Since we designed our house for passive solar gain, there is very little south-facing roof. Because of this, pole-mounted arrays made more sense, even though they are more expensive due to the foundation work. The next step was the racking and the modules (aka panels):

White on white translucent black capes, Back on the rack

Yes, these are silicon. Yes, we are in a valley. No, we are not 'disruptive.'

Finally, the Blue Terra crew installed the inverters and the wiring from the array to the main panel in the house. Inverters convert the DC voltage from the modules into AC that your house wiring uses. For many years,  all of the modules would be connected to a single large inverter, but over the last five or ten years, micro-inverters have become available (and popular). They allow a system to be more flexible and allow for easier growth. They also make it possible to monitor each module individually, making troubleshooting easier. Below, you can see an inverter mounted underneath each module:

C'mon, Mr. Sun, quit hidin!

The system went live September 9, 2014. We tried to size the array to  provide approximately the same amount of electricity in the course of a year as Nerdwood uses. Since net metering does not require the power company to pay us for any electricity we produce in excess of what we use, it does not make sense to overproduce, at least from a narrow economic perspective. As of late May, 2015, it looks like we’ll be right on target.

It’s a blast to check the metering system and see the power flowing to the grid on a sunny day. Since we live in a northerly climate, many folks around here don’t realize that solar power is more than viable, and as the price of electricity continues to climb, it seems more and more silly not to take advantage of it.

Lessons Learned

As work has progressed at Nerdwood, there have been times when something didn’t quite turn out right, or didn’t look or function as we expected. These missteps have resulted in having to do things over, which, considering how long this house is taking us to build, can be a bit deflating. I can’t really say I’m surprised this happens; it seems to happen to professionals as well, and we are anything but. Still, these lessons are a bit heartbreaking.

In this post, I’m going to share two instances requiring re-work that occurred this year, one a bit bigger than previous instances, and the other a whole lot bigger. Hopefully the lessons we learned will help others avoid the same mistakes.

Lesson I

The first mistake has been bugging me for nearly two years. When I put in the chimney, as noted in Wood Light/Wood Heat, I struggled with the proper way to flash the chimney. There was not a lot of information available about properly flashing a chimney coming out of a metal roof. Reluctant to cut into our lovely metal roof, I tried a silicone flashing boot designed for bolting on top of the existing roof, and I bolted a metal flashing cone on top of that for good measure.

Unfortunately, when spring came, so did the water, drip-drip-dripping from the ceiling box the chimney goes into. Not a torrent by any means, just a small drip every time there was a decent rain. Argh! Clearly, I would have to figure out a way to lap the metal roofing over the flashing, just like you would with a shingle roof.

With the many tasks last year, I just didn’t find the time to take care of the chimney issue. Finally, this past July, I got up on the roof to see what was going on. In the last post, I mentioned the crazy hard winter we, and much of the country, experienced this past year. When I got up top, I saw that the cricket (snow diverter) I had built was woefully inadequate:

Chirp no more, lil' cricket

It did it’s best, but clearly we need a much taller cricket to protect the full height of the chimney, and avoid this happening again:

No-Fun-House mirror

So, first things first, I had to stop the dripping; we could worry about putting up a new diverter later. First, we purchased another sheet of the same roofing we used originally. Good thing it’s still made! Then, I spent an afternoon with thin cardboard and a pair of scissors, figuring out how to cut and overlap everything so the water would decide to run down the roof instead of into the chimney box. You can’t fight water, but you can persuade it. Another day on the roof with the new sheet of roofing and a bucket o’ tools, and the job was done. Interesting to see how the color of the existing roof has changed over six years.

Sat in your lap

As I write this in October, there has been nary a drop in the house since July, so I believe this did the trick. I also noticed that when I removed the old roofing panel, much to my relief, the decking underneath was in good shape. Not enough water had gotten in to rot out any of the framing or decking. We still need to get that cricket installed before the snow flies.

Lesson II

A week or so after fixing the chimney, we were heading out of town so I could have surgery done on my bum foot. On the way out, we stopped at Nerdwood to have a look at things. When I went inside, I admired our new ceiling, as I had done every time over the past few weeks. As you walk in, you see the living room ceiling first, and today it looked great as always. When I looked at the second-floor ceiling, nothing unusual registered at first. Then a feeling of… wrongness came over me.

I suddenly had a disorienting feeling of being in a dream. I realized I was looking at OSB sheeting on the ceiling, as I had been for the previous three years. As in a dream, I knew that the ceiling was done, but what I saw said that it wasn’t. I fought the cognitive dissonance as I ascended the ladder. Something terrible had happened.

When we put up the ceiling, we used a brad nailer, shooting 18-ga. brads through the tongue of the paneling, into the OSB sheeting. Where there were roof rafters behind the OSB, I made sure to put a brad as well, so it would go through the OSB and into the rafter. The paneling was very tight against the OSB with this method, and it seemed like nothing could dislodge it. I was very wrong about that. The last course, at the apex of the ceiling in the front of the house, had come loose, and row by row, the paneling simply peeled off the OSB like a roll-top desk. About two-thirds of the way down the second-floor portion of the ceiling, several temporary braces had stopped the peeling of the ceiling, leaving one-third left and the rest of the paneling in a jumbled heap on the second floor.

The least it could have done was fall neatly...

Hang in there, Boardy!

That was weeks worth of work, undone in what probably took a few seconds. What’s even worse, we ordered the paneling pre-finished, and many of the fallen boards have unsightly gouges, dents and scrapes on them. They all have useless brads sticking out of them, which will have to be removed in order to re-use the good ones.

Pictures of Matchstick Men

Argh! I did not know that I should have secured the last, highest row by driving proper screws into the boards, through the OSB and into the roof rafters. I knew this coming winter we would be framing above the cordwood, and this framing would secure the top row of paneling into the ceiling, but I also knew the brads would surely hold until then. Well, you can quit calling me Shirley.

One thing that made this less bad than it could have been was that it was the second-floor ceiling that came down, rather than the living room ceiling. Although it’s bigger in area, it was much easier to put up due to the lower ceiling height and the lack of large beams in the way of the scaffolding.

We delayed our trip for an hour or so while I secured what was left of the second-floor ceiling using screws, then secured the top row of the living room ceiling using screws as well. I am not looking forward to de-nailing, sorting and re-installing those boards.

This guy was mightily amused by the drama:

Laugh it up, Red

Ceiling and Shiitake

As spring continues to be sprung, we continue work on the ceiling. By the end of April, we finished the larger of the two sections, the area over the second floor:

Knot bad!

At this point, things get a little trickier. The outer edges of the second floor ceiling will eventually have walls built up to them. You can see where those walls will go in the photo above, between the top of the cordwood walls and the ceiling. Because of this, we didn’t have to worry about keeping a straight edge when we got to the end of a row of paneling; the edges will be covered so we could leave it a bit ragged.

The ceiling in the living room not only has to butt up against the top of the existing cordwood wall, but there are a whole bunch of crazy angles where it does so.

Revenge of the twelve-sided house!

In addition, it’s much higher above the first floor than the section we just finished was above the second floor. This makes for some slow going.

In the meantime, the snow slowly melts from our over-eager winter (340″ of snow at the Big Snow Thermometer, a bit less at Nerdwood). Large bergs of snow calve from the glacier on the roof:


By May, we’ve made pretty good progress on the living room ceiling:

Wood on wood on wood!

No snow on the ground means it’s also time to work on the garden. This year, we are inoculating shiitake mushroom logs. The spawn comes in little plugs:

Not all spawn is alien in origin

Lightly coppicing a single cluster of maple trees yielded plenty of logs to drill.

It may not get us into "Fine Mushroom Log" magazine

Holes drilled and plugs inserted, all we do now is keep them moist in the woods all summer. Then next spring, lotsa tasty ‘shrooms for the next three or four years.

Champagne dreams and mushroom wishes

Finally, in mid-July, we nailed in the last ceiling board.

Aspen a long time coming


50 Words for Snow

After a few mild winters here in the Copper Country, the snow is back and it’s not kidding around this time. It started snowing in earnest a few days before Thanksgiving and barely let up for over a month. Fortunately, the tractor has a snow blower attachment, making it a lot easier to get to the house even with 3+ feet of snow on the ground. If only I had gotten around to removing the mower deck and putting the blower on before it got cold!

Just follow the white path home

Fortunately we made a bunch of lime putty and dried a mini-beach worth of sand before the snow started, so once the Fall outdoor chores (including cutting up still more logs!) were no longer possible, we picked up cordwooding again. We’re now completely into the second floor loft; this wall on the west side of the house is partly over the open area and partly in the loft:

Four-string wall panel tuned to 'E'

It was a bit tricky getting to the top, but with some scaffolding and homebrew planking, we were able to finish it up.

Call of the West, or Wall of Voodoo

Over on the east side, Clare finished up her head-of-the-stairs bottle feature. This was in progress in the post My Autumn’s Done Come

Some folk call it "Drinky Pete"

We’ve used up the lime putty and sand, just in time for the tongue-and-groove aspen for the ceiling to be delivered. Looks like I’d better fire up the snow blower to clear a path for it!

Wood Light/Wood Heat

Fire, I'll take you to burn. Fire, I'll take you to learn.

So here we are, Fall 2012, and although we’ve had the masonry heater in since December 2010, we haven’t been able to fire it up – no chimney! I was determined that this fall we would be able to set fires inside the house (and not have to call the Otter Lake Volunteer Fire Department).

Eric from Solid Rock Masonry had built up a brick chimney to just below the second floor. We thought it would look kind of neat (and be easiest) to switch to metal chimney from the top of the brick chimney all the way through the ceiling and the roof. The first step was a transition plate from masonry to Class A chimney pipe:

Silver Tube Dance Party

Class A chimney is double-walled with an insulating blanket between the walls. It’s safer and requires less distance from flammable materials than single-wall stove pipe. Another reason we went with metal pipe is that the chimney goes through the floor joists holding up the second floor, then through the roof rafters, and these two things are not quite lined up at Nerdwood (it’s rustic, OK?). Thus, we had to put a bit of an offset in the chimney to move it over about four inches.

By hook or by crook, we will.

Here’s how the inside looks. Just ignore the cross-braces that we’re leaving in until we put up the railing.

Smokestack Lightning

So far, so good. Now, Clare’s favorite part, “Greg monkeys around on the roof.” It was kind of sickening to cut a big hole in our nice metal roof, but it beats having the house fill with smoke.

Making a hole where the rain gets in...

This part was a little bit nerve-wracking, since it was late November and at any time it could start snowing and not stop for a month or two. I worked as fast as I could, adding the rest of the chimney sections, then using a form-fitting rubber boot as  the first level of flashing.

The morning sun is shining like a red rubber boot

After caulking and screwing this down, and letting the caulk cure, I added a second flashing, this one metal. Notice the minor amount of snow that fell in the intervening few days:

Flash & the Pan

Finally, to protect the chimney from a freight train of snow sliding down the metal roof, I used some extra roofing, plywood, lumber and rubber flashing to build a “cricket” to divert the snow:

Chimney, not Jiminy...

A day or two after this, it did in fact snow quite a bit. But, as you can see from the first picture, we were too busy enjoying our first Nerdwood fire to worry about that.

We’re still here!

Yes, it’s true, we haven’t disappeared into a black hole or something, I’ve just been very busy and waiting for things to slow down so I can post the latest Nerdwood news. Since things are unlikely to slow down anytime soon, I’ll try to get up to date over the next month or so.

I feel it closing in

Day in, day out, day in, day out...

Well, we survived Peak Log and Peak Sand and we laid up the last log in the outside wall on October 6. Whoooo!

The logs we just cut and put in the solar log-drying kiln were plenty dry after a month in there. We worked feverishly the last two weeks since we were having visitors come in on the 8th. While they were touring the house on Saturday we popped open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the last outside log. My sister and brother-in-law protested, saying they had not done any work on the house. Madness, I say! You needn’t have lived another’s life for a year to celebrate their birthday, right? Luckily they relented and enjoyed a toast to Nerdwood, otherwise I would’ve been a bit tipsy on the way home.

While all this was going on, Matt has been working on framing the third level, including installing windows and housewrap, and flashing the bottom:

That's Clare's story, and she's sticking to it.

Our neighbor sawed up some cedar logs into one-inch thick planks with a natural edge. We dried them and are using them as siding on the third level. I think it looks pretty cool with the cordwood:

I generally side with wood

Now we can concentrate on the many many tasks necessary to get the house insulated and heated so we can continue working on it this winter.

We missed a mushroom in the Winecap Stropharia bed, and it grew enormous before we noticed it:

Mushroom, mushroom. Snaaaaake! Snaaaaaaaake! Oh, it's a snake!

Peak Log!

Sure, Peak Oil is a problem, but we have experienced Peak Log here at Nerdwood. As of July 2010, the pile of logs we have been drawing from – cut in 2003 – are getting more and more rotten. We have to discard more, the ones we use take longer to clean, and we’ve realized that we might not have enough to finish the house.

To help speed things along and to ensure we have plenty enough logs, we asked our neighbor Emanuel (who has a sawmill and has been providing us with cedar boards for the window boxes) if he could help us find five or six cords of recently-cut cedar. Not only did he find us some, he delivered it to our house as well.

We hired a couple of students from he nearby University (we called them Nerdlings) to come out and peel the new logs for a few days, thinking the best way to keep them from rotting would be to peel, cut, split and stack them as quickly as possible. This is what we should have done with the initial pile of logs but we didn’t since we couldn’t wait to get started on the house.

Unfortunately, peeling the new batch of logs ranged from somewhat difficult to impossible. They had been cut in February and the bark was just cemented onto some of them. The Nerdlings peeled the less-cementy logs and did a bang-up job of it. We then cut them and put them into the kiln. While all this was going on, we continue to cordwood the upper level in the back of the house:

The tall walls are all full tall walls

It’s now early September and we have a LOT to do if the house is to be closed in, insulated and heated by early December, when the snow usually starts to get serious around here. We hired our friend Matt to help with a bunch of carpentry tasks. Here he has framed out part of the top level:

'Well there there, Mrs. Black, uh ...' 'Well, wedge shapes.' 'Mrs. Wedge' 'everywhere' 'There there, back on the couch.' 'Oh, what does it mean?' 'Er, rectangular, black, and with wedge shapes inside.' 'Oh, I see them everywhere, everywhere ...'

We also picked up some storage tanks. we plan to put them under the porch and direct rainwater into them to use to irrigate the garden and possibly the orchard in times of drought. They had been used to hold garlic-flavored oil for industrial food production (i.e., frozen pizza) and are pretty garlicky right now:

Is it about my cube?

So now we have logs drying in the kiln and we’ve just about run out of wall-ready logs. In addition, the rain has been frequent and I’m getting a bit worried about “Peak Sand.” Can we get the outer wall cordwooded before October’s frost? Stay tuned…

Blocks and blocks

In an effort to keep out of the blazing sun, we decided to pick up cordwooding in the back of the house – it’s the north side and is well under the large rear overhang. Two things make this area particularly difficult, though. First, there are no windows at all here, since from an energy efficiency standpoint, you want to minimize the number of north-facing windows. Thus, these walls will take a LOT of mortaring to finish. Second, there is no easy access like there was in the front; no deck on the outside, no second floor on the inside. We’ll have to work on scaffolding and haul all the logs and mortar up by hand.

Fortunately, a friend at work had some extra scaffolding she was not using for a while and loaned it to us (thanks, Michelle!). Fourth of July weekend, we started the Big Log Slog:

Scaffolding? Or old scaffing?

Last month, we went to the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, WI. In addition to seeing cordwood mavens Richard and Becky Flateau, we also found a vendor who used to carry the masonry heater kit we have been planning to install in Nerdwood. He still had one lying around and was happy to let it go for a decent price. As I found out with the mortar mixer, nobody wants to deliver anything big to a job site unless you have a forklift there to unload it from the truck. Definitely not the case here! Once again, I had to have it delivered to work where there is a loading dock. The kit is made up of about forty pieces cast from high-heat cement, each weighing from about fifty pounds to about a hundred.

As the kit sat on the (luckily very-little-used) dock, each day we would load ten or so pieces onto the pickup drive them to the house, and schlep them inside. Naturally, this all happened in the middle of a heat wave, adding to the fun of carrying heavy, oddly-shaped, brittle, slippery blocks around. Here they are, getting underfoot:

Blocks on blocks are all around, neon lit for silent sound

Aside from the this heat wave, the weather has been excellent for the garden, raining at least a couple of times a week. Butterfly weed in bloom:

Go ahead, stuff your proboscis!

Forward, Outside Edge

Once again, the weather has warmed up enough to cordwood without fear, so we pick up where we left off last fall; namely, the second floor. Here we are starting the bedroom wall – pretty quick since it’s mostly door. Notice that we nailed strips of wood to the door frame where it gets filled in with logs and mortar We also put these strips on the timbers. This helps “key in” the mortar, locking the cordwood wall to the frame – a “best practice” used by many cordwood builders these days.

Welcome to the Wall-door Hysteria

By the end of June, we’ve finished the front face. The open spaces above the cordwood and below the roof will be rough-edge cedar siding; it’s just a bit too high to lay logs.

Showing a unified front

Some of the lupin seeds we’ve been scattering near the house are starting to blossom. I say, let nature do some of the work of decorating the yard.

Right, now my fine friends, no false moves please. I want you to hand over all the lupins you've got.