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beyond off-grid

when people introduce me and say ‘fred lives off the grid’, While I appreciate the intro,  I always want to say: ‘I’m WAY beyond off-grid’… and if a conversation engages around it, I like to throw in the moniker: ‘I live off the dreadmill’… let me explain.

Our society loves path dependence. The history of humans is written on it. Path dependence implies we continue down the current path even though we know better paths – because it’s convenient and we ‘need to pay the mortgage/rent’.  And of course, many industries profit enormously from the current path.  it. Take oil, fast food, big box stores, etc. 

I like the sound bite‘ we didn’t stop using whale oil for lighting because we ran out of whales’  And so too, we are blazing new paths not because we’re running out of resources (which certain groups want you to believe) as much as there are better options on the horizons (uber, AI, self-driving cars, robotics, etc) 

Most people consider off-grid to be about energy independence.  Beyond off-grid is doing the full monty on cutting the cord that ties us to centralized services – usually operated by far-away corporate conglomerates.  As costs increase, reliability decreases and other issues arise; some people are thinking ‘there’s gotta be a better way’.  Enter Elon Musk,  Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others trying to tie us to a new ‘grid’ : one based on techno foundations that eerily remind me of just a different flavor of the same ole dreadmill – but with even more addictive, co-dependent properties.

runnin’ on empty

Isn’t this a Bruce Springfield song?… oops  Jackson Browne


Nothing like running your gas tank down to beyond empty….


I’m sitting at WinSol adapting a winter hibernation period.  I made the classic off-grid mistake of forgetting design parameters and nature got the best of me… as in NO SUN!

I always say ‘a solar home without sun really sucks’  and I’m feelin’ it.   There is one saving grace here… it’s not like a car… even with the voltage down to 11.8, i can still run the LED lights, read books, etc.  And the propane stove and the new rocket mass heater makes it a bit comfy… but I’m down for the count regarding living the mainstream desires…ahhh us spoiled technology children.




California is the world’s 6th largest economy (SF Bay Area  is 21) …and is once again on the leading edge of something….

….. apocalyptic fires in dense urban areas – in December! –  in Southern California. You can bet that something will be done about this new phenom, now that the 1%’er celebrities in Bel Air and Montclair had some of their mansions destroyed. 1.063 homes destroyed, one life lost in SoCal.  NoCal  lost  44 lives and over 10,000 homes.

As one SoCal person said ‘there should be snow on those mountains right now, instead they’re on fire’…  Best article by far on California’s overall  changing climate and fire, is at this link… LA Times. 

A sign of things to come… everything else aside: fire is nature’s #1 ecological restorative process.   

For California, several things are unique and first-time events: high winds from 10pm till 4am – coming from the North and East. Unheard of in December and in SoCal. That, coupled with hot temperatures (90F+) and dry vegetation (‘it doesn’t rain in southern california in the summertime’) and you have a deadly combo – all that’s needed is a spark.

For the recent Northern California fires it was unusual that commerical properties, hotels, and entire subdivisions burned to the ground.  Caused by – perhaps overhead power lines.   A spark though can come from many sources: a backfiring muffler parked next to a curb of dry grass, a piece of metal/chain dragging on concrete, someone flicking out a cigarette butt…. it doesn’t take much.

making Fire personal…

WinSol is bordered on three sides by El Dorado National Forest and very dense trees and underbrush. For the first time ever there is the most extensive logging along the nearby roads that I have seen since the mid 1980’s. This is both good and bad. Bad, in that they are marginally clear cutting – removing 100% of the large trees, leaving nothing but trees under 8” diameter – that’s crazy! The good, in that the dangerous underbrush is being removed, and that lumber prices will undoubtedly go down.

All the warnings have been about new homes being built in the forestlands…

I’ve been through five fires. Two of them major. One destroyed my home, another my storage shed, and two in-house fires from a burning chimney (creosote) and another one I caused with a brazing torch. The first fire was started by loggers I had hired in 1995 – it came within inches of burning WinSol2 – a 2” PVC pipe burned through and unleashed 5,000+gallons of water. It was merely a temporary ‘stay’ because six years later the entire house burned to the ground – supposedly set ablaze by a drifter.

I know that WinSol3 will burn eventually – whether it’s tomorrow or 50 years from now, the forest around here will burn. Fire is the most ecological restorative process in nature’s toolbelt. We humans don’t stand a chance – no matter what our collective ego tries.


Part of the answer is to let the fires burn.  At an Oregon conference i attended a couple years ago it was called ‘point protection’: Point the fire away from old growth trees and dwellings, and let it burn itself out.

Tahoe and the El Dorado NFS has another solution:  monitoring.  With the collaboration between hi-tech satellites and quick-strike teams, we have not had a major fire in the last two years!  wow – that’s a first.  i’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Acceptance is the ultimate solution. I accept the fact that WinSol and the learning center will burn… hopefully later rather than sooner.  i do take precautions in cutting the hundreds of surrounding manzanita bushes,  clearing out dozens of trees each summer and raking up as many of the oak leaves and pine needles and cones that we can muster… it’s an endless job since nature never rests in producing off-springs and growing… which is a beautiful thing.


happy Solstice

I hung around WinSol purposely this morning to witness the first sun at 7:43am.  It’s an amazing connection to our universe and collectiveness.  I always get some amazing energy flowing through me at this time.  The actual Solstice (change of earth tilt) occurs around 8:28am today…

The ancients worshiped the Winter Solstice each Dec 21st.  two thousand years ago someone decided it was a good idea to make it the birthday of a guy named Jesus… and so here we are… for those still resonating with the wisdom of the ages…

A great spin (ha!) on this is this article in the NYTimes today…. here’s an excerpt: 

“So, as the sun reaches its farthest point in the sky on Dec. 21, be grateful. Never will the sun dip so far below the horizon that it plunges half of the globe into a monthslong night and the other half into an equally long summer. Nor does Earth’s tilt change drastically over millions of years, thanks to the influence of the moon. Instead, the sun appears to trot back and forth between the extremes, like the pendulum of a great clock, keeping the planet cozy while steadily counting off its years.”

Tomorrow it’ll be ~2 minutes more daylight than today… enjoy!

real simplicity

The bumper sticker says ‘live simply, so others may simply live’.  Sayin’ it and doin’ it are two diffs… Getting simple is as easy as 1,2,3  …sing it Len Barry

As I was chillin in Tahoe recently at a local AirBnB,  I experienced real simplicity.  My host had a very minimalistic lifestyle.  An exercise machine, several hi-speed modems & satellite service to a couple big screens, and that’s it!!  wow… my first impressions were that someone is just starting out – but the more I got to know my host, it seemed they are more into living life rather than gaining possessions.  They were  focusing on only two things in their living quarters: being connected/entertained and staying in shape.  It was that simple.

There are many motivations in getting radically simple.  For me (don’t know if others do this) the one common factor in REAL simplicity is money    If you don’t have money you don’t go around buying optional things. I’ve tried resisting this over the years, but find that each time I have some extra funds I tend to load up on a few ‘luxuries’ (like more solar panels, more battery storage, more cinder blocks, etc) 

Another factor (again, for me) is I like to make simple things more complicated – with technology.  Maybe I’m a ‘neo’simpleton 🙂

One can stay simple until… one gets money… what happens to simplicity then?  With overwhelming societal peer pressure and non-stop advertisement (getting more subtle and all encompassing all the time) it’s hard to resist the temptation.   I think the best antidote to these societal pressures is making sure your circle of close friends are also into simplicity…. or so I thought.

One of the basic key elements of voluntary simplicity is getting off the grid.  And by that I don’t mean hooking up some solar panels – i mean the full-monty of living off-the-grid.

how to uncomplicate

I’ve spent most of my life complicating things and getting ready for worse case scenarios (its the required diet in engineering).  It’s a negative version of the law of attraction.

It’s easy to un-complicate:  don’t complicate in the first place!

I’ve spent a lifetime of complicating things…and I have DNA  barriers to uncomplicating things.  First of all I’m german – that means different things to different people – but it also means being proned more to left brain and anal retentive thinking (sorry fellow germans :-).  But it also means a deep resonance with the arts, philosophy and reflection.  Second, being bred as an engineer throughout my adolescent and young adulthood, it doubles down on my ‘german-ness’ and increases left brained  thinking.   (hey, I left our being raised as a catholic – the ultimate guilt trip of human unworthiness)

Best Resource

The book ‘Radical Simplicity’ is the best I’ve found on all this.  The concept of ‘life force energy’ is truly groundbreaking:  how much of your life’s energy do you need and use in your everyday activities.

1st RMH

I have just finished building my first Rocket Mass Heater (RMH).  And I am amazed!   WOW.   The center burn chamber sounds like a rocket engine on just a couple newspaper pages.

I’ve been following the RMH discussions on permies for a few years and saw a couple RMHs first hand while living at Lost Valley ecovillage and visiting Aprovecho, (global leader in rocket stove technology) and I’ve built a couple small ones for demos outside.

What is an RMH?   It’s a modern version of a European  masonry heater (albeit a LOT smaller). 

The one I built is a ‘J tube’ configuration which means you load the small wood stocks upright and the horizontal flame shoots through the burn tunnel and up the …..

Many thanks to Ernie & Erica  and also to Paul Wheaton (world dominator wanna be 🙂 .  I used their plans from a Portland building code project.  And it worked the first time.

There are four main components to an RMH:  Feed chamber, burn chamber (cylinder), recirculating ‘barrel, and the exhaust piping.  that’s it!


Here are the construction steps I took (using existing stuff):

  1. find/count all existing bricks:  80 clay, 35 cement, 30 fire brick.
  2. Found 10″ OD burn chamber with 6″ ID – 48″ long, and 30 gallon steel barrel.
  3. Measure floor area, design, calculate… revise, revise again.
  4. Draw out rough plan on floor in-place, lay (dry) first course.
  5. Think about it, ponder, redesign, refine, redo.
  6. Stack 2nd, 3rd, 4th (dry) courses. Conserve firebricks.
  7. Put inner chamber and outer barrel on, test fire: WOW it drafted!
  8. Mortar up 1st and second courses.  Mix perlite/clay/sand.
  9. Fill burn chamber with mix.
  10. Finalize entire brick base, put barrel in place and test fire.
  11. Install exhaust piping,  hole in outer wall, test fire again.
  12. Final sealing to eliminate all indoor smoke.

I’ll post some pictures soon….

Advice/lessons learned:

Two most important things are getting a quick fire drafting through, and avoid any indoor smoke.  i learned that the hard way… and now put one little newspaper way inside the feed chamber…making sure the burning newspaper doesn’t get sucked into the central burner cylinder.

Don’t try to brick&mortar exhaust port to barrel – just cut a hole in the barrel for the exhaust pipe and seal with Fire retardant caulking.

I used thick glass putty (fired & cured) to seal lower barrel lip tightly to prevent smoking.

going locavore… really local

Try eating local for a day or a week:  only food grown/raised within a 50 mile radius of your home.   Yeah, eating local – really local – is hard to do.  The first thing you’ll probably have to do is get away from processed foods –  – unless you’re close to an industrial park loaded with food factories.

I was always proud of my consumption habits,  especially with food — until now (see article below).   I don’t think I could ever eat 100% local… heck probably not 50%!   I’d have to give up sushi, most pizzas, bananas, coffee, tea, beer (hops), most fish… yikes!

Let’s start with most people’s first morning routine: coffee/tea. How can that get local?  The closest coffee/tea growers are somewhere down south… last I heard there was a small coffee plantation around Santa Barbara.  Teas – I have no clue… guess I could make my own. But, how can most consumers in 1st world countries get coffee beans that are GROWN locally?

I am lucky to live in California. Within 100 miles are hundreds of hectares of rice, vegies, fruit, organic chicken, seafood, beer, wine… I can easily get local if only… if only I wasn’t so spoiled.

timing is everything…

The seasonality of local food presents a BIG problem for eating local in cold climates.  We are presented with any fruit/vegie 365 days a year.   One solution is to food in root cellars, do some canning, fermentation or dehydration etc.  But that only goes so far.  Again, I am spoiled in California. The Salinas valley on the coast has year-round moderate temperatures and hectares of greenhouses. Can we extend the 50 mile radius to 120 miles?  please?  🙂

Solutions for everyone…

I think greenhouses, vertical and urban farming have tremendous bright futures as fresh, local food becomes more important to every human. But are these ‘greenhouses’ really local?  The current battle being fought with the FDA over aquaculture and greenhouses being able to use the ‘organic’ certified label is being contested.

The label ‘local’ and ‘regional’ are not regulated. A supposedly local farmers market can include devious industrial farmers from over 500 miles away. Transportation complexities can mix up local and far-away produce, so no one can differentiate.

The best bet is your local CSA and farmers. Find them, visit them, buy directly from them, trade your skills for their products… most local farmers discard so much that is not ‘perfect for the market’ … that you can get a bounty of lo-cost produce…

Here’s a great article that got me started on this whole thing…

German DW article


We tend to associate solitude with either and essential element of life, or as someone who is an outcast.  Solitude is an essential ingredient for human well-being.  Some people associate ‘Walden’ with an idealistic view of solitude.  But Henry Thoreau was anything but solitary: he was a fully engaged & passionate activist his entire life. Our romantic stereotype of him living a luxurious life of solitude in a cabin in the woods next to a pond is in-escapble. I was drawn to the deep forest by this view. A new book ‘ ‘ does a wonderful job of reviewing…… (see NYTimes Book Review Link: )

* NOTE: It’s taken me over two months to put this blog together. The words solitude and loneliness are generally taboo in our western culture. They tend to have negative connotations of isolation and being an outcast or just plain weird. There’s either sympathy or irreverence for people who are either. How sad. No wonder so many people SILENTLY feel depressed, outcasts, or worse.

my experience
For the past 12 years I’ve gone into purposeful exile from the ‘dreadmill’ (modern slavery in urban jungles), to solitude and isolation at WinSol. From running three Aptek offices, having a dozen employees, a handful of big clients, and jetting around the world – it all came crashing down at meeting in El Segundo with Northrup Gruman and a fire that destroyed WinSol2 – both in 2002. Luckily I came to WinSol full-time around 2006 and mostly avoided the crash of 2008. (and I am ready for an even bigger crash soon). WinSol is surrounded on three sides by NFS (National Forest) and one side leads to unlimited trails and abandonded logging roads.

Fast forward ten years: In the last five years I’ve had many wonderful helpers and friends spend time at WinSol. I’ve learned how to avoid letting my peers’ & society’s judgment and social pressures affect my chosen lifestyle. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve found new appreciation and purpose in living alone at WinSol. The continual peer pressure from society and my ego to ‘rejoin the treadmill’ and many friends’ view that WinSol is too far out there, have contributed to this difficulty. I am more steadfast now that my initial sojourn to WinSol almost 20 years ago, was well-founded. But lately I’ve evolved to seek a more mainstream balance and to re-enter the dreadmill again – albeit with a more centered ‘self’. Turn that around and it again becomes taboo: being self-centered. And that’s good.  One can dance with the devil if one knows and loves them-self.

I take solace in the concept that we must re-invigorate what solitude really means in our modern, technological, world wide web, social media based life:  the constant peer pressure, the steady stream of enticements from emails, facebook, linked-in, etc.The general view of the internet and our on-line ‘presence’ is like a   black plague that we have yet to experience in it’s full demise.  As the philosopher Heidegger once said:  ‘… technology will enable us to fill ALL our desires…’ for good and bad.  There’s nothing ‘good’ about treating people like lab rats and commodities to increase ‘unique web hits’.

A meditation and local Buddhist sangha has helped me. There’s a wonderful book by Sarvananda: ‘Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View’,

In his new book,‘Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View’ Sarvananda explores the themes of solitude and loneliness and how a Buddhist might deal with these emotions. He suggests that, despite the statistics, we still ‘very skillfully, and often unconsciously, organize our lives in such a way as to avoid loneliness.’ Although increasing numbers of us live alone, we are also continuously coming up with new strategies to distract ourselves from our solitude.

Human societies throughout history and all over the world have organized Themselves around living with others. Yet in the last 15 years, there has been an 80% global increase in people living alone. We’re wealthier than our ancestors and the cultures we live in value individualism and independence – we have the freedom to house ourselves in smaller family units or without a family at all. 34% of UK households now have just one person living in them. So is the modern individual more familiar with solitude than ever before?

Yet Sarvananda suggests that facing up to our essential aloneness is ‘where the spiritual life begins.’ ‘Buddhism challenges us to train ourselves to be more and more at ease in our own company,’ he writes, ‘to try and be with ourselves without distraction.’ This means confronting our habitual and repetitive responses to solitude which rely on the approval and reassurance of others. ‘Distrusting our capacity to alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,’ Sarvananda argues. ‘We become addicted to other people.’


I can truly say that I am at ease and very comfortable in my own skin: alone. I am not addicted to other people – although occasionally I do crave for a seat at any Panera or (yikes!) Starbucks – but I get over that pretty quickly. I do have many distractions at WinSol.   I find them more fulfilling than an urban kaleidoscope would be. Gardening tasks, earthen/forest construction projects, learning center improvements, staying 100% off grid, 100% rainwater, <1%waste, etc. But the BIG one that solitude brings is keen observation of nature’s rhythms. The pesky squirells and lizards eating in my gardens, the vagaries of weather extremes, staying within an off-grid ‘budget’ without ‘powering up’… etc.

deepening desire for a certain kind of self-sufficiency.’

Paradoxically, however, it is in facing up to our aloneness that we come to recognize how essentially connected to others we truly are. ‘Although we are essentially alone, we are also essentially related,’ Sarvananda explains. ‘As Buddhists, we are practising in a context: with others and for others. The way out of loneliness or isolation, then, is to love more deeply. It is in going beyond the ego that we also go beyond loneliness and isolation.’

Although our modern societies may value solitude as a living arrangement, it therefore seems that a deeper kind of solitude – a still silence and spaciousness – is still undervalued. In Sarvananda’s words, ‘Solitude needs more championing.’

’The technological advances of modern society allow us to communicate with others even when we’re physically isolated from them – I may be sitting on my own in my flat, but thanks to instant messaging and social networking sites I can still feel connected with my friends and family (and perhaps also a large number of people that I have never met). Our hundreds of facebook friends and Twitter followers ensure that we’re never lonely, even if we’re alone.