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Logging Made Easy(ier)

Off Grid CTO: Logging Made Easy(ier)


Welcome to the long overdue next edition of Off Grid CTO, where I talk about living life off the grid while working as the Chief Technology Officer of ModelOp, a great software company creating advanced software to manage both your ML/AI models, as well as your traditional models as well.  If you get the chance, checkout my ongoing masterclass series on our product.

It’s been a very busy summer up here.  The summers are amazingly short, and very busy.  There are a ton of projects to get done before the snow flies, and the road shuts down for the season.  It constantly feels like you are behind and catching up, but I did get a lot of cool projects done this summer, which I will go into in another post.

The one constant is the need for firewood for heat.  We pretty much use wood year round to heat the place, just a lot more in the winter, and a lot less in the summer.  Most mornings require at least a few logs to get rid of the night’s chill.  As the leaves have turned yellow and are falling off the tree, the reminder that all the wood must be done becomes more and more urgent.

Over the years, I have used quite a few different tools to make the collection of all of that wood better, and I thought I would share the tools that I have found make the biggest difference.  Once again I will be mentioning products that I have purchased and used here, but want to remind everyone that I have received nothing in return for these.  It’s just stuff I found works….

 

Jim Olsen – Off Grid CTO

 

 

 

 

Mingo Firewood Marker marking the log

A fully marked log ready to cut

“Measure twice, cut once” — Historical Proverb

 

Getting the Length Right

For years and years when cutting out the individual lengths of logs, I would just kind of eyeball it and have it ‘about right’.  This lead to sloppy stacks of wood, pieces too long to fit in the wood box, and just overall an inconsistency that was done quickly, but I paid for down the line.  There had to be better way.

There were bars of your desired length that you could stick on the side of your saw blade, or the saw itself, that really just got in the way if you were actually working out in the woods.  I found them to be more of a hazard than a help.  Then I came across this great little device.

It’s the Mingo Firewood Marker.  You can get different size wheels for different lengths, but I just use the standard 16 inch wheel.  It takes a standard can of road marking paint you place into the top, and you push the device along the log.  Every 16 inches I will get a dot on the log.  This gives me my standard firewood length.  Nine dots gives me the maximum my sawmill will handle, so I can rapidly cut each length.

Once I have all the trees down and limbed, I simply go mark all of them in advance, then can just quickly move through them cutting perfect lengths every time.  No more guesswork and I end up with near perfect log piles.

 

 

 

Protecting Oneself

Dealing with chainsaws, falling trees, undergrowth, and all of the other things just waiting to cut you in the woods is just a reality of logging.  You must have reliable safety gear, and ones that don’t get in your way and let you get the job done.  Amazingly, finding good items is way harder than it looks.  The standard stuff is often way too bulky, and just does not last.  I’ve made tow recent additions that have both been winners.

Gloves…  It would seem they have been made for years and it should be easy to find quality ones that protect your hands and last.  But oddly, that is not the case.  I have burned through I don’t know how many pairs of gloves that last maybe two weeks at best doing logging work.  I’ve used everything from Stihl branded gloves, Carhart gloves, generic cheap gloves, you name it.  They all fail typically within a couple of weeks at best.

The first gloves I  have gotten that so far have lasted over a month are Livingston Linesman gloves.  They are made for people putting in powerlines, so you get the idea they must be rugged.  They have now lasted me a month and a half and have not shown signs of quitting yet, so I believe I may have found something of quality.  You pay more for them for sure, but buying a pair every other week gets very expensive quick, so I am hoping these ones last.  These are the winners of the glove war so far up here, as logging is rough on gloves, and even worse on your hands if you don’t wear them.

Eye protection is also key up here.  Sticks fly, woodchips sail through the air, and it is really easy to walk into a branch.  Protecting your eyes is a must.  I’ve used traditional safety glasses, and they were all just fine, but they shared one flaw.  Woodcutting is hard work, and you sweat.  Those glasses then completely fog up, and I can’t see a darn thing, and that sure isn’t safe when carrying a running chainsaw.

I ran across these mesh safety glasses, and found a winner.  Think of it like a window screen with small enough mesh to keep stuff out.  Fine sawdust can get through, but anything over that stays out, and zero fogging.  Plus they are goggles, so nothing gets around the sides.  So now I can see no matter how hard I get working.

 

Livingston Linesman Gloves

Mesh Safety Goggles

“I will say that I cannot imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” — Captain EJ Smith of the Titanic just before it set sail

 

 

 

Husqvarna chainsaw gas can

Filling the gas can with no spills!

“Our culture runs on coffee and gasoline, the first often tasting like the second.” — Edward Abbey

 

My Kingdom for a Decent Gas Can

Another thing that has really gone downhill over the years is the quality of gas cans.  They have added all of these ventless features which are supposed to help the environment, but yet when you try and fill a small engine with them, there is zero way they will not spill fuel all over the woods, or leak when in the back of the ATV.  I think for light use they might be better, but I am not really OK with spilling gas all over the place.  I just can’t imagine it is a net positive.

So low and behold I finally found the absolute best gas can for filling a chainsaw.  It is made by Husqvarna specifically for chainsaws, and is unfortunately not for sale in the US so you have to order from overseas, despite the fact it is still ventless.  So given that, it is the most expensive gas can I have ever bought, but I do have to say it is worth it.

It comes with two sides, one for bar oil and another for the gas.  The neat part is it completely seals, yet has special fillers that you just push down on the gas tank hole with and it automatically fills it near to the top and stops pouring.  Thus you never spill a drop.

Add onto that the storage areas for your scrench, files, and wedges, and it makes an easy to carry package that does not spill and is built like a tank.  It all goes back to my saying that I’d rather spend three times as much and never have to replace it then cheap out and struggle with it every day.  Some things are just worth the extra money.

 

 

 

Saving Your Back

One of the toughest parts of woodcutting out in the forest is that there is never a perfect place to drop that dead tree.  It will inevitably end up stuck up against rocks, stumps, or other items which will make actually cutting it into pieces way harder than you would like.  Over the years, I have just muscled my way through it, but as I am getting a bit older, I feel the results of that for longer.  It was time to take some mechanical advantage of those logs.

There are many cheap versions of different tools to move logs out there that are single purpose.  Typically a timberjack and a cant hook are the primary tools.  But carrying around an array of tools in the woods becomes cumbersome, and I wanted something built to last, not an imported knock off that breaks in the field.  Enter the LogOx….

It is three tools in one.  It is a log hauler, a cant hook, and a timberjack all in one unit that rapidly switches between those tools.  It is made in the US and is very well built of high quality materials.  It is clearly a tool built to last.

As a log hauler, as in the first picture, it can easily be used to move a log away from a stump or other obstruction without completely messing up your arms, which my wife can attest to that I used to do often.  It gives just a little leverage in that it is easy to lift with your legs instead of your back.

As a cant hook, you basically add a long handle to the log hauler.  This gives you a bit of leverage to roll a very large log without nearly as much effort on your part.  This is handy in those stump situations as well.

 

The LogOx in log hauler mode

The LogOx setup as a cant hook

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

 

 

 

The LogOx setup as a timberjack

The LogOx holding a log off the ground ready to cut

 

Lifting the Logs

In the LogOx’s final configuration, you add a leg onto the bottom of the cant hook allowing you to create a timberjack for lifting the logs off of the forest floor in order to cut the individual rounds.

Strictly, this is not necessary as you can cut part way through and roll the log, or use another piece of wood and put it up on that, but in practicality using this tool saves your back, and your chains from ground strikes, which instantly dull the blade.

You simply position the cant hook over the log, pull back on the handle to lift and roll the log up onto the back and the log will be held in place above the ground.

Then you simply cut your rounds off on the marks you previously made with the marking tool, and lift the lever and roll the log back down to the ground.  Simply move further down the log, and repeat.  I have lifted very large logs with this without any strain on my back.  A huge difference.

I can’t speak highly enough of this single tool.  You pay a premium for it, but it really is high quality, and three tools that I now use all of the time.  As I said before, I prefer to spend once on a quality tool and use it for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

Carrying the Load

Finally, after you have nicely stacked all of that wood you cut in the woodshed, and you are ready to use it, there is the task of carrying the wood into the cabin to actually finally use it.  This is the about sixth and final time you will carry that wood, and using a traditional wood carrier is still a heavy task on your arms and back.  Both your hands will be full, and opening the door is no pleasant task.  In the middle of winter, you will do this several times at least.

When I was buying the LogOx tool, I saw they offered a really nice looking log carrier with a different take on it.  Then I looked at the price and balked a bit about how a log carrier could cost that much…  Well after a few more times of my back hurting, and a coupon from the manufacturer, I decided to go for it.

What makes it different is it is built like a sling rather than a carrier.  So a strap goes over your neck/shoulder and carries the weight there, and your arm goes through a pocket on the other side, which leaves you an entire arm free to open doors and load it up, rather than throwing it on the ground.

So now the weight is on my shoulders, it never touches the ground and you load it right on yourself.  Honestly the weight is very minimal in this configuration, and it really turned out to be worth the money.  BTW, it is a really high quality build too, so hats off to them.  I do wish  it were just a bit cheaper, but I do expect to use this for a very long time as well.

 

WoodOx Sling carrying a load of firewood

A closer view of the sling and how the weight is well centered

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it” — Lena Home

 

 

 

Our favorite tree surrounded by fall colors

The mountains in full fall color near our cabin

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” — Henry David Thoreau

 

Heading into Fall

Fall is happening fast up here.  Many of the projects for the summer have been completed, some of them will remain until next summer, but it is a time to rush and finish up what HAS to be done.  Then comes the calm of winter where many of the projects will be buried deep underneath the snow.

It is a reflective time as well to look back and enjoy the accomplishments that have been made and recognize how much we really did get done up here, even though not everything got done.  It is a time to relish in the idea of warm evenings by the fire and enjoying all of this work we put in.

In the next post, since I got so far behind in posts, we will catch you up with the major projects that were completed over the summer.  Some were simple, and some were quite impressive (like a whole new roof in a long weekend).

So join me next time for a summer in review!

Jim Olsen, Off Grid CTO

 

 

 

Off Grid CTO: Off Grid Power Efficient AI

Off Grid CTO: An AI Solution With Low Power

Welcome to the next edition of my blog about living off the grid, while working as the CTO of ModelOp, a great software company that allows people to work from wherever they happen to be.  We are hiring, so if you want to work for a great company on the leading edge of the AI space, see our website for current opportunities.

One of the challenges of being so remote is when you are away, it is nice to be able to check in on the place and see that things are still working OK.  I have the ability to check on the battery charge stats from anywhere in the world, see the current weather, and get a few views of my property from different solar powered security cameras scattered about the property.

This comes in really handy to know how much snow there is to make a trip to shovel the roof, if we can drive in with a regular vehicle yet, or just to see the various animal visitors we get that we may not even notice when we are here.

So we get alerts on motion detection, but every time there was a windy day, or a moth flies by, it would result in an alert.  There had to be something better and a way to fix this.  Sure enough, machine learning based object detection would solve this, but compute requirements on low power are a big issue.

I will be talking about some products I used to solve this problem, but I do not receive any compensation for these items.  They are just what I myself bought and used to solve the problem at hand.

 

 

 

Blue Iris Web Interface

Blue Iris Server

 

“Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower.”

—Alan Kay

 

The Core Stack

To actually run the security cameras, I use a variety of standard IP cameras that connect either through ethernet cable, if attached to the cabin, or through wifi if more remote.  To actually provide the remote monitoring, motion detection, and a convenient web based UI, I use the popular software Blue Iris.  Unfortunately it only runs on Windows, but its capabilities are superior to any of the other Linux based solutions I tried out.

So to actually run the software itself, I use a low powered fanless mini pc that has enough power to run the camera software, and not much else.  It uses very little power, so can be run continuously without fear even on cloudier days.

This, however, means it does not  have much extra compute power to handle anything else.  Blue Iris recently added support for the open source Deepstack object detection software, but there was no way I could run that on the same machine.  It just demanded way too many compute resources, and really needs something with a decent GPU.

I considered upgrading the PC, but anything that had enough juice to handle it, also wanted to suck up way  too much power for the task at hand.  I needed a low power solution that could handle this.

 

 

 

Meet the Jetson

So I needed something more like the raspberry pi, but could handle an AI load that relied on GPU resources to actually accelerate the compute.  Object detection for images in real time requires some muscle.  Now fortunately we only need to do the object detection when motion is detected, rather than on a live video stream, so that helps reduce the requirements a bit.

In steps the nVidia Jetson.  It is a small unit with a GPU that runs on 5v, and approximately 10w max at normal consumption.  I do not use the usb for power, but instead provide up to 4A of power through the barrel connector for higher performance.

It also has 128-core Maxwell GPU, as well as a Quad-core ARM A57 @ 1.43 GHz paired with 4gb of memory meaning it has the ability to handle some decent load.  The base linux software it has (jetpack) is already CUDA enabled and ready to go.  So this sure seemed like a great solution for image processing at low power.  But what do we run on it?

 

“The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence.”

—Jean Baudrillard

 

 

 

Yes, it detects hot dogs

“Before we work on artificial intelligence why don’t we do something about natural stupidity?”

—Steve Polyak

 

Deepstack for Jetson

Well the nano itself provides a CUDA enabled linux distribution, so the next step was to place something on it to do the image recognition.  Fortunately, Blue Iris already provides direct integration with Deepstack, an open source image recognition platform.  It is simple REST style API, so it is really very easy to use, and also includes python support.

Deepstack is a dockerized AI solution utilizing standard libraries under the covers to perform the work.  It can do a large variety of detection types, but for our purposes, we wanted to just do object  detection, not scene nor face.  It has an install specific to the Jetson, so you simply first install docker, then launch a docker instance with the Deepstack server already installed.  Then it will listen on the configured port for any requests, and send back the coordinates of detected objects along with the label.

For standard scene type images on a high detection setting (most detailed) it takes approximately 300ms to resolve, so not bad on 10w of power.

And I always get this question so will go ahead and answer it.  Yes, it does detect hot dogs….

 

 

Getting the Two to Talk

So the final step in setting all of this up was to fix the Jetson on a static IP, and configure Blue Iris to talk to that instance of it.  This is easily done in the global config settings under the AI tab.  Simply put in the url to your Jetson, and a list of objects (from the list in the Deepstack SDK) you want it to detect.

Then on each camera, under the ‘Motion Trigger’ tab, simple click the Artifical Intelligence button and list out the objects it should look for, or reject.  I also tick the checkbox to draw the labels and boxes. 

Because I no longer needed to worry about false alarms from the motion detection being too sensitive, I really cranked up the sensitivity of the motion detection.  What happens is the motion detection will trigger an image to be taken, then Blue Iris will send that to the Jetson for processing, and it will only alert you if it finds matching objects in the image.

So I went from getting an alert every 15 minutes in a windstorm or heavy snow, to now receiving few, if any false alerts due to this post filtering.  A great improvement!

 

The Jetson and Blue Iris Server

“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.”
― Edsger W. Dijkstra

 

 

 

Front Porch

Walking Up the Driveway

Walking in the Parking Area

“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”
― Pedro Domingos

 

The Results are In

Well after I got the pair up and running, I have to say the results have been quite an improvement.  Instead of getting a picture of a bird flying by, or shadows moving due to the wind, or a whole host of other things, I now found all of these being filtered out.  With a little bit of tuning of the minimum confidence level, I found it to detect the things I cared about quite reliably.

As can be seen on the left, it was able to pick me out as a person in a variety of distances and orientations quite successfully.  It also has detected cars and such without any problems.

So overall, by only adding 10w to my system requirements, this has been a very successful implementation.  I am interested in trying out the gpu capabilities for other tasks as well, and seeing how well it performs.  This thing is really a low powered powerhouse….

 

 

 

Some Improvements

Overall it works quite well out of the box, and captures most of what I care about.  There are, however, some missing objects I would like to add to its database.

Fortunately, Deepstack does allow and provide tools for training on custom objects.  The issue for me will be to come up with enough labeled data to support this training.  For instance it sees a moose as either a cow or a dog, depending on the angle.   It also sees my UTV as a truck, which is close, but it would be nice to get a different message for each.  There are also a lot of animals unique to high altitude that it is not aware of, so it would also be nice to get an alert telling me there is a marmot on the deck.  So in the long run, I have some training to do at some point.

Overall though, the project was a great success and a good learning experience.  It shows that off the grid ai is not only possible, but available easily today.  There are probably many other uses I can come up with over time, so it will be a great experimentation platform.

Thanks for joining me in this edition of the Off Grid CTO, and I look forward to our next edition!

 

A Cow Moose

A Truck UTV

“What people call #AI is no more than using correlation to find answers to questions we know to ask. Real #AI has awareness of causality, leading to answering questions we haven’t dreamed of yet.”

– Tom Golway

 

 

 

Hey Buddy, Got a Light?

Off Grid CTO: Hey Buddy, Got a Light?


As we transition to spring up here in the mountains, while I work for ModelOp as the CTO, the temperatures slowly climb, the days get longer, and the snow continues to melt.  It might seem counter intuitive, but this time of year I actually have to light the most fires.  During the winter, the woodstove keeps going 24×7, and I rarely have to relight it.  With the days getting warmer, we now actually just have a fire in the morning and in the evening, so that means starting two fires a day.

We also start burning more slash in the burn barrel as I return to cutting wood, and enjoy an evening campfire outside on occasion.  Additionally, the wood fired hot tub is back in use, now that our gravity feed water has returned.  So that is a whole lot of fire lighting!

Finding a reliable lighter that works at 10,200 feet has proved next to impossible over the years.  Most disposable lighters of the long reach variety fail to work at this altitude, and finding refillable ones has resulted in many a returned lighter.  So I thought I would share what I have learned and found to work at high altitudes.

I will be mentioning a lot of products in this post.  I do not receive any compensation from anyone for this, it is literally just what I have found to work (or not work as the case may be).

 

 

 

 

Disposable Lighters

Most people, when they think of a lighter, think of something you just pick up at the store and throw away when done.  Well living up here using them so often, we just really, really hated the amount of lighters we would inevitably go through.  I mean they aren’t really even recyclable, given the mixture of plastic and metals in them.  So I have been on a long search to find reliable AND refillable lighters so we no longer had to go through all of this waste.

That said, many, many brands of long reach disposable lighters just do not work at altitude.  Now the small traditional ‘Bic’ style lighters actually are very, very reliable at altitude.  The  reason why is they use flint.  The fuel in the lighters are rarely the reason why they do not work up here.  It is the little piezo electric sparking systems that fail to ignite the gas with so little oxygen available.  The spark does just not last long enough.  The flint, being much slower burning, almost always lights on the first try.  That said, that style lighter for doing almost anything leads mostly to burnt fingers, so we really only use it for lighting the oven and a couple other simple tasks.  So any flint style lighter does work at altitude, is the moral of the story.

Of the long reach lighters, the Bic Multi Purpose long reach lighters do seem to mostly work up here.  About 1 in 4 I get refuses to light at altitude.  That said, it will take around five or so tries to actually get it to light, so hardly what I would consider convenient.  That doubled up with the waste of throwing these things away (hint, they don’t last very long), I just had to find something better.

 

“And Man created the plastic bag and the tin and aluminum can and the cellophane wrapper and the paper plate, and this was good because Man could then take his automobile and buy all his food in one place and He could save that which was good to eat in the refrigerator and throw away that which had no further use. And soon the earth was covered with plastic bags and aluminum cans and paper plates and disposable bottles and there was nowhere to sit down or walk, and Man shook his head and cried: “Look at this Godawful mess.” –Art Buchwald

 

 

 

“How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?” — Anonymous

 

Starting Fires in the Woodstove

Before I move onto the lighters, I do want to mention the absolute most reliable way of lighting a fire, and in fact what I use every day to start the fire in the woodstove.  Strike Anywhere kitchen matches work much better than a lighter.  They can be struck right on the woodstove to start, burn hotter than butane, and thus start a fire much quicker than a lighter.  They are cheap, and will get going even on the coldest of morning, whereas you will find butane lighters very finicky in the cold.  Combined with a piece of fatwood or two, you can have a nice warm roaring fire in no time at all going.

So I consider matches indispensable if you are living off the grid.  I keep several boxes of these around, as well as the big long matches that will burn for quite a bit of time and give you some reach.  They last pretty much forever if you keep them dry, and will always light with ease.  Just make sure you get the Strike Anywhere variety, not the Strike on Box.  I highly suggest these for all your fire starting purposes. 

 

 

 

 

“Plasma seems to have the kinds of properties one would like for life. It’s somewhat like liquid water–unpredictable and thus able to behave in an enormously complex fashion. It could probably carry as much information as DNA does. It has at least the potential for organizing itself in interesting ways.” — Freeman Dyson

 

Plasma Lighters

So the first ‘refillable’ path we went down was to get a USB rechargeable plasma lighter.  The promise was great in that we could just use our solar power to have infinite firing starting ability.  The claim was that you could even light candles with it.

The reality is, though, you would have to have quite the steady hand to keep the wick in the small spark generated, and it really makes a mess of the tip that then needs to be cleaned.

That said, it is probably our most used tool to light fires.   Not fires in the traditional sense, but starting our gas powered stove.  It is by far the best tool I have found for getting the stovetop burners going, or lighting a pilot light.  It works instantly every time, and last a very long time between charges.  There is nothing to replace, and so far has lasted us several years of daily use.

So if you want to have something to light your gas appliances, these things are great and work at any altitude.

 

 

 

A True Refillable Lighter

So with the partial success/failure of the plasma lighter, it was time to continue to find a more traditional flame that could be used to light candles and oil lamps.  I tried many different ones, and failed to find any that would even somewhat reliably light.

I then found the Zippo Flex Neck Utility Lighter.  I first tried the XL (long neck) version.  It lit fairly reliably (a few tries), but when you flex the neck too much, the tube actually pulls out of the end and breaks.  So I returned the long version, and figured I would try the regular version.  This version worked just fine, and has become a great lighter that is completely refillable, and starts somewhat reliably.

I think the trick to this one working is it has a little coil in the end that keeps it lit once going.  So after about four or five tries, it starts right up.  If I try and light it again after that, it immediately restarts.

It has a small jet like flame and works well for starting most fires, and does stay reliably lit.  It is also made of an all metal case which makes it a very solid and well made lighter.  So over all, this lighter is a winner at altitude and works OK.  As I mentioned, though, it still does take a few tries and can sometimes be frustrating.  But it works better than the disposable version, so at least we weren’t throwing away lighters anymore.

 

“Playing with fire is bad for those who burn themselves. For the rest of us, it is a very great pleasure.” — Jerry Smith

 

 

 

“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.”

— Henry David Thoreau

 

The Cadillac of Lighters

So while pushing the sparker for the fifth time on the Zippo lighter, it occurred to me that there must be something better.  I began to search around more trying to find something entirely different that the traditional piezo based spark, and was yet still refillable.

Then on an RV forum, I ran across the Olympian GM-3 which is a ‘constant spark’ lighter that utilizes a single AA battery to produce the spark.

So rather than a single spark initiated by ‘clicking’ the lighter, there is a separate button that you push that creates constant sparks.

The flame is not jet like, which I actually prefer for lighting candles and such.  It will light every single time with a single push of the button.  This lighter is solid and is a complete replacement for disposables AND works better.

Now when you receive the lighter, it has the most annoying safety system where it literally takes two hands to get it lit.  Fortunately mine ‘fell off’, as I would never recommend removing a safety feature, and it is much easier to use now.

This lighter is pricey, but given I can refill it and use it for years, it is actually not that expensive.  It will likely pay back for itself in a single year of disposables, and I won’t be throwing anything into the dump.

 

 

 

Butane

Whatever lighter you choose, it is critical to get good butane when using lighters at altitude.  The normal Ronson or Zippo butane in the red and white can you find in the grocery store is not very good, and is dirty.  It will end up clogging your lighter, and will not have a good flame.

The key is to find any brand that advertises itself as highly refined, or ultra refined.  These have been significantly more filtered and purified so that you aren’t getting ‘dirty gas’.  It really does make a difference.  I’ve had lighters that would not light with the cheap stuff, return to working order after buying better fuel.  So don’t scrimp here as one can is going to last you a very long time.

 

“My dad says butane is a bastard gas” — King of the Hill

 

 

 

“Success isn’t the result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.”

— Arnold Glascow

 

The Results Are In

So rather than a single lighter we use for everything, we ended up with three real winners for different purposes.

The plasma lighter is used to light our stove top every single time.  It has really performed for us, and is a great workhorse.

The Zippo is great for outside where a lazier flame might blow out.  Like lighting a grill or starting a mosquito coil.

The Olympian truly is an olympian and works great for day to day use lighting candles, oil lamps, and whatever else needs lighting.  It has a pleasant adjustable flame, and starts with the simple push of a button every single time.

So that’s my recommendations for lighters at high altitude, and finishes up this blog.  In the next blog, we will be looking at low powered (electricity wise) AI solutions for image recognition for a security camera system running off the grid.

 

 

 

Off Grid CTO: A Year in Review

 

Off Grid CTO: A Year in Review


Welcome to the next post in the series about living life off the grid working as CTO of a great and innovative software company called ModelOp which delivers software that manages your AI models at scale in the enterprise.

Amazingly, it has now been a full year since we arrived here at 10,200 feet in the Colorado Rockies.  We left for our cabin when the pandemic hit, figuring we would be here a few weeks while things blew over, and here we are a year later.  Time has flown by faster than I could have imagined.

Over the course of that year, we have built things, learned things, and made a few mistakes along the way.  So to commemorate this last year, I thought we would do a ‘year in review’ of some of those items and what it has been like living up here for now officially a full year.

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” — Oliver Wendell Homes

The Beginnings

We had been vacationing in Mexico with family when the announcement came out that a pandemic had been officially declared, and the borders would soon be closing.  Fortunately our flight was already set for before the closure, so we returned from Mexico to a whole new world, as even our driver had to cancel on us due to his exposure to covid.  The grocery store shelves were empty, and our town was on a complete lock down.  We decided it was time to head up to our cabin which had ample supplies, and a lot more room to ‘spread out’.

So we packed up the cats, all the supplies we had, our stuff, and headed to the mountains.  We figured we would be here a few weeks while things blew over, and might as well make the best out of it, but in reality, it was the beginning of a new adventure.

Room to Move About

One of the first things we noticed after we got up there was that piling up six weeks worth of supplies in the front hall was just not going to work for us in the long run.  Constantly tripping over boxes in a tight space is definitely no way to live.

Fortunately, with my chainsaw powered saw mill up here, we had access to free wood.  So one of the first projects completed up here was to put in new shelving in the front hall to hold both tools and supplies, as well as allow us to place a freezer and a drink cooler underneath the supplies to maximize space.

This ended up being a great project and really added some much needed storage space to the cabin to allow us to extend lengths between trips to town and such.  This is really helpful in the winter when we try to avoid bad weather to make the trip quicker and safer.

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein

 You might be a redneck if you wish your outhouse was as nice as those at the state park. — Jeff Foxworthy

A Quiet Place to Sit

Well we had an old outhouse at the place as a backup and for when we have guests, but it literally was built so small your knees stuck out the door.  Of course nobody wanted to use that, and it was just not practical.  So a top priority was to build a new one from our own lumber from my mill.

So before my wife’s family was to arrive for the July 4th holiday, it was a top priority to get it done.  Our septic system is small, and we did not want to overload it.  But I wanted this outhouse to be nice, and solidly built to handle the snow and last years to come.

So using our own materials, I was able to put together a much more comfortable outhouse that has live edge shingles (made ourselves), solar lighting, and ample room for moving around and hanging jackets and such.  We were very happy with the results.

A Year of Loss

Unfortunately, some close friends were lost this year as well.  My mom, after a long period of illness, passed on.  She will be missed and remembered throughout my journeys in life.

Also, my eldest cat Tatiana passed on as well.  She was a faithful companion that looked over me as I coded, and was teaching the other kittens about life at the cabin.  She had previously spent two full years up here when she was a kitten over 17 years ago.  She had the routine down, and even had an encounter with a bear that tried to break into the cabin.  She will be missed.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
― John Steinbeck

“We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind, and tide” — Thomas Edison

More Power

Being up here full time, and having more computing requirements in a variety of weather, we really needed to upgrade both our system, and how we had it mounted.  So we started with milling some very stout and large posts to replace the random mounts we had around, and created room for more panels.  We expanded from 1200W of panel, to 1800W of panels, so a very significant increase.  We also plan to add another 600W this summer to bring us up to 2.4 kW of power.

Additionally, with the increased panel power, we needed to increase our ability to store it.  So we upgraded our battery bank by doubling it, so we have 8 batteries now instead of 4.  Another significant improvement.

Overall, we made it through the darkest part of the year with only rarely having to run the generator to charge up the batteries.  This is a great improvement and was a great accomplishment for the year.

Lots and Lots of Wood

When we arrive at the cabin a year ago, we only had two rows of wood left, and those were smaller rows at that.  We had let things get behind a bit as we only had brief visits at the cabin and mostly in the summer when you use very little wood.  As wood is our only heat up here, it is vital to surviving the cold of winter.

Almost as soon as we arrived, after a few bare spots began to show, we began to add wood to our supplies to not only cover this winter, but hopefully get ahead.  Well we put up six rows on one side of the woodshed, and almost five rows on the other side.  We are at about two and a quarter rows left on the one side, and have not touched the other pile.  So we seem to be about right to use six rows.  So this year we will only need to cut about half as much wood to get us back to a full woodshed.  We may strive to even fill in the middle though.  We learned our lesson that getting behind in wood is never a good feeling, and having plenty of it tucked away and dry is an investment in the future.

“Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work…… they warmed me twice—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.” — Henry David Thoreau

“Most things break, including hearts. The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”
― Wallace Stegner

 

And Some Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I was out cleaning up some of the fallen trees from the windstorm earlier in the year, and this stuff was really green with lots of branches.  The first step in approaching this is to cut off all of the branches.  Unfortunately some of these branches were actually under quite a bit of tension, which is very atypical.  So as I was cutting some of them off, one kicked out strongly and knocked into the chainsaw.  Fortunately, I reacted quickly and got my finger off of the gas, but the saw was still spinning slowly as it was forced into my knee.  I could see my pants were ripped, and as I looked down, I realized there was a fair bit of blood and knew this was not good.

I walked back up to the cabin and told my wife what had happened, and she was not pleased, to say the least.  I cleaned it out and examined it more closely, and it was pretty chewed up, but clearly only damage to the skin.  So I patched it up myself with first aid supplies on hand, to more of my wife’s concern, and went back out to finish what I had started as we only had so much time to get wood into the shed.  It was a close call, but not serious at all for a chainsaw injury in reality…   You can see it in the pictures above after one month, and after 3 months, so it took awhile to heal.  I won’t share the right after shot….  It was not pretty.

I have been using a chainsaw for over 35 years without a single injury, but what I learned is it only takes one.  So that same day I ordered a pair of chaps, and now use those every time I go out.  It turned out to just be painful and a bit limiting for a time, but if it had been more serious, it could have stopped my ability to get chores done entirely putting our winter in jeopardy.

 

 

 

The Big Storm

Even though we already did a whole blog post on the big storm at the end of the summer, I can’t help but mentioning it in looking back at the whole year.  Neighbors fled the woods, trees fell all over the woods, and we will be feeling the impacts of this for years to come.

Myself, I have tons of green trees down all over my property.  Fortunately most of these are perfect for creating lumber, as they are not cracked from the beetles.  So a big focus from this year will be to not only continue on the beetle kill for firewood, but also accumulate some lumber in order to build a new shed down by the river to replace the old metal one that was crushed by the snow years ago.

Another outcome of this storm is that both my wife and myself want to clear trees back further from the cabin so that there is no chance that any could fall on us.  It was disconcerting seeing them swaying that much, and the damage done to other cabins where the trees did land on the roof.

Overall, the power of nature is amazing, and we did learn a lot from that storm and will be addressing it this year.

 

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

And the Celebrations!

It was a crazy year for sure, and very, very busy with all kinds of things going on.  That said, it is always important to take the time to celebrate the holidays and take a break.  I always skip the chores on those days and try and do something fun.

We were able to hold our annual 4th of July fireworks show with the local VFD.  I setup and run the show electronically every year.  We weren’t sure it was going to happen due to shipment delays with Covid and gathering restrictions, but at the end of the day we were able to make it happen.  It was a much needed relief for everyone.

Then we had the normal celebrations around the solstices, as getting 50/50 sun/dark when you run on the sun is a big deal, as well as things like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

They were all special in their own ways, and were a welcome distraction from the goings on in the world.

 

 

A Great and Challenging Year

So Sunday was the official one year date.  It was a glorious spring day outside, which was much appreciated after the 4 feet total of new snow over the past couple of weeks.  The sun was shining bright and warm, and I was able to pull the carpets outside and do some spring cleaning.

Also, it was important to celebrate the day with a small can of champagne, and some fresh homemade sugar free cookies to mark the occasion.

The snow down low at the bottom of our road is now beginning to melt, and soon enough access to up here will be all but impossible for snowmobiles as they would have to cross a lot of dirt and overheat.  The tracks on the UTV will keep us in good shape for getting up here until all of the snow melts, but we can tell that spring is here at 10,200 feet.

This time, being all settled in and not scrambling to figure things out, we should be able to enjoy the return of the hummingbirds, the melting of the snow, and the solitude of spring in the mountains.

 

“Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead.” — Nelson Mandela

 

 

 

That’s Entertainment!

Off Grid CTO: That’s Entertainment!


Welcome to the next posting in the series about living off grid while working as the CTO of a great software startup, ModelOp, designing software to manage your AI models and assets across the entire enterprise.  We are hiring for multiple positions, so feel free to check out all of our job listings.

Yeah, it’s been a bit since my last post.  Life got real busy up here at 10,200 feet in the Colorado Rockies.  Between dealing with all of the snow, carrying the non-stop supply of firewood for heating,  getting a software release out the door, and the numerous other challenges its been a bit hectic even though we are so remote.  But with all of the challenges and work, it is also important to unwind and relax on occasion, as life can not be all challenges and stress.

In that aspect, it is important to have some entertainment from time to time to unwind.  It is especially important during the dead of winter when your nearest neighbor is 12 miles away!  It gets dark early out here in the winter.

So with that in mind, I am going to introduce how we handle entertainment living off the grid.  I will be talking about a lot of products in this post, but I don’t receive any kind of compensation, these are just what I have purchased myself and found to work.

 

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”– Charles W. Eliot

Nothing Like a Good Book

Reading by the fire is a definite nice past time up here when the nights are long and dark.  We have a variety of traditional books, but honestly not that much space to store a whole library for a winter.

That is where the Kindle is a life saver.  I can have literally hundreds of books in my library on the device, and can read what suits me at the time.  I am also a big fan of the e-ink screens in a dim environment, as I find them much less harsh on my eyes then a tablet or a phone screen.  I also try and get anything that is native USB rechargeable, and fortunately the Kindles also fit that as well.

So I do spend time reading when I can, but honestly sometimes my eyes are just too tired to read after programming all day long.  It’s those times we turn to more truly digital based entertainment.

Music (and more)

The silence of the wilderness is amazing at times, but actually can be deafening as well.  Especially when you are on your own as I occasionally am.  When you just have business calls and silence, it is very nice to fill the cabin with some of your favorite music.

In order to do that, and keep somewhat organized, I run a media server internally in the cabin.  Streaming movies and/or music would use up a lot of our precious data, and is not practical for watching movies.  So everything needs to be stored onsite and I only buy media that I can download for that reason.  No Netflix up here…

What I have found to be very reliable and low power is to host a Plex media server on a Raspberry Pi 4 with an attached USB-C 5TB drive.  This holds my entire music and movie collection, and Plex provides a great interface to keep track of it all.

I use a 4gb Raspberry Pi 4, with an Argon case with a fan on it.  Rarely does the fan kick on, but I have found if it has to transcode a file the fan prevents overheating.  This runs 24×7 as it uses so little power in standby.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley

Music, Getting it Around The Cabin

Once we have the music to serve, we need to get it to the speakers.  I have gone through several iterations on this, and have now arrive at what I believe is the perfect solution.  In the past, I started cheap with a android based car stereo.  I already had it from an old vehicle, and it runs natively on 12v DC, so was a perfect fit.  I did find, however, it used a lot of power for what it provided, and the sound was just OK and not very versatile.  So this year, we decided to make some changes.

First off was to switch to a sound bar for both the music inside of the cabin, as well as the speaker for when we watch movies.  This gave us good sound, and as a bonus my wife was building a new table and added a shelf to it just to hold it out of sight and out of the way.  It takes 19v DC, so we just installed a simple 12-19v converter.  This covered inside of the house.

On the deck outside, I already had some outdoor speakers installed.  I found a relatively inexpensive mini class D amplifier that had Bluetooth 5 and stereo inputs and runs native on 12v DC.  The model I use is a Fosi audio BT20A.  It has great sound, good Bluetooth range, and sounds really nice and uses very little power for the audio it delivers.

To get the music from the server to the speakers, I originally used Bluetooth 5 and its dual speaker capability.  What I found with that, though, is that it is not perfectly in sync between inside and outside due to different processing speeds.  So I dusted off my old Chromecast audio devices and added one to each speaker and created a speaker group.  Not only is it now in perfect sync, it is also a much higher quality than Bluetooth if you turn the ‘High Quality’ option on.  Plus using Wi-Fi instead, my range is all over the property.  Plex allows direct casting of music right from the app.

One thing to note is it is not unusual in these systems to get some hum in the audio from all of the DC wiring coming together (USB 5v into the chromecast, and 12v going into the amp).  This ends up creating a ground loop.  By simply adding  ground loop isolator inline with the Chromecast, the audio was completely clear and perfect.

 

 

Movies – The Player

In order to play movies, I have standardized on Android TV as the solution.  There are some great low power players out there, and I like the openness of the platform.  Both my projector (which we will look at later) and this android TV box have Android TV on them making it a consistent process no matter what device we use.

I chose the Ematic 4K Android TV Box (AGT419) specifically because it is one of the few ones that is actually Google certified, so you can install things like Netflix and Amazon Prime on it.  Also, it runs on 5v DC, so it is USB powered compatible, although you will have to make your own cable to do that (which I did).  It draws a maximum of 2A, so only 10w of power on max load!

I used to use a Roku device, but they have become more and more closed and proprietary, and keep losing features from release to release.  I just have not been as happy with the quality of the devices, even though they do mostly work.

“No good  movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” — Roger Ebert

The Low Power Movie

When the nights are longer, and the days are snowy, power is always a concern up here.  We run solely on the sun, and hate to burn gas on the generator to charge the batteries unless we absolutely have to.  So when we want to watch a movie and do so with as little power as possible, we use a USB powered HDMI portable screen.

This is the MSI 15.6 inch IPS 1920×1080 USB powered screen that accepts USB-C and HDMI inputs.  Since it runs on USB, it can only draw a max of 2A of power again, so less than 10w in practice.  It is bright and has a wide viewing angle, so it is perfect for the two of us to watch on our coffee table when the power is low.  When not in use, we can simply fold it up and put it on the shelf out of the way.  Space is important in such a small cabin!

To get the audio to the sound bar, I first started with Bluetooth, but found it kind of ‘flat’ in quality.  So instead I got an HDMI audio extractor/decoder, and put that inline with the Android TV.  Then I use the optical out on that into the optical in on the sound bar and found much improved audio.  Once again, this device runs on 5v DC so is compatible with the Android TV as well.

This means we can have high quality audio and video, albeit on a small screen, for under 30w total energy consumption keeping in mind the server, screen, android player, and the audio.  Not bad!  And most importantly it is all DC native, so no inverter is required.

 

The Big Screen

When the sun shines all day, and we have extra power, there is nothing like watching a good movie on the big screen.  The tiny screen is not particularly as immersive, and never mind trying to watch a subtitled movie on a 16 inch screen.

So for the ultimate movie nights, we have an LED projector that consumes relatively little power, and actually has its own battery if we want to take it outside on a nice summer night.

I decided on the XGIMI Halo Smart Mini Projector, as it has a very bright lamp in it for its size, and also runs Android TV internally.  It has built in speakers even, but honestly those are not nearly as good so we use the sound bar through either Bluetooth or HDMI.

But what do we project it on?  Space is tight, as mentioned before, so we needed a hideaway solution.  This is one of the reasons we went with a projector rather than a big screen as the space savings can be massive.

We found this 50 inch portable pull up screen, made by Pyle, that stands on its own two feet and simply just pulls up in place.  We can either leave it on the table all folded up, or easily put it on the shelf where it takes up very little space at all.  This gives us a 50 inch screen when ready to watch a movie, and it tucks away when not in use. 

We have really enjoyed getting to watch movies on the big screen since we got this setup in place and the space saving design of the system is a huge plus.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. —John Lubbock

The Best Entertainment – Nature

 The best entertainment up here for sure, is nature herself.  The ever changing light, the animals and their habits, the sun hitting you just right, is all magical in its ability to pull you in.

After sitting at the computer screen for hours on end, it is nice to go for a short stroll, or simply just stand on the deck with a beverage and enjoy what is unfolding around you.  It is ever changing and every single day you notice something different.

So a lot of my ‘down’ time, especially on the nice days, you can find me enjoying both the vast views of the mountains, but also the close up views of the tiniest of creatures.  There is so much to both see and learn from my time up here interacting with nature herself.

Conclusion

So as you can see, there is no lack of entertainment up here in the middle of nowhere off of the grid.  We didn’t even get into the old school board games and such that we fall back to on a quiet night, or the various hobbies that pass our time.  I often hear people ask if I get bored up here, and I tell them I don’t have time to get bored.  There is always something to do!

In the next series in my blog, we will be celebrating the one year anniversary of moving up here to our off grid lifestyle.  Almost one year ago we packed it all up and moved on up to the mountain figuring we would be there a few weeks.  It will be a year in review of both some of my successes, and also a look at some of my failures.  I myself am looking forward to looking back….

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Seeing The Light In The Darkness

 

Off Grid CTO – Seeing The Light In The Darkness


Welcome to another post in the series about living life off the grid while working as the CTO of ModelOp, a great software company delivering the management of AI models and other analytics within your enterprise.  We are hiring for multiple positions if you are interested in joining us!

In this post, we look at something that is very crucial during this time of the year.  As we approach the shortest day of the year, darkness becomes a major issue.  It not only affects the amount of energy I can produce, but also requires us to light our world to be able to cook our dinners, read a book, or even just to chase off the winter doldrums.

As winter solstice approaches, living up here totally dependent on the Sun really gives you an appreciation on why the solstice was such an important holiday celebrated by the earliest of civilizations.  I’ve watched the amount of energy I generate slowly go down, as the amount I use slowly goes up.  Knowing that I am less than a week away from that time when each day I start adding a bit more is welcome relief.  It is a cause for celebration indeed!  If the weather allows, there will definitely be a bonfire to celebrate the return of more light to my life.

For now, however, we are dependent heavily upon lighting of a large variety to even just start work for the day.  It is very hard to make coffee in the dark, after all.  And before the work day is done, we are once again back in the dark before we can start to cook dinner.  Soon enough we will again return to longer days and much relief, but in this post we will look at all the different kinds of energy efficient lighting we use to maximize our limited solar energy we produce this time of year.

The old school fallback – Oil

I have to admit, even though I work with the most leading and bleeding technologies, my heart really loves old school solutions to problems.  They are simple, practical, and just plain work.  There is a reason they have been around for so long and continue to be used.

Oil lamps are just such an example of something that just plain works.  I l love the light from them.  Soft, a hint of a flicker, and they consume absolutely zero of my solar power.  Just because I enjoy them so much, I use them almost every day in the winter.  I start out with one of these small oil lamps in the morning to make my coffee and ease into the day.  It slowly allows the brain to sync into work as the coffee brings you to life.  A nice, soft, and mellow light.

They are cheap to acquire, and easy to scatter around.  I keep one going in the morning while it is still dark right behind my computer screen to help with the stark contrast of the bright screen and the dark outside.  Oil bought in bulk is not very expensive, and I even get plant based ones now that have virtually no smell compared to traditional kerosene.

Overall they are great, but they still do put off a little bit of an odor for sure, and do not generate a lot of light.  Some care also needs to be taken to make sure you or your pets do not knock them over.

“My old grandmother always used to say, ‘Summer friends will melt away like like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.” — George R.R. Martin

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. You only truly, deeply appreciate and are grateful for something when you compare and contrast it to something worse.” — John Steinbeck

Lighting the larger space without electricity

One of the best birthday presents I got was an antique hanging oil lamp from my wife.  I’ve always wanted to be able to light the whole cabin at night without using any electricity.  She found this old 4 lamp hanging light and I absolutely adore it.

It is clever in that at the base there is a knob you squeeze together, and you can raise and lower the base of the lamp in place. It is spring assisted so it takes almost no effort.  So you can lower it down to light it, and easily slide it right back up.

This light, again, will always work as long as I keep oil around to fill it, and gives off a nice soft glow to warm those long winter nights.  Sitting beneath this with the fire going and my book helps to warm the soul.

Unlike the other oil lamps, I can leave this one running as I do not need to worry about it getting knocked over, so this solves that problem.  The slight odor and dimness, however, are still there.

One candlepower

And let’s not forget the lovely candle.  Yes, safety is required with these, as our cat learned the hard way when she decided to try and pounce the moving flame….  She had wax in her fur for about a month after that despite a bad haircut to go with it…  But they are also very helpful in the dark of winter.

My wife gave me this candle this year that has markings for each day of the advent.  So starting December first, I end each day with about four hours of candle to advance a day.  It is the first time we have done this, but it really is kind of a great tradition up here in the middle of nowhere in the dark.

But seriously they are also a very good backup to always have as they are easy to store, burn a long time, and when it is completely dark they give off way more light then you would believe.  We’ve become so accustomed to bright lights all the time in our society, sometimes it is nice to harken back to those days when one candle power was more than enough to light a room.

Clearly there are safety concerns and they must be attended to all the time, and they are quite dim, so this is not going to be a primary lighting solution for sure.

“The color of springtime is flowers; the color of winter is in our imaginations.” — Terri Guillemets

 “One kind word can warm three winter months.” — Japanese Proverb

The future of lighting

Well in many ways, the future is here now and very affordable.  When I first moved into the cabin, all of the lighting was regular incandescent RV style bulbs.  These things drew a ton of power.  I had to be very careful on lighting as a single bulb would draw 25w, and these were very small bulbs.

Next I moved onto cold cathode fluorescent tubes.  I found these in PC building shops online, as people would put them in their gaming PCs to light them up from the inside, so they already ran on 12v.  They did the trick, but honestly were kind of ugly and did not give off the best light as it was bright white.  I had to mix a red one in just to warm it up a bit.  They only drew 4w, which was great, but to light the room you needed 8 of them.  It did the trick and reduced the energy I was using, but overall was not a good solution.

But now we have LED light bulbs, and they come in so many shapes, sizes, and varieties it is amazing.  Many of them are native 12-24v, so they work in my DC only system right out of the box.  Now my lighting is VERY different from the past, and each bulb typically draws less than 10w, and are 60w equivalent bulbs.

Ultimate Creativity  in Lighting

In the past, the LED bulbs all looked like LED bulbs. The bulbs were awkward at best, not pleasant to look at, and best hid behind something thick.  It was like staring at thousands of little points of light.

Now, however, you can get 12-24v DC bulbs in standard screw in base that fits a standard lamp.  So we have taken several different lamps and cut the AC cord off of them.  I’ve replaced them with DC plugs to plug right into our batteries.  We like warm white bulbs so we get a very natural incandescent light style and it is hard to tell at all they are LEDs.  When re-wiring, just be careful to get the polarity right when wiring as it matters with DC, unlike AC.  In fact this very lamp when I got it the two sockets were wired differently between them.  The same wire went to different parts on the socket on the right lamp vs the left.  I am not even sure that is a good idea for AC…

By using these standard bases in lamps but wiring to DC we can have any style of light fixture in our off grid home now as well.

This really hits on all cylinders for lighting.  It is as bright as a 60w incandescent  bulb, but uses around 6w of electricity.  It lights up the cabin bright and is a very pleasant color.  They really are a game  changer.  To put it in perspective I can be watching a movie with the speaker on, have a light on, and running the server I am only using around 150w of electricity.  Growing up, we had single light bulbs that were 150w!

 “Nothing burns like the cold.” — George Martin

“When snow falls, nature listens.” — Antoinette Van Kleef

My favorite style of lightbulb

I’ve always loved Edison bulbs, but have you seen how much energy they use?  They are very, very power hungry and I never believed there would be the ability to have them at the cabin.  Then, they did come out with the LED tubes in 120v AC, and there was a glimmer of hope.

Sure enough, they now have 12-24v Edison style LED bulbs, and I put them in this year.  I used a standard outdoor downward facing lights and put the bulbs in there on the front and back porch.  Downward facing is critical, as one of the greatest things is the night sky here, and I don’t want to do anything to add to light pollution.

That said, I rarely use the outdoor lights unless I am headed out to town and coming back after dark on the front entry way, or am out grilling my dinner at night.  Yes, I still use the gas grill in the winter.  I love grilling, and I also have a battery powered rotisserie for it.  This christmas, it will be goose on the rotisserie!

These bulbs are great and look cool.  Right now I can’t find the spiral pattern that they have in the AC bulbs in DC, which will look even better.  When those come out, I will probably get some of those as well.  These bulbs also only consume around 6-8w, and put out a very nice light.

And most importantly, celebrating the season

With the days being so short, and the night so long, it is easy to get lost in the dark and forget the joys of where you are at.  To help stave off the winter doldrums, it is important to have traditions around the holidays to keep you active and engaged.  One of mine has always been to light trees in a minimalist matter that softly glows in the winter night.  I love the warm white Christmas lights that shine through snow covered trees.

Once again, we can turn to LEDs to give us this pleasure out here in the wilderness, but we also have added solar to the mix.  There are many varieties of warm white lights now with a built in solar panel that both powers the lights, and turns them on only in the dark.  So I don’t have to use any electricity, they can be remote from the cabin, and they take care of themselves.

I have two trees in my driveway, and one by the house lit up and with the snow on them they are absolutely amazing.  The funny thing is I doubt anyone else will see them given we are the only ones up here, and it is unlikely a snowmobile will come by at night.  But we are enjoying them anyways!

Likewise, we have solar powered flickering LED candles in the windows that also consume no power beyond what they generate.  They are a nice addition to the soft glow from the cabin at night and also add that festive spirit.

“Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.” — John Boswell

“Snow falling soundlessly in the middle of the night will always fill my heart with sweet clarity.” — Novala Takemoto

Happy Holidays Everyone!

This year has been a challenging one in so many ways for so many different people, I do want to take the time to wish each and everyone one of you a wonderful holiday, no matter how you spend it.

The road is closed up here, and due to a family emergency I will be spending the holidays alone as my wife must take care of some other matters, but I will be surrounded by the vast beauty of nature.  The silence up here is almost deafening, but pleasing none the less.

It is quiet time to reflect, relax, and remember what is important in your life.  It is time to use the wood we worked so hard all summer and fall to put into place, and to realize we are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.  It is also a time to work on some personal projects and to slow down to the pace of winter.

It is also most important to remember that the shortest day of the year is a mere few days away, and soon enough the light returns and the days get longer.  As we head into 2021 we can all use that reminder that the light will return.  It always does.

So until the next post, enjoy your holidays everyone!

Fall is a Time for Remembrance

 

Off Grid CTO: Fall and Remembrance

Welcome to the next post in the Off Grid CTO blog about my experiences working as a CTO off the grid high in the mountains of Colorado.  I work for a great company called ModelOp, where we design cutting edge software for managing your AI models in the enterprise environment.  It is an exciting place to work as we lead the industry in this space.  BTW, we are hiring!

Today we are going to explore the past, as fall is upon us and the seasons are rapidly changing.  As we struggle to get that last bit of firewood put up to keep us warm all winter, and get as many of the unfinished tasks done that we had such great hopes to complete when the snow was melting, it is easy to get lost in hustle and bustle of preparing for the return of the snow.

 

The People That Built Us

We as humans are like every great project, be it software or any structure, in that in order to be sound it has to start with a great foundation.  The skills and knowledge necessary to live in an off grid situation can be taught, but the will and drive have to exist in order to get it all done.  Many challenges you never expected to occur happen with little notice up here, so you have to be both mentally and physically prepared to deal with them.  Our parents help to give us that great foundation, and my Mom was one of those people.

As a youth I lived on the edge of the woods in suburbia near Boston, and the time I spent there helped to prepare me for living this lifestyle.  At a very young age I learned to chop firewood, camp, and hike.  As a youth I learned to cross country ski and was on the cross country ski team.  My mom would take me to these events and spent much time with me letting me both succeed and fail on my own.  We attended orienteering competitions together when I was a youth where I learned to use a map and compass to an expert level.  We went on family camping trips where I learned basic outdoor skills like how to build a fire, fishing, and simply just being outside and learning to listen to nature.

My mom was helping to build a foundation that I was to depend upon heavily later in life as I ventured forth on my own. 

Building the Structure On The Foundation

As I grew up, she was amazing in letting me learn on my own with both successes and failures.  Rather than coddle and protect me, she allowed me to challenge myself in very trusting ways. 

I remember when I was a young teenager and really wanted to move into backpacking.  I had been planning the family hikes for years and basically leading them, including hikes with the Appalachian Mountain Club and wanted to do a solo backpack for five days.  The rest of my family preferred to just do day hikes.  My mom drove me to the trailhead (I was not yet old enough to drive) and dropped me off at that trailhead with a plan to meet up in five days due north over the largest mountains in NH.  We waved good bye and I thought nothing of it at the time and headed off.

Looking back I can’t imagine the feelings and fears she must have had, but she trusted in me even at that young age.  Sure enough that trust she put into me built an inner confidence that I carry through to this day.  And yes, obviously everything turned out fine, I had a wonderful time, and was at the trailhead well before our meeting time.  After all, when someone trusts in you, it is very important to follow through on that and exceed their expectations.

Another time I remember bringing one of my friends home from college over winter break, as we planned to do a winter expedition up the second tallest peak in NH.  It was going to be cold, but we had no idea how cold it was going to be.  The temperature dropped to -60F, and the winds picked up bringing the wind chill down to -110F, the coldest I have still yet to experience.  We were prepared and fine, albeit tired and cold.

Unbeknownst to us, two other hikers were on the other side of the mountain that night and were not as prepared and perished.  My poor mom was at home hearing two hikers died on that mountain the night before.  This was well before the age of cell phones, so she had to wait to see if she got a call, or if we pulled into the driveway.  Fortunately, we pulled into the driveway  and she was there with a big lasagna ready to feed two hungry hikers.  Oh what we put our parents through.  

These experiences where she trusted in me to learn and be there for me when I failed helped to strengthen me as an individual where I could go on to many great things later in life.  It gave me the strength to start and lead software companies, as well as to serve as a volunteer on Search and Rescue for 13 years where I helped to save many lives.  She was proud of these accomplishments and what I had become.

And We All Fail At Some Point

Successes are easy to remember and enjoy in our memories, but it is our failures and how we handle them that build the strongest character.  In that our parents are often there to help us to overcome those times when perhaps the challenges in life become too great for us as individuals to handle on our own.

It was the summer of 2003 and my company I was working for at the time had gone through a massive financial collapse.  My marriage of the time had also ended as well, and it was a time to start a new chapter in life and decide what was next.  Fortunately, after years of working hard for the company, I had received a severance and decided it was time to try something different for a little bit and to take on a new kind of challenge.  I travelled here to Colorado to visit a friend, and found the very lot and cabin I sit in today writing this post.  I had found a new home, and with it, a new kind of challenge to experience.

My mom decided she wanted to help me out and travelled out to Utah to help me pack up the U-Haul with all of the supplies, furniture, pipe for the micro-hydro electric system I was to build, and all sorts of other things.  She was to spend a month with me helping me prepare for my first winter in the wilderness, as well as I am sure she was there for the emotional support as well. 

So we drove across the desert of Utah.  In her lap was my cat in one carrier, and my parrot in another.  It was hot (as it was August) and every time my mom would try and eat a chip, the parrot would steal it from her hand and laugh in the way that parrots do.  It was a memorable trip as I set out to begin my first off grid experience.

We arrived in the area the day before closing, and we stayed with a friend.  Immediately after closing we went to the cabin that was now mine, and gutted the place and fixed up the basics on the very first day.  Having grown up on a farm she was no stranger to hard work, and we both got an amazing amount done that very first day.  The individual who had sold it to me showed up and actually regretted selling the place after he had seen what in one day we had turned it into.  I am very grateful for the hard work ethic she instilled in me, and the support she gave me that late summer.

That First Fall

She was amazing to have there that first fall as I stumbled through such things as building my electrical system, which at the time was micro-hydro electric.  I needed to put together over 400 feet of 6 inch HDPE pipe.  This requires a special tool to do, and I had hired someone to bring it in and do the work for me.  He showed up with the tool, but his crew did not.  We were on a super tight schedule to beat the winter, so sure enough, my mom jumped right in and helped haul pipe down and get it in line so he could attach them together.  We did this 25 feet at a time for the full 400 feet through the woods in a single long day.  The younger guy who brought the tool was impressed, and I think feeling a little guilty about my mom working on the pipe while he just sealed them together.  Oddly, I never got a bill from him for the work….

Well that fall was a busy one to make sure we were ready for winter.  I moved in at the beginning of August with no electricity, no firewood, and little knowledge of everything that would have to be done.  But my mom was right there helping me get ready.  Fortunately, we did take some time to also experience the area and take a break from all those chores.  We drove to many of the local and hidden spots around here to enjoy the fall colors, and spent time just talking and enjoying all that nature had to offer.  I am very grateful for those  memories and that time.

Make Sure to Take a Break

As I scramble this fall to get ready for this winter it is easy to get lost in the chores.  There is always more to do than you can possibly get done, so you have to concentrate on the most important tasks and let other ones go until next year.

But more importantly, it is important to take breaks and do things in the here and now.  My wife and myself have purposefully this fall set a time when we were ‘done’ for the day.  This could be to take a drive in the UTV and spend time together talking and enjoying where we are at, or maybe just sitting on the deck in the last of the warm days in the sun and enjoy a beverage and some tunes.  These breaks are very important in life.

Unfortunately not too long after that fall, my mom started forgetting things at an ever increasing rate, and in not too long, would not even remember who I was anymore most of the time.  We would occasionally get to have a conversation about the past, but for the last several years it was beyond her ability to even do that.

Just yesterday I saw a call from my brother on the phone line, and my heart sank.  My mom passed away in her sleep and I will never again get her support and guidance that I received over the course of my life.

So as we all get busy with the fall chores, please make sure to take time to make life memories as well.   It is far too easy to lose ourselves in everything that must be done, and forget the most important things in life.  Life must not only be lived, but enjoyed.

Next post, we will look at some of the lighting projects I have been doing here at the cabin as we prepare for the long winter nights ahead.

Thanks for joining me,

Jim Olsen, Off Grid CTO

The Great Summer Snowstorm of 2020

Off Grid CTO: Labor Day and Storms

Welcome to this installment of life living off the grid as CTO of ModelOp guiding our technical vision of managing Machine Learning/AI models in the enterprise.  Today, we are actually going to talk about something very different than I originally thought.  We had a surprise storm the day after Labor Day, that really disrupted things up here for a day or two.

Labor Day

Well the Labor Day weekend was a great one.  Our company, ModelOp, has a program where half the team takes every other Friday off, and mine happened to land on Labor Day weekend, so I had a four day weekend ahead of me to get things done.  This is a really great benefit for our employees, and really helps them to get some time to take care of things in these crazy times.  BTW, we are hiring!

So with the weather forecast of some snow on Tuesday, and much colder temperatures, we used quite a bit of time to put things away that might get frozen, get some more firewood cut, split, and stacked, but also reserved a bit of time for some fun as well.

Saturday was the Colorado QSO Party on ham radio for Colorado, so I took a bit of time to play on that and hone my radio skills.  If my internet goes out up here, there is not really any other form of communication beyond my emergency inReach device, so I like to keep my equipment skills up to speed.  I contacted around 40 people in states from Florida, NH, VT, to CA and everywhere in between, all point to point with no reliance on anything else beyond my antenna.

We also spent Monday afternoon, after most of the crowds had left, going for a ride in our UTV through some pretty areas where the aspen were starting to turn.  It was beautiful, but the smoke from all of the surrounding fires was obscuring the sun lending an ominous tone to the impending storm.

Last Row In This Bay Filled with Wood

The Smoke Filled Skies in the Afternoon

Hex Beam Antenna

Then the Storm

We went to bed relaxed and feeling prepared for the snow and cold that was to briefly visit us.  We had put the work in that we needed to be prepared.  The wood box was full, everything was put away, and we were ready to go, but overnight the predictions had drastically changed.

Originally, it was expected to have some wind.  we expected the big temperature drop, and up to a foot of snow, but what happened was a surprise windstorm in our canyon that gave us the largest winds I had seen in my 16+ years up here.  We had winds gusting to well over 50 mph, and you would watch the trees just swaying, and in the distance you would hear snapping and trees falling.  Fortunately most of the trees near my cabin have been cleared, but there were still a few and every time a big gust hit, it would leave you waiting for a large ‘crack’ nearby, and after you heard one in the distance, I would try and figure out where it was and what it was hitting…  It was a stressful day and was not quite what we were expecting.

 

Snow Outside My “Office”

Then Came the Snow

Now with the wind still gusting to 50mph, the snow started.  It was blinding to the point where you could not see my shed which is 20 feet from the cabin.  The cabin windows were coated with snow, and it was coming down hard.

Still, off in the distance you could hear trees cracking and falling, but we still had no visibility into what was actually happening.  Was it the beetle kill coming down, or the much heavier and more dangerous lodgepole pines that are still heavy with moisture and really make an impact?

Safety was always first, though, so we were not going out into the woods to find out.  It would be way too easy to find myself underneath one of those falling trees, and that is not worth the risk unless life or limb is really at stake.  We were staying put and riding this thing out.

Watching Safely

Even though we could not safely venture outside, I fortunately have security cameras scattered about so I can keep an eye on things, and also catch pictures of the wildlife.  This gave us the unique opportunity to at least see some of what was going on, as the cameras tend to see ‘through’ snow rather than capture it.

We have one down on our driveway, and I watched as 4 different trees fell across the driveway, so this meant we were not going anywhere now until this storm let up, and we could safely remove them from the driveway.  So now it was really important we stayed safe and uninjured until these could be removed.

Trees Blocking Our Driveway

A Cold Drink

The Animals

Obviously the animals don’t have any access to forecasts, and this was an unusually cold snap very early in the season, so all of the hummingbirds were still around.  We would see them hiding in the eaves of our cabin from the wind, and try to fly out and get blown backwards.  They were still all around, and oddly, still fighting one another.

We kept one hummingbird feeder defrosted at a time inside, and one outside till it froze, getting them at least some nourishment during their battle with the storm.  All kinds of animals were taking refuge behind our cabin, as it offered protection from the wind.  A harsh life in the mountains indeed, and I was very happy to be inside with the woodstove going and warm and dry.

The Aftermath

Well sometime late in the evening the winds finally died down.  The snow was still heavy though, so we sat down to some home made posole, a much deserved bourbon on the rocks, and a game of backgammon with my wife.  We felt warm and safe inside, and knew we would assess the damage tomorrow, but at least minimally, there was nothing major in our buildings.  The winds still howled, but not on the scale of during the day, so we stoked up the woodstove, and went to bed.

The next morning, I had some work to take care of, so I got up early before dawn, and put in a few hours so I could go out in the morning and get the road cleared.  We have a lot of folks in some of the cabins who may not be prepared to move large logs, so it was time to make the road passable for their safety.

So we loaded up the chainsaw into the back of the ranger, which we nicknamed ‘Columbine’ after the local flower, and prepared to do some heavy lifting.

We found numerous trees across the road which we cleared, as well as the 4 in my driveway, but fortunately  another neighbor with a winch was out as well who had already removed a bunch of them.  We really do have a great adhoc community up here.

We did a quick pass at it to just make it passable, as the conditions were wet and cold.  So while not pretty, it got the job done so others could pass.  It also would let us get out in the case of an emergency.  We will make it nicer once the snow is gone and it dries up.

Loaded Up and Ready to Go

A Blockade

Not So Clean Cleanup

 

A Large Pine Down

A Whole Stand Down

Well, It Was The Live Ones

As we explored the damage done, we quickly noticed the most unfortunate thing.  None of the blown down trees were the spruce beetle kill, but rather the live tall pines.  The wind would blow right through the dead branches, but the lodgepole still had all the green attached to capture the wind like a sail.  So almost exclusively it was live trees down.

Down in the small mining town a few miles below me, there was some minor damage.  A powerline was pulled down (they have a line that runs just to half the mining town serving 32 cabins), and the town was without power.  A cabin had a tree fallen on the roof, but it appeared to have not caused major damage.  So overall, not too bad.  The NF campground below us, though, appears to have suffered extensive damage from fallen trees.

But another thing I could see was that whole stands were taken down by these crazy downdrafts that were occurring.  Just completely uprooted in place.  In the picture shown here, which is just behind my cabin, dozens of trees were just flattened by the wind.  It looks like I now have a whole lot more tree cutting to do….

Be Prepared

The moral of this story is to always be prepared for anything.  We keep lots of extra supplies on hand, and the right tools to take care of things ourselves.  We also always try to keep the wood box topped up, rather than letting it get low.  By doing this, even though it was stressful worrying about the trees falling on us or the barn, we knew we would be alright.

But you also take care of yourself mentally, and a warm pot of Posole simmering on the stove all day filling the house with both moisture and a wonderful aroma goes a long way towards making a relaxing environment.  Of course a nice bourbon after the danger had passed was greatly appreciated as well.  We not only survived the great summer snowstorm, but thrived in it ultimately as well.

In the next blog post we will be looking at all kinds of off grid lighting options, and what has and has not worked for us.

Thanks for joining me in our adventures,

Jim Olsen

Off Grid CTO

Dinner Simmering in the Cold

Power (Monitoring) to the People

Off Grid CTO: Monitoring Power Usage

In this week’s blog post, about living life off the grid while working as the CTO of ModelOp, a great startup developing software for managing AI resources in your enterprise, we are going to look at an actual hardware and software project I undertook.

When living and working off grid, knowing exactly how much power you are using vs producing is critical in your day to day activities.  The last thing you can do is to run out of power in the middle of a meeting and have your whole house shutdown.  A lot of this comes down to knowledge about how much is really going into your batteries at any point in time, and how much is going out, so you can understand and make choices about whether or not you choose to stay up late watching that extra episode or movie.

To this point I have always had the ability to monitor how much the panels are generating, and how much I am using via some simple meters.  In this week’s blog we are going to look out how we take that to the next level and create a single pane of glass into all of our energy usage, and really how much is going into or out of the batteries at any instant in time, no matter if it comes from the generator or the sun.  To do this, we are going to need to build some hardware, and write some software.

Simple Monitoring

The existing solution that I have used for several years is a manual process that involves two wireless monitors.  They work by installing a shunt inline with the wire being measured.  So I have one installed on the cable from the solar charge controller to the batteries, and another one installed on the cable from the batteries to the wiring in the cabin (the load).

This does let me visually look and see what I am producing vs what I am consuming at any time, and also to monitor the battery voltage to see if I am approaching a critical level or not, and get a sense of the state of charge of the system.  This is handy in the house, but gives me no remote capability to monitor this at all, nor to track over time.

The Charge Controller

The charge controller does give us a variety of statistics about what it is doing, via the modbus protocol, but unfortunately it can not tell us about load in the system, or more critically, exactly how much energy is making it into the batteries vs used up live by current energy demands.

That said, this is very valuable data that is an important part of the solution.  So we really want to capture it.  Currently, I import this data, along with my weather station data, into weewx, a weather station monitoring program that also runs on a raspberry pi.  We will be looking at that process in more detail in another post.  This is great for historical data capture, but is not so great for live monitoring as it only updates every five minutes.  On a partly cloudy day, it does not give us a very good picture of what is going on.  I needed a solution that would replace the above meters with all of the data needed in one place for a quick glance picture of what is going on in my system.

Measuring the Load

So it came down to that I needed to be able to pull together information from the charge controller, as it can tell me battery voltage, solar panel watts being generated, etc., but needed to add information about actual system load.  Further, unlike the current shunt based system, I needed it to measure bidirectionally, so I could really see exactly how many amps were going into, or out of, my batteries.

I found the holy grail in the ACS758  hall effect based linear current sensor IC.  It outputs amperage from -100 amps to +100 amps and would allow me to really see what was coming into and out of my batteries.  In order to put it to use, though, I had to add a system to read those values, and wanted to do it in an expandable way.

Getting the Current Data

As we talk about all of these components, I want to point out that all of the code for this project is available on my project github page in various subdirectories.  Eventually this will be expanded to include weewx integration, but for now you will find the necessary Arduino sketch and Dash application we are viewing in this blog post.  So ignore the references to weewx, and I will be doing another blog post on that process in the future as I complete that work for storing the data over long period of time.

To monitor the actual current, I placed the current sensor inline with the batteries and both the charge cables from the solar charge controller, as well as the load cables.  In this way any energy coming into, or out of, the batteries will be captured.  If we receive a negative value, we are putting energy into the batteries, and on a positive value, it indicates we are drawing out of the batteries.

To monitor these values, I utilized an Arduino Uno Wifi board in an industrial enclosure.  You can find the code up on my github project page, but in essence it sets up a mini rest server that allows you to query any analog port for the current amperage value.

The current sensor is wired to the +5v and Gnd ports on both the sensor and the Arduino.  Also, I have wired from the A0 port and the Gnd port on the Arduino, to the the Out and Gnd port on the sensor.

The software linked to above will spin up, open up a REST endpoint (<ipaddr>/A0) which can then be queried.  This will allow me to add other sensors to the other A<x> ports for other purposes as I go along.  I could now query for the current amperage with any REST capable client.

 

A Single View

So now what I wanted is a single place I could go to view data from the new current sensor installed on the battery, and couple that with information from the charge controller so I could get a great view of everything going on with my system.

To that end, I decided on utilizing a Raspberry Pi 4 with a integrated touch screen solution.  This handy unit came with  simple case and a touch screen that plugs right into the pi and works as a standalone system I could create a web based application on to monitor all of the stats.  I will mount this to the wall as a single view of all of the energy parameters and what is going on over time.

I decided on using Dash to create the simple application that would query both modbus and our new REST endpoint, as it is something that I can rapidly iterate on down the road without spending a ton of development time, which when working for a startup is very precious time indeed.  I wanted this up and running fast and simply.

Since dash apps are browser based and server based, the Raspberry Pi with the desktop installed is a perfect fit, utilizing the default chromium browser.  I have instructions in the readme file of the repository on how to auto start a full screen browser instance on reboot of the pi so it ends up filling the entire screen.

The Results are In

So designing the software was relatively easy.  A dash app is fairly basic in that you initialize the application with a framework for the page.  In this case, I put a simple table at the top to hold the raw values, a plotly graph just below that, and a button to rotate through the different graphs. I then utilized dash intervals to periodically update both the table text and the graphs.  I suggest reviewing the code directly to see how it all works, as it is reasonably straightfoward.

Every five seconds, it would fetch the values from the REST endpoint on the Arduino, and would also use the modbus protocol to read the values from the charge controller.  These are tied to the table values on the top of the screen and give me the rapid response information of real time stats.

Every minute, it does the same query, but adds to a graph data array that contains all of the values against time.  These are stored for a maximum of 24 hours before they rotate out and are replaced by the newer values.

I have three graph options right now of battery load (can be positive or negative), solar array wattage, or battery voltage.  By simply hitting the button at the bottom of the screen, I can switch between these graphs.

So overall now, I can see what is actually going into and out of the batteries, as well as what I am producing for power overall and track the battery status with all of this being viewable over time, and in a way it is flexible and quick for me to expand the solution.

My next expansion will likely include adding another sensor just on the load portion of the circuit itself so I can also monitor the actual load on the system ignoring any of the solar input.  As I’ve designed it, all’s I have to do is hitch it up to  the A1 port on the Arduino, and will not have to change any of the existing Arduino code.  Then I need to simply add to the dash app and away we go!  Always design your software with the flexibility up front so it is easy to expand in the future.

I may also persist some of the values out to keep a running tab on the energy usage, etc.  I now have a fully platform to add any view I want on my energy system which can be rapidly developed using python.  The sky is the limit!

Thanks for joining me on my project journey this week and hope you will join me in next week’s blog post!

Jim Olsen

Off Grid CTO

Water, The Lifeblood of the Wilderness

Off Grid CTO: Water


This week we will continue our series about living off the grid working for ModelOp as their CTO designing advanced software for managing your ML/AI models in an enterprise environment.

In this week’s post, we are going to look at the challenges of living off the grid with no city services, including water.  So specifically, how do we get our water utilize it around the property and in our cabin.

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

There are many famous quotes about water, as water really is the most important need you can have.  You can go for quite a few weeks without any food, but only just a few days (or less) without water.  We use water for everything from consumption, to cleaning, cooking, and even just for dealing with waste. 

Living without it even for a short time, you really feel the impact.  The first winter I tried to spend up here at the cabin 15 years ago, the water line feeding the cabin froze, and I lived without water from November to April, and it was not fun at all.  I knew I had to do something different, and this post is about that journey

 

Whiskey is for Drinking, Water is for Fighting

This quote is often misattributed to Mark Twain, but it is an old statement about the realities of living out west.  Most of the west is quite dry.  When I was looking for property that was off the grid, it was one of my main considerations.  It is eventually what made me decide to head out to Colorado, rather than Utah, for land, as drilling a well is a very expensive proposition.  There is also no guarantee you are going to get water.  I wanted something that had visible water and several choices of where to get it from.

So when I found this current property that had multiple springs on it, a small creek running from wilderness above it, and a major stream running through it (Tomichi Creek), I new this was a contender.  Plus it already had a gravity feed pipe system setup on it.

So with the scarcity of water in the west, and the amount I could see on this property, I new that something could be done….  Of course in the first year up here in the winter that gravity feed froze up, so what to do about it…

First and Foremost, Drinking Water

So my first concern was to make sure I had a steady supply of clean and pure drinking water.  On this property, there are several springs down by the river.  Our favorite, we refer to as ‘pipe spring’.  It was a surface spring that pooled up, but by sinking a pipe into the ground underneath it with holes in it, and having sand all around that, the water instead flows nicely out of a pvc pipe for simple filling of bottles.  This spring sometimes dries up in the fall, but only in dry years.  It always freezes in the winter.  The snow damaged the boards this last winter, so yet another project to write about is coming.

And Water for the Winter

Another spring on the property was modified by sinking in a plastic trash barrel into the ground.  A pipe was then placed into the ground again below the spring, and the water flows through the pipe into the trash can sitting beneath ground level.  Thus it became known as ‘bucket spring’.

On the opposite side is also an equal height outflow with a pipe buried in the ground that flows out to the river.  A cover then goes over the spring so it is all insulated by the ground.

Even in the dead of winter, this keeps flowing and does not freeze in this arrangement.  Eventually, we would like to pump water from here into our cabin, but it is quite a distance up the hill.  So we dig down to this in the snow and get our drinking water from this spring all winter long.

Also, the Water from Above

So this just left us with the need for normal house water for bathing, cleaning dishes, cooking (as you boil the water when you cook), and other such normal house stuff.  As I mentioned, when I bought the place there was already a 3/4 inch poly pipe running from a beautiful creek above my property providing a great flow of water…  So I thought…

First off, it was always getting air in it so you would be taking a shower and it would ‘surge’ off and on.  Doesn’t sound so bad until you also realize that the temperature likes to change in pace with that, so not exactly the most relaxing shower in the world.  This I  solved by moving the intake higher, building a new intake using coarse metal intake filters from the tractor supply store, and building a nice pool in the stream.  I tried a fine filter up top, but that just clogged non-stop. I put a traditional sediment filter at the bottom, but that lasted only a week or so and would have to be cleaned and or changed.  This was not going to work.

Less debris, more water

I did some research, and I came cross an interesting self cleaning filter.  The principal is that you leave water flowing all of the time, and it creates a vortex around the outside of the filter.  This scrubs the debris off of the screen.  Then when you need water, it draws it through the screen, but water is still flowing out around the outside of the screen, so it tends to scrub itself off.

Now in a house where you may be paying for water, or have limited amounts, these may not be the best choice, and you likely have to switch the flow on and off.  In my case, the water is free and plentiful, needed to be kept running to avoid freezing and stagnation, and flows back into the river where it was heading anyways, so it was a perfect fit.

So I have the water flow down to my cabin, then through this filter, and control the outflow back into the river with a valve further down the property.  So all was good until that first winter.  The water stopped flowing, froze up, and would not be back to April.  Without a protective blanket of snow, even though the pipe is buried, it still froze up in the line.  There had to be an alternative situation. 

Tanks for the Water

By April, I had had it without having any water in the house.  Enough was enough, and I really had to come up with something.  Then it struck me that my house was basically a big RV already, so why not get a good RV pump, and make my own house pressure?  They are auto activated, and give you 60 psi, or normal house pressure and run on 12v.

So off to the tractor supply store for a 100 gallon drinking water safe tank I could keep in the cabin to not freeze, and online to order an RV pump.  After putting the tank onto a sled and towing it up behind the snowmobile (I did not have the tracked vehicle yet), getting it plumbed into the system and hitching up the RV pump, I was ready to fill the tank.  Of course the gravity feed water was still frozen, but Tomichi Creek below me flows open all winter long.

So with a gas powered pump, and two long garden hoses, I dropped the end into the river, fired it up, and was able to fill the tank.  If you are careful with water, 100 gallons lasts you quite a long time.  So we conserved water wherever we could, and would just go through the routine about once a week of filling it up.

We also hitched up the tank to the gravity feed, so we could fill from that once it was going as well.  And as a last resort, I have several 7 gallon water cans we can manually fill from if needed as well.  So now we had a great way of ensuring we always had water.

Water a Plenty

So now during most of the season, the gravity feed is reliable and we fill not only the tank in our cabin with the water, but we can enjoy our wood fired hot tub which we just refill each time we use it.  It takes hours to heat up, so it is for special occasions and you have to plan ahead.  Having no chemicals and fresh mountain spring water really soaks away the chores….

When it gets very cold and there is no snow, we drain the gravity feed and use the pump from the river and carefully drain the pipe each time so as to not freeze up.  This year, we will also have a 35 gallon tank on our tracked UTV with a small electric pump.  So we should be prepared no matter what happens.

In the future we would love to bury a much larger tank above the cabin, run the pipes deep, and pump water up from our ‘bucket’ spring.  This will require some heavy equipment to get done.  So many projects ahead of us!

Next week, we will look at a system I have been working on to monitor our energy usage using multiple raspberry pis, arduinos, and hall effect sensors to detect bi-directional energy flow.  This will include the hardware and source code available on github.

Thanks for joining me again this week,

 

Jim  Olsen

Off Grid CTO

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