Saturday, January 31, 2009

Our deep winter wedding

After a long engagement, Lisa and I finally set a wedding date last summer. Neither of us wanted a 'typical' wedding (in theme or in cost), and we felt we could put together something romantic and unique for our special day, without driving ourselves into deep debt. We knew the barn would not be finished by January, but it would be far enough along to provide an intimate venue right here in our back yard. Thanks to the collective efforts of our families and friends, we turned the place into a fine little wedding chapel for one day. My original plan was to have the staircase and 2nd story flooring installed so that we could hold the ceremony on the upper floor and the reception on the main level. But delays and difficulties prevented it, so we shifted to "plan B". After painting the arched ceiling above and mounting the ceiling fans, we removed the plywood subfloor to give the building a cathedral feel. We also strung some LED Christmas lights from the fans and wrapped them around the massive exposed timbers. The silo was outfitted with our friends' leftover christmas tree and decorated with a variety of homemade treasures.
Our only 'splurge' item for the wedding was to hire a professional photographer, and she did a fantastic job capturing the event (even though the pics can never do it justice). We took some outdoor photos before it got dark...wearing our mukluks, of course.
With all my lumber, tools and sawdust removed, Lisa and company did an amazing job of bringing the barn to life.
After the wedding ceremony was over, we set up for dinner and enjoyed a fine ethnic meal, music and socializing without having to leave the barn (which was nice, since it was another cold day in northern Minnesota). The day was magical, and we couldn't have enjoyed our wedding more! Lisa is posting more details at so you can go there to see it all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Betty Crocker would be proud.

Last year, our parents gave us an antique oven that sits on top of the woodstove. The heat from the stove radiates through the open bottom of the oven, and the temp is regulated by how much wood we put in the stove. There is a thermometer inside to let you know how warm it is getting. It isn't very large, but we can fit our smaller baking dishes inside. This morning, we cranked out a couple batches of gluten-free banana walnut muffins for breakfast. Yum!

Friday, January 16, 2009

A barn bathroom.

I hussled hard to finish the bathroom for a family gathering we are having this weekend. One room in the barn is basically DONE, and we like it! I salvaged and reused as much material as I could- the lights are vintage pieces that I rewired with new parts. The mirror glass came out of an old piece found in the garage (I made a new frame for it with barnboards). The vanity was a $25 garage sale find that I had to refinish to bring it back to life. the sink and toilet were purchased new. all of the woodwork/trim came from the old barn timbers, milled into boards with our backyard sawmill. After considerable research (I have probably spent far more time researching toilet performance than most people spend looking for a new car), we decided to go with a Caroma Sydney Smart dual flush toilet. This is probably the lowest water usage model on the market (not counting composting toilets, of course). Hopefully it will perform as expected... Future plans call for a japanese soaking tub in the corner of the room, but it will be a year or two before I get to that. So for now, I built a little storage chest (from leftover lumber scraps) to cover the plumbing stubs and fill the space. The woodsy floral arrangements are Lisa's handiwork. A friend helped me build the barn-style doors for the bathroom entry and the utility closet (this one is actually a pocket door) using wood that I milled from the old barn timbers. The crossmembers were given an oak-colored stain for aesthetics.
How does it look?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hot water.

Reinventing the wheel is sometimes a good thing- like with tanked hot water heaters. I am not a fan of tankless water heaters (they are either terribly inefficient or prohibitively expensive) and I wanted to have a storage tank so that we could add solar-heated water as a future project. However, traditional tanked water heaters are usually poorly insulated and have a limited lifespan (I hate seeing the pile of hot water heaters at our local landfill). There are some well-built models on the market, but they are crazy expensive. Then I found the HH20 water heater ( and just installed ours this week. While it looks like the same old tanked water heater, it actually uses a heater exchanger (the finned copper coil) to transfer heat from the tank to the plumbing. Since this design keeps the water in the tank separated from the water you actually use, the tank is not pressurized and (in theory) should never burst or leak. So the unit can be built inexpensively using a plastic tank and 2.5" thick insulated walls- very efficient and very durable.
Once the lid is put on, a single 3500W electric heating element extends down the center of the coil to heat the tank water. We also purchased a heat pump retrofit kit (, which will be installed in the spring so that we can heat the water more efficiently and use the exhaust air for home cooling...more on that later. Since the tank is not pressurized, I can also modify it to accept solar heated water when we get to that phase in the future. We paid $350 for the heater- a little more than buying a conventional tanked electric heater, but a great price for the benefits of this design.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Energy Independence

After running for about a month, the electric boiler in the barn failed- three times. It started with a problem in the circuit board that caused it to stop working on the coldest night of the year (as the temp bottomed out at -32F). But not to worry, we have the wood pellet stove that can put out more than enough BTUs to keep the building toasty warm on the coldest of cold days. Not knowing how long the boiler would out of commission, I went to town to get a supply of wood pellets. Ironically, the dealer was out-of-stock! One of their suppliers couldn't keep up with demand, and the other had shutdown due to a fire at their manufacturing plant (I'm guessing a wood pellet plant is NOT a good place to have a fire!). Bummer for them. And bummer for us, as we were nearly out of fuel and the weather has been C-O-L-D. Luckily, I was able to debug the boiler's problem with some help from the the manufacturer over the phone and get it running again. A week later, one of the two heating elements blew out, followed shortly by the second one doing the same. As luck would have it, though, the wood pellets were back in stock locally and so we had the pellet stove to fall back on once again. As I wait for replacement parts to be shipped up here to the North Pole, the nightly temps frequent the well-below-zero mark (last night was -28F)...all this leaves me thinking, even more than usual, about just how much we rely on our fuel source and how little we understand about them. In sub-zero weather, the argument is really no longer about global climate change or monthly energy costs, even though these are big issues. The bottom line is really about survival- how long could we stay alive in the dead of winter if the gas stopped flowing or the power plants shut down? It hurts to think about it, but I do. Alot. Really, shouldn't we all? With all the troubles I am having in the barn, it is nice to know that our house, 200 feet away, is about as energy-independent as we can be right now. One out of two ain't bad! Even though I may complain at times about preparing firewood every year, I couldn't be more thankful that we have this as our one and only source of free, local and sustainable heat. "He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed"...amen to that.