Archive for the Off Grid Category

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?

10 Things Learned While Living Without Water

One of the most difficult thing I see for me is getting land, then figuring out my bathroom.  This is a great list from a guy who recently had his well go kaput on him and was waterless for 15 days.  The insights are pretty good and pretty funny too.  With Tiny Houses when you are off the grid your whole attitude has to change when it comes to resources, because they are scare and they take so much energy to secure.  So here it is.

10. Toilets are an engineering marvel: By keeping a bucket of water handy, we almost got use to manually filling the toilet tank whenever it needed flushing. I appreciate the fact that you can still flush a toilet this old-fashioned way in a pinch, and I can hardly believe that in this technological age someone hasn’t invented a “new and improved” toilet that would make it impossible to do so. Still, most older toilets use more water than is really necessary, so keep a water-filled plastic soda bottle in the tank to limit the excess.

9. Never take water for granted: Access to water — particularly safe drinking water — is truly a matter of life or death. Yet more than one billion people, nearly one out of every seven individuals on Earth, have an insufficient supply of potable water. Nonprofit organizations like Drop in the Bucket are working to solve that problem, and they deserve our donations and other support.

8. Clothes don’t really need to be washed so often: We went the entire two-plus weeks without doing any laundry, when normally we’d probably have done at least a couple of loads. And you know what? Our clothes and other linens still smelled and looked fine. Laundering clothes less often not only saves water and energy, but it also makes clothing last longer — and that all adds up to a closet full of financial savings.

7. I have the best wife on the planet: Of course, after 27 years of marriage (or, as Denise says, “almost three and half good years”), I already knew this. But my mate showed her true grit (not to be confused with her “true grittiness”) as she helped me clear a patch of land where the well could be drilled and kept her sense of humor throughout the entire waterless siege. Boy do I love that woman.

6. Remodeling an outdated bathroom doesn’t look like a financial priority post-drought: We’ve been meaning to remodel our bathroom, since it’s looking rather dated. But once you’ve lived without running water, you realize that functionality — and not fashion — is the important thing. Besides, I’m pretty sure avocado-colored bathroom fixtures will eventually come back into vogue, and then we’ll be ahead of trend.

5. You don’t need as much water in the kitchen as you might think: Without a flowing tap at the ready, we found that we could easily cut down on the amount of water we normally use — and waste — in the kitchen. Potatoes and pasta cooked just fine in about half the amount of water we typically use, and the still scalding water used to soft boil eggs in the morning was poured directly into a dishpan to scrub up the dishes from dinner the night before (later rinsed, of course). Even washing the kitchen floor with a small bucket of water and a handheld sponge rather than a mop saved us at least a couple of gallons.

4. Individual bottles of water are a sinful waste of resources: We never buy bottled water (heck, I’m so cheap I don’t even buy bottled wine); even during our recent dry-spell, we just filled pots and buckets at the neighbor’s house. But one day some friends — attempting to be kind — dropped off four cases of individual 500 ml bottles of water. We graciously accepted, and for the first time in our lives relied pretty much on those as our daily drinking water. We were horrified to see the plastic carnage that was created, literally overflowing our recycling bin within a few days. The amount of oil used to manufacture disposable water bottles for the U.S. market would fuel more than 100,000 cars for a year. If you drink only bottled water, on average you’ll spend more than $1,000 per year to get your recommended daily amount of H2O, as opposed to just 49 cents for a year’s supply of just as healthy tap water.

3. Cold water is so much better than no water, and HOT water is very, very special: It’s amazing how many things you normally use hot water for that can be done just as well using cold (e.g. shaving, washing clothes, dishes, etc.). When you have to heat up every drop of hot water you use on the stovetop, you learn to cherish it. About 15% of total home heating costs is attributable to heating water for domestic use, and that expense can easily be cut in half through

2. The Earth is an amazing place — but it needs our help: Call me naïve, but I was awestruck by the fact they you can drill a hole in your backyard (at least where we live) and be guaranteed by Mother Nature that you’ll eventually hit a plentiful, pure supply of water. Silly me, I expected a celebratory scene like out of There Will Be Blood when the drillers struck water at around 400 feet. Instead, the moment passed without so much as comment. But on an ominous note, Bob, the sixtyish foreman, told me that when he started out in the business, the water table where we live was at around 200 feet, only about half the depth of today, depleted by rampant development going on in the area. I vow to never water my lawn again.

1. Never look at yourself in a mirror when taking a sponge bath: Sponge bathes get the job done, sort of, but if you ever catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror while taking one, you might just realize that the lack of running water is the least of your problems.

11 Low Energy Cooking Tips

Cooking with WineEvery single week day, people come back home after a day of work and almost simultaneously start using lots of energy intensive-things; they turn on the television, the computer, turn on the lights if it’s dark, they plug in their cell phones and gadgets… And then they start cooking food.

We’re all getting more aware of our energy consumption when it comes to cars (hybrids and electric cars are getting more popular) and to lighting (compact fluorescents took over in only a few years), but most of us are still in the dark when it comes to energy-efficient cooking. Here’s a few common sense tips to get your started on the road to low energy cooking.

1. Hot and Cold
The first thing that you should become aware of around the kitchen is hot & cold. It takes a lot of energy to cool something down, and it takes a lot of energy to heat it up. That’s where the savings can be made.

For example, don’t leave the fridge or freezer door open longer than necessary. When the cold air escapes, this means that your fridge or freezer will have to work overtime to bring the temperature back down. Conversely, don’t use more hot water than you need to. Don’t boil a big pan full of water if you only need a little bit!

2. Size Matters
When heating something, make sure that the heat actually goes where you want it to. This means that you should be careful to match your pots and pans to the appropriate burners on your range. Otherwise a lot of the energy you’re using is just heating up the air in your kitchen (which can mean that the A/C has to work overtime in the summer, further wasting energy).

3. Consolidate: One-Pot-Meals are Your Friend
Another great low energy cooking tip is to cook one-pot meals such as casseroles, soups, stews and stir-fries. It’s easy to see why they save energy compared to recipes that require you to use two, three or even 4 burners at the same time. You can find a variety of one pot meal ideas here.

4. Consolidate: Schedule Your Baking
Whenever possible try to bake multiple things at the same time if there’s enough space in your oven and the recipes call for the same baking temperature, or one after the other all on the same day. That way you only have to warm up the oven once, and you benefit from the residual heat left over from the previous recipe.

5. Consider Getting a Slow-Cooker (aka Crock-Pot)
Probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone talks about low energy cooking, the good old crock-pot is hard to beat when it comes to making stew. You just need to make sure to set things up long enough before you need to eat since the cooking temperature is relatively low (that’s what makes it so energy intensive). Here are a variety of crock pot recipes to try.

6. Consider Getting a Pressure Cooker
It allows you to cook food faster, without heating up your kitchen as much, and using less energy. Hard to argue against that! Pressure cooking works because as the air pressure increases inside the sealed pot, the boiling point of water decreases. Only the microwave is more energy efficient (and you can’t do everything in the microwave).

7. Turn Off the Oven Before You Are Finished
Electricity stops flowing to your oven the moment you turn it off, but it will stay hot for a fairly long time after that (depending on how well insulated it is and how often you open the door). This is a good opportunity to save energy, especially with recipes that aren’t too capricious about exact cooking time and temperature.

8. Keep Lids on Pots, Don’t Open Your Oven Door
This one is self-explanatory. Every time you allow heat to escape, you’ll have to use more electricity or gas.

9. Eat more Raw Foods
Salads, raw fruits and vegetables are definitely the best way to go from “low energy” to “no energy”. Usually healthy food too, so dive in!

10. Use the Microwave When Appropriate
Microwaves are more energy efficient than stoves by a pretty large margin. They aren’t appropriate for everything, but if there are things that you cook on the stove out of habit but that could just as well be done in the microwave, you should considering switching.

11. Cook Large Quantities, Then Reheat Leftovers
It’s more efficient to make a huge lasagna (for example) and then re-heat leftovers for a while (especially in the microwave) than to make smaller lasagnas more often.

Planet Green Michael Graham Richard 10/26/2009 with permission

Modern Home Water Catchment

While this isn’t a traditional Tiny Home, I really loved the modern feel and of course the insane water catchment potential and look of this roof.  modern water catchmentThis house is still about 1,200 square feet smaller than a typical American home.  You can see several large tanks off the back of the house which is used to collect rain water from the roof.  One square foot of roof can yield ½ a gallon of water from 1 inch of rain.  So roughly estimating for this roof, one inch of rain yields over 1200 gallons of water!

The house is also cleverly designed to have an upper roof as primary shelter and sun shade and then there is a roof on the actually home’s structure.  This is brilliant because the main roof is topped with highly reflective metal, reducing heat absorption.  Then there is an air space between the main roof and the home’s roof to prevent any transference of heat to the home itself.  The space allows wind to cool both sides of the upper roof and keeps you cool below.

See more photos Here