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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?

Air Conditioning On Solar Power

Today I wanted to share some info about air conditioning on a solar panel system.  Charlotte’s heat really came full force this week.  I know for many their climate doesn’t get as humid as it does here, for us here, AC is pretty key.  Without AC I can’t really sleep, even with a fan and my house being passive cooled.  While the humidity is still pretty comfortable, it’s HOT and the humidity is coming.  It has been in the high 80’s and low 90’s outside, which made my house in the mid 90’s inside.

I thought I’d do a post today because I’ve been able to run some real world experiments with my tiny house, the AC and solar.  I haven’t seen any real world into practice reports on this stuff, so I figured it would be helpful for you all.

I have yet to hook up my mini split system because it has taken me a long time to find a HVAC installer that would install my mini split, the reason being they all want to sell you the equipment if they are going to install it.  This was an unknown factor to me when I ordered my unit, but these are the bumps in the road you experience when you live The Tiny Life.

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For heating and cooling I opted for the Fujitsu 9RLS2 which is a 9,000 btu unit with a seer rating of 27.  To give you an idea, older systems have a SEER of around 8 to 10, modern systems that are labeled highly efficient have a rating of 15 or so, but most today are around 12-13.  This is very important because me being on solar, my system simply couldn’t handle the less efficient systems.  Read about my tiny house solar panel system by clicking here.  The SEER rating is simply a function of BTUs (British Thermal Units) to Watts.  The higher the number, the better.

The other big reason I choose this unit versus a window unit was that my air handler is wall mounted, out of the way and above eye level.  This does a few things:  keeps my limited square footage clear of stuff, it keeps my windows looking nice because I don’t have a window unit blighting a good design, and keeping it above eye level also makes you forget about it because as humans we don’t often look up.

el_pac_08e9_unit_picWhile I’m trying to get an installer lined up I’m using a Portable Air Conditioner which has worked pretty well.  The downside to it is it takes up a lot of space and it’s not as efficient; it has a SEER rating of 12, which makes my mini split system 225% more efficient than this.

I decided to “stress test” my system by turning the Portable AC unit on high and setting the thermostat to 60 degrees and see how long it was going to take for my batteries of my solar panel system to bottom out (50% discharge).  The charge controller on my system automatically turns off the power to my house if the power in that batteries discharges down to 50%, this allows me to not damage the batteries by discharging too deep.

batter tiny house discharge

As you can see by the chart above, keeping discharge at 50% or above gives me a little shy of 2,000 cycles or 5.4 years.  I plan to add another set of four batteries to the system pretty soon, which will give me a good capacity and keep my discharge rate much higher than 50% (though I don’t often get that low)  In about 5 years we should start seeing some really interesting battery technologies hit market, so I plan to hop on that as soon as my batteries begin to fade.

My stress test turned out pretty good.  With the much less efficient portable air conditioner I ran it solid for 3 days starting with a very warm house.  At the end of the three days I was very close to hitting 50%, but it didn’t ever dip below.  I decided that the test went on long enough to be pretty happy, so I decided to stop.  I typically turn off the AC when I’m gone.

The past few days have been a bit trickier because since my system was so low from the stress test, I needed it to build back up, but we have had a series of cloudy days.   I’ve had plenty of power to run the AC over night, but it’s lower than I’d like.  To give you an idea, on a normal sunny day I make about 8,000 watts, on a cloudy day I get between 2,000 and 4,000 watts when the clouds are very thick with no gaps.

The really great thing is when it’s hottest, during the day, I can make lots of power.  This allows me to run the AC full blast and I can make enough power to run the AC and still be dumping 1000 watts into the batteries.  Compare this to heating, you most often need the heat at night the most, which is when the sun isn’t out, so its a major drain on your batteries.  To compound the issue of heating, heaters are often more energy intensive than cooling.

The other night I tried an experiment.  I got my house very cold and turned off the AC at midnight (when I usually go to bed).  Outside it was pretty cool, about 65 degrees and about 45% humidity, so not bad.  I left all the windows closed to see how much my body heat would heat up the house and because in the summer, opening the windows doesn’t help even if it is cooler outside because the humidity increase the “feels like” temperature.

As it turns out in just three hours my body heat warmed the loft of my tiny house up to the point that I woke up from being so uncomfortable from the heat.   Around 3:30 am I woke up and it was very hot in my loft.  I checked the time and was surprised how little time it took.  I should note that I’m one that when I fall asleep, I stay asleep all night, even if I get warm, so the fact that I was woken up goes to show how uncomfortable I must have been, because it takes a lot.

I had prepared for this and all I did was crank open my sky light (the highest point in my house) and the loft end window and switched on a fan to draw in cool air.  Within 5 minutes the whole place dropped about 5 degrees and I was back asleep.

So that has been some of my real world experiences with the tiny house, AC and solar.  I know I had always been frustrated by not enough stories on this stuff, so hopefully I can help others.

Some key resources for those wanting more technical stuff

 

Tiny House Solar

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.

Tiny House solar panels

So first, the high level details of my system:

  • 2.25 Kw panels – Nine, 250 watt panels
  • Batteries 740 amp/hr total – Eight, 370 amp/hr 6 volt Trojan L16 flooded lead acid
  • Cost for parts about $10,000 (excluding tax and shipping)
  • Off grid, battery bank, plus 5,550 watt backup generator
  • 24 volt system

Specific Parts:

  • (9) Canadian Solar CS-6p 250 Watt Poly Black Frame  (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider SW 4024 (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider MPPT 60 Charge Controller (Spec Sheet)
  • (8) Trojan L-16 6v 370 AH Flooded Lead Acid Batteries (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider System Control Panel (Spec Sheet)
  • (1) Schneider Interconnect Panel (no spec sheet)
  • (1) Midnight Solar MNPV 80AMP Dinrail Breaker (Spec Sheet)
  • (2) Midnight Solar Surge Protection Device AC/DC (no spec sheet)
  • 50 Amp RV power Inlet (Spec Sheet)

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.

Solar Path Finder

Solar Path Finder

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.

My reading with the pathfinder

My reading with the pathfinder

Then it spit out all the calculations:

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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.

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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.

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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:

  • Much cooler, roofs are very hot places in the summer and solar panels drop in efficiency when hot
  • I can put my house under deciduous trees, this means in summer I’m in the shade, in winter I get the solar gain
  • Way easier to clean and monitor

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

  • Breaker Panel: manages power from solar panels
  • Charge Controller: manages power to batteries etc.
  • Interconnect: a main junction box and breaker, holds control panel interface
  • Inverter: takes power in many forms then outputs to they type of power you need

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:

IMG_3127

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.

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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!

suicide-cable

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.

SimpleElectricCover

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.

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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.

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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.  IMG_3123

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.

generac

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.

Setting Up Your Land For A Tiny House

One thing I’ve realized through my entire journey is that not only do you have to build a house, but there is quite a bit that goes into setting up the land itself. These things include access, infrastructure, security and utilities. Each of these categories can be tricky and expensive in their own right, but very necessary for living.

RyansPlace-wKey

General Considerations

You’ll notice that I have a field at the edge of the property where I have two entrances/exits to my gravel pad. This allows me to bring in the house, unhitch it and then have a place to exit with the truck. It also allows me to gain access to my storage trailer if I want to move it or take it off the property. It’s important to consider before you bring your house to the property:

  • How will you enter the property?
  • How will you exit the property once the house is placed?
  • How will you exit with the house if you need to move?
  • Are the curves too tight to make with such a large trailer/house?
  • What direction do you want your front door (back of trailer) to face?

Another thing to consider is parking for your car and visitor’s cars. I also like to be able to pull right up near the door for move-in day or for bringing in groceries.

I would also suggest placing your tiny house in a place with deciduous trees so your house is shaded in the summer and open to the sun in the winter. Before moving the house to my location, I made sure to go around and inspect all the surrounding trees to see if any needed to be removed because they posed a danger because of rot. I discovered one tree that was ready to fall any day, so I cut it down before the house was ever there.

Access

The first step to getting the land to the point where you can live on it is simply being able to access it. This comes in the form of roads, driveways, turnarounds and parking pads. Before you even think about laying down the road, you must first clear the way, remove trees, level the dirt and make your path to your new home. You have a couple of options: gravel, cement, and asphalt. Gravel is the most economical. I wouldn’t suggest just dirt, because you are bringing in a very heavy house, it’s likely to get stuck, and it gets muddy in the rain.

Here is a video of the installation of my road, turnaround and parking pad. Note I had a much easier time because there used to be an old dirt road in this location, so it was simply a matter of cleaning it up and leveling it out. The whole process took about 6 hours of hard work.

Infrastructure

Laying the lines, pipes and other key connections is a pretty tricky part because it often requires either backbreaking work or heavy equipment. When you’re running pipes and lines over any distance you run into issues of drop in voltage and pressure; so you need to take care to size things appropriately and it will dictate where you can actually place your home. When I first looked at the land, I had wanted to place my house about 300 feet away from its current location. That meant I’d have to run a #3 wire to compensate for the voltage drop as I ran the line to the closest solar exposure, which would have cost an additional $700 in just wire!

For water I am connected to the city water. The meter and installation cost me $2,200 (city sets price), but that is only from the water main to the closest edge of your property. You then need to connect it from there to your house, which will cost me an additional $800: $500 for materials, $300 for ditch witch rental, me doing all the labor.

water

For showers I have a 32″x32″ shower stall in my house, but also will be building a larger outdoor shower which I plan to use most of the year, except in the cold months. Both will feed into the grey water system, but I love outdoor showers and it affords a bit more room in the shower. My indoor shower is workable, but a little cramped. I have designed my plumbing system so that I have a hot water line that feeds out to my outdoor shower, but it has a ball valve on the inside of the house so I can turn it off to prevent freezing during the winter.

Another aspect of infrastructure is how you are going to handle your waste streams. For me this breaks down into five categories:

  1. Trash
  2. Recyclables
  3. Compostables
  4. Grey water
  5. Composting toilet waste

For trash and recyclables I have barrels from the city which are picked up at the end of my driveway once a week.  For compostable materials such as food scraps (no meats, fats, or citrus) I handle those with a red wriggler worm bin which I keep in an outdoor bin. I prefer vermicomposting over regular composting because it’s much more of an active process, it’s super easy and if I forget about it, it will continue on without me. It also breaks things down much faster. In the warmer months it can handle a few pounds a week, going from scraps to dirt in about 4-6 weeks without me turning.

photoFor grey water I am going to build a small reed bed that takes the already pretty clean water, removes any solids, and cleans it up, then feeds into some irrigation pipes that snake through the trees. It’s important to note that I’ve spent about 6 months finding biodegradable alternatives to all my detergents (shampoo, hand soap, dish detergent, etc.) so the water coming out of this system is pretty good to begin with.

My composting toilet waste is the most difficult to handle because my city doesn’t allow for humanure composting systems. I am also leasing land so I don’t think its right to do a humanure composting system on the land itself. If I was, I’d follow the procedure laid out in the Humanure Handbook. So what I’m doing to meet local code and respect the land owner is bagging the waste every few weeks into a biodegradable “plastic” bag and then sending it along with the city trash; at that point its essentially like a diaper, but the plastic will break down in a landfill quickly. There are other options out there for this too and I considered them, but for me this method works.

Security

I get this question a lot from people and it seems very odd to me, but in terms of security I have a few lines of defense. First off, you need to realize that most criminals are those of opportunity. They don’t want to work hard or spend a lot of time stealing a tiny house. The other thing is I do live in a large city, but the land I live on is tucked away deep in back roads and at the back of 26 wooded acres. The likelihood of someone finding it is pretty small unless they knew to look there. With that in mind my tiny house weighs 6,500 lbs, which means that only a limited number of trucks out there can actually tow the house; even with a good truck it isn’t easy.

jackswheelsNext I removed the wheels from the trailer because you need to get them off the ground (tire shock) and if I just jacked them up, the house would be really high off the ground. So by removing them, I could lower my house about 1.5 feet lower than with the tires. This makes it a lot easier to get in and out of my house. The tires are chained up out of sight. Next I have a agriculture style fence gate at the entrance to my driveway, which I will later put on a automatic opener arm with a lock; right now its just chain locked when I’m not there.  photo-5

There are a few other things I do to keep things safe, but at some point you have to realize that you can’t prevent everything bad that COULD happen and you need to go on with your life.

Utilities

For power I plan to use solar, which I’ll be installing a 1.67 Kw system this fall/winter. The panels and equipment will be mounted on skids on the ground because I’m only leasing the land, I can’t have anything permanent. For a system this size you can’t fit it on the roof, plus I want to be able to access the panels to easily clean them. The inverter will be a 4,000 watt unit, with a large battery bank. The system will cost about $15,000 if I install it all myself.

In my house my stove and tankless hot water heater will be powered by propane. The fridge, my 15 LED puck lights, laptop, cell phone, and large computer screen (to serve also as a TV) are all electricity powered. The air conditioner/heater will be a mini-split heat-pump unit that can handle both, will run on electricity.

For Internet I will be hooked up to standard high speed cable Internet. I will also have my cell phone which has Internet. I considered getting a wireless mobile hotspot, but they all have a data cap of about 5-10 gigs, which if you watch 2-3 movies on Netflix you’ll blow through that limit in about 4 hours and be screwed the rest of the month. It’s worth noting that the wireless cards that claim “unlimited” are not really unlimited. If you read the fine print they all have a data cap. For Verizon, “unlimited” is 10 gigs.

I will not have a traditional TV or cable. I get all my TV shows and movies from online and in general I don’t watch a lot anyway. For laundry I have a laundromat a few minutes down the road, but for me I hate doing laundry. So my splurge item is that I use a service that comes to my home and picks it up, does the laundry and brings it back.

Bulk Storage

Before I get into this section, I know some of you are thinking, “extra storage! That’s not tiny living!” That’s fine if you think that, but it isn’t practical for me and I’m designing this for me. The point of this journey isn’t to be tiny, it’s to design a life that lets you achieve your own goals. That’s what I’m doing and I think it’s a disservice to yourself if you artificially constrain yourself by any preconceived notions.

As I pared down my possessions I realized that there were some things that could fit in my tiny house, but I didn’t want to. Things like tools, camping gear, bikes, large packs of consumables (toilet paper, paper towels, etc). It quickly became clear to me that even though I could fit everything in my tiny house, I shouldn’t. This left me trying to figure out what I should do. I knew that whatever I chose had to have a one time upfront cost, because I didn’t want to do a rental storage unit or the like. I also wanted it to be relatively protected from water and bugs.

photo-4

Some people suggested storage under the tiny house or little plastic sheds/cabinets. Since I am leasing, I couldn’t build something permanent, so I needed to find a storage solution that I could move and take with me. Initially I thought about one of those sheds you see in your big box hardware store parking lots, but they were either too cheaply made or too expensive. I instead decided on an enclosed trailer which was about the same cost as one of those sheds. This give me the flexibility of being able to move it, but also being a great storage space.

Outdoor Spaces

Part of tiny house living is making the decision to not stay locked up in your little house. It instead forces you to get out more. Part of this is having great outdoor spaces. For me that means a fire pit with some comfy Adirondack chairs, places to walk around, a grill, and a garden.

Depending on your climate, outdoor living might look different, but about half the year here is very comfortable to be outside. Outdoor spaces are key to having parties, guests and just leisure time. Don’t just design the perfect indoor space, design the perfect outdoor space for you too!

Visibility

In general I think it’s important to have your tiny house placed where no one can easily see it from the road. Legal or not, it’s not prudent to attract a lot of attention. Make sure the house can’t be seen during all seasons. If you move in during the spring, then during fall you might be able to see the house from the road because the leaves are gone.

Solar Exposure

I talked about this in an earlier section, but thought it deserved its own section too. In terms of solar you want to consider how your house is positioned for solar gain during the seasons. You also want to consider how close you are to a great solar exposure opening if you want to do solar panels. Anything beyond 50 feet between your house and your solar panel placement is going to result in a big enough voltage drop that it will need to be addressed.

Proximity To Things

This section is more about how close the land is to other things. Your land needs to be in a location that is close enough for you to get on with living and all the things that come with that. This includes a reasonable distance to commute to work, to go out to dinner or lunch, to go to the gym, library, and other similar services. I would also consider where your friends and family are. How close do you want to be to them?

For me I am 30 minutes from family, 15 to friends, the city center, as well as the “hot spots” that I like to hang out and dine. I work from home or wherever I have my laptop and an Internet connection. I often plan out my week to what I’m doing and then choose coffee shops near where I’m already going. I also have access to a co-working space, which I can hold meetings at and work from if I just want to get out of the house.

 

Your Turn!

  • What other consideration should you make?
  • How do your plans differ?

The Search For New Land – Part 4

This is the fourth part of a series, check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 if you’re new to the blog.

Alright I have some pretty bad news, but first let me go back to where I left off in part three.

So I hired my electrician and he put in a plan for the permit, the city had a few questions, but a quick phone call later they approved the permit.  So with a permit in hand the the city’s blessing I had my electrician install the power box.  The box was installed and we notified the city that it was ready for inspections.  The inspector came out and said we needed to push the stranded cable through the main lug another inch because there was some damage to one of the strands, so we did that, quick fix.  He came out again and said everything looked good, but the inspector’s boss wanted me to call him first.

photo-2So I called the number and the man told me that he was going to rescind the permit because they had made a mistake.  The stated reason was that if I just had power out there on this empty land, someone could mess with it.  More specifically he said, and these were his words, not mine: “Junkies will break in to steal the copper and kill themselves.”  I was beyond angry that they messed up and I now had to pay the electrician even though I couldn’t get power and floored he’d say an excuse like that in those words.  So after talking with them, my electrician and the power company, the three people involved called me back and said “we figured out a solution”… I was ecstatic!  ” and it’s only going to cost you about $10,000″…  I was devastated!

I am not going to spend $10,000 for a power pole to be installed, only for them to then turn around and charge me every month.  Its just not in the cards, particularly because I’m only leasing the land.  So plan C…

Plan C was to get a solar power system that would run my house.  Not a big deal right?

Now many people would just swing by Harbor freight and pick up a cheap solar panel kits, but those honestly are woefully underpowered.  You can basically run a cell phone and laptop off that, maybe a fan for a few hours too.  In my house I have the following items that use power:

  • Mini Fridge – 100 watts
  • Laptop – 50 watts
  • cell phone – 5 watts
  • LED lights – 100 watts total
  • Mini Split HVAC – 500 watts on low, 700 watts on high

So if you times those watts by the hours of use, add it all up, you get 11,530 watt/hours.  This translates to a pretty big system, I got a few quotes and they seem to range between $14,000 and $18,000.  The system is so expensive because of the battery bank, I was looking at about $8,000 just in batteries and cable interconnects.  Again, just not in the cards.  What is crazy is that most of the system at that size is just for the HVAC, which currently is the smallest mini split on the market, but also the most efficient on the market at 27.8 SEER rating; compared to a standard AC unit today, most are around 13 SEER.

Before people start emailing me and commenting.  I know I could live without AC, I could use a swamp cooler, I could use a cooler with ice and a fan.  Sure I could, but I don’t want to and that’s my choice. I live in NC and when its 95 and ridiculously humid, I want AC on those days.  I’m also thinking about next year “summer-ing” somewhere colder, as in, finding a place to rent up north during the summer months.

So now to plan D….  Without the HVAC I am looking at a system around $6,000-$8,000 which is a whole lot of money, but its more manageable… Relativity speaking.  I figured that I can start with this smaller system, use my generator on the really hot days to run my AC; I already own a Honda EB2000i (almost identical to the popular EU2000i, this just has a pure sine inverter and GFCI).  Running the generator with the load of my AC unit via a drop cord, I used a Kill-a-watt meter to determine it would run at a quarter load or less on the “eco-mode” and could run 24 hrs on a little over 1 gallon of gas.  So the arrangement is not ideal, but I could at least have power, use fans most of the time and those days that I just want to enjoy the pure bliss of a AC cooled house, it would only cost me about $4 a day.

The Honda EB2000i is also ridiculously quite.  At a quarter load at about 200′ line of sight you almost can’t hear it. If I was inside my house I doubt I could hear it 50 feet away, if the AC was running, it could be at my front door and I wouldn’t hear it.  In this approach I’ve also opted to be in a different place on the property, where I am 100% shaded during the entire day, I’ve found this makes the heat much better, so all you have to deal with is the humidity and a little cooling around the hottest part of the day.

So that is where I am now.  Even though the city had said yes, then changed their minds, I still owe the electrician $800 and have nothing to show for it.  The lesson I’ve learned is if you have land or going to buy land, first figure out power and water.  If you’re buying the land, I’d make an offer contingent on the ability to get both; in fact I’d tell the seller: “I’ll buy it, if you get the power and water running before the sale.  If you can’t I walk away”

 

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