Archive for the Off Grid Category

Simple Greywater Systems For Your Home

Simple Greywater Systems For Your Home

What are grey water systems and how can you set up a system for your home?  Most people living in the average American household have no reason to contemplate disposal of the water that enters and leaves their homes, but more and more people are looking for a simple way to do a greywater system for their home.

simple grey water system for your home

What Is A Greywater System Used For?

A greywater system is used to take water that has already been used from places like your laundry, shower and sink and divert it to use in another purpose like watering gardens or landscaping instead of flushing it down into the sewer. Greywater is different from blackwater (aka sewage) because while it may have some residuals like dirt, hair, grease, etc from it’s first use, they aren’t toxic to the environment and the water can be reused in some applications.

what is grey water and how to recycle water

With greywater systems you are careful about what you put down your drain when diverting it to your garden or flower beds, but I’ve found that after your figure out some cleaning products that work for you, it’s quite simple.

How Do Grey Water Systems Work?

The concept is simple in principal: you want capture all the water from your sinks, showers and other drains into one place called a “surge tank” which is a fancy way of saying a tank that can take a lot of water at once and then slow down the flow. From there you want to allow the water to slow down just enough so any solids can settle out to the bottom and then let the cleaner water move on.

Grey Water System Diagram

In the below diagram you can see the basics of a system. You’ll see how the washer can be switched with a branched valve to either go to the sewer or the outside irrigation. The water then travels outside, into the garden and finally into drip points above mulch beds.

system diagram of a grey water system

Our Simple Greywater Setup For Our Tiny House

I certainly had never considered such things until Cedric and I went volunteering on organic farms. In the south of Spain a small olive farm where water is scarce and they were watering their flower garden with the water from their sinks and showers. It was the first time I’d ever seen a greywater system in action. As aquifers run dry and water becomes a scarcer resource, I see the proper recycling of it essential to transitioning our treatment of water to a more sustainable system and tiny house dwellers are on the front lines of this transition.

grey water in my garden

Living in a tiny house we have had to face the challenge of disposing our water safely since we weren’t hooked up to the city’s system. Our initial introduction at that farm inspired us to try a simple, DIY system that would use our greywater to irrigate a small garden.

We took 1 1/2″ pvc pipe, attached it to the plumbing of the house and buried it in the garden. Since we didn’t put in a filter we did not put any solids of any kind down the drain. We also carefully chose our bath soaps, used homemade shampoos and biodegradable dish soap so as not to damage the soil, plants or watershed. The PVC pipe was placed in a 2 foot deep ditch that had been lined with gravel and landscape fabric. Along the pipe we drilled many little holes to allow the water to escape. This technique is very similar to a french drain.

Are Grey Water Systems Legal?

is greywater legal

Depending on your city, county and state you’ll have different rules that govern the use of greywater systems. Building codes, zoning laws and the public health department all come into play here, so develop a rough idea of what kind of greywater system you want to build and then have a conversation with your local city hall. Alternatively you can do this under the radar, but understand you assume all risk.

In some cases you’ll need to install a branched drain system so you can turn the greywater on and off based on what your use is.

How Much Does A Greywater System Cost To Install?

grey water system install cost

Installing a greywater system depends on your needs, how your plumping is setup in your house and how much of the work you’re going to do yourself. For a rough estimate you can plan on spending $500 to $2,500 to install a greywater system in your home. Most of the cost will be labor as the materials are cheap, but the labor can be expensive. Often it requires a plumber which can run between $50-$150 per hour and then someone to run ditches to your beds which can cost between $20-$75 per hour.

Common materials are PVC pipes, gravel, landscape fabric, a capture tank and plumbing fittings.

How To Design Your Grey Water System

grey water system design

Here are some of the key steps to consider for your grey water system design:

  1. Locate all your main drain points and plan how you will tap into each
  2. Determine where you’re going to drain your system to
  3. Check that your drains are at least 5 feet higher than your destination
  4. Mark where you are going to bury your drain lines with spray paint
  5. Install a valve at each drain sources or at the main drain pipe
  6. Pipe from valves to exterior of home
  7. Dig ditches below your frost line
  8. Fill bottom with 6 inches of loose gravel
  9. Place your drain lines and perforated lines and check all connections
  10. Cover pipes with another 4 inches of loose gravel
  11. Cover gravel with landscape fabric to prevent dirt clogging lines.
  12. Replace dirt or carry the gravel all the way to surface (best method)

Best Filtering Options For Grey Water

grey water filter options

In some cases people will put a basic filter to screen out particles like food or hair mainly to prevent clogs in the rest of the system.Once the water is free of most of the larger debris, you can then pipe it underground to where you want to deposit it, making sure you spread out the volume of water over a large enough area to allow the soil to soak up the water quickly enough that it doesn’t get water logged.

You have a filter options:

  • Filter bag before it enters into surge tank
  • In line water filter
  • Settling tank
  • Constructed wetland or reed bed
  • Setting pond or bog

Here are my two favorite ways to filter out grey water

filter options for a grey water system

Tips For Your DIY Grey Water System

diy grey water systems

The biggest challenge people have when making their own system is getting your drain pipes clogged with food particles and hair from your drains. To combat that you want to employ two features in your system: a surge tank to settle out particles and a simple filter.

When the water from your drains comes from your house it’s carrying a lot of stuff like dirt, hair, skin cells, food particles and it’s moving pretty fast. We want to slow that water down and allow those things to settle out before moving on in the process. We don’t want that water to sit too long, no more than 24 hrs, but it’s a critical step.

From there we want to use a basic filter to grab any left over things that might be floating along. These don’t need to be a high grade filter that cleans the water, just enough to catch the particles big enough to clog things down the line.

The last tip I’ll give is make sure you consider how your drain lines will work in the winter. Freezing pipes can lead to major problems, so make sure your lines are draining to pipes buried below the frost line. You can consider putting in a valve at your branched piping inside so you can turn off this during the winter.

Grey Water Systems For Off Grid Living

grey water system for a off grid cabin

Grey water is the perfect solution for dealing with waste water at your off grid home, cabin or tiny house. I use this on my off grid tiny home into a modified french drain system since I don’t produce much water waste to begin with. Don’t forget to pair your system with a rain catchment system to collect more water for your garden.

The biggest tips I can give you is to make sure your soil drains well, you can do this by doing a simple perk test (a water infiltration test) on your soil. If you soil drains well, figure out about how many gallons of grey water you will produce in a given day and design the system to handle that plus a 25% margin.

Make sure you plan it so your drain lines are down hill from your point of use, digging ditches deeper and deeper if you need to get a steep slope for proper drainage. Having the water move away from your house is critical, so make plans to drain at least 30 feet away to avoid moisture issues.

I wouldn’t spend time trying to figure out how to treat the grey water or how to make it drinkable, it’s better to use it effciently at the source, then repurpose it into your gardens for food production.

My Favorite Grey Water Friendly Products

When you make the switch to grey water, you’ll need to control what goes down your drain and that includes things like soaps, shampoo, cleaners and more. Anything that goes down the drain needs to be environmentally safe when it hits your garden.

Aubrey Men’s Stock Shampoo

grey water shampoo

This was the hardest item to find for me, a lot of shampoos that are grey water friendly don’t clean that well. Many shampoos left my hair looking greasy, but this one cleaned well and didn’t smell too “earthy”. The smell is pretty neutral, a minty smell that could easily be used by men or women. It’s a little pricey, but it’s the only thing that I found that actually works.

Amazon is the only place I’ve been able to find this Aubrey Men’s Stock Shampoo.

 

Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Liquid Soap

This is an obvious and very popular option for those who want soap that is easy on the environment and just works well. Dr. Bronners is great for washing your hands, doing dishes, cleaning around the house, etc.

You can even bath with it and I found it to be good for body wash, but as I noted above, while it works for hair, it left my hair looking greasy. A lot of people use it as shampoo and it works well for them, so it’s worth a try. It’s also not terribly expensive and a little goes a long way.

This is where I get mine, click here.

Final Thoughts On Grey Water Systems

The majority of folks don’t think twice about these things and it’s wonderfully convenient to not have to. However, I’ve learned a lot about sustainable water practices by living with this system and I prefer it to sending this precious resource to a facility with black water where it becomes much more polluted and takes a lot of energy to introduce safely back in to the water cycle. It’s also a major plus for dry environments that see little rainfall and who at times must rely on their aquifers for water, as we experienced in Spain.

grey water system installed

To sustain and maintain these deep fonts of water we need to replenish them. Allowing greywater to be filtered by plants back in to the ground recharges the aquifers and keeps them from drying out. The beauty of greywater systems is they can be incredible simple to construct, use and maintain. The collaborative group Greywater Action For A Sustainable Water Culture is an incredible resource not only for learning to construct and maint these systems, they also have a wealth of information on composting toilets, rainwater catchment and pedal-powered washing machines!

As we prepare to move La Casita once again, we plan to build a more elaborate system that can withstand the Vermont winters. The Greywater Action website also has great reviews of projects and useful tips for winterizing these systems. In the South it was much easier to manage it and although it will be more of a challenge it is another opportunity to learn and create a regenerative system. I’ll be posting details of our next greywater project so check-in with the tiny life over the next few weeks to see the details of construction!

Your Turn!

  • Have any tips on water disposal in a tiny house?
  • How do you feel about the current disposal and treatment of water?
  • Do you think greywater systems are viable project towards changing how we think about water disposal?

3 Year Review On The Luggable Loo

3 Year Review On The Luggable Loo

When I was growing up I could never imagine that I’d be sitting here writing an in depth review on a toilet, but here we are!  This is a review of my experience with a 5 gallon bucket composting toilet with the Luggable Loo toilet seat.

luggable loo review

I want to qualify this review before we get started.  I’m a very particular person, my house is kept very clean and tidy, I have germaphobe tendencies and I work in a white collar work environment where good hygiene is a must.  I say this only to give people an understanding of where I’m coming from because when I was reading reviews I couldn’t find others with similar lifestyles or standards.  When I first started, I was concerned how making the shift to living tiny might impact my corporate job at the time.

Where To Buy The Luggable Loo

You can find the seat in a few different places in the stores, Walmart, Dicks, and REI all carry them from time to time.  The problem is that it’s pretty hit or miss, they don’t carry many of them on the shelves.  So going online is the best option and I’ve found also happens to be the best price.

Shopping List To Use The Loo

Using A Luggable Loo For My Tiny House

With that out of the way, when I first sat down to plan my tiny house a flush toilet was a very important thing for me to have.  I was dead set on having a traditional toilet.  Then the real world happened.  The city I live in prohibits septic systems unless you have an extenuating circumstance (read: it ain’t happening).  For me to get a sewer line ran to my tiny house, permits, connection fees and labor it was close to $50,000!  I was shocked.

So I started looking into options: Nature’s Head, Envirolet Systems, Sun-Mar, Incinolet and many others.  The one thing that stood out to me is that they were all big, complicated and expensive.  I hadn’t made a decision because whenever I’d talk to friends who actually used them in real life, they all weren’t super happy with them and many didn’t like it.

While I was trying to decide what I was going to do, I had to move into my tiny house and just needed something.  So I swung by my local big box and grabbed a 5 gallon bucket ($5) and a Luggable Loo ($13) and some hamster pine wood chips ($3.50) and a roll of 13 gallon trash bags ($4).  A Complete kit for $25.50, much cheaper than a $600 composting toilet or $50k for a sewer line.

The setup was simple.  Take a five gallon bucket, place a trash bag in the unit with the edges hanging over the edge, put on toilet seat (which firmly clips onto the lip of the bucket) and then toss in some wood chips.  The lid will keep the bag in place so you don’t have to worry about an edge falling in.

how to setup composting toilet

Luggable Loo Review Over 3 Years

Like I said, at the time I viewed this as a stop gap, something that I was begrudgingly going to use until I could make a decision.  Then something interesting happened… I really liked it!

I will be the first to admit that there was an initial ick factor to get over, but that goes with all composting toilets.  But after a few weeks I realized it’s seriously no big deal.  If you’ve ever had a kid and changed diapers, that’s way worse.  With this setup I pop the seat off, pull the trash bag draw strings, tie it off, and drop it in the trash bin at the street.  You only have to touch the draw strings.

Urine Diverting Composting Toilet Setup

pee diverterOne caveat that I do want to make here is that, as a male, since I keep my toilet outside, I just pee straight forward on the ground, I keep the liquids out of the bucket for the most part.  I don’t have a diverter of any kind and if a female needs to use it, I just toss in a bit more of the wood chips for a little extra absorption and not worry about it.

Keeping your solids and liquids separate is very important in terms of ease of use, but also reducing smell.

If I had a live in girlfriend I may look into more complicated setups such as this urine diverter insert, which you the only place I could find online (or anywhere really) was here on Amazon.  There are some other options where you use a funnel, but honestly I like this molded plastic insert, it’s totally worth it.

Luggable Loo Tips Learned Over Time

luggable loo tips and tricks

I’ve been using this setup now for over 3 years and that means I’ve had a lot of experience in different weather, temperatures, rain, snow, etc.  Here are some experiments and lessons learned:

Skip The Wood Chips

Since I’m a guy I don’t have much liquids coming into the mix, so I thought I’d try not using wood chips at all.  That was over a year ago and now I don’t use them at all unless I have company.  Wood chips absorb liquids – some what – (I want to do a test with peat moss) so in reality it’s only to cover up what you leave behind and keep it out of sight.  If I was using it with someone I might switch back to chips or opt for a his and her throne.

Double Doodie Bags Review: Nice, but not required

double doodie bag review

These bags are very popular with the Luggable Loo, mainly because Reliance (company that makes them) is the same maker.  In many cases they’re sold together or have a coupon, which is how I tried them out.  While the bags work really well, I found that as a guy, I just would pee separately.

 

Summer Vs. Winter

summer vs winter on a composting toilet

I like the toilet setup much better in the winter.  Since I keep my toilet outside, the weather is a factor.  With cooler weather means less bugs, which means less flies and gnats.  To mitigate the bugs in the summer I just empty it once a week and I never have to worry.

There may be a few flies inside, but I give the bucket a kick and they fly away.  If you wait a few weeks in the summer you’ll run into flies laying eggs, which leads to larvae, which are gross.  Emptying it once a week means you’ll never have that happen.  In truth you can get away with a few weeks, but why chance it.

In the winter I usually empty it once a month.  There are no bugs to speak of in the winter and the cold of Fall and Winter make everything a breeze.

The Smell

smell of composting toilet

This is a very common question and here’s the truth: there is a smell.  This is really why I started using this outside.  Now that said, there is a smell, but it’s never worse than if you just went.

I have considered adding two little fans to the cover to bring in fresh air and draw smells out.  With those fans, there never would be any smell.  For those of you who are skeptical, consider that I’m a very clean person and the smell has been so little of a concern I felt adding a simple fan wasn’t worth my time.

Keeping The Toilet Outdoors

keeping toilet outside

I don’t really know anyone else that does this, but I am a major proponent of this.  I have considered building a little enclosed area to keep it in, but living on 32 acres, I don’t really have to worry about privacy, plus the view is much better!

My recommendation would be build a little outhouse, throw a little solar panel on the top and have a tiny fan always running.  If you’re camping you can get one of these pop up toilet tents which are great.

Many people ask me about rain and snow, but honestly it has never been an issue.  Every time it has rain I just put it under a base of a tree and the leaves shelter me pretty well.  There was one time when I got very sick and needed to use the facilities very often, it also poured for several days.

I just put it on my tiny house porch and it was totally fine.  In the snow, which it doesn’t snow a lot here in NC, it wasn’t a big deal either.  Even in wind, no big deal.  I have been surprised at how little it matters when it rains, is windy or is snowing.

Going To The Bathroom Outside Is Awesome

There is something really pleasant about taking care of business when you have a really nice view or just enjoy the peace and quite of nature.  If you’ve ever gone backpacking and use a toilet with a great view, it’s very enjoyable.

The Seat Of The Luggable Loo

luggable loo toilet seat review

I am very impressed how comfortable this seat is, for $13 it’s totally worth the money.  The lid for me broke off after about a year and I like it better because the lid kind of hugged a tad too close in the back.  The lid still works, I just set it on top and it has a pretty good fit.

The other thing I really like about the Luggable Loo is how well it snaps onto the 5 gallon bucket.  It has a very positive snap on the lip of the bucket, but still leave room for you to put a trash back and lock it in place.  It’s holding power on the bag is very important because it means the bag is kept in place and your business goes where it’s supposed to and stays here.

Worst Case Scenario

luggable loo horror story

The setup has worked really well for me, but there was one thing I’ve always dreaded: if it tipped over.  One day I came out and it was apparent that some animal had come up to it, knocked the lid off, then flipped the whole thing seat down.  This mean that the “contents” literally were on the ground.

This was very unfortunate, but I figure out that I could grab my shovel, slide it under the leave on the ground, using the leaves as a barrier layer, and in one motion, flip it right side up.  In the end not one bit fell out and I just bagged it and it was all good.

So far, knock on wood, I haven’t ever had a bag leak.  Even if I did, I keep a few extra pails on hand and a few lids.  This means if I ever have a catastrophic failure I just put a lid on the bucket and seal it all in, then toss it.  Pail and a lid are super durable and at only a few bucks, you don’t care if you have to toss one.

 

So that’s my review and experience with the Luggable Loo 5 gallon bucket composting toilet.

Your Turn!

  • What are you planning on using for your toilet?

10 Ways To Make The Most Of A Wood Stove On Your Homestead

If you’ve ever considered starting up a homestead of your own or just want to live off grid, many people consider a woods stove for their home. They not only provide a link to a simpler time, they also save you money on your fuel bills every month.

use wood stove

 

A wood stove can come in many forms and can burn many kinds of fuel, but they all provide a wide range of benefits. Some are common sense, like cooking our food and heating your homestead. Some are not so obvious like dehydrating foodstuffs for long term storage or, believe it or not, generating electricity. But more on that later on.  Let’s take a look at some of the ways that you can maximize the value from your wood burning stove.

 

1: It cooks your food

Well, this one is a no-brainer, but anything you can cook on your gas or electric fired stove or oven you can cook on a wood burning stove. Place your pots or pans on the top of the stove, and cook just like you normally would.

A pot belly or Franklin style stove only have enough space for two or maybe three items. A wider kitchen style stove, like the one your grandmother may have used in her younger days, will be as wide as a conventional stove and will have room for three or four cooking vessels.

Some models come with just a flat surface for cooking, while those designed for use in the kitchen will have a flat cooking surface and an oven built in as well. If you don’t want the bigger kitchen style stove you can still bake using a cast iron or aluminum dutch oven on the stove top.

2: It dries your clothes

Your wood stove is a giant heat generator and you can string a clothes line around three sides, keeping it a few feet away to avoid burning your clothes, and let the heat from the stove provide the same results of an electric clothes dryer without the power bill. Boots can be dried the same way on the floor, just remember to keep them a foot or so away from the stove.

3: It dehydrates your food

Build drying trays with narrow slats to let the warm air get to the food you want to dehydrate. They should be as wide as your stove top to take advantage of all the heat rising up.

home made dehydrator over wood stove

Many homesteaders dehydrate their food for long term storage. You don’t need to buy a dehydrator at the store when you can make your own racks and hang them over your wood stove.

Mount them on the wall or around the stove pipe a few feet above the top of the stove. Make sure to keep them well above any cooking vessels you might be using. The heat rising off of the stove will provide the gentle, slow heat needed to dry out whatever you want to dehydrate.

4: It heats your house

Another no brainer is that it will heat your house. At a minimum it will heat the room that it is located in, but there are ways to transfer that heat into other areas of your home. If you have a chimney attached to it, the hot air will running through the chimney will provide some heat to the other rooms it runs through.

heat smaller room wood stove

Wood stoves come in all sizes so if you have a room that isn’t heated from your main wood stove, you can put a smaller one in the room that needs it.

You can also surround the stove with a wall of bricks, stone, or other masonry materials to serve as a heat sink that will serve as a radiator to warm the room after the stove has burned out.

If you have a fireplace, and the duct work in place to circulate the warm air into other rooms a wood stove in the form of a fireplace insert is another option for you to consider.

5: It keeps you in shape

 

If you haven’t heard that wood is the only fuel that warms you twice, you will understand it if you choose to use an axe to cut and process your wood into stove sized pieces. You get warm the first time just processing the wood, the wood stove is where you get warm the second time.

6: It humidifies your air

humidify moisture in air pot of water

Without central air conditioning the air in any home can get very dry. That is one reason many people prefer gas heat over electric heat, because a byproduct of burning the natural gas is water vapor which helps to humidify the air.

You can achieve the same thing by placing a pot of water on top of your wood stove and keeping a fire going in it. Even a small fire will be enough to help the water in the pot turn to vapor and release it into the air.

7: It dehumidifies your air

Conversely, on humid days, the dry heat from your wood stove can help to turn a muggy day into a comfortable day. Leaving the fire door on the front of the wood stove open for a while can speed up the process.

8: It heats your bed on cold winter nights

Well, it can heat your bed warmers so they can do you some good on those cold winter nights. You can buy bed warmers or make them yourself. In colonial days they were enclosed pots with long handles that you filled with hot coals from the fire or stones that were warmed in the fire. They were placed in the bed to warm it up before retiring for the night, moving it around like an iron to warm all parts of the bed.

coals pre heat your bed

You can achieve the same effect by putting fire bricks on top of your wood stove so that they can get nice and hot and store lots of heat. Bricks that are wide and just a couple of inches thick will work the best to store energy and still have a good amount of surface area to transfer it to the bed.

Once heated, wrap them in a blanket and place them in the bed before going to sleep, or put them at the bottom of your bed to keep your feet warm, just like you would with a hot water bottle. Warm feet will go a long way to keeping the rest of your body warm too.

9: It gives you ashes and char wood

wood ash char wood icy walkways

Wood ash and char wood have many uses. In winter they provide a cheap and biodegradable way to melt snow and ice. They also provide more traction on slippery walkways.

Ash, the gray powdery material left in the bottom of your wood stove when everything has burned is actually quite useful around the homestead. It is very alkaline, so you can use it in a slurry of water and ash to help tan animal hides. You can also put a bit in the hole where you are putting plants that like an alkaline soil like tomatoes, garlic, onions, and asparagus.

You can mix it with fat and water to make soap. It can also be used as a mild abrasive for cleaning your hands or pots and pans.

Its alkaline nature also makes a natural ice melting product, so you can sprinkle it along icy roads or walkways. Add in the smaller chunks of charred wood from the bottom of the stove and you can also add some traction to those slippery surfaces.

10: It generates electricity for you

Biolite camp stove

A Biolite camp stove that cooks your food and also converts the heat from the fire into electricity with the orange box on the side of the stove.

Thermo electric generators, or TEG devices for short, are deceptively simple devices that convert heat into electricity that you can store in a battery. They are based on a phenomenon called the Seebeck Effect where the difference in heat between two pieces of metal, like steel and aluminum, can be used to generate an electrical current.

If you want to channel your inner engineer and learn more about the technology you can check out the TEGPOWER website and then go to the TEGMART site to buy the components you need to build your own custom system. A builder and homesteader in British Columbia tried his hand at it to build a thermo electric generator that is attached to the wood stove.

A few companies, the most well-known being BioLite, make small wood burning stoves that have TEGs built into them. They all work by using the heat in the metal container or from the boiling liquid to generate electrical energy.

Put it where it will do the most good

The placement of your wood stove has much to do with how well it meets your needs and serves its purpose. The first consideration is what you will use it for. If cooking is one of its intended uses then you will want to place it in or near your kitchen.

If the stoves purpose is mainly to provide warmth in the house, then placing it in the room where you spend the majority of your time will serve you well. If you have a central room with other rooms off of it then the stove can radiate its heat into those rooms as well. Just remember that heat radiates in straight lines so if there are corners to go around you might want to use additional stoves to heat those rooms.

wood fire place in house

Placement in a central room, especially one on the interior of the home where it is better insulated, will allow your wood stove to serve multiple purposes in one location; heating, cooking, and drying clothes. This consideration is especially important in the event of an emergency where it is the only source of heat in the house, such as during a natural disaster where your normal source of energy is not available.

The owners of a repurposed school bus decided to place their wood stove between where the kitchen area ended and the living space began. In this way one stove provided a cook top for kitchen and heating for the living area.

Buy the Right Kind of Wood Stove

Another key decision you need to make is what kind of stove you want, and what material should it be made of.
Do you plan to cook with it? Will you be doing any baking? Is its only purpose to keep the house warm? Will you be heating water with it? How large are the rooms you need to heat? These questions all feed into what kind of wood stove to get.

pot belly wood stoveIf baking is even a slight possibility, then you should definitely give thought to buying a stove with a flat top for cooking and an oven for baking. There are ovens that you can put on top of a flat top stove, but they are less efficient than one that is built in.

Pot belly stoves, or Franklin stoves, are good for heating rooms and for heating or cooking a few things at a time due to their smaller flat top surface. If you want a general purpose stove, then this style is a good choice. It requires less fuel than the larger stoves designed for use in the kitchen. They also normally cost less than the larger kitchen stove designs.

The materials the stove is made from is also an important consideration. Steel stoves may be more durable but they do not store heat well. So, when the fire dies out they will lose their heat quickly. Stoves with a cast iron construction hold heat longer, they will even provide enough heat to continue cooking once the fire has gone out. They also continue to radiate heat into the room longer.

Another option, especially if you do not want to build a wall of masonry or similar materials around the stove to serve as a thermal battery, is to look into a soapstone lined stove or one with an insert that will hold the heat.

…and finally, think about size

In addition to the variety of materials used to make wood burning stoves, they also come in a variety of sizes. There is enough variety to find the right size for your own unique needs. The table below provides some good guidelines on what size stove to get.

Size Area to heat Firebox size
Small 600-1000 square feet Less than 2 cubic feet
Medium 800-2000 square feet 2-3 cubic feet
Large 1500 – 3000 square feet More than 3 cubic feet

 

Your Turn

  • What kind of wood stove would best meet your needs?
  • In what ways do you make the most of your wood stove?

How To Setup A Rainwater Catchment System

Rain catchment, rain harvesting, or rain barrels are a favorite project of many gardeners and homesteaders.  The truth is that water is the basis of all life on our homesteads and gardens, so it makes sense that we look to take advantage of the rain that is already falling on our home.  Catching water to use is a great way to reduce our water bills.

rainwater catchement

For each square foot of catchment we create we capture .6 gallons per inch of rain.  Where I live in North Carolina it rains an average of 42 inches per year, if we consider the average size a home in the US (2,400 square feet) that means that if we were to catch all the rain that fell on that roof in a year, we would capture over 60,000 gallons!  That’s a lot of water!

Parts You Need To Catch Rain Water

Regardless of the size and scale of your system you’ll need a few basic parts to put it all together.  Below this section I dig into some of the details you also want to consider, but at it’s basics you’ll need the following.

Catchment Surface

This can be any flat surface where water lands and is channeled where we want to store it.  In many cases people look to their roofs because it’s a large surface that already has gutters which will collect and channel the water into a few points where we can collect.  This could be any surface so get creative.  It could be the roof of our chicken coop, the roof of a barn, it could even be a parking lot that is graded to drain the water into a settlement pond or swale.

stand alone water catchment surface

The material of this surface can be almost anything, but do consider what that surface introduces into the water.  If for instance you have a shingle roof, there are a lot of chemicals in them which prevent biological growth and hold up in the sun for years.  These can transfer to your water if you’re not careful.  In general the best roof surface is is a metal roof, because it is less likely to impart any bad chemicals into your water and is pretty easy to clean if it gets real dirty.

First Flush Diverter

As with anything outside, things can get dirty.  In the case of roofs and large open surfaces, we find that dust, dirt, and pollen settle onto roofs.  Additionally you’ll have birds pooping on it, bugs dying onto it and other things making your roof a dirty place.  We obviously don’t want any of these things in our water, and while we can’t prevent it, we can use a first flush diverter to try to avoid the bulk of this going into our storage tanks.

A first flush diverter is a mechanical device that lets us wash of the roof with all the gunk in it, then divert the now cleaner water to our tanks.  This can be done a few different ways, a whole bunch of options can be found online both for purchase and DIY.  The video below shows you one way you can do this.

Storage Tank

catchment tanksLater on I’ll go into how to calculate how much storage you need, but suffice to say you’ll need a good bit of storage to really cover your needs.  There are a lot of DIY options out there with 55 gallon drums or 120 gallon totes, but in past experience I’ve found these to be to be a lot of extra hassle and in the end you don’t save as much because you’ll need a bunch of them, each time adding in connections that can fail.  Typically you can find barrels for around $20 a piece, but then you’ll spend $10 or more in PVC parts to interconnect them.

A 500 gallon water tank can be purchased for around $300 if you’re able to go pick it up, shipping is the tough part.  With a tank that size you’re going to want to pour a pad to set it on for stability and safety, so you should factor that into the cost.

Is Rain Water Safe?

Yes and no.  According to Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. of Biomedical Sciences rain water is generally pretty safe to drink or use on your garden.  It’s always recommended to filter and purify if you’re not sure about the source.  When we are talking about ingesting something we need to do our research and consult experts (I’m not one).

Where I think most people will run into trouble is in the catchment and storage of the water.  The water as it falls from the sky is pretty clean, but once it lands on a surface and is move into a tank, you can run into issues with less than desirable things being introduced.  Even with water from the sky, there may be some pollution, dust or other biological elements in the water.  So always filter and purify.

How Much Water Do You Need?

I found that water catchment is only actually useful if you go big, small rain barrels are a fun project, but gardens require a lot of water and most can’t keep up in any significant way.  A general rule is you need about 0.8 gallons of water per square feet per week for your garden.  This will vary based on your climate, soil and crops, but it’s a good place to start.

So figure out how many square feet of garden you have, times that by 0.8 gallons to figure out your total weekly needs.  Example: 1000 square feet of garden will need 800 gallons per week.  It’s also important to consider the averages for the month in your growing season.  A quick google search for “monthly rainfall in…” will give you a chart, for me I get 3 inches per month or more all year round, so I need to consider that when sizing my system.

If I had a house that was 1,500 square feet of roof times .6 gallons per sq/ft times 3 inches of rain in the month, I can collect a maximum of 2,700 gallons per month.  This would support a maximum of 843 square feet of garden (2700 divided by 4 weeks divided by .8 gallons = max garden size).  So you can see that you need a pretty big area to collect, to store and the infrastructure to move it from one place to another.

Storing Water

Keeping water stored up is no small task, mainly because of the quantity we need and how heavy it is.  At 8.5 lbs per gallon, if we take the above example that means we need support over 11 tons!  The tank would need to be 8 feet across and 9 feet tall, which typically costs $1500-$2500.  These are all very big numbers obviously and even at their scale, it’s only supporting a smallish garden.

water barell

Tanks this size are a lot to transport, to move and to install.  If you’re going to go above 100 gallons I strongly suggest getting a cement footing poured so that you know the surface below can safely handle the weight, plus you’re going to want at least a little elevation so that you can fit a bucket under the bottom drain or have working room for pipe connections.  Because of the size, the weight of the water will provide pressure to push the water out the bottom pretty well.

When you’re storing water in bulk you need to make sure that you prevent foreign bodies from getting introduced, like a mouse climbing in and drowning, or bugs falling in and algae forming. We can do this through various methods using hardware cloth, opaque containers and in some cases chemical controls.

Low Pressure System

One advantage of municipal or well water systems is they are pressurized, typically to around 40 PSI (pounds per square inch).  When we capture water we don’t always have that much pressure so we can do a few things to overcome it.

drip tape irrigation

First is we can get the water into an elevated position.  If you’re able to capture the water in a high spot and put your garden or home in a lower spot, we can use that elevation change to our advantage.  For every foot elevation we can get our water, we will gain about .4 PSI.  So if we are able to raise the water to 100 feet above where we need it, say on top of a hill, we could get 40 psi at our spigot down the hill.

Most people don’t have that drastic of a change in their topography, so instead we can use low pressure irrigation to overcome any limitations.  To meet this need there are now several drip tape solutions that are designed with low pressure in mind.  In some cases you’ll only need around 10 psi  (25 feet of elevation) to get your garden watered.

Filtration & Purification

Depending on your setup and your use you might want to consider filtration and/or purification in line somewhere. The difference between these two processes is important to understand.  Simply put, the main difference lies in the level of protection they provide. Generally speaking, a water filter is designed to remove waterborne protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. A water purifier is designed to combat all three classes of microbes, including viruses.

dirty water

If you want to go this route, a commercial system can be had for not too much money and there are a lot of good options.  Since we need to remove things measured in microns, our ability to come up with DIY solutions are just not possible here.

So that’s some of the basics of catching water for use in your garden and potentially as water in the home if you’re off grid.  Make sure you read up, do your home work here because there are some finer points to get right.

Your Turn!

  • What are your plans to for water catchment?
  • What tips can you share if you’ve made your own system?

How to Homestead: Tackling the Challenges of Going Off-Grid

Living off the land, growing your own food and taking life back to simpler times—for many this sounds like the ultimate dream. In the hustle-bustle craziness of modern life, it’s no wonder people are ready to forget their commute, stop shopping, turn off their TV and learn how to homestead.

living off grid

Homesteading takes us back to simpler times. The idea of self-sufficiency, independence and forging your own way? Well, that’s the very fabric of the American dream. But the reality of homesteading—living off the grid, growing your own food supply, being self-reliant—is a lot to take on, especially all at once. Before you quit your day job and buy a brood of chickens, you’ll want to be certain you’ve planned for the many challenges of going off-grid.

If you’re hoping to learn the logistics of how to homestead, these are the challenges you’ll need to tackle.

1. Setup

The biggest conundrum when going off-grid is the cost. Living truly off-grid is romanticized and when you combine it with setting up a homestead, expectations may further exceed reality. I’ll be honest, with enough money anything’s possible of course, but realistically I would say choose one or the other to start.

inverter, charge controller, panel

I hear from off-grid newbies (grid muggles, as I like to call them) they think they’re going to go into the woods, build a cabin and live off the land. For most of us, it’s not so simple. To feed a family of four, you’d need at least two acres of land for food. You would also need roughly 25 average-sized solar panels to sustain enough electricity for four people, possibly more (you can read about my solar panel setup here). That’s not even considering the additional concerns of water, sewer, shelter, animal husbandry, gardening, food storage and more.

After living off the grid for the last few years, I can say there are quite a few considerations without growing my own food. The best method for living out your homesteading dreams is to take your setup in steps and plan on a decent upfront investment.

2. Electricity

Solar electricity is the biggest component of going off the grid. After all, that’s literally what the “grid” refers to. Homesteaders and anyone who plans to live off the grid will need to research exactly what sort of electric wiring and solar panel system you’ll require for your particular situation. I have a great guide: Shockingly Simple Electric if you’re looking for a resource to get started.
solar panels for homestead

I have 15 solar panels installed, which is enough to run everything I need in my place. My setup cost around $20,000. However, if you plan to run an electric water heater, a microwave, washer or other large appliance—or if you have a larger home—you’re going to need more than just a basic solar panel system. Forget those systems you see at home improvement stores—these small solar panel systems offer only enough power to charge your phone and laptop.

As I said above, for a family of four, expect at least 25 solar panels. You’ll also need a generator or two if you expect less than 8 hours per day of southern sun. This is especially important in the winter. Calculate your electricity needs based on the times when you get the least amount of sun. In the summer, you may generate more electricity than you require, but in the winter, you’ll be prepared.

3. Finding Land

Back in the day, true homesteading involved laying your claim to land by setting up a sustainable farm plot. In 1976, the federal government ended homesteading in the continental United States. Homesteading continued in Alaska for ten more years—but since 1986, if you want to live on a plot of land, you’ll need to purchase it.

The biggest challenge of homesteading involves the initial cost of land and setting it up, but there are also costs to maintain your homestead. Even with the smallest home possible, there are plenty of expenses involved. How will you access the land, install your well and septic, and clear land or setting up planting beds?

Minimally, if you plan to house livestock such as chickens or goats, you’ll have several things to consider.  They will need a shelter for to protect them from the elements, a place to store feed and bedding, as well as fencing to keep them in and predators out.

For your garden you’ll also need seeds, seedlings and basic gardening supplies. The easiest route is to purchase land and set up your small house. Slowly adjust to off-the-grid living and take baby steps as you start to get into homesteading.

4. Legality

I’ve written before about the laws involved with living off the grid. The habitable structure definitions included in most municipal ordinances will exclude several factors of off-the-grid living. Many tiny house dwellers skirt this issue by putting their house on a trailer, but this only gets you out of some of the legal requirements. When you involve livestock, you’re also looking at additional legal concerns.

tiny house planning

Again, my big disclaimer is to do your research before you start. Look into all the laws involved and restrictions in your living area. (You can check Municode here for a guide for most but not all municipal coding and government sites.) Going against the rules may result in fines or worse, so make your choices wisely. This is again where baby-steps come into play (you may be sensing a theme here). Thinking you’ll build an off-the-grid hobby farm tomorrow just isn’t realistic.

However, most of us can start a garden on our plot of land, grow a few vegetables and possibly keep chickens. Bite off what you can chew and always study local restrictions first. Don’t underestimate the power of a friendly appeal to your zoning board and code enforcement. You may also need the expertise of a contractor as well as a lawyer.

5. Shelter

cabin in woodsIf your plot of land already contains a shelter, taking it off-grid may be a matter of adapting by installing solar, heating and on-site water solutions. Honestly, it’s often easier to get around the legal issues if your plot already has a dwelling on-site. Many ordinances require an on-site dwelling of a certain size. So, in theory you could turn an existing structure into a barn or storage, while heating and powering a smaller, more sustainable house on the same plot of land.

If you have a family to consider, you may need more space than I (a single guy) requires. Then again, the extra help with your homestead may be welcome. If you plan to raise animals, you’ll also need shelter considerations for your livestock.

The shelter requirements are obviously very different depending on your climate. A desert yurt in California may not require a heat source like a cabin in Montana. If you plan to homestead, the climate is a huge factor as well. Growing seasons and weather are vital factors for producing enough food.

6. Water & Sewer

catchment tanksMany grid muggles think living off the grid applies to power. Throw up a few solar panels and you’re set, right? Living off the grid also applies to water and sewer as well. When it comes to the issue of water, this is one of the other big logistical challenges.

If you live near a water source, you may be able to carry in enough water for daily use. But you need to realize that water is 8.5 lbs. per gallon, so huffing buckets of water will get old really fast.  My suggestion is always spend the money to build out a high quality water system– one that brings clean drinking water to your home and the other areas of your farmstead. If you’re also hoping to grow your own food, water is more of a concern. For hundreds of years, farmers have worked with well water and irrigation systems. After the initial cost of setup, these are viable options and fairly easy to maintain.  Water is one thing not to skimp on.

Your shower and sink drains can be made to be “grey water”, but it requires the use of sustainable soaps that won’t harm crops or the land with runoff. Your sewerage or “black water” may require a more in-depth system (like septic). There’s also the possibility of incineration or using humanure but there are many restrictions, so certainly explore what’s allowed in your area. While you can conserve your water usage, chances are you’ll need a system and longer-term plan, especially for a homestead.

7. Heat

wood stovePart of the homesteading mystique is the idea you’ll chop enough wood to heat your home. If this is your plan, be sure you really, REALLY enjoy chopping wood, because you’re about to spend a large portion of your day doing it. You should also plan on having a fairly endless supply of forest.

Alternatively, you could do what I do, which is rely on some propane for heating. Let me tell you, although it may seem like “cheating,” investing in propane and gas is well worth your time. You can use propane for your stove and water heater as well which will save you a lot of money.

Unless you have an extra $50,000 to invest in solar panels or a robust hydropower turbine (flowing water and a drop on your land), you’re going to need to rely on fossil fuels. Fortunately, propane is relatively inexpensive.

8. Food

When people dream of making the leap to homesteading, they’re most likely referring to food and farming. This is an area where homesteading is fun, satisfying and really shines. If you’re on the grid and in a temperate climate, growing some of your fruits and vegetables for the year is a realistic endeavor.

If you’re off the grid or live in a less-temperate climate, then you’ll probably need to supplement some of your food supply with trade or purchase. Using storage solutions such as a root cellar (much cheaper than refrigeration), canning and preservation will make sure your family eats healthy and saves money in the process.

Growing a garden requires less land and fewer resources than livestock, so carefully measure your costs and expectations. For example, to raise chickens, your coop may require an initial investment of $500-$1,000 and around $15/month to feed. So, measure it against the cost and your need for eggs before you jump in.

9. Health

A homesteader I know lives about four hours away from town in Montana. While working on clearing her property, she dropped a rock on her hand, slicing off a finger. After weighing her driving distance from the hospital, she realized she wouldn’t make it in time to save her digit and now lives with nine fingers.

first aid medical kit

This story isn’t to scare you off from homesteading, but just a reminder, the further off-grid you go, the less access you will have to necessities in case of an emergency. Because I still live relatively close to the city, I can get what I need any time. This may not be the case in rural areas.

Homesteaders benefit from basic first-aid training and from stocking up on medical supplies. While you don’t need a whole pharmacy on-hand, be prepared to deal with stings, scrapes, burns, cuts and contusions. When you live far off from the city, an ambulance might be hours away, so think worst-case scenario and take precautions.

10. Neighbors

As homesteaders we need to consider our neighbors, because not everyone thinks this life is as great as we do.  In the country we may have enough land that we don’t have to worry much, but if we are homesteading on an urban or suburban lot, we need to consider the people around us.

Obviously, making sure you’re respectful and adhering to your zoning laws and ordinances will help you keep the peace. Not every neighbor is thrilled when a beekeeper moves in next door, smoke from your wood stove drifts over to their yard, or your loud generator is running at 3am.

neighbors meeting

A benefit of living in a small home or relying on your land to grow your own food is that your life is simplified. No longer are you tied to the social constraints and obligations of society. You may choose to live in a rural area where you’re more isolated from others. As long as you’re happy with solace, this setup works great. However, there’s no shooting the breeze with your buddy across the fence or knocking on the door for a cup of sugar. Self-sufficiency has positives and drawbacks.

Ultimately, if your sights are set on homesteading, it’s certainly possible. Be realistic about your expectations when you begin. The first step is planning, doing your research and setting a realistic budget. I’ve found it best to take the homesteading setup process one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be living the life you dream of!

Your Turn!

  • What do you see as your biggest challenge?