New Windmills

Back in the spring of 2016 Leeward Renewable Energy began seeking permission for de-commissioning the Mendota Hills Wind Farm. Mendota Hills has the distinction of being the first of the wind farms in the region.

Growing up out here we always knew it was windy, but that was just a hassle that one dealt with. Our ancestors used wind turbines for a variety of purposes, including pumping water and local electricity generation. This very old picture of the house shows a wind turbine in place as a water pump, standing next to the house atop the original well.

wind pump

People nowadays sometimes complain that the turbines make noise. They are all at least a quarter mile away from any building. Imagine what it would have been like to have this thing spinning right next to the house. But I digress...

That was a thing of the past though, and although one could sometimes see an old wind turbine, or perhaps just its tower, standing at a farmstead, they were only remnants and memories in my childhood.

Between the time I moved away and came back, however, the wind farms sprouted. Mendota Hills was the first, most visible example. It existed alongside route 39 and, despite the name, was a good 12-15 miles north of Mendota, IL. It was visually distinctive because, from the distance of the highway, it gave the impression of what one might classically think of as a wind farm - many turbines sitting in “close” proximity to one another, seeming to turn in sychronicity. Of course, when one got up close to them, it was clear they weren’t nearly as proximate to one another as the distance made it seem. But they were much closer to one another than was the case for the later facilities. The turbines were also smaller and closer to the ground, relatively speaking.

It is that relative age that appears to have precipitated the change, and it was somewhat of a surprise to read that the company was going to be taking down the Mendota Hills turbines. It appears that the turbine technology has advanced sufficiently to make it more cost effective to remove the old giants and replace them with a smaller number of newer, more efficient and, well, giant-er turbines.

What this means for the area is that, for the second time since we’ve moved here, we have new turbines going up. It also means that, for the first time, we’ve been in the broad vicinity of old turbines coming down.

One of the arguments against the wind farms, classically, has been the question of what happens to the structures when the wind company no longer wants them. This spurs on concerns that they will be simply left to rot, huge hulking behemoths on the horizon undergoing the slow, inevitable effect of entropy. Given that this absolutely happens to other unwanted structures in the area - we have old barns, corn cribs, and other derilects aplenty across the countryside, unused, unwanted, but too expensive and time-consuming to take down - one can see the concern. And what is happening to the area around such a structure as it slowly falls apart? Does it one day, finally, unexpectedly topple to the ground? What does the landowner do with it when that happens?

This makes the sequence of events in this example especially interesting. Here, not only are they not being left to rot, but they are being actively removed and replaced. Also interesting and instructive is that this process offers some real-world impression of what would happen if these structures were allowed to topple - because that is exactly how they were taken down.

I regret that I did not have an opportunity to see any of them actually come down - one of the downsides to gainful employment, I suppose - but the evidence was there at each and every site this past summer, many of which could be seen from the road.

Turbine Down If you didn’t know what you were looking at it would be easy to mistake it for a downed aircraft.

As I mentioned above, this is the second round of turbine construction we’ve seen since moving back out to the homestead. It’s an interesting sequence of events, as it has an impact on not just the prairie skyline, but also on the landscape. This is true in multiple ways, as you watch new roadways getting cut into the fields in the area - access drives for the turbines - but also see the modifications made to the public roadways to accommodate the extra-large and unwieldy cargo that the trucks must haul. Each section of the tower, and the turbine blades themselves, come in individually, carried on specialized trailer setups. In many cases, there are special cut-roads that remove the 90° turns that these beasts would be unable to navigate. Signs pop up making drivers aware of overhead powerlines as well, hopefully preventing them from unintentionally clipping them with their outsized cargo.

Of course, anything so very large in its components must also require comparably large equipment to assemble it. And so, as the turbines are assembled, we see the arrival of machines like this crane:

Big Crane

And it’s hard to fully appreciate the size of this thing against the big sky backdrop. But if you look closely at the picture you can suss out the full-size pickup truck by the tread to give a sense of just what a monster that thing is.

Really Big Crane

Opinions on the wind farms vary. THere are absolutely people who hate them, feel they destroy the view, and a few who have some very strange ideas of how they might be harmful. At the Homestead we look at it differently. If the country is going to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, there has to be an embrace of alternative technologies. We aren’t helping anyone if we give it lip service but refuse to allow it in our proximity.

And besides - the presence of windfarms around the Homestead virtually guarantees that the land around us will remain open prairie and farmland. Staving off housing developments and otherwise inevitable ultimate suburban sprawl is a benefit from the perspective of this homesteader.

Not that all of that is what goes through my head when I see all of this going on. Rather, during these moments, mostly what is happening is the ascendance of the 12-year old boy inside who loves to watch things get built and knocked down...

The... What? Is Leaking?

Around 8:30 last night LB comes up to me and says: "that thing over the stove is leaking".

Me: ”The thing... what?"

LB: "That thing over the stove - you know - the thing."

Me: "The vent hood?"

LB: "... sure".

I followed LB into the kitchen to find, sure enough, it was.


This would seem somewhat perplexing, given that there is no water run anywhere in the house higher than the kitchen and bathroom sinks, both on the first floor, both lower than the stove vent hood.

But: It started raining at about 11:30 or so yesterday morning, and continued until some time into the wee hours of this morning. There was occasional thunder and lightening, but the real player in yesterday's weather was the wind and rain. The continuous rain paired itself with an unusual East by Northeasterly wind that gusted more or less constantly throughout the day and night, striking the backside of the house where the kitchen sits.

The kitchen itself, as it stands, is not original to the house. Rather, it is relatively modern, a late 1940's remodel initiated by my grandparents, with some updating of appliances since. That 1940's work has held up remarkably well, all things considered, over the last 70 years or so. Still, events like this make one realize that one does not know what one does not know.

The vent hood feeds into a galvanized duct that goes up into the soffit above the cabinets. I believe that it then travels across, thru the soffit, over to the chimney in the wall. And when I investigated the bit of ductwork I can see in the cabinet above the hood, I found that to be the location of the leak.

Galvanized Pipe

The chimney that it goes into is one of four in the house - three original and one added later - and is the only original chimney that still rises above the roof, coming out from the fireplace in the basement (which I suspect was originally used for cooking) and traveling up the back wall of the house. In short, it faced the brunt of last night's wind and rain.

My best guess is that the volume of rain, and gusting of wind, was such that it created an unusual bit of air movement in the chimney, moving some rain back down the chimney and throwing it down the vent. I say best guess because in eight years of living here, and a lifetime of being in and around the house semi-regularly, I have never seen this before.

It's all subsided now. It's still windy this morning, but the rain appears to have mostly let up. Our as-yet still unnamed vernal ponds have returned at greater than usual size, and the wind blew over the garbage can. The dogs discovered this first and thoughtfully addressed it by distributing the contents of the can all over the driveway (there may have been the occasional utterance of foul language as I cleaned that up). But it is another of the periodic reminders that, although we are certainly not pioneers out here, with our electricity and running water and such, the weather continues to have surprises to throw at us.

Emergency Repairs

Earlier this week we had a pretty severe thunderstorm. Rain, thunder, and lightening, yes, but mostly lots of wind. At times, the blowing was hard enough that we could feel the house tremble even while laying in bed.

Somewhere in there we heard a slam that we assumed was the door in the old barn slamming open (it has a tendency to do that). But when I got up in the morning it was clear that something else had occurred. Out the window of the laundry room I saw the eve vent laying in the yard.

well crap...

What this means, aside from the fact that the wind managed to rip a fairly tightly secured piece of siding material off the side of the house, is that we now had a gaping hole in the north side of the house.

Big Ass Hole

I've had to learn over the years to leave alone - not start - things that I don't have the time to finish around the house. It's key to not letting myself get extremely frustrated about unfinished projects. Still, we had a hole in the side of our home, and spring is approaching. While the landlocked critters probably can't get up that high - it's a tall house - spring approacheth, and the birds have already begun to return.

I had no choice but to leave it for the first day - there was simply no open time in my schedule. This meant that, when I finally did get the stepladder lined up with the scuttle hole and climb my way up into the attic, it was with some trepidation.

In a lot of big, old, Victorian era homes the attic is functionally a third floor. In our homestead there is room to stand up in the attic, and one gets the impression that there may have been a thought, in the original design, that one could have made a small room up there if it was ever needed. In my grandparent's time there was a wooden ladder built-in against the wall and up to the scuttle hole. I don't know who put it there - whether it was part of the original construction, with that thought of using the extra space as an additional worker's bedroom (the scuttle hole is in the back, worker's stairwell), or whether it was just a later addition by someone who was just tired of hauling a stepladder up and down the back stairs. Having done that very task myself multiple times, I can see how one might get to that point.

Scuttle Hole

While it one can see how it could have been a small living space, at the moment it's just a home for insulation and duct work. And, fortunately, it did not appear to become an inopportune home for anything else.

As usual, all my tools are in the basement, so any repair or work in the attic inevitably involves multiple trips up and down two flights of stairs, one stepladder, and pulling oneself up or down through a scuttle hole. I was fortunate to start my repair trip with a bit of daylight outside, but it was still dark enough to require a flashlight. Improbably, the opening in the wall seems to look smaller up close than it does from the ground.

Old Attic

I thought I'd have to patch the hole with a bit of plywood (I don't have a ladder that goes high enough to work from the outside and, besides, the outside is really, you know, high), but I was fortunate enough to be able to fish the old vent out thru the hole from the inside...

...and of course, promptly dropped it.

Out the scuttle hole, down the stepladder, down the steps, out the back door, pick up the vent, back in the door, back up the steps, up the stepladder, through the scuttle hole...

Oh - but I did stop along the way and pick up some string so I could secure the damn thing and refrain from multiple trips. Forty-six years of dropping things can ultimately teach you a thing or two.

A little bit of work with the drill and some wood screws, some careful application of silicon sealant to prevent leaks around the edges, and we have a decent, if temporary, repair.

It all serves as an additional reminder that the wind out here isn't just playing, as well as a testament to the house for continuing to stand against it 150+ years on.

Climate Zones

One of the interesting, if not endearing, aspects of living in a 155 year old house is the array of climates one can experience moving across the building. The progression of climate change has caused considerable temperature variations this winter, with temperatures ranging from well below freezing (typical for this time of year) up to the 60's. That variability has been good for our LP Gas bill, but the variability makes the temperature differences in the house more apparent when it gets cold, as was the case this past week. For most of the week we would bask in tropical temperatures in the kitchen and dining room, and periodically make forays into the chilly, autumn climes of the living room. Any time spent there typically involves sweatshirts and blankets, and a lot of entertainment was sought via iPads, since the TV resides in the living room (thanks Steve Jobs!).

This all flipped on its head Friday morning, when I walked downstairs into the kitchen to make coffee, only to be embraced by normal winter house temps (we keep the thermostat set at 63). To be honest, having not donned a sweatshirt prior to this journey I would have sworn it was colder than that, but a check of the thermometer in the kitchen said otherwise.

This may seem like over-dramatization, but I assure you it's not. At times we can see a nearly 30-point difference in temperature from one side of the house to the other - temperatures in the high 50's in the living room, and hovering around 80° in the kitchen and dining room. A day later the entire situation can change.

Mostly this has to do with two separate factors. The largest component to this feature of our 1800's house is the direction of the wind. The living room - where the thermostat resides - is on the northwest corner of the house. When it is being struck by a strong, persistent, prevailing, northwest winter wind, the temperature in the room drops below the thermostat setting, and it's often the case that, while these conditions continue, it is not possible for the furnace to catch up and heat the room to the shut-off point. As a result, the furnace runs the entire time, and rooms that aren't being pelted by nature's malevolent majesty see a dramatic rise in temperature.

The second component is that the dining room and kitchen are on the south side of the house, in the direct sunlight. In this house of windows that can make a significant difference in daytime temperature on its own, without the wind as a factor. The dining room in particular has a large picture window (which replaced the original bay window on the home). That window offers unfiltered access to sunlight for three-quarters of each day, and offers a lot of heat gain. On such days the dining room is almost certainly the warmest room in the house.

An older picture of the dining room window

None of this is to complain - this is a reality of living in a 150~ish year old home. My Grandma Marie spent a lot of her time in the kitchen, as I recall, and I suspect this was in part because the prevailing west wind made that eastern room more comfortable the other areas of the house. In our own old country house across the field a search for my mother in winter would often find her sitting atop the furnace registers, reading a book. I learned to emulate this myself, though often with comic books rather than novels. It's a pleasant enough activity right up to the point that you realize it is indeed possible for your buttocks to fall asleep...

And - to be clear - we don't simply allow this phenomenon to persist. When it becomes clear that the furnace is unable to catch up in the living room I will turn the thermostat down so that it will stop super-heating the rest of the house. Then we relocate to other rooms - one of the lovely things to a big, drafty old house is that there is always another pleasant space, away from that draft, to curl up and relax.

Old Soldiers...

A little ahead of Christmas this year we had a chunk fall out of the fir tree next to our back door.

In need of a tree toupee

Given that we live on a hill in the open prairie this sort of thing happens. A couple of years after we moved in an old Maple situated between the house and the barn fell, and I am forever cleaning up limbs from windfall.

This tree stands directly outside my home office. It's been a persistent piece of the scenery from that room since I was a child, sneaking into that room against my grandmother's wishes, playing with my uncle's train set and wondering over all of the other "ancient" toys. It's a regular friend when I gaze out the window when I'm working.

It looks to me - based entirely on my complete lack of expertise on trees - like the original hunk that came out is part of a larger splintering along the trunk, and that this is the next piece to come down. More is still hanging in the tree and will probably need to be cut out if the tree is to be kept from simply splitting in half.

Given that complete lack of expertise, my thoughts probably shouldn't be the last call on that one...

November Wind

The curtains are drawn tonight against an angry western November wind. It's the first time this season, which has been oddly, pleasantly warm and calm.

The first time, but not the last, to be certain.


It also starts this season's test of the slow, but semi-steady improvements we've made. Last season these were windows, this season insulated curtains are in place. And we'll be trying out a hopefully more visually appealing approach to our front door insulation approach this year. After all, things didn't always work so well last year.

Warm Weather Approaches

We've had a very cool spring - I could hear the furnace kick on periodically well into April. As we got through May, however, things finally warmed up. Temperatures around these parts have stopped shy of the 90's so far, but we've had some solid mid-80° days.

Temperature control year round is an issue for our old house. We've talked quite a bit here about taking measures - some more successful than others - to manage the cold. Hot weather is also a challenge, though less-so than winter.

We do have central air conditioning. This was something that we had installed by the second year or so that we lived here. My grandparents did not have it, and my uncle will tell sad stories of summer nights in his bedroom just wishing that his sister - my mother - would open up her bedroom door so that the southern breeze entering her room could be shared across the hallway into his.

As I understand the story, she never gave in, selfishly hoarding the refreshing summer breeze to herself; The story, at least, as my uncle tells it.

While we have the central air available, however, we use it sparingly. It gets hot here now, and it also got hot back in the 1860's, when the house was built. With the absence of technological interventions like air conditioning, they employed other strategies to keep the building relatively cool. Those strategies, and the support systems for them, still work today.

Most of this involves keeping the house closed up. Part of this is focused on making sure all windows and doors are sealed during the part of the day in which the outside air is warmer than the inside air. Having it sealed prevents temperature exchange, and the inside will stay much cooler than one would expect without the help of AC.

Another part of being closed up refers to covering windows - particularly those facing south and west. This decreases heat gain from sunlight, keeping rooms that would otherwise be scorching hot from reaching those temperatures and sharing them with the rest of the building. You can see this strategy employed in one of the few very old pictures of the house that we have:

Shutters are Closed

If you look closely you will see that this picture - clearly taken in the daylight in summer - shows that every window has shutters on it, and every shutter is closed. They were external shutters, in this case, which also had the benefit of protecting the glass in high winds. A few of those shutters are still around, incidentally. My grandfather repurposed some of them into use on the enclosed porch windows (the windows were also repurposed from the old bay window that was taken out - the shutters covered the bay windows as well), and into a closet door. Others are out in the shed, far the worse for wear. I'd love someday to be able to use them as a template for new versions, though that's far down the list.

The final part of the strategy for staying cool is something I am thankful my ancestors took care of for me: shade.

We have very large trees to the south and west of the house, planted by enterprising relatives likely both to cool the building and protect it from the wind. It's a gift that just keeps on giving.

To be clear, we still give in and kick the AC on when the weather gets too hot, and particularly when it gets too humid. While I love the care and attention that my ancestors paid to keeping the house cool, that love only goes so far on a 98° day with 95% humidity.

Now is the Winter of My Discontent

It's not a popular position to take, but I really enjoy winter.

The first real snowfall of the season always makes me smile, and I'm more than happy to make the trade off of cold temperatures for fun in the snow.

The key word here, in case it's not clear, is: SNOW

Of course, this is a commodity of which we've had precious little this year. Of course, this is in part because we've had weeks of temperatures in the 40's, a fact that it's hard to complain about, even if it does mean that my cross-country skis sit, dusty, lonely, and unused, in the rafters of the garage.

All of which would be fine if it weren't 14° outside as I write this on a Friday night, working towards a low of -4°, with 20 mph winds coming out of the northwest. The deal, as I see it, is that we deal with the cold, and then we get to play in the snow. Clearly, Mother Nature has reneged on the deal.

Do you think I can get her to renegotiate our contract?


Today, a couple of days after I wrote this, we are in the middle of a snowstorm. This would seem to be a counter to my complaints. But the high temp on order. For tomorrow is 34°, and 38° for the day after. By Thursday next they are calling for temps in the 40's.

Snow today means nothing if it won't stay. Under these circumstances, it's nothing but fluffy rain.


1/11/16 Special Weather Statement

Last year I set up rigid foam insulation to cover the coffin doors that make up the west-facing front door of the house. It's my recollection that this worked nicely throughout the winter, with just a tiny bit of maintenance required.

This winter has been different.

It's been a mild winter, all told, but the winds tonight are something special. I'm not sure what is more special - the sounds of the tape tearing away from the wall as the wind pushes the insulation away from the doors, or the frigid winter air forcing its way into the house.

It makes me wonder - under what circumstances were these doors, facing the direction of the prevailing wind, considered a good idea?

Wind Toll

They sacrificed themselves in service of our stuff... 

They sacrificed themselves in service of our stuff... 

The winds the night before the night before Christmas - or, if you like, Christmas Eve-Eve - were severe, and resulted in multiple power outages over the course of the night and well into the following day. This is not unusual, of course - I've written here about our struggles with the wind several times before.

While the power certainly does not go out each time the wind blows, outages seem to be a more common occurrence out here than in a city or town. This can be particularly problematic for us because, while we love living in a house from the 1800's, we have no intention of living like people in the 1800's. We have our fair share of modern electronic devices and, as a rule, they don't generally appreciate abrupt changes in power delivery.

Key to the general health of those items is the use of a surge protector, we have all been led to believe for the past twenty years or more. For me, however, this has always been an intellectual understanding only. I have dutifully plugged my devices into a variety of power strips over the years, but I've never had occasion to actually see them as more than just an outlet extender or fancy extension cord. In honesty, I've wondered on more than on occasion whether the "surge protection" part of the power strip wasn't just marketing.

How many times the power went out over the course of the night, and of the following morning, is unclear. What was clear, however, is that they took with them two power strips and a fuse.

The soldiers in the picture gave up their lives in service of our electronics. As best I can tell, the delicate devices all seem to be functioning as expected, despite their rough treatment. Apparently it's not just marketing after all.

For the record, on our computers we have not only surge protectors, but battery backup units. These connect to the computers via USB and, when the power goes out, keep the computers running long enough to initiate a controlled, automatic standard shutdown. This helps prevent the damage or corruption of hard drives that can occur with an unexpected shutdown.

The Wind

As I write this it is a beautiful, sunny (if cold), calm day out here on the Prairie. As I sit and write this in my old wingback recliner, looking out the window past the frost on the old panes of glass, it seems an almost idyllic winter day.

This was not true on Valentine’s Day.

One of the things that people may not realize if they’ve not spent time on the open prairie is the effect of the wind. Oh, people are aware of the existence of tornados - The Wizard of Oz (1) is still pervasive enough in our culture to see to that. Tornados, such as they are, are comparatively rare and generally localized phenomena.

The wind, on the other hand, is a near constant on the prairie.

In particular, from Autumn through Spring, the number of windy days far outstrips the number of calm. The average wind speed in our area between December and February is about 8.5 miles per hour. This may not seem like much, but that average is a collection of highly variable days, and amplified by the fact that, on the open prairie, there is often next to nothing to block the wind - it’s very different than a windy day in town. Our dogs sometimes spend virtually their entire day on one side of the house just to stay in the lee it offers.

February 14th, 2015 was special. For Valentine’s Day we were given the gift of prevailing winds gusting between 20 and 30 mph. Things get interesting when it is that windy for an extended period of time. You hear the house making noises you’ve never noticed before (2), and you begin to seek out portions of the building that are opposite the bluster, because the heat simply cannot keep up with the draft in this old house. There were moments, as I sat working at my desk, when I suddenly realized that I could not see anything out the window beyond the border of the yard for all of the snow picked up by the wind.

Later you go out and pick up the pieces. Literally - it’s necessary to go out and see what has blown over and/or has started to blow away. Often our bird feeders are victims of the wind - the gusts catch them and get them to spin so that they eventually unwind and come off their hooks. I tend to buy heavier feeders so they don’t travel so far once they fall - otherwise I will sometimes find them out in the field… or find them not at all.

It was, in fact, windy enough yesterday to actually blow over the steel doors that I had set against the house in preparation for installing them on our outside basement steps.


I realize as I look back over this that it may seem like I’m complaining about the wind. This is not the case. I grew up out here, and I was well aware of this phenomenon - had not forgotten it - before I moved back. It is a part of life out here, but one that I don’t think often gets related in literature or entertainment set in the rural Midwest. Wind gets used for dramatic effect, to be certain, but the reality is that it is really just a part of the every day. Many of the older properties in the area have the remnants of tree lines planted as wind breaks, and, in fact, looking at old pictures of our place often finds large portions of the home obscured by the pine trees planted for that very reason. Our ancestors knew about it, and accommodated to it accordingly.

Probably I should be thinking about planting some trees myself.

1 - Just for the record, I do not love this movie. Yes - it was an event when I was growing up, showing up on the TV once a year. My mother was always thrilled to see it. Popcorn was popped, excitement was felt by all… Except me. When I was little the movie terrified me. And no, it wasn’t the flying monkeys (which everyone assumes). I never got to the flying monkeys. It was that creepy Wicked Witch. Of course, I’m a grown-up now, and now I’ve seen the entire movie all the way through. On DVD. It may have been great production for its era, but now all I see is actors walking through painted sets (you can see their shadows on the backdrop), and what appears to be a steel cable holding up the lion’s tail. But perhaps I digress…

2 - MLW, who has excellent hearing, actually picked up a shift in sound that turned out to be one of the old windows failing in a room that we don’t actively use. The wood at the bottom of the top sash of the window had started to separate, and the pane had dropped down, leaving a quarter-inch space open to the out of doors.