Recently shot this video on a Q&A session about off grid living.
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Recently shot this video on a Q&A session about off grid living.
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.
Winter is here and with it, the cold. So far we’ve had some nights down in the low 30’s, 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 today.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
I know many of you have been wanting this post for a while, but it’s finally here: my solar panel system for my tiny house. I wanted to get the feel for what it is like to live off the grid so I could share more details with you all about what it’s really like.
So first, the high level details of my system:
Before anything I needed to determine the best placement for the solar panels to make sure it had good solar exposure and didn’t fall into shadows too much. To do this I used a tool called a “solar path finder” which is a semi reflective dome that you position at the location, then snap a photo. The photo is then loaded into a program and spits out a whole bunch of calculations.
So once you upload the image into the software and then trace the treeline outline, you enter in your location, date and time. It then can calculate how much power you’ll produce based on 30 years of weather patterns for your exact location and tree coverage.
Then it spit out all the calculations:
With that in mind I knew what I could expect out of the system I had designed. It also was a way to verify my assumptions.
Once I verified that the system was going to be well suited to my needs I had to build my panel support racking. I did this out of pressure treated 4×4’s that were each 10′ long. These things about about 300 lbs each so I don’t have to worry about wind picking up the panels. I opted to build them because it was cheaper than some of the turn-key option out there and most of the for purchase ones required me to cement in the ground; I rent my land, so I wanted a mobile solution. The racking is technically mobile, but not easily so. If I remember correctly it was about $500 in materials to build this part.
Next we installed the panels. This part was pretty quick and the stands worked out perfectly. The panels are 250 watt Canadian solar panels. They are wired in groups of three, then paralleled into the system. To give you a sense of scale, these panels are 3.3 wide and about 4 feet tall.
Now I know many people want to know why I didn’t mount these on my roof or could they mount them. You technically can mount on your roof, but honestly the number of panels that you need to practically power your house is too many for the roof.
There is some other major bonuses of being on the ground:
Cleaning your panels is pretty important because you loose efficiency as residue (bird poop) builds up. Also as I learned just a few days ago, when it snows, you need to clear your panels. Cleaning becomes super simple and a lot safer when you don’t have to climb onto a roof via a ladder.
Just this week we got a decent snow, 3 inches, which is quite a lot for Charlotte. The first thing I had to do when I woke up was clear off the panels because with the snow, they made no power. This was compounded because since it was cold, I needed more heat. I can’t imagine having to drag the ladder out and try climbing on a icy roof… No Thanks.
Next I built a cabinet to house all the gear. I wanted a stand alone space because the batteries are so heavy. At 118 pound each, plus cabling and other equipment the whole unit is over 1,100 lbs. The top and bottom sections are divided so that the gasses from the batteries don’t go up into the electrical section and explode. More on that later.
The batteries are wired in series parallel. The batteries are 6 volt each, in series of 4 the create a 24 volt unit, then I have two of these 24 volt units in parallel. The reason I choose to go 24 volt over a 48 volt (which is more efficient) was because the equipment was a little cheaper, but also it allowed me to select components that I could add more panels and batteries very easily without doing equipment upgrades (just a factor of the abilities of the units I choose). This way I can add up to 15 panels and a lot more batteries without upgrading the electronics; I can also stack these inverters so if I ever go to a normal sized house, I just add another unit and it just plugs into my current one.
In this photo going left to right: Din Breaker Panel, Charge Controller, Interconnect w/ control panel, inverter. In general the power flows in the same manner (but not exactly).
Once the power goes through the system it outputs to a huge cable that you can see sticking out of the bottom of inverter then goes right. From there it runs to this:
This is a 50 amp RV style plug. The reason I did this was two fold. City inspectors are less picky when it comes to non-hard wired things. This setup also lets me roll into any RV campground and hook up seamlessly.
The plug goes into a 50 amp RV female receptacle. This is important that you don’t have two male ends to your cord. This is dubbed by electricians as a “suicide cord” because if you plug in to a power source, you have exposed conductors that are live; accidentally touch them, you complete the circuit and zap!
You want a female end to your cord so that you reduce the chance of being shocked. I also turn off my main breaker at the power source when I make this connection, then turn it back on.
If all these mentions of watts, volts, amps, amp hours etc are making your head spin a little, you may need to go back to the basics. I have an ebook called Shockingly Simple Electrical For Tiny Houses which guide your through all the basics. As of now, it doesn’t go too deep into the solar aspects, but the basics of electrical, wiring, power systems and determining your power needs are covered in depth and designed for those who are totally new to the topic.
So once the power passes through the power inlet it goes to the panel. Near the bottom you can see the backside of the power inlet, it has a large black cord coming out of it, into the box and ties to the lugs. From there it goes out to the house.
Back outside now, looking at the cabinet, on the sides of it, you can see the vents. When you use lead acid (LA) batteries you have some off gassing as the batteries discharge and recharge. These gasses are volatile and can ignite, possible leading to an explosion. So to take care of this I installed two vents like this which provide adequate venting. As mentioned before my battery section is isolated from the electronics section where a spark could occur.
This off gassing is a concern with Lead Acid Batteries, but other battery technologies don’t have this issue. I choose LA batteries over AGM (absorbent glass mat) because LA’s have more cycles and cost a bit less. Lithium Ion at this point is cost prohibitive. My batteries should get about 4000-5000 cycles (11-14 years) before I need to replace them. I figure in about 5 years battery technology will have progressed so much I’ll change early. New batteries will cost me about $4,000 of the LA variety.
Here is my grounding wire for my system. This is actually one of two, another is located at the panels them selves. My house is also grounded to this through the cable hook up and to the trailer itself. A really important note: ground depends on a lot of things, one of which is if you house electrical panels is bonded or not, if you don’t know what that means, read up on it, its very important.
The other component of this system is the generators. In the winter months I may need to top off my batteries every now and then, basically when its been really cold and very cloudy for a week or more. I had a Honda EB2000i already which I really like. It’s very quite and small. The one downside to the Honda is that it only does 1600 watts and only 120V and I needed more power and 240V. So I picked up another generator, a 5500 watt 240 volt Generac for $650.
Here is a video that compares the two generators in terms of size, noise, output and price.
So that’s the surface level details of the system, I’m going to be doing something in the future which will be a how to size, choose parts, hook up and all the other details of doing solar for your tiny house, but that is a longer term project, most likely will take about 6 months to pull together in the way I’d like to do it.
In the winter of 2013 Brett Sutherland of Auckland, New Zealand set about to build a tiny house of his own design on a tandem-axle trailer right in the driveway of his parents home. Start to finish took just five months but with a bit of experience and a lot of tenacity and dedication Sutherland built one of the most unique, space-saving, tiny house trailers visible on the web today.
Nicknamed the MV (Mobile Villa) by Sutherland himself the inspiration behind the build was really a practical one. As Brett explains to Bryce Langston in a recent interview, “The biggest thing I was trying to avoid was losing all my money as soon as I touched down and that’s what happens when you pay a rent.” Brett truly wanted an off-the-grid, self-contained home that would allow him to concentrate more on his art than making money. He wanted to do more in life than just survive economically.
At 161 sq.ft. the Mobile Villa cost just $10,185.00 USD to build and features a sitting area, a kitchen, an upstairs sleeping loft, and a small bathroom with shower.
The roof line of the MV is a two-tier shed roof which Sutherland admits was done for airflow purposes in the sleeping loft as the top tier features a crank-out, horizontal window. The slope of the roof also allows for generous rain catchment which further allows Sutherlands pursuits for total off-grid living. The lower tier supports Brett’s two solar panels which then further feed into his electric panel situated just above the toilet area and out of direct sight and hosting a 30-amp solar regulator, battery isolator switch, and switchboard.
Upon walking in the tiny house there is immediately a twin-size day bed to the right offering guests a place to lay their head when visiting as well as a couple of sitting chairs directly across the room for more social moments. Another interesting aspect of the house is the use of what looks like standard plywood with a semi-gloss finish rather than the pine tongue-and-groove more frequently seen in tiny houses. This technique has been used before in several inexpensive yet practical ways such as the Zen Cube Mobile Living Space.
It’s what is under the day bed that is perhaps the coolest element as it houses the Flexi Tank water storage bag which is connected directly to the downspout of the gutter on the lower roof tier and holds roughly 100 gallons.
Since construction on Sutherland’s Mobile Villa ended he has moved it to a friend’s property in Bethells Beach in Auckland. With the ocean as his front yard, no shortage of palm trees as his neighbor, and plenty of room for friends and guests to come and enjoy a barbeque Sutherland and his MV are perfect testimony to the freedom, mobility, and consciousness that tiny living can bring!