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Posts Tagged off grid

What is Homesteading?

The image that usually comes to mind is a self-sufficient farm, full of animals, jars of home-canned food on the shelf, and a loaf of homemade bread in the oven. While all of that can certainly fall under the umbrella of homesteading there are many other interpretations of the homesteading lifestyle as well.

The origin of homesteading comes from the homestead act of 1862 where land was given to families in an effort to encourage western migration. Those families had to stay and work the land for five years before it was given to them. It sounds like a dream but it was often very difficult for the families settling the west.

Backyard chickens

Homesteading today is a mindset before anything else. It is a can-do attitude. Homesteading starts as a little spark when you look at something you just purchased and realize you could produce it on your own or the realization that our modern, consumer-driven society is not a sustainable model. Next thing you know, you are shopping for seeds and weighing the cost of backyard chickens.

Right now our family is on 1 1/2 acres of rented land, in a small city. We are making our dream come true while we search for our forever home. But this is not where it all started. Our story began in a town in southern Arizona. We were learning about the health benefits of organic food but struggled with the cost. That’s when we got the bug to begin producing our own food.

Chickens for egg production

We started with chickens, the gateway animal, 25 of them filled our little suburban backyard. Next thing you know turkeys and quail were added to the menagerie. I would have put a cow back there too if I could have figured out how to do it!

We quickly realized that we had been bitten by the homesteading bug. That set us on a mission to grow as much of our food as we possibly could. We now have a big garden that feeds us through the summer and into the winter. We have learned to can, dehydrate and freeze any surplus. We are raising our own chicken and beef too.

Homesteading is not a list of boxes that need to be checked off until you become a homesteader. It is the way you look at and interact with the world around you. Our dream is the big land, where we can live off-grid and be as self-sufficient as possible. But we have learned that homesteading can happen anywhere.

Garden produce

Homesteading is a progression. It is something you can do in an urban apartment or on a sprawling farm. It usually starts small. Maybe you buy a couple of herb plants and realize the joy of growing your own food. Something that costs several dollars for a meal or two you can sustainably produce on your windowsill for pennies.

Not only is the cost difference convincing but the fact that it grows and continues to produce is inspiring. Soon you have a tomato plant in a pot on the patio and a couple of lettuces in another pot.

What about all of the food scraps you throw out? Couldn’t those be put to good use too? Now you are deciding between a compost pile, worm bin or a small flock of chickens. I am sure you are seeing the progression.

Farm fresh eggs

It can take you as far as you want to go. You might end up at an off grid farm out in the country where you raise animals for meat and have a market garden. With enough to feed your family, put up food for winter and take the rest to the farmer’s market.

Maybe you are more of an urban homesteader who wants to bring change to the community around you. You have solar power, gray water, and rain catchment systems and are producing more food than most people think possible by utilizing vertical growing and permaculture.

Homesteading is a return to basic skills. As you learn to be more of a producer and less of a consumer you realize the joy that can be found in the simple things. Learning to heat your house with wood, growing your own food, cooking from scratch, herbal remedies, caring for animals, the list goes on and on.

Canning apples

You develop a new way of seeing the world. Instead of being concerned about having the career, the house, the car that society thinks you need, you realize that none of that brings lasting joy. However, when you take a bite out of that sweet, crunchy carrot that is the fruit of your own labor, you experience a joy you can’t find at the grocery store.

It is a joy that only comes from laboring with your hands, being patient, nurturing, and producing something most people take for granted. Learning these skills is liberating as you realize you don’t have to rely on someone else for your most basic needs.

As exciting as it all sounds, it can be daunting. If you are looking to start your homestead journey, here is a guide to starting today in five easy steps.

Your Turn!

  • How did your homestead journey begin?
  • Are you a country, farm homesteader or an urban homesteader?

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?

Off Grid Q&A Video

Recently shot this video on a Q&A session about off grid living.

 

 

Your Turn!

  • What should our next Q&A Video be on?

Water Storage in a Tiny House

Episode46

Have you been listening to Tiny House Chat? In this week’s episode, Ryan and Amy discuss the ins and outs of water storage for tiny houses. Listen in as we talk about on- and off-grid options for water systems, the benefits of each, and also reminisce about childhood video games.

Click here to listen to the podcast

Preparing For An Off-Grid Winter

Winter is here and with it, the cold. So far we’ve had some nights down in the low 30’s, and maybe even below freezing. Last year I did a post about my first winter, which you can read here. Since I do live off grid, there are quite a few steps I take to get ready. So today I thought I’d share some of those here.

Preparing For An Off Grid Winter

The biggest consideration I make is the fact that with the days getting shorter and in the winter, you tend to have more overcast skies. This means one thing: less solar gain for my panels. Now in the design of my system (I talk about my tiny house solar setup here), I calculated everything based on the winter months when solar exposure is the least. This means in the summer my system is making way more power than I can use. But in the winter, a low producing day will actually be enough to power everything I need.

With this in mind I make my preparations.

Generators:

The first thing I did was get out both of my generators and check them out. I have two generators for two very specific functions: a small super efficient and quiet one to run for real time power and a larger one that just dumps a ton of power out at 240V to refill my batteries quickly. I make sure that things look good, I start them up, and I change the oil even if it doesn’t need it. While doing this I discovered that my larger generator for whatever reason was only putting out 120V out of my 240V outlet, which is a real problem because my inverter requires 240V to trigger its power shunt to charge the batteries.

Luckily it was still under warranty and I checked this now, not when I really needed it, and was able to get it to the shop to get fixed for free. With the two generators squared away and in good working order, it was time to move onto the consumables that go with them.

Consumables For Generators:

I first checked my stock of spark plugs, oil and fuel stabilizer. As a rule I try to keep these things on hand so I can ward off “Murphy,” AKA Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Sometimes a spark plug just gets too gummed up, and it can be easier to replace it with a new one rather than clean it off; at $1.58 each I usually just swap it out for a new one.

generator consumables

The oil I just keep on hand in case there is a leak or I would need to drain it for some reason. I prefer to use a higher grade of synthetic oil which my generators can use for longer run time. I also keep fuel, gloves, a catch basin and paper towels to change when I need to. Finally I have a large bottle of Sta-bil which is a fuel stabilizer that allows you to maintain the quality of gas for a longer time; I make sure it’s the type for ethanol because gas with ethanol mixed in goes bad faster. Ideally I’d seek out non-ethanol gas, but it’s increasingly hard to find and it’s not offered near my house reliably.

GasOffSingleWipeThe last consumable I stock up on is this product I found called “Gas Off Cleaning Wipes.” Initially I thought this was a silly product, but I tried one and was completely sold. It always seems that I had to fill up my generators right before I would go to bed and no matter how careful I was, my hands would always get a little gas on them.

These little wipes remove that gas smell, which isn’t normally a big deal. I noticed that the odor was very strong because when I sleep, I curl my arm up so my hand is near my face. These wipes remove the gas smell and for a few bucks, I now keep a pack handy.

Gasoline and Propane:

Going into the winter I always start with all my tanks full. I currently have six 5-gallon tanks, four 2.5-gallon tanks, and six propane tanks. I never need this much at one time of course, but I find its easier to load it all up and do it all at once.

For gas, if I have any remaining gas in the tanks, I put it in my car. This allows me to only have gas that is at most a few months old. With empty tanks, I put Sta-bil in each tank, then fill them up. I am on the hunt for gas pour nozzles without the EPA spill free spouts because they are a royal pain and I usually end up spilling because of the nozzle being so awkward to use. I then store the gas out of sight, but still in a well ventilated space away from my house.

Propane is a reality of living off the grid. While I had really wanted to get away from fossil fuels altogether, heating water on electric is a huge power suck. Also, I love grilling out, but don’t always have time to get some charcoal going. Right now I run about 3 months on a single 20lb bottle of propane for my water heating. I also use a 20lb bottle for cooking (grilling and stove top) every 3-4 months. So I always keep 2 tanks hooked up and 4 in reserve.  I’m thinking about buying two more because I find it easier to fill up a bunch at once than do a lot of little trips. One tip for refilling your propane: getting refills is much cheaper and you get more propane for your dollars at a refill station.

Planning Redundancies:

With living off the grid, you always need to have a backup plan, and a back up to that back up. Two is one and one is none. In this case my main concerns are my ability to heat, my ability to cook, and my ability to get water.

With this in mind I went out and stocked up on 1lb propane bottles for my back up heater. The heater is a Mr. Buddy heater that costs about $35 and is straightforward to use and pretty portable. I’ve used it in the past and it’s worked well, so it’s a great back up heat source if I need it. They do sell an adapter for a big propane tank, but I find the 1lb tanks convenient in the rare instances that I do need it.

propane heater off grid

For water I always keep a few gallons on hand for drinking, cleaning and cooking. In a pinch I can heat some of it on the stove and do a sponge bath if the hot water heater were to go down. The heating of the water can be done on my portable stove top which runs on butane cartridges. All of this is just handy to have ready to go if I ever were to need it, but it isn’t for the everyday; anything to help keep Murphy away.

Keeping Your Solar Panels Clean:

With the fall and the winter, it’s like Mother Nature is out to get you sometimes, and coming up with ways to cover your panels happens a good bit. Whenever your solar panels get covered, even partially, your power production can start dropping. In the fall it’s leaves, and in the winter it’s snow. It’s also a good time to clean the panels of dust and grime.

Food and Home Provisions:

Since I’ve been doing so much preparation for nesting I also took the chance to clean out my house and then stock up stuff for the house. I got extra tissues, paper towels, trash bags, soaps, shampoo, and other stuff like that. I also started building out my pantry a little bit more by picking up general cooking ingredients, soups, snacks, and warm drink options.

Heating A Tiny House:

Things have changed a good bit with the installation of of my solar and mini split system. I am happy to report that the mini split has been able to cool and heat my house very effectively, to the point that I was able to keep my house at 64 degrees on a 98 degree day easily and with the cold nights dipping down to freezing I was able to keep my place very toasty.

The beauty of the mini split is that I have a lot of control over the temperature, including the ability to set a range so it automatically heats when it gets too cold and cools when it gets too hot. I can set schedules, have it be motion activated, and all is done with just a simple press of the button. Compared to wood heat, this is a much more superior way because often wood heat get too hot and many times you find yourself waking up in the morning to a cold stove. Since it’s solar, I don’t have much guilt about setting it to my ideal preferences and there’s no chopping wood. I feel like the tiny house mini split evangelist here, but I love this thing.

Wrapping Up:

So all in all I have just been trying to get a lot of last minute things done so I can head into winter with everything in place, the house cleaned and well stocked. Between it dropping temperatures and holiday parties, seeing friends and other things filling up this busy time of year, I’m glad to get ahead of things. Living off the grid certainly does come with its own set of considerations, but I’ve found it to be a very comfortable life and some simple preparation makes it pretty easy to do too.

Your Turn!

  • Do you live off-grid?
  • How do you prepare for the winter?
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