Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

Common Off Grid Living Misconceptions

It’s been a full year since I moved out of my apartment and into my tiny house, with that came the shift to living off grid.  Many of you have read my tiny house solar posts which talks about all the nitty gritty details of my solar panel system, if not, check it out because I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it.  Now that I’ve done this for a while it’s become very clear what I got wrong and what others non-off-griders (grid muggles?) about off grid living.  I can now spot a grid muggle a mile away when they start talking about living off the grid.  Here are some of the misconceptions you learn about when you go off grid.

Harbor Freight solar kits is all I need!

I hear this all the time from folks, “I’m going to get one of those Harbor Freight solar kits to power my house”.  These kits are great, if you only need 45 watts, which really is only good for changing a laptop (30 watts) and cell phone (5 watts), maybe some power drill batteries; all of these things are insanely lower power consumption.  If you need to run much more, these system will leave you very disappointed, cold, hungry, and in the dark.

Clothes washing is easy… right?

Time and time again people geek out over various contraptions for washing your clothes.  I’ve seen them all, the plunger looking things, fancy peddle powered spinning ball gyros, and  hand crank counter top tumblers.  The truth is hand washing clothes isn’t terribly difficult; sure a normal washer is easier, but barring that, I’ve found a tub or large sink really works great.  You can always spot the people who’ve never actually done it because they talk about washing clothes while true off gridders talk about drying clothes.

Drying clothes in an off grid setting in a tiny house is a royal pain.  It’s fine if the weather is nice out, but if it’s really humid, or freezing cold, or worse, raining, you can forget about having dry clothes.  What it really means is for about half the year you get dry clothes, the rest of the year you’ll have mostly dry clothes that you’ll give up and put on because everything is still damp and you need to leave the house.

Drying racks are great if you have just a few things to dry because you can rig something in your shower.  But when you’re talking about a full load, it means you have to setup your drying rack inside your tiny house, which takes up most of your living space, then you need to let it dry in a day or two.  This typically translates into perpetually having your drying rack out, which makes the tiny house much less livable.

The ideal option would be to have a small outbuilding where you could setup a clothes line and have a wood stove in the corner.  You could also do what I do, head to a laundry mat or pay a laundry service.  After doing laundry by hand for 3 months while living in Croatia, I’ve since transitioned to doing my laundry in a normal washer and dryer.  Here in Charlotte I can have my laundry washed, dried and folded for $2.50 a lb, which as someone who loathes folding clothes, is so worth it.

Roof top mounted solar panels

The weird thing about solar is mounting on the panels on the roof is one the worst places you could put them.  By their nature roofs are hot, which heat decreases the efficiency of solar panels.  They are high up, so they are hard to get to in order to maintain, brush off snow and clean grime that builds up over time. Finally, on a tiny house the space you have to deal with is very small, because tiny houses have tiny roofs.

If you’re going to be traveling a lot with your tiny house, roof top is very practical, but you’re going to be hard pressed to do any sort of heating or cooling with that few panels.  The best option is ground mount if you can swing it.  You can access it easily to clean off snow and grime, you can easily inspect it and fix things for maintenance.

Not having backups… for everything

When you are your own power source, there is no power company to call when things go wrong.  In most cases that’s a good thing because you often find yourself at their mercy and if you’re in a remote location, at the bottom of the priority list.

It also means that if something goes wrong, say the morning you have an important meeting to get to, you still need to make breakfast, take a shower, and do what you need to do.  To this end I have backups for each of my main systems:

Thinking you can live off grid with no propane

I hate the fact that I need to use propane, but its an absolute necessity.  Of course if you have $50,000 to spend on your solar system, you wouldn’t need propane, but most folks don’t.  Even my system, which is around $20,000, couldn’t come close to powering a hot water heater or stove/oven.  The one exception to this might be if you have a really good hydro power turbine, then maybe, but that’s dependent on you having flowing water and a large drop, very difficult to find when buying land.

The one thing with all of this is how appreciative and grateful I have become for fossil fuels, they are a true miracle.  They don’t come without their consequences, but the fact that I can pay $2.50 for a liquid, put it into my car and it takes me 50 miles in less than an hour… have you ever had to walk 50 miles?  I have gone on multi night backpacking trips over 50 miles, fossil fuels are a true small miracle.

You could potentially get away with no propane if you did wood heat and had a water heater exchange on it, but honestly the idea of waking up 2 hours before I need to leave every day to make a fire, heat water to shower and cook on, isn’t in the cards.  Even if I had the time to do that, I wouldn’t, I don’t want to spend me entire life chopping wood and stoking a fire, life is way too short.

A wood stove is the dream

This is something that many off gridders have in their cabins, but I personally can’t get into.  When I grew up, I had a wood stove, everyone did when I lived in NH in the 80’s.  I distinctly remember going over to my friend Jimmy’s house and his mother telling us we needed to go chop some wood so we had enough for the night.  Chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, building up the fire in the morning: it was just a part of life.

The part that no one talks about how much work it all is. Here’s what every day would be like:

You wake up to a pretty cold house every morning in the winter, dash out of bed to rekindle the fire and put a few logs on the fire.  About an hour later, you can finally take a shower without freezing.  But oh wait, you forgot to fully close the stove and some smoke came back into the house, your work clothes smell like a camp fire.  You head off to work and then come home to a cool home, time to add more wood, but wait you’re out of wood inside.  So you get dressed again to go into the snow, you head to your wood pile and start stacking wood into a wheel barrel.  While you’re loading up, you pull a log to find a snake making it’s move to bite your hand.  You take care of the snake and keep stacking.  Wheel the wood to the door and start carrying it in.  You finally get wood stacked and fire roaring, to turn around and see a trail of destruction where you tracked in mud and dirt from the wood.  You spend the next 15 minutes cleaning the floors.  

Compare that to me:  I walk it, press one button and in three minutes my house is super comfy.  I kick off my shoes, grab a drink and start reading a good book.

Solar tracking is really important

This is another one that I can spot a solar newbie a mile away.  They talk about a pole mounted tracking system, which allows your panels to follow the sun.  But here’s the dirty little secret:  You add one more panel to your system and you’ll make more power and save a lot of money!

Typically solar trackers improve solar gain by about 15-20%, so if your system were to generate 1 KW fixed, it now might do 1.2 KW.  But here’s where it all falls apart.  A solar tracker usually is at least $1000 extra dollars in equipment and you need to pour a large concrete footing for a couple hundred bucks.  Let’s call it $1500 for the whole thing if you do it all yourself.  But if we were to just use a fixed system and buy one or two more panels ($250 a pop) we could increase our system to 1.5 KW in a day.  So for 33% less money I can get around 30% more power AND have no moving parts to break.

DC appliances and propane fridges are worth the money

It is absolutely true that DC is much more efficient and inverting DC to AC takes up some power, but it’s not the only thing to consider.  There is a major myth that is perpetuated from information that was once true, but is now no longer.  The problem is that there are a lot of websites out there with old information.  With recent advances in inverter technology and lower costs for panels, the gap has dramatically decreased.  While it is inefficient to change from DC to AC, you can make up the difference completely by the addition of one or two solar panels.

When you weigh the cost of specialty made DC appliances, for example a Sun Danzer Fridge for $1100, against going regular AC fridge, mine was $130, plus an extra panel, mine are $290 each, the math is simple.  I can add one more panel and save hundreds.

The other part of the story is that a lot of electricians are hesitant to work on DC systems, many won’t.  In addition to that, the market for DC appliances is small; this means less options for a higher price tag.  Going AC give you lots of options, easily sourced electricians and all at a lower price.

My recommendation is to go full AC power and then just add a panel or two to your array.

 

Those are my thoughts on common misconceptions about going off grid

Your Turn!

  • What things have you thought about when going off grid?
  • What surprised you about this list?
9 Comments
  1. Regarding the efficiency loss: I’ve often wondered how people handle charging DC devices such as phones and tablets. It seems ridiculous to me to go dc-ac-dc for charging devices. Do you install DC outlets for this or what is your approach?

    • Most of them need to be modulated to a certain voltage, so I would just stick with all AC and use the power brick. Laptops use 40 watts, cell phones 5 watts, tables around 10 watts. So the inefficiency on 10 watts is like 2 watts, that’s essentially nothing.

  2. I’ve done the JUMP to off grid in Golden valley AZ. Building a sandbag structure that’s partly subterranean,I have to haul in my water..mule train…just kiddin. I’ve got a 210 gal.water tank on a trailer. Still figuring out food supplies & energy requirements. I like your offf-grid article.

  3. Thank you for acknowledging how much hard work goes into wood-fire stoves! The idea is clear and simple, but no one accounts for how much having to wake up and feed wood into the stove affects a person’s lifestyle. I also had a friend, whose parents used a wood-fire stove. They eventually gave up on the idea and switched to a corn pellet stove, which for them was an easy switch with the right equipment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pellet_stove#Corn_stove).

    I personally like the idea of ad-hoc, small, solar heaters (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_thermal_collector) for showers and building a house with extra insulation in mind. When insulated well, a house should only require some basic effort to heat or cool. Whatever method used to heat or cool the home, propane or otherwise, would not need to work as inefficiently to heat or cool the occupants.

    Speaking of cooling, I live in a variable, continental climate, and while it is possible to live without air conditioning, it really, really sucks. I’ve seen success in passive cooling methods (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_cooling) usually involving an earth-to-air or water-to-earth cooling. While these require a semi-permanent system, it would not be impossible to design them with portability in mind. If a person designed the tiny home with radiative, evaporative, and earth-coupling cooling it would be possible to not need much if any moving parts.

    In terms of cooking, you could still use a pellet-stove like the one that I mentioned above. Heating is usually uniform, but it still requires some sort of input beyond a hose and a tank, ala propane. An electric stove is not out of the question, but it would require its own power source. So, it may still be out of the budget for most folks. While propane extraction (especially fracturing) is dirty, polluting work, the dirty truth to propane is that it burns relatively clean in an affordable, mostly-safe way. By no means am I defending propane, but in terms of the evil we know, it may be preferable to the evil we don’t.

    • Those pellet stoves are one stove I would consider having if I could get a massive hopper that would last a few days. They seem like a great option and are much cleaner and less tending.

  4. Here in florida water table is easily gotten to. Did rps system in well and love it!! Have 800watt system dc all the way on tiny house. Adjust panels once each season. Tv dc, as well as dometic frig and a freezer. Both chest type. Converted washer to dc with extra gear reduction to lower smp draw and my Apple pc is dc. All lighting is dc and dc pump to charge bladder tank in home. Cool off propane and have wood stove in shop as well as solar oven outside. Passive building design all the way. Dc windmill generator for cloudy ugly days. We never have problems and love dc all the way!!

  5. Has nobody heard of a chip heater ?.? Hot water from rubbish in about five minutes of lighting ..low pressure gravity feed sheet metal device ..when not lit it is your rubbish bin for anything that can be disposed of in fire ..takes up very little room ..a 12 volt system as well as inverter would be more efficient for lighting as there are lots of 12volt and 24 volt equipment around that is cheap for caravans and trucks ..don’t need to run inverter at all times with this 12 volt system ..plus back up starting for motor vehicles ..

  6. The wood stove scenario mentioned above is somewhat overblown. Not only do we use a wood stove, but I chop unsplit logs by hand. It helps to keep me in physical shape during the winter, and keeping the fire going is really not that onerous. Before sleep, place a log or two that will burn most of the night, and add some splits in the morning: No need to wait to take a shower etc. It’s warm in the morning and I just add more splits to get the stove going again. Keep just enough wood inside the house or just outside the door. Do some major chopping a three or so times a week.

    Having a good quality wood stove makes all the difference as well. Ours has a choke so it can burn a log slowly when no one is home, and the house is not too cold when we return. In any case, chopping your own wood in the Fall and Winter is good for the soul and spirit, even more so with an otherwise very busy life.

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