Category Archives: Living

Fish Ponds

Quite a few years ago, I went out with some friends hunting for Crayfish in a river near their home. After we cooked up a large number of them, I took five home, and put them in a fish tank. For the next two years, I engaged in a battle to maintain their environment by adding other fish (to feed them), snails and clams (to clean the algae), heaters to maintain temperature, filters to clean up after them, and bubblers to help them breath. It was a lot of hard work, but maintaining the environmental balance is exactly the kind of problem my mind likes to work on.

Continue reading Fish Ponds

Operating a Wood Furnace

Well, its time to start making confessions about how little I know about what I am doing. Unfortunately, I am quickly finding, experienced people don’t think to mention important details; those little details that are so obvious that you don’t even think about them. Those little details that make you look stupid when you are a neophyte and don’t know them.

This past weekend we fired up our wood furnace for the first time ever. After numerous repairs to it, and a quick tutorial from one of the furnace guys, it was operating correctly, but after 3 hours of burning, the house had only climbed to 15°C. After all of the hype about what a wonderful heat wood supplied, this was not what I expected. I could not, for the life of me, figure out what was wrong. The fire was burning, the blower was pushing air into the combustion chamber, but the forced air fan was not coming on. So S finally badgered me into swallowing my pride, and calling our furnace guy to ask what the problem was.

It turns out we weren’t producing enough heat. It just goes to show what a neophyte I am with wood.

A solid fuel furnace does not work the same way as a gas furnace. There is a key difference: when operating a wood furnace, you have a couple of stages that work independently of one another.

The first stage is your combustion chamber. This is pretty straight forward, it is where the fire goes. When the temperature in the house drops below a the specified temperature, your thermostat activates the blower, injecting air into the combustion chamber and making the fire burn hotter.

As the fire burns, it heats the heat exchanger. The exchanger is a chamber above the furnace that simply holds air. When the air gets hot enough a fan is activated causing all of that nice hot air to be forced into the house (thus the name “Forced Air”). The forced air fan is controlled by another thermostat on the side of the chamber itself. This is the part I didn’t know about.

When the forced air comes on, it pushes all of the hot air into the house, warming it. Once the house’s temperature goes above the amount specified on the thermostat, the thermostat turns to the blower off at the combustion chamber. The fire slowly starves for oxygen, getting cooler, causing the heat exchanger to not heat so quickly, causing its fan to turn off.

In our case, there were two problems working against us: the heat exchange thermostat was set to a ridiculously high temperature, and our wood is wet.

The Heat Exchanger’s thermostat was set for 200°C (as high as it goes), I set it for 100°C (as low as it goes) and all of a sudden, the Forced Air was coming on regularly. After asking around, it seems the right temperature is around 150°C, but I actually have it set for about 125°-130° to compensate for the wet wood.

Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the wet wood, except for wait for it to dry. Our furnace guy recommends putting a dehumidifier in the storage shed, saying that you will be able to actually watch cracks form in the ends of the wood. In the future, it is probably better we just not accept wet wood in the first place (unfortunately, we didn’t know how to judge dry wood).

As it stands, we won’t go cold. We ordered our wood from two different sources (3 cords each), just in case something like this happened. The other batch of wood, burns well and produces enough heat.

Hopefully, some other poor sap will find this quick explanation useful and not have to look as stupid as I did.

Storing Wood

Our new home has a Wood/Oil combination furnace. This means that we can burn oil on one side, and start a wood fire on the other. This is great for us because we have 100 acres of woodland out behind the house. If I can stay on top of it, we will never lack for home heating. Eventually we are hoping to be able to harvest our own fire wood from our own property. This will significantly reduce the cost of heating our home.

One of the problems with doing this is the length of time wood needs to be dried for. Based on all of my reading, wood should be cut into 16 inch lengths (bucked) and left for at least one year (longer is better), to slowly dry out. As you can imagine this takes up a lot of space: leaving it to dry for a year, means having a stack you are burning, a stack you are drying, and a stack you are building up. So that’s three stacks at 6 cords (768 feet3) each, for a total of 18 cords (2304 feet3), all needing to be stored and sheltered.

That’s a lot of wood.

Currently, we are using two buildings for storing wood: the stable portion of the barn, and a shed that is attached to the Garage. I don’t mind using the shed, but am very disapointed that we are taking up a large portion of the barn. Further, this only accounts for a single year’s worth of wood: what do we do with the other two year’s worth.

One technique I have seen for storing that much wood is to stack it in such a way that it shelters itself. Effectively, you build a stack, and then shingle it with some of the wood you have cut and split. This keeps the wood dry, and uses no extra material.

One interesting technique that I came across for doing this is the Holz Meite or the Holz Hausen1 Due to its cylindrical shape, the Holz Meite minimizes the surface area that is exposed to rain, and minimizes the footprint. By stacking the wood in a tight block, as tall as it is wide, you find a balance between stability and minimum footprint (you want short and squat, not tall and fall over).

My idea is to construct a Square Holz Meite. This will give me the nice dense storage of a Holz Meite; the strength2 and tidiness3 of nice square joins . Once I have completed the peaked “roof”, I will lay a tarp over the entire stack, and place another layer of logs over that. This should keep the tarp from flying away.

This leads to an ongoing annual strategy for dealing with wood:

  1. Spring: start obtaining 6 cords of wood. This can be done either through buying or cutting my own.
  2. Summer: make a new stack of wood for long term storage and seasoning(Holz Meite)
  3. Fall: take old stack and move it to the storage shed
  4. Winter: empty the storage shed by heating the house

Supply chains can fall apart and prices can go through the roof; but hopefully, with a hundred acres of forest, we can become self-sufficient in our heating. It will take a lot of work, but with the expense of purchasing fuel for the house, a couple of days in the woods sounds like a small price to pay.


  1. While many North American sites state that this is an ancient German technique, Germans seem to have never heared of it

  2. I know that round is often stronger than square, however, it is damn near impossible to get perfectly round by hand. Making reasonably straight sides is possible. 

  3. S makes fun of me for my insistance on being so fussy about tidiness, but I know (without proof) that there is a correlation between strength and tidiness. 

Firewood

Coming from Alberta, home heating in Nova Scotia caught me a little off guard. In Alberta, heating your home is done through Natural Gas, piped to your home through underground pipes and is magically injected into your home as you need it. That’s not how things work here. In Nova Scotia, there are three forms of home heating: electricity, heating oil, and wood. Electricity is expensive, really expensive, “don’t even think about it” expensive; oil is convenient, but a little on the expensive side; therefore, many people heat their homes with some form of wood.

I was very surprised to learn that wood is an active, and modern heat source for homes. I always had images of giant cook-stoves, and was really surprised to see a modern furnace in our home. Wood heating comes in two forms: wood, and pellets. Pellets are heavily used in urban areas because they have fewer visible emissions, and are by far more convenient. The alternate, and what we have, is wood: good old fashion hunks of wood. Our new home has a Wood/Oil combination furnace. This means that we can burn oil on one side, and start a wood fire on the other. This is great for us because we then have the choice between convenience and expense.

Quantity

A cord is a stack of wood, measuring 4 x 4 x 8 feet (128 feet3), stacked as tightly as possible. Stacked as tightly as possible is a little bit of a vague definition, but in reality is a very good one. Given wood is somewhat odd shaped, stacking it will lead to airspace, therefore, to settle the matter, you can either determine you don’t like the way the wood is stacked and walk away from the purchase, or attempt to stack it tighter.

After asking around, we determined that most people burn about 6 cords of wood every year. We know we will only be there for half the season, but wood keeps year-to-year, so we decided to purchase the full six. For those of you keeping track, we are up to 768 feet3.

That’s a lot of wood.

Quality

Wood for home heating should be Hardwood. Apparently, there is a significant difference between the heat energy per pound between hardwoods and softwoods.

Once we had our 6 cords of wood delivered, it needed to be stacked indoors. You see, just having the wood is not enough, it needs to be dry. There is no point in converting a bunch of water into steam, and sending the steam up your chimney. That’s energy that could be heating your home.

Naturally, as soon as the wood was delivered, it started raining. The giant tarp I used to use for camping looked like a blue zit on an elephant’s rump. Fortunately, Canadian Tire had big tarps on sale so we picked up two. Good thing, because each tarp covered about 3 cords of wood.

Over the next 3 weekends, we stacked wood and finally had a nice looking stack of wood in the barn. This will keep it dry for the winter. Now we just need to deal with the other 3 cords of wood.

Curb Shopping and Yard Sales

When we left Calgary, we left all our furniture behind. Our daughter claimed anything she could fit in her apartment, and the remainder was given away to anyone that was willing to come pick it up. Now that we are in Halifax and need to purchase new (to us) furniture, we rediscover yard sales and newly discover Curbside Shopping.

People in Calgary have yard sales and garage sales all the time, this is nothing new. What is new is that Nova Scotians are selling off their antique, solid wood furniture in favour of new “IKEA” stuff. We left behind our IKEA stuff and are looking for well made furniture that lasts. This is almost a match made in heaven. So far I have purchased a beautiful four drawer dresser ($40), a small solid wood bookcase ($20) and 3 heavy antique kitchen chairs ($30).

This Saturday was my first experience getting something from the “curbside”. While yard sales are nothing new, curbside shopping is. In Calgary, if you don’t won’t something, you either sell it, give it away, or haul it to the dump and pay the landfill fee. Here in Halifax and, I believe, most of Nova Scotia, you can just haul it to your curb and anybody driving by can just load it up and take it away. If it’s not gone by garbage pick up day, the city just picks it up with the rest of the garbage and takes it off your hands. My curbside find was an old vanity/dresser. It does need a little work, but what can you expect for nothing, that’s correct, nothing, zilch, zippo, for an antique waterfall dresser! I can see I’m going to have fun here.

A Day at the Beach

They say, if you don’t like the weather just wait 5 minutes. They say this in Alberta, they say this in BC and they say this in Nova Scotia. But I’ve been waiting, I’ve been really patient, I’ve crossed my fingers and toes, but still nothing but hot, humid days here in Halifax. We had rain on the first day we arrived (not good) and we had rain the day of our first home inspection (good – it showed a very leaky roof) but the rest of the time we spend trying to beat the heat.

Beating the heat on the prairies usually means standing under a lawn sprinkler in your backyard. Beating the heat in Halifax means heading to the beach! We left Halifax around 10:30 and headed off down the coast about 30 minutes to the very small town of Hubbards. After taking a quick detour to purchase chairs at a yard sale, we arrived to an already busy beach. We chose one of the smaller ones (possibly because it was the only one that still had parking) and staked our space. The water sparkled like thousands of crystals under a beautiful blue sky, the water was warm and inviting, and we felt as if we were in the Tropics and not on some Northerly piece of land stuck in the cold Atlantic Ocean.

We stayed and played for a couple of hours before heading back to the city (with 3 dining room chairs wedged into the back of the car) to tend to the side effects of the day out…sunburn!

[gmap lat=”44.64272926818656″ lon=”-64.01323020458221″ zoom=”17″]

Hedge Laying

I have always thought hedges are dumb. They serve little purpose, look like crap because people don’t take care of them, and get trashed when kids cut through them. Apparently that’s only because I live in North America.

About two years ago I read a book, by an Englishman, about self-sufficiency. In this book he made a very brief reference to hedge maintenance, and I saw something that made me take notice: he was cutting through the branches and pushing them over. By doing this he was placing the branches close together, so that as they continued to grow, they would interweave themselves, making an impenetrable wall. I had a vision, of gooseberry bushes, along the top of the retaining wall. I could just see the local kids trying to hop the thorny hedge… exactly once. After their friends got a good look at how messed up they are, I wouldn’t have to worry about kids jumping my fence.

I never have been able to find the reference since.

For two years, I have been trying to find instructions on how to undertake this process. The idea of creating an impenetrable fence, made from living and fruit bearing material, fascinates me. That the fence actually regenerates over time is part of that philosophy of being a caretaker of nature, that I so like. The fence is a living part of the property, it acts as a barrier (as all fences do), but is part of the living part of your land.

Apparently the process is called Hedge Laying.

Apparently, this is very common in the UK, but not so much in North America1. I’m not even sure that anyone remembers that this was ever done in North America. Some of the properties we have looked at have the appearance of once having a hedge, but the hedges have just been allowed to grow wild. It makes sense that the original English settlers in Nova Scotia (1600’s) would have planted hedges, at the time they were an integral part of live stock management (in the past, you would plant your fence, not build it). Having said that, I have never seen a layed hedge, and I don’t think there is even the knowledge that such a thing could be done here.2

When I get to our new property, I think I will try my hand at laying. Optimally, I would take a class, but since this is lost knowledge on this side of the world, and I’m not going all the way to England just for that, I will have to try to learn the hard way. Maybe I can talk one of the experts in the UK into helping me by critiquing my work from picture and video. Hmmm…

I’ll start with some land that needs clearing, and try cutting some of the smaller trees in the appropriate way for Laying. It doesn’t matter if I mess up, I am just going to pull the tree anyway. As I get better, I will start walking the perimeter of the property and begin laying sections of the scrub that is currently there. Over time, I hope to be able to show a well-layed, goat-proof3, hedge.

Well… I have my book, my axe, and my saw… now I just need the property.

A hedge before laying
A hedge before laying
Hedge After being "Layed"
Hedge After being "Layed"

The pictures were “borrowed”, without permission, from

Karl Liebscher
http://www.shropshirehedgelaying.co.uk/

a professional Hedge Layer.


  1. it almost became a lost skill in England after the 1950’s, but it is being practised there again 

  2. It’s driving me nuts, looking at a 150 year old house, with a bunch of wild scrub around its perimeter, but all of the “wild scrub” is in a perfectly straight line and of the same species. It’s obvious that 150 years ago, someone planted a line of trees with the intent of them being a fence, but over the years people have stopped laying the hedge, so it just goes feral. 

  3. Yes, goat proof. I’ve seen sheep proof, and bull proof, styles, but I haven’t seen a style that is specialised for goats. Should be interesting. 

Property Shopping

Over the last two weeks, we have done a lot of house shopping. We have seen several properties along the Northumberland Strait, Annapolis Valley, and one in a town called Springhill.

Unfortunately, at this point, the Strait seems to be a write off. None of the properties were geared for agricultural use at all. I know this can’t be right, as we met a couple out there that are doing exactly what we want to be doing, and they have a great property. At this point, I believe our Real Estate Agent misunderstood what we are looking for, she kept taking us into properties and showing us how beautifully landscaped the properties are. Even after explaining our interest in raising goats, she tried to impress me with a beautiful house with a 2 acre rose garden and lawn, and not a single out-building in sight. Sharon and I left very disheartened.

Near to the Annapolis Valley we saw several properties that look very promising. One thing I noticed was that if I was not seeing a property with a barn, I was not impressed. Several properties we looked at had very nice barns (and I will be putting the elevators in the offer), and I liked all of them. I think my positive reaction to the Valley was due, in part, to the Real Estate agent we are working with there. She has faced the giant spider webs in basements to help me check the wiring and heating. On top of that, she has offered interesting insight into wells and septic systems1. Most interestingly she has given a little bit of insight into the communities we were driving through.2

Looking back on past articles, I realize how stupid this sounds. When we first passed through, we hated the Annapolis Valley and loved the Strait; now that we are looking at properties, we love the Valley and hate the Strait. It just goes to show how fickle we are being with our shopping. That’s alright, you are allowed to be fickle early on. You don’t have to be objective until it comes time to actually make a choice; then you better have documented, written down, reasons for why you make the choice you do.

For the record, there are some very specific things we are looking for (some are deal breakers, others are high priority):

  • Surface water (stream, brook)
  • Good Well
  • Treed Section
  • 2-3 acres cleared
  • Barn
  • Fruit Trees
  • Century Home (not falling over)
  • Wood/Oil furnace
  • at least 10 acres (I’ve already been talked down from 100)

  1. she has some sort of certificate in Well Water Management, or some such 

  2. Off the topic a little: I think she has an awesome view of animals as well. She had me chasing a turtle around the highway trying to get it to safety; she spent a good 5 minutes scratching a cow behind the ear (the cow cried when we left); and we had a discussion about her personal experience about how good pet goats taste after they have eaten your garden (a good curry is the key)  

Still Here

We aren’t dead yet.

My (Jeff’s) cell phone number has changed; as of Monday, I have a job; and as of Thursday, we have phone and internet in the house. Still no furniture, but at least we are connected to the world again. For those of you who need to update phone numbers, feel free to contact us.