Monday, February 12, 2007

First I screamed, Then I Swore

Then I screamed at my daughter to get out of the house...

... and leapt toward the fire extinguisher. The tiny bits of flaming foam insulation that had landed on me had gone out without any damage, but the fireball had also ignited the foam along the crack I had just filled, and the masking tape around it.

Thus our experiment in low-carbon living has taken a short hiatus.

We live a very strange life. As an example, on the first multi-day car-less bike trip my husband and I took, we had to buy a lawn mower. It's a long story...

So people who know us in real life, would not be surprised to hear me say that we've moved in with Dad for a short time because our refrigerator became a blow-torch. They'd just wait for the story, and try very hard (well, maybe not) to not double over laughing.

As my daughter shivered in the 14 degree air, short-sleeved and sock-footed, I sprayed the fire extinguisher at the flames, then raced to the main gas shutoff for the house. I have no memory of covering the territory between the refrigerator and the gas shut-off, but I remember brushing the snow off the protective cover so I could open it and get to the knob.

So what happened? It was actually much less dramatic than it sounds.

The weather report indicated the next day would be below zero. We had a couple of spots with discernible air leaks, which had resulted in frozen pipes the week before, so I grabbed some spray foam insulation and started filling those gaps. Alas, it turns out that the air from the last gap on the list just happened to flow directly to the pilot light on the refrigerator, several feet away. It also turns out that the propellant in the spray foam was butane.

"Wait," you ask "a pilot light on the refrigerator?" Yep. We're off the grid, so our now former refrigerator was propane-fired.

Butane is flammable - very flammable, which is why it's used in cigarette lighters. As a result, when enough of the stuff reached the pilot light, the refrigerator morphed from an ordinary appliance into the "Killer Refrigerator of Doom (Dun, Dun, Duuuun...)."

The actual experience was one of those surreal compressed-time moments: The was a "FOOOF!", a blast of heat and light, a spattering of flaming foam bits, then the soft hiss of flame. The little bits of foam went out pretty much instantly as they landed. The big snakes of fresh foam, however stayed lit, as well as the stuff that was still coming out of the can, and a small blow-torch style flame - about 6" tall - continued to burn just above the pilot light.

Luckily, our insurance company insists that anyone with a woodstove have a big honking 20 lb fire extinguisher installed in an easily-accessible location. So as soon my brain registered the thought "it's not going out," I was able to grab the fire extinguisher and blast the flames.

It was a definite "two-steps-backward" moment.

We were in this situation because we had decided to try an experiment: reduce our carbon footprint to as near-zero as possible. It's a huge challenge. We probably would not have tried the experiment if we hadn't been enjoying "Fun with Dual-Unemployment and Huge COBRA Payments." We weren't interested in homelessness, and had hoped not to have to do the cliched "move in with the parents" thing (heh). So we started planning, sold the house, bought some land, and began the odyssey to build a straw-bale active- and passive-solar house.

We got the foundation footers in. There's a story to go with these, but it'll have to wait to another day... then ran out of time before the cold set in. We were close to running out of money, so we decided to build what we call the "emergency backup cabin."

It's supposed to be a pottery studio, but for now, it's home sweet home.

It literally comprises 2 garden sheds (for Monty Python fans, we can now use the "Arthur 'Two-Sheds' Jackson" joke in real life). The small part on the left was delivered whole, and the rest was built from plans.

It's super-insulated. In order to reduce the cost and the energy impact of a new building, it uses low-e windows, and most were gathered from building material recycling centers, some are from the "bargain barn" at the local builder's supply - customer returns.

So anyway, we made the best of it, building sleeping lofts in the bigger shed, putting a composting toilet and sink in the small one. We have a gas range, a woodstove, a recently-added instant-on water heater (water heating was done on the woodstove in cold weather), and, until now, a refrigerator. It's powered by a combination of 2 solar panels, 4 batteries, and a backup generator (there's a story there, too). We squeezed in a sofa, a recliner, a dining table, some storage, clothes, bedding, 4 people, and 4 cats. We have 320 square feet (not including the lofts). All in all, it's been very "Little House on the Prairie."

There have been many moments of frustration, and many moments of joy. The location is beautiful, the neighbors are typical no-nonsense, get things done, independent souls with a real sense of community (some day I'll have to write about the snow plow incident).

We'll be elsewhere until we can afford to replace the refrigerator. I do NOT want a propane one again. So we have to get not only an electric refrigerator, but the solar panels, batteries, and charger needed to power it. Ugh.

Interestingly, we have learned that the best Energy Star refrigerators use less electricity than the most common "off-grid" refrigerator used by our friends. So we can buy a conventional refrigerator and associated solar panels for about $1000 less than a refrigerator designed for off-grid living and the associated panels and batteries. I guess it pays to do your research...

And our biggest lesson-learned in the latest adventure? If you have any gas appliances in your home, and you plan to use spray foam insulation: Turn off the gas first.

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