Life with Nature

February 9th, 2006

PUBLIC INFORMATION STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FLAGSTAFF AZ
915 AM MST TUE FEB 7 2006

…RECORD DRY CONDITIONS CONTINUE OVER NORTHERN ARIZONA…

FOR THE PERIOD OF SEPTEMBER 1ST 2005 THROUGH FEBRUARY 6TH 2006… FLAGSTAFF HAS RECEIVED ONLY 2.49 INCHES OF PRECIPITATION (INCLUDING MELTED SNOW). THIS NOW SURPASSES THE PREVIOUS DRIEST AMOUNT WHICH WAS SET IN THE 1950-1951 SEASON. THE 2005-2006 PERIOD NOW REPRESENTS THE LEAST AMOUNT OF PRECIPITATION EVER RECORDED FOR THAT PERIOD IN THE HISTORICAL RECORDS WHICH BEGAN IN 1898. … THE NORMAL SEASONAL SNOWFALL FOR THIS PERIOD SHOULD BE 56.0 INCHES. … WINSLOW HAS ONLY RECEIVED 17% (0.62″) OF THEIR NORMAL PRECIPITATION FOR THE SEPT 1ST THROUGH FEB 6TH PERIOD.

I live northeast of Flagstaff and my weather is more similar to that of Winslow than Flagstaff. We haven’t received one inch of precipitation at our house.

Two weeks ago I was getting a load of water and was watching hundreds of small blue birds checking frozen puddles. They were waiting for the ice to melt in puddles created from spilled water. Two robins were among the blue birds. There was a woman getting water who appeared to be in her seventies. I asked if she knew the name of the blue birds and she said she did not. She commented that this was the first time she had seen this species of bird and she had never seen robins in the area in January.

I’m noticing what I interpret to be signs of increasing stress among plants and animals. When we first moved to the land, Julie and I purchased a small tub to provide water for animals. At the time, our intention was to attract wildlife to be able to watch and photograph them. Now, my intention is to provide some water to alleviate stress during the drought.

When our septic system was installed, the backhoe uprooted but didn’t harm a prickly pear cactus. I moved it to a safe position and left it lying on top of the ground for about two or three months. I planted the cactus near our house and it did well and bloomed last summer. Recently, I noticed something had been feeding on it but the damage was not serious. Last Saturday I saw the culprit – a small chipmunk. I didn’t do anything to protect the cactus because I figured the small animal needed food and moisture. A few days later I arrived home and the cactus was gone – including the roots.

Recently, I have been seeing more antelope near the house. Interestingly, antelope will drink if water is available but can get their water from food. For so large an animal, that’s amazing to me.

Times are hard and will get more difficult. This will probably be a summer of numerous large forest and wild fires.

On a brighter side, Julie ordered a new bird feeder recently. The feeder fits into a window by our kitchen table and extends into the room. On the weekends, it’s quite enjoyable to have breakfast while watching birds only two feet away on the other side of the one-way glass. Also, the small bird that is obsessed with her reflection is hilarious.

Life with nature is wonderful!


Yesterday, I posted the above on my personal blog. Later in the day I heard of a fire. I found the following in a news article

Wildfire Season in Arizona Starts Early

A terrible sign of the potential problems to come this summer, Arizona already has its first significant forest fire of the year. It’s called the February Fire, and it is burning north of Payson, Arizona. As of February 8, the February Fire has burned more than 1,200 acres. It is still burning actively.

One of the challenges of living off the grid is to be prepared, self-reliant, and not dependant on fire personnel arriving in time.

Summer 2005 Fire
This photo of smoke from a Summer 2005 fire that was a few miles south of our house was taken in our back yard. Two weeks elapsed before this fire was extinguished. A second, smaller fire burned about five miles west of our house.

Water Valves to Reduce Stress

February 6th, 2006

A friend purchased some land close to mine and gave up after a few months. In one of my last conversations with him he said “I’ll never try to homestead again.”

I wanted moving off the grid to be pleasant, enjoyable and successful. When I was young, I could work 25 hours a day. Now, I find I can’t and, in fact, I don’t want to. I want to minimize stress, go at a slow enjoyable pace, do quality work and take time to smell the roses – uh, no roses in the area so make that listen to the breeze.

One of the things that I did to make life easy was install a valve on our motorhome so that I could gravity feed the onboard tank as well as pipe water to the pump. As it was, I could do one or the other but not both at the same time. This meant that if I unhooked the external tank to get load of water then any water used during the time the tank was unhooked came from the onboard tank. When I returned and flipped a valve to refill the onboard tank then I had no water pressure since the system was designed for a pressurized source rather than a gravity fed source. This may seem like a minor inconvenience and it was but, it added a little unnecessary stress to life.

To solve this minor inconvenience, I analyzed the plumbing system and designed a solution. By cutting a water line and installing two valves I was able to refill the onboard tank and have water pressure.

Life is full of stress which must be managed. Some stresses can’t be averted. I try to solve little annoyances and save energy for major problems, for time to listen to the breeze, enjoy the birds, watch the jack rabbits and dream about developing my off-grid paradise as a source of sustainable pleasure.

Water Valves
The water valves designed to enable gravity filling the onboard tank as well as providing water to the pump.

The Install Water Values
The valves have been installed and tested.

Water Tank and Trailer

January 30th, 2006

A self-contained motorhome (generator, batteries, inverter, etc) made the move to the land easy and pleasant. With a septic system installed, the immediate needs were propane (for the refrigerator, hot water heater and stove), gas for the generator, and water. I could transport small quantities (5 gallons) of propane and gas easily and on a reasonable schedule during construction. Water was needed in larger quantities – about thirty some gallons per day minimum.

After installing a cistern I would need a tank to transport water so it was best to purchase a tank before moving and use it to provide water for the motorhome. Since I no longer owned a pickup truck, a tank and trailer were needed. I have a small trailer but it was not designed for the weight that would be needed. I began shopping for a trailer and water tank.

Locating a tank turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Surprisingly, I could not locate a business in Flagstaff that sells tanks. I checked the web, the yellow pages and building supplies. I did not consider ordering a tank on the web because of the cost of shipping one tank. I checked the classifieds in a local newspaper and found an individual advertising tanks and trailers in Williams which is about 35 miles west of Flagstaff. He had various trailers and tanks for sale.

Transport tanks come in various shapes, sizes and materials. Options include 55 gallon polyethylene drums, polyethylene cubes reinforced with aluminum frames, polyethylene tanks designed for pickups and tanks shaped like vitamin or herbal capsules. Polyethylene tanks can tolerate expansion from frozen water whereas a fiberglass tank will break.

Tank sizes range from 55 gallons to more than 500 gallons. A major consideration when purchasing a tank was the weight of the trailer and full tank of water. I have a small SUV with a small engine and cannot haul a heavy trailer. I’m concerned about gas mileage and unnecessary expenditures so purchasing a new vehicle was not an option. The tank I purchased holds 250 gallon. Since water weighs about 8.3 pounds per gallon, a tank full of water will weigh over 2,000 pounds plus the weight of the tank and the trailer. This was within the weight limit for my vehicle.

I purchased a new fiberglass tank shaped like a capsule mounted on an old, old functional trailer. The cost was $500 for tank, trailer and all fittings. I’ve been pleased with my decision.

Water Transport Tank and Trailer
The tank and trailer used to transport water.

Water

January 28th, 2006

Of all utilities and services – electric, septic, phone, propane, refuse, mail, television, internet, and water – the most problematic is water. Electric, septic, phone, propane, television (not a necessity) and internet, once installed, require little maintenance. All six have multiple options and/or multiple vendors or installers. Refuse management – composting, recycling and trash disposal – require more work but little expenditure of money or time if managed with discipline. Water, however, is a necessity with few options. There are three options for water – drill a well, install a rainwater harvesting system or haul water from a commercial well.

I did not consider a well since water is 1,400 feet below the surface. The cost of drilling a well and providing power to pump from that depth caused me to eliminate this option without much consideration.

A rain water harvesting system is attractive. In contrast to a well, I can purchase the materials and install a system myself. Once installed, the system will require less expense and labor than hauling water. The negative aspects of a rain water harvesting system are initial expense due to the need for adequate storage tanks and adequate roof area. Since I live in a remote arid area, it’s a little difficult to project anticipated rainfall. Flagstaff is 25 miles west and 1,400 feel higher. Flagstaff receives about 110 inches of snowfall and 23 inches of rain annually. Winslow is about 45 miles southeast at an elevation of 5,000 feet and receives seven inches annually. The Navajo reservation is about two miles east and reports approximately 11-12 inches annually, much of which falls during August, September and October. To further complicate matters, the area has been experiencing a drought for the last several years. Here’s an abbreviated report dated January 26, 2006 (two days ago) from the National Weather Service:

EVEN WITH THE LATEST SNOWFALL YESTERDAY…FLAGSTAFF CONTINUES WITH THE LOWEST SNOWFALL SEASON TO DATE IN RECORDED HISTORY. THE CURRENT SEASONAL TOTAL IS NOW 1.6 INCHES…WHICH IS STILL THE LEAST AMOUNT OF TOTAL SNOWFALL EVER RECORDED SINCE 1898 UP TO THIS DATE FOR THE CITY OF FLAGSTAFF. FLAGSTAFF SHOULD HAVE RECEIVED 46.9″ OF SNOWFALL BY THIS DATE BASED ON 1971-2000 NORMALS.

THE AVERAGE OF THE TOTAL SEASONAL SNOWFALL FROM THE PREVIOUS NINE YEARS WITH THE LOWEST SNOWFALL SEASON TO DATE . . . WAS 42.5 INCHES WHICH IS 39% OF THE NORMAL TOTAL SNOWFALL FOR FLAGSTAFF (109.4 INCHES USING 1971-2000 NORMALS).

The problem I faced initially was moving onto the land without a house (ie: no roof area to catch water) and moving before the annual monsoon season. Initially, rain water harvesting was not a realistic option though I do plan to install a system.

Delivered water — the third option and my only viable option — can be somewhat expensive if purchased commercially or can take time of hauled myself. I chose to purchase a tank and trailer and do it myself. Fortunately, I live two miles from a privately owned water station so my commitment to time and expense is minimal.

In the next post, I’ll describe the temporary installation to provide water until a cistern and pump were installed.

The Water Station
Getting a load of water from the water station located about two miles from home..

Septic System Installation

December 21st, 2005

Our property is in a volcanic area. On the northeast corner is an eroded cone with lava exposed. Prior to purchasing the property we dug test holes to insure we could install a traditional septic system. It’s not uncommon for expensive alternative systems to be required. Because much of the surface is cinders, the ground perks too quickly. Water is 1,400 feet deep so the county granted a routine exception to the required perk test results and issued a permit.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for illegal systems to be installed. I sought the help of a former county inspector in designing a system and completing the permit application. He made the statement “there are a lot of bootleg systems out there.” I know of one person who moved on to property after digging a pit and installing two 55 gallon drums as his system. Another person lived on his property for a few months without a septic system or any type of waste disposal. I’m not opposed to owners performing their own work. I’m not opposed to owners bending some codes where safety, functionality and reliability are not compromised. I am opposed strongly to behavior that harms the environment, endangers the welfare of people and creates a problem for future owners or occupants.

I know of people who have obtained permits and inspections and installed their own systems. Since I work fulltime, I didn’t consider this option. I obtained estimates for installation of the system. The estimates ranged from $1,500 to $3,500. (Alternative systems can cost ten times as much.) I did not feel comfortable with the less expensive estimates and chose an installer on the high end and was well pleased with his work, his timely installation and his friendly manner. (If you need a system installed in the Flagstaff area, let me know and I’ll provide his name and phone number. I highly recommend him.)

Septic Tank Installed
Julie proudly displays the partially installed septic system.