Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Batteries Reached Float!

So Satisfying!

As you can see by the chart above, we hit float for over three hours yesterday!  That's really exciting to me.  We haven't seen float since last fall.  The minimum battery voltage throughout the winter was always so low that float was cancelled the following day.  In spite of that causing some very extended absorption times, the Surrette batteries are still only sipping distilled water.  I don't have to add very much at all to keep them topped up.

You can also see that we equalized a few days ago - that's another exciting aspect of the longer, sunnier, warmer days - we are starting to have the ability to equalize again.  This should help with the long term health of the batteries.  It also means that when it DOES equalize, the equalization voltage doesn't go over the 33.6V that causes our inverter to shut off.  It can be a little bit of an annoyance to lose internet access in midwinter for a few hours while the batteries top up.

This is just another in a long line of blessings I count.  (Donna and Kenny being my daily number one choice!)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Too Much Information?

Donna was up first this morning.  I usually feel guilty about this, and today was really no exception.  As my medication is tapering down, my fatigue seems to be returning.  So far it hasn't manifested itself as dramatically as a year or two ago, when I regularly found myself exhausted in the afternoon and required rests and naps.  Still, I'm sleeping more than my fair share.

Of course, none of this had anything to do with the fact that I came home late(ish) from Judo, ate/eight slices of garlic bread, polished off a bowl of cold chili con carne, and washed it down with two whiskey and sodas.  In hindsight, I think I should have had some water to drink in between.  When I go to Judo, I tend to stop drinking mid to late afternoon so I don't have to go pee while training.  By the time I return home, I'm likely already dehydrated, and mixing my water with alcohol probably does little to alleviate my symptoms.

In any case, my sleep was a bit disturbed for the first few hours.  I woke with a bit of a head-head, and realized that I was on top of the sheets and still in my "comfy" clothes.  Donna was dozing peacefully beside me.

I shucked my track pants and sweat shirt, crawled under the covers and fluffed my pillow.  Next I put on a podcast of politicians talking about climate change initiatives, which ensured I fell back to sleep quickly.

As I said, even though I had fallen asleep before Donna, it was her who got up and set the fire this morning.  I wandered out and tried to make myself useful, but to no avail, she was already on the case and had prepared herself for work in the city while I was still in my bathrobe.

I sat down with my puffer, pills and a glass of water as the sound of the car departing faded out, and the sounds of "The Diamond Minecart" and "Stampy Longnose" faded in from Kenny on the iPad.

A strong black tea soon got my plumbing churning right proper, and I dropped my trousers as I headed in to a relaxing session on the thunderbox.  Of course, at that moment, Kenny hopped up and declared his intention to use the bathroom.

Graciously I pulled up my pants and gave him dibs.  Kenny seems to have developed a habit of doing his main business in the late afternoon - generally right after I change out the bucket for a nice, fresh one.

He was out in under a minute, dutifully washing his hands, and adding sanitizer for good measure.

This time I slid the door shut, and settled down to check my progress in online Scrabble with my cellphone.

Awesome!  My friend B! had failed to surpass yesterday's play of "PORTEND" for 88 points!  What...  Foreshadowing.

I scanned my letters, leaning far forward, almost onto my knees.  Of course, we all now know that this is better for your innards anyway - if you can't set up a "squatty potty" - then don't sit as if you were at a desk, try to get your knees to your chest, or as Mohammed would suggest as a viable alternative, get your chest to your knees.

Spoiling my own sweet smell of success, I found myself with a glut of vowels...  STEEL...  STEAL...  SETTLE...  UNSETTLE...  Nothing was coming to me, until the scales fell from my eyes and the obviousness of the letters and situation came to me as if I was on the road to Damascus.  "NAUSEATE" - 50 more points to crush B!'s spirit (hopefully...)  I won't go into how fitting that word was.

The joy of the play coincided with me finishing up, and I rose and completed the paperwork for the mission.  As always, we cover up with a few refreshing scoops of sawdust.  As I finished "leaving no trace", I froze.  Had this been PORTENDED?

There sitting proudly - a brown, misshapen oval rested in the space between the toilet seat, the wall, and the sawdust bucket.

My mind simply couldn't process the vulgarity of the situation.  I gaped.  I was - wait for it - NAUSEATED.

I won't suggest that I ruled out myself having produced it, based on its appearance.  In fact, to my credit, I first tried to internally work out the physics involved.  After all I *had* been leaning quite far forward in my excitement of the chance to render B! especially lugubrious, what with me clearing my rack (ahem) twice in quick succession.

I discounted Donna completely, but allowed myself to wonder if Kenny could have managed to create this situation.  Regardless, without a "steaming gun" to point at anyone besides myself, I knew I was going to have to deal with it.

In spite of having a young son, having been out of diapers for over half a decade - as well as the fact that I dumped out a bucket containing many similar treasures nearly daily - I was stumped and a little grossed out about contemplating what my next action should be.

And so, I continued to stare.

Finally, after a number of deep, calming breaths, I unrolled a length of squares of toilet tissue and folded them back and forth neatly upon themselves until I had a package that was thick enough to protect my delicate fingers - and sensibilities.

I poked the offensive little thing gently and then finally, carefully, wrapped the tissue around it and lifted it from its cozy nook.

The heft of it was even more disturbing as it had a profoundly substantial consistency.  If it was truly one of mine (and at this point, I felt it best to keep the whole incident on the down-low...  Who wants to bring up a situation like this when it may involve admitting that they literally can't hit the ground under them with such a seemingly easy to aim object).  Whomever of us had produced this particular object really, really needed to get some roughage.

And that's when it dawned on me.

In future, I was going to have to convince Donna that if she literally finds the odd rock mixed in with the sawdust, she shouldn't just leave it on the seat for others to find.

Then again, maybe it was a coprolite and I had reason to be squeamish?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Return to Canning - On An Induction Cooktop

Once upon a time I had done lots of canning back in Kitchener.  We had a large canner, as well as a smaller pressure cooker that I occasionally experimented with using as a canner, something I cannot recommend in good faith.

We also had a gas stove which provided consistent, reasonably priced heat at the turn of a dial.

Here on the homestead, canning hasn't been terrifically convenient, even if the fruits of the labour involved certainly were.  Having access to pre-cooked meats or vegetables that don't require refrigeration, and only need to be reheated and mixed, sure makes life easier here.

The problem we had was that the wood cookstove doesn't lend itself to easy pressure canning.  Even in winter, keeping the stove ticking along sufficiently to keep the water in the canner boiling non stop for 75 or 90 minutes just isn't that easy.  Not even counting the time it takes to bring a large canner full of cold meat or veggies to that boil, and holding it there an additional ten minutes while the canner is evacuated of non-steamy air.

It just required too much tending of the stove at too high a temperature for too long.  By the end the cabin was hot, even in midwinter, and we weren't that enthused about trying it again anytime soon.

In the summer, we had also experimented with canning outdoors on our propane stove.  Donna had volunteered to monitor the stove outside by sitting and reading while listening to the jiggling weight, but still, this was limited by the weather and season, as well as burning propane.  While I would also argue that it involved a consistent (albeit non-engaged) watchman, I'm sure that Donna would be more than happy to fulfill such a role.

The final option I also contemplated would be to simply accept the cost of butane, and cook indoors on our small butane burner.  This little burner has been invaluable during the spring and fall when we may not have enough power at the times we want to heat up a pot of water for dishes or beverages, but it's also too warm to justify stoking the woodstove for those same simple pleasures.  At $3.00 a can, and the notion of probably having to use *at least* one can for every batch, I wasn't too keen on this thought and so put thoughts of canning in the back of my mind.  Donna also interjects at this point her reluctance to have the odour of butane combusting in the cabin for that length of time.

Bringing it back to the forefront of my thoughts happened while on another cleaning/organizing binge in our pantry.  Staring at our collection of jars that had been mostly empty for the last couple of years while we've been here, I started to think again - either admit that they were no longer earning their place in our cabin and life, or find a way to use them.  It didn't take me long to come up with a bit of a plan.

As I have complained to most anyone who will listen, when you are off grid and solar, it can be a feast or famine lifestyle when it comes to electrical power.  Once your batteries charge, the remaining sunlight just gets ignored by your system.  You can see a huge opportunity - but finding ways of utilizing it is the key.

Enter my thoughts of using that power on sunny afternoons to do the canning for us.

At first I started contemplating a hot plate - even 1500 watts wouldn't be unreasonable I figured - the solar panels should be able to pull down about 2000 watts for most of a sunny, summer day - and in the endgame of absorption, we often were using under 300 watts to keep the batteries in shape.  Not to mention the trickle charge that will be all that's needed once our batteries begin floating again.

Several poor reviews of cheap hot plates had me open to alternatives - and that's when I started to see induction cookers beginning to appear on the periphery of my vision - that is to say - in the "other people looking at this have bought" column on my webpages.

Induction cookers kept touting their ability to efficiently heat only the pot and contents - delivering all of their energy to your cooking utensil, rather than heating up an element, which in turn heated up your pot.  That sounded fine to me.

Then it was pointed out that induction cookers can only heat up cookware that is magnetic.  That didn't sound like an issue - our cast iron was very magnetic.  Our saucepans - check!
Our pressure canner - that's when the party ended.  It's clearly (and commonly) aluminum.  Bummer.  Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The only pressure *canner* we owned was a large, Mirro 22 quart workhorse.  It was pretty awesome in its ability to do large quantities - but that actually wasn't always a benefit.  It's a pretty big item to be putting on and off the stove full of jars of food.  I was quite mentally prepared to purchase something a bit smaller.  In fact, while still contemplating woodstove canning I had remarked a few times on the notion of downsizing the canner and simply doing it more regularly in smaller batches for convenience.

Just a bit more research revealed that certain stainless steel canners would work.  By far, the best deal was the Fagor Duo 10 quart canning kit.  It had many advantages over what we were use to.

It was half the size.  It was stainless steel but rated for induction cooking.  It used some sort of spring valve for controlling the pressure - this really appealed to me.  I never liked the notion of a gauge that needed to be checked yearly.  I had liked the weight, but after a few uses I noticed that the interior pin on it was pitted and a bit rusty - so I began to have a slight doubt about the accuracy of its abilities.

Stainless shouldn't stain the way the aluminum did during canning.  It wasn't a big deal, as we never had food in contact with the canner, but it still hurt my delicate sensibilities.

I ordered it up from Amazon, even going so far as to sign on for a trial month of prime - it gave me two day shipping, which was pretty sweet.  Of course, that's to the city, but Donna was in town anyway and graciously picked it up for her husband.  I have a note in my calendar to cancel the subscription before the month is up.

  • Sidebar - she must really be special to have been willing to marry me.  How many husbands get all worked up about being able to start canning again? [No, this is one of the many reasons why I married you! - Donna]
I also purchased the Salton portable induction cooktop.

The next shopping trip I had noted to pick up some sort of meat for canning.  I was mostly thinking chicken, but we didn't see any we liked, and then Donna's eyes set on some salmon fillets that were on for around half price.  We grabbed six and headed home.

I did my best to remove the skins at home - I'm certainly not an expert, but it's remarkably easy when you don't care much how the finished product turns out.  I knew that after canning, this salmon was either going to end up as pieces in a pasta, salad, or sandwich.
Doesn't look pretty, but it sure will taste good!
I tucked them all into 500mL jars (pints for those of you who lean that way) and put them in the canner with three litres of water.

Excited to play with the boxes - I added a few potatoes to round out the cookspace.
Reorganized to get them all to fit.
By this time it was already midafternoon, but still quite sunny.  I sealed the canner and started up the induction cooker.
Yup, only the pot gets hot.  I can totally touch the cooktop - no probs!
I waited, and waited, and then I waited some more.  Finally I got impatient, and cranked the cooker from the default 1000 watts to 1800 watts.  Then things started to happen!  I could hear the water rumbling inside the cooker, and I could see our volts dropping as I began to use up all the solar, plus a good chunk of our battery reserve.

As soon as the canner started boiling properly though, I was able to set it lower and the solar system returned to stasis.

Just as the sun set, and my voltage dropped to the point that the system was within a minute of shutting down, the 100 minutes of pressurized boil had passed and the induction cooker was shut off.  Perfect timing!
By this time I've already gotten into my bathrobe.

We were back baby :)!

Since then, I returned to canning on another sunny day and was able to process a bag of potatoes and a bag of carrots in two batches back to back.  This made me realize that I shouldn't get rid of too many of my jar rings - I would need enough to not have to remove them between batches.
The fruits of our labour!
These three batches of canning on the induction cooktop have convinced me that not only is it a great application for us - but that ANYONE who wants to can should give it serious consideration.  It has two killer features that I feel give it an edge over canning in any other system.

Firstly - the cooktop I purchased has a built in timer!  I'm not sure if this is a common feature, but it sure is sweet.  Once you reach pressurized boiling - you can dial in the time it needs to be kept there and then essentially forget it.  It will run until the exact minute, and then shut itself off.  No wasted power, no setting egg timers, no returning to turn the stove down.

Secondly - the cooktop I purchased ALSO has a built in thermostat!  Once I reached the boiling point, I was able to dial it down to 120 degrees (250 degrees for those of you that swing that way), and the cooktop put in just enough power to hold it there, again, for exactly the correct amount of time.

It's terrifically convenient for me on the homestead - as it would be for anyone.

It's also about as efficient as one could get - so even if you are paying for your hydro, you'd be well served to do your canning with this system as it only uses exactly what you need to get the job done safely and accurately.

I'm really excited to be canning again!  This will go far towards making our lives easier and perhaps even healthier as we can begin eating less commercially processed foods.