Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Still Playing With Water After All These Years

By Cam Mather

If Michelle is from Venus, I’m from the planet “Immaturity” and I don’t see this changing any time soon. Apart from generally being a juvenile kind of 50 year old male, I still laugh to the point of feeling ill sometimes especially for slapstick comedy, like on the sitcom Modern Family, when the young son ran through the living room to go outside to play and bounced back on his *ss when he hit the screen door. Not highbrow stuff, but come on, how can you not laugh at that? Well … my wife manages to watch that scene without laughing. In fact I know that something is hysterical if Michelle actually cracks a smile.

Another area of my life where I show my immaturity is my love of “water play.” I spend a lot of my time playing with water and Michelle has given up on even rolling her eyes at me. She used to tease me about my hobby but now she just steps over the buckets and accepts it. I’ve been playing with water for as long as I can remember. As a kid at this time of year I enjoyed shoveling the snow and ice from around the storm drains to help with the spring runoff. During my summers at our family cottage I would spend hours building reservoirs with the sand on the beach and then carry endless buckets of water to fill it up. Eventually the water would get too high. For a while I’d try to staunch the leaks, but eventually the weight of the water would collapse my dam, a river would be created, the river created a delta and it was like a geography lesson on my summer holidays.

In our off grid house I still constantly play with water. Water is amazing stuff. For generating electricity moving water is great because it’s so heavy. There is a lot of potential energy in moving water. So having it fall a distance and turn a turbine is a great way to generate power. The reverse of that is that it takes a lot of energy to move water around. In an off grid home with finite electricity this is a basic fact that of which I am keenly aware. Now don’t get me wrong. After 13 years of upgrading our system I don’t HAVE to move any water manually. Our pump can do it all for me. But any time I have a chance to do it myself I rarely decline.

As you read on Tuesday, we’ve had a lot of rain here lately and it has caused its share of problems with flooded buildings. Right now I have two garbage cans under the downspouts near the house. I only ever use these for temporary water storage so they are very clean. First I fill up the corn pots on our woodstove with rainwater, and then I put 5 or 6 buckets on the floor near the woodstove. After dinner the pots on the stove will be scalding hot, and the buckets near the woodstove will have warmed up to room temperature. I use them all to fill up our claw foot bathtub. We end up with a deep, very hot bath, with soft rainwater. Sounds like something from an exclusive spa! And the only energy used to move that water came from the granola I ate.

In the summer I play with our rain barrels. They are always in a state of partial or complete fullness, so in the wee hours of the morning if there is suddenly the sound of rain on our metal roof, I will strap on my headlight and head outside to make sure all of the taps are switched off and the rain barrels are getting filled up. It’s like a compulsion, I just can’t sleep if I think I’ve left some rain barrel open to drain it, and I’m going to ‘waste’ that rainwater.

We have two good wells. Our drilled well has never run dry, even in the worst droughts. Our dug well by the garden gets very low sometimes in the summer but it always bounces back the next day. So really, all this water play is unnecessary.

Sometimes I try to ignore the potential water I could be harvesting and pretend I’m just like a city person where things like power and water are provided for me. It never lasts long, and now even if the batteries are fully charged, if it’s raining and I can harvest that water, I just go for it.

When I start carrying around buckets of rainwater Michelle likes to hum the theme music from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene from the Disney movie “Fantasia.” In that animated movie, Mickey Mouse puts on a magic hat and commands the brooms to start carrying the buckets of water for him. Of course the brooms run amok and we all learn a valuable lesson. I wear my goofy Sorcerer’s Apprentice moniker with great pride.

There is one bit of magic that I have learned and I gladly share it in my talks and in our books. The magic is letting the sun do the work of moving water!

When I first began gardening near the old barn foundation I got most of the water I needed from the dug well. I would lower down a bucket on a rope, then pull it back up filled with water. I’d fill up two larger buckets, which I then carried uphill to water barrels that I had placed in the garden. The water from the well is really cold, so I’d let it sit for a day before I’d use it for watering my plants. This technique was an insane amount of work. Of course I was young (40) and stupid in those days. The more exhausted I was by bedtime, the more chocolate cake I figured I could eat without ramifications.

Once Bill Kemp heard about this he would have no part of it. We were at a restaurant and so he grabbed a napkin and sketched out a system for me. I bought a 75-watt solar panel and connected it to a 2-gallon-per-minute DC pump from the local hardware store. I connected the two with the type of plug you would use to hook up trailer lights and this is how I turn it on and off. Now as soon as the sun is up it shines on the solar panel, which runs the pump that pulls water up from the dug well, and then pushes it through a regular garden hose throughout the garden. First I fill up 5 or 6 water barrels that I have placed around the garden and then I plug it into my drip irrigation system, which goes the rest of the day.

Solar-powered water pump!

This magical solar panel and pump does what used to take me half a day of physical, backbreaking labour to do. I power my whole house with solar panels, but I’ve never had to keep a fridge cold manually, or do a laundry with a manual washing machine, so I have no appreciation for what that solar electricity is accomplishing. I have, on the other hand, spent several hours lowering a bucket on a rope down a dug well, and carrying buckets of water all over my garden to water it. I can easily grasp the amount of physical effort that my solar panel and pump have assumed for me. My little male brain finally has a point of reference that I can grasp and it really is like a light bulb has gone off over my head. And it blows me away and gives me hope that we can one day move our fossil fuel burning, energy wasting ways off of carbon emitting sources and into clean green sources.

In the meantime, if it’s cloudy and rainy, and you see a guy in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat and cape walking around aimlessly with buckets filled with water, that’s me! Now all I’ve got to do is make a little reservoir with snow and fill it up to overflowing until the dam breaks!

Some see a garbage can filled with water. I see potential!


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