Monday, 06 February 2012 16:00

Home and Energy Options Part 1

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn our last blog, we purchased our property and visited the local jurisdiction to make sure we can do what we want with our property. We also made sure it met our minimum requirements for insurance, safety, medical care, and services.  Now it’s time to consider what kind of house we want to live in for our off grid experience.

There is no “best in category” type of house for off grid living. There are however, many different design considerations that can be incorporated into your home of choice that directly correspond to being off the grid. The most critical one is energy efficiency.

Just think of all the different types of homes available to you today. Tepees, yurts, cabins, manufactured homes, mobile homes, traditional stick frame, insulated concrete forms (ICF), structural insulated panel (SIP),  log home, cob, cordwood, straw bale, adobe, earth berm, underground, steel, steel container box, concrete, and masonry (brick, block, and stone).  Don’t forget houseboats!

Remember, we each have our own set of circumstances that factor into the choices we make so the trick here is not to get too hung up on which kind of house is better for living off grid but rather to make the most of the one you choose or already own.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe decided to go with an insulated concrete house. One of the biggest factors is that we live 20 miles from the nearest fire station and wanted to do everything we could to be non-combustible. The ICF design is also fairly energy efficient and easy to upgrade structurally to withstand earthquakes and heavy snow loads. In our first year of living here we have experienced a 4.6 magnitude earthquake and a forest fire that would have consumed our house except for the precautions we took in constructing a defensible area around the house and the non combustible nature of the materials we used on the exterior walls, roof, and soffits.

Our exterior walls consist of Hardiplank siding over 2” (3 hour fire treated foam) insulation board attached to an 8” concrete wall with another 2” layer of fire treated insulation on the inside. The roof is constructed of metal panels and the soffits are covered with vented or slotted metal panels which eliminate bird blocking holes. We even used metal panels on the carport and porch roof exposed ceilings. One of the main causes of house fires from an exterior source is when the wind blows fire embers into your attic via the bird block attic vent holes.

Non combustible construction could also be a factor with your insurance company.

Anyway, back to energy efficiency. The more energy efficient your house is, the less energy you are going to use to run your household. Less energy to run your household will result in a smaller energy source. The smaller the source, the less money you will pay to purchase and install it. I know you off grid readers already know that but it made me feel better just to say it!

Considerations you need to make affecting energy efficiency include but are not limited to construction materials, insulation, window size and location, the direction your home faces, how much of your home is above ground, the size of your home, eave (overhang) length, ceiling heights, appliances, heating, and electrical fixtures. I’m sure with a little more time I can add to this list. It may seem a little overwhelming but the good news is look at all the ways you can save energy and the decisions and choices are yours to make.

We’ll address these items one by one to help understand what effect each one has on energy efficiency.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableConstruction Materials: I’ve already explained the factors we used in determining what to build our house with. Strength and non combustible materials. Factors for you may be entirely different. I personally would love the atmosphere of a log home under other circumstances. For many of you cost will be the biggest factor. Manufactured homes and mobile homes are more affordable types of construction and have come a long way in terms of quality from years past. If you want to be close to nature and simplicity, maybe the tepee or yurt is for you. Straw bale, cob and cordwood are good “do it yourself “materials. Masonry can be a good choice in terms of appearance and insulation efficiency. Whatever your circumstances are, just do the best you can to utilize the most energy efficient materials available to you.

Insulation: The type of insulation you utilize willdepend on the type of construction you choose. We used insulated concrete forms which doubled as our concrete wall forms and exterior insulation plus fiberglass blown in over the ceilings. We also applied insulation batts in the ceilings at the exterior wall line. We used the earth on one side of the house because we built on a slope.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThere are many choices available to you today. Rigid foam insulation, batt (fiberglass) insulation, blown insulation and polyurethane insulation. No need to go into detail here.  The important thing to remember is that all materials and types of construction can be insulated.

Any part of your house that you can place below grade is the best insulation of all. Properly designed, insulation can help to keep your house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Straw bale, cordwood, cob, and log walls act as their own combo insulation and exterior wall systems.

In the late 1970’s I built my first home with my Dads help. Being 20 years old and having insulated a few houses for my Dad I thought I knew a lot about insulation. Our local utility offered a free energy survey and if you followed their advice in “draft proofing” your home they would give you the materials to plug the holes and your monthly bills would go down. I thought it was a waste of time but I would give them a shot anyway. After all, I had done my own insulating and knew what a good job it was. It was a traditional stick frame home. During the survey I was so busy rolling my eyes that I almost missed the toilet paper test. Remove an electrical outlet or light switch cover and loosely hold a few squares of toilet paper in front of it and watch it flutter from all of the air passing through the opening. Without further comment (or rolling of the eyes) I accepted their free foam plugs to put behind the switch and outlet covers. To this day I have no idea where that air comes from but I do know it exists if you don’t plug all of the holes including the small ones.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’m not going to get into whether or not it is best to “seal” a house or whether it is harmful to your health. The fact is, the international residential building code is headed in that direction and in some cases are already here. As of January 2011, some building departments began doing pressure tests on new homes. Using a huge fan they blow a prescribed amount of air into your home from an exterior doorway which creates a positive and measurable pressure inside the house. If your house can’t contain and hold that amount of pressure for a certain length of time they will not let you move in until all of the leaks are identified and plugged. It is my understanding that most houses pass the test.

I have mixed feelings on the subject. I understand the need for energy conservation however you never heard the term “sick building” until the late 1980’s when we began to seal up buildings for energy purposes. I think I’ll let someone else tackle that blog.

Coming up: window sizes and locations, the direction your home faces, how much of your home is above ground, the size of your home, eave length, ceiling heights, appliances, and electrical fixtures.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites and Off Grid Works.

Related items

  • Home and Energy Options Part 2

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn Part 2 of this Series we are going to talk about more design features to be taken into consideration when you design your off grid home.

    Windows: I could probably write a whole blog on windows alone but my main purpose in sharing our experiences in building a home for off grid living is to present  a broad overview of many of the options we had to wade through and to give others who are following us a starting point to do their own research.

    Windows are a critical factor in energy efficiency. Considerations range from the different types of windows to location in the house and the sizes chosen. Double or triple pane? Argon filled and type E? Wood, metal or vinyl?

    Passive solar design is something I will cover in depth later on. Window sizes and location are a big factor in passive design. My research suggested that you use the following glass quantities based on square footage of your floor plan:

    East side of the house 4%, west side 2%, north side 4%, and south side 7-12%. So if you had a floor plan of 1000 square feet, on the east side of the house you would allow for a total square footage of 1000 SF x 4% = 40 square feet of glass and so on. Always put the most glass on the south side of the house if you can.

    Our house faces east by southeast which isn’t ideal. It had to face that way due to the hillside terrain we built on. So we couldn’t strictly adhere to the formula explained above but just by being aware of the affect windows have on passive design will allow you to do the best you can with what you have to work with.

    The sun is one factor and cold is another. My wife Laurie made insulated curtains for all of our windows and they make a huge difference. Without them we would probably burn an extra 1-2 cords of wood per year.

    In a perfect world your home will face south. I have a friend who was able to do just that. Even though they live in the cold country in northern Idaho, if it’s a sunny day, they are able to shut the wood stove down by noon because it gets too hot otherwise. They put most of their windows on the south side of the house and when the sun comes up it heats everything it touches. They have concrete floors and an indoor concrete planter that absorbs the sun most of the day. After the sun goes down, the concrete still continues to emit the heat that it soaked up earlier. Passive heat works and is something that should be considered in every home whether on or off grid.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAbove or Underground: One of the best passive insulators is the earth.  Anytime you can put part of your home underground you will be money ahead. Earth insulation will help you stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. One whole side of our house is underground because we built into the hillside. It is a garage wall. With the earth on one side of the garage and our heated house on the other side, our garage never freezes and it has no heat! We get sub zero temperatures every winter. If I had my way, we would have built an underground house but the other half of this off grid partnership needs light and more light so we ended up with the one long wall. I’ll take any small victory I can get. As a bonus, our garage makes a perfect food storage area. It stays between 35 and 40 degrees from late fall to early spring, all with no heat.

    Home size: In the case of energy efficiency size is an important factor. The smaller a home, the less energy it will use for both heating, cooling, and electricity. We chose to build a 1500 SF home mostly because the winters can get pretty long here and we thought it prudent to each have our own room to go to when we need to “get away”. I have a traditional man type room with all of my special man treasures and Laurie has a crafts room with a lot of windows and a loom.

    Before we bought this property we had a nice cabin not too far from here. It was 800 SF with a 400 SF loft. It was quite comfortable for two people. 1500 SF is nice but the 800 SF footprint would have been better in terms of energy consumption. Many of you will think we built too large and others will wonder how we get along with only 1500 SF. There is a current trend in some circles for really small homes measuring as little as several hundred square feet. Build the home you need but the smaller the better. Note: Due to the 12” wall thickness our floor area is actually 1400 SF.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEave Length: Another feature of passive design is your roof eave overhang. Design your eaves to extend out far enough in the summer to shield the sun from your windows and in the winter to let the sun into your windows. It’s going to depend on where you are located. Eave length will be different in the southern part of the U.S than the northern. Shielding the sun in the summer months helps to cool your home. Conversely you want to allow the sun to heat your home in the winter. Passive heating and cooling are factors in sizing your off grid system. The less need you have, the smaller your energy system will need to be.

    Ceiling heights: The same applies to ceiling heights. Higher ceilings equal heat loss. Many people love the look and feel of spacious high ceilings. That’s nice but you know where the heat goes. It goes up and the higher the ceiling the more heat is required to keep you warm, down where you live. Keeping your ceilings low is an easy way to keep your energy needs lower.

    Passive design is a wonderful thing to incorporate in any home being built. Anything you can do to utilize the natural things that are available to us should be taken advantage of. Why pay for heat and light when you don’t have to? We have six solar tubes in our home that allow us to see with natural light all day long. Without them we would have to turn on the lights, even in the daytime, because we don’t have windows in every room. There are many ways to use what’s natural and free to heat, cool, and provide lighting in your home.

    Coming up next: Appliances, heating, and electrical fixtures.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites and Off Grid Works.

  • Home and Energy Options Part 3

    Well so far we’ve purchased the land and built a house and now we need to look at three other features of a home that will dramatically affect your off grid lifestyle and energy system. Those three items are appliances, 

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAppliances: Appliances have come a long way in energy efficiency but don’t be fooled, they still have a long way to go. The term Energy Star Rated isn’t all it’s been made out to be in the past. There is a lot of information out there if you take the time to look for it and this is one area you really need to do your homework

    For our electrical appliances we finally decided on a “three factor” strategy. Electrical operating requirements and short cycle capability and price. In order to keep our electrical usage down, we looked for appliances that required less power to function along with the ability to operate at reduced times. Our washing machine is electric and has many choices for timed cycles. Long wash or short wash. Our dishwasher has a feature called “Quick Wash”. We found that cycle to be more beneficial than the one labeled “Eco Wash”. Eco wash sounds like a good feature but it isn’t. The dishwasher operates for about an hour on Eco wash but only 30 minutes on Quick wash, so beware of terms that sound good but are really just a another sales pitch.

    We chose most appliances based on energy consumption, short cycle ability, and price but there is one appliance that we chose to buy based solely on its energy efficient design even though it was expensive. Our Sunfrost refrigerator. Refrigerators are one of the biggest energy drains on your system. Sunfrost refrigerators have a completely different design than traditional ones. They put the compressor at the top of the unit instead of the bottom. Compressors create heat and as the heat rises it warms up the cooling area above where your food is located which in turn causes the unit to turn on and run more in a never ending cycle. By placing the compressor at the top of the unit that whole process is avoided with the end result that your refrigerator runs a lot less. Will it pay for itself? I’ve never taken the time to figure it out. The unique design just made sense to us so we bought one. I’m in no way promoting this refrigerator. We just decided this would be one place we would take a stand on unnecessary energy consumption and we have never regretted it.

    In summary, be prepared to do a lot of homework on your appliances. We used the library and the Internet. There are a lot of comparison charts on the Internet and the U.S. Department of energy is another good source.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableHeating: In this article I will just touch on the subject of heating because to get into it properly would require one whole blog per type of heater and there are a lot of heat sources to choose from.

    Underground houses utilize the natural temperatures of the earth. Passive designs use the sun. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and propane are always an option.  Wood heat is widely used. You have other choices available such as a furnace or heat pump with forced air, boilers to heat hot water, and geothermal systems.

    We chose a wood fired masonry heater with propane wall heaters as backup or to be able to leave the house unattended in the winter if we needed to. I will discuss the masonry heater at length in a future blog because it is such a unique and efficient type of heater. Our 40 acres contain about 25 acres of timber and because our heater is 95% efficient and we grow more trees than we need for firewood, we actually have a net positive impact on our carbon footprint! It also didn’t hurt that I owned a masonry company and was able to get our heater at a greatly reduced price. If I had to lobby for a heat source I would push for the earth, the sun, and wood heat as the best options for the least amount of environmental impact for any home whether off grid or not.

    Electrical Fixtures: We’ve all heard a lot about “phantom power” the last few years. No one seems to know exactly how much it adds up to but whether you’re off grid or not, it is a factor in your electrical consumption. Phantom power is that power required to maintain an electrical appliance in a ‘ready’ state such as standby for things like your computer, TV, or stereo system. It is the clock on your microwave, TV cable box, and stereo receiver. The only way to get rid of phantom power (thereby reducing your electrical consumption) is to turn it off. In our new home we installed extra switches next to the light switches to turn the power off to  the plug ins. It works great. Something else you can do is to buy a multiplug with an on/off switch. You can get them anywhere. You most commonly see them used for computers, printers, and monitors.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLed light bulbs are another good way to keep your power down. These bulbs are in constant design transition. Whatever you see on the market today will improve.  We use both led light fixtures and fluorescent bulbs. The fluorescent bulbs vary considerable in price. One of the reasons is the time to warm up to its brightest capacity. We chose bulbs that cost less but take longer to warm up. I have yet to find it an inconvenience. I can’t recall ever having to sit there waiting for a light bulb to heat up to its capacity. Lighting is definitely a factor in calculating your energy consumption needs. Again, there are way too many options to list here, other than to point out that you need to do your homework when choosing lighting systems. You either do what you can to keep the electrical fixture wattage down or you will have to increase the size of your energy system.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites and Off Grid Works.