Home and Energy

Home and Energy (8)

off grid, homestead, good ideas for life, generator repairGenerators are an important aspect of most homesteads and off grid living.  Our smallest generator is a 3500 watt portable unit that we use to top off our batteries or haul around the property for projects that might be a little out of range for our battery operated power tools.

I have no idea how many hours we have on it but it was purchased in 2008 and used extensively to build our house, keep our batteries charged on cloudy days and most importantly to run our 240 volt deep well water pump. The water pump maxed out the generator capacity. This past year it finally gave out and could no longer produce electricity the way it was supposed to. It would work erratically on and off and anywhere from 50% voltage to 100%.

We live over 100 miles (200 miles round trip) from the nearest generator repair shop. By the time you take it there, pay the repair bill, and go back to pick it up you might as well buy a new one with ALL new parts.

I am the least mechanically inclined person I know and electrical is way out of my league but with nothing to lose I decided to do what I could to get this necessary piece of equipment up and running again.

I went online to You Tube and searched for a video that described my generator problems and ended up with a video from the Generator Guru. This video described how to remove the cover plate to expose the electrical wiring and parts that were directly responsible for generating power. It then goes on to lay out a step by step series of tests you can do with a voltage meter or multi meter to diagnose which part is not working properly. It also gives you the voltage parameters you will be looking for on each test.

off grid, homestead, generator repair, generator, good ideas for lifeThese are the steps I took to diagnose my generators problem:

1. Disconnect the AVR (automatic voltage regulator) - this is so you can get raw real voltage data on steps 2-5.
2. Test the voltage for the brushes - this might tell you if you need new brushes or not.
3. Test the voltage on L1 and L2 - these might tell you if you need new windings or not
4. Test the voltage on RI and R2 - these will tell you if the rotor is bad or not.
5. Test L1 and R1 - this test has to do with the 240V option my generator has.

I did my tests and wrote the voltages down for each of the above items and called the National Support Hotline for my brand of generator. I described how the generator was behaving and gave them the voltage test results. (It should be noted that even though some of my results were outside the parameters given in the video it didn't mean those parts were bad - i.e. the video said the voltage for brushes should be between 5v and 10v. Mine was 19v but my support hotline said that was okay for my generator).

The support person immediately diagnosed that the AVR was bad and I needed a new one. I purchased it right there on the phone for $31.00 including shipping. The AVR arrived at the post office box a few days later. It only took about 10 minutes to install and my generator once again performs perfectly. I virtually saved myself the cost of a new generator which would run around $350.00.

I would like to caution you that there are many more things that can go wrong with a generator, including bad spark plugs,  bad outlets, bad switches, and more. This article is not intended to cover all of the bases but it might just be a good place to start. It worked for me and I can guarantee you one thing - if I can do it, so can you.

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

 

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEd: Well, when I read this I got confused before I even got to the second paragraph. I think I will go stack wood……………….

Laurie: The first step is to measure your window. You will need to estimate how much fabric you are going to need. It will be worthwhile for you to sit down and figure how many windows you are going to do and their sizes. The Warm Windows fabric comes in 2 widths so you may be able to use that to your advantage. Next step is to gather your supplies. My list was pretty simple. Fabric, thread and all those kinds of things and I bought a bag of ½ inch brass rings, a bag of orbs and a supply of rib slides. All the drapery supplies you could ever want you can get through Textol Systems online.

When you are hanging your shades inside the window frame it’s really important to get your measurements right, you won’t have much wiggle room.  You will measure from side to side of the framed window opening, not the window itself.  I cut the Warm Windows fabrics to that width plus ½ to ¾ inch for the wider windows, and depending on how you decide to hang your curtain from the top of the window frame you will need to add length to your curtain measurement, a little more about that later. My next step was to serge the whole outside edge of the Warm Windows fabric. Because of all the layers it’s just way easier to work with if it is serged or zig zagged around the outside edges. Next step is to sew your cover fabric onto the curtain. Your covering fabric will be wider and longer than your Warm Windows fabric for hems and seams. I use the width of the Warm Windows fabric and add 3 inches, and for the length I use the length measurement and add 9 inches. It is a good idea to use a square to square off the fabric for marking and cutting when you are using these large pieces of fabric.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableNext step is to create your seams and hems. Lay your Warm Windows fabric drapery lining side up and place your cover fabric face down matching the cover fabric edges to the Warm Windows fabric edges. Your cover fabric will not lay flat because it’s wider than the Warm Windows fabric, but that excess is taken up when you turn your shades right side out.  I sewed my seams with a ½ inch seam and once that was done went back and surged  those seams again. I know that seems like a lot of serging, but it sure makes these shades nice and no loose ends. I love my serger. Turn the shade right side out and press your side seams. Be careful not to use too hot of an iron.

Then tackle the bottom hem. For the bottom hem lay your shade front side down and fold the excess cover fabric in half to the bottom of the shade and press to set your crease, and then fold up again to cover the first 4 inch channel of the Warm Windows fabric. Pin and then hand stitch the hem and close the sides with a slip stitch.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableNext step is to attach your rib slides. Turn your shade inside out and lay flat with the Warm window fabric face up.  At this point you will be gluing the rib slides to every other channel of your shade. I use Aileen’s Tacky Glue.  Start with your bottom channel, apply the glue along the whole length of channel and cut your rib to exactly the width of the shade, and glue the rib directly onto the channel.  Do the same for every other channel on the Warm Windows fabric. You will need to find something to weigh the ribs down while the glue dries. Once the glue dries carefully turn the shade right side out. Don’t be too concerned if parts of the ribs come loose, this is an extra step to help keep the ribs in place until you secure them in place by tacking them in by hand.  The next step is to sew the top of the shade closed, again, if you have a serger I would use that. Otherwise sew a ½ inch seam and zig zag the seam. Once you have that done you will be sewing the brass rings for the cords onto the back of your shade.  Lay your shade down drapery lining side up. You will have to decide how many rings to use. For wider curtains you may want to use 3 or 4 rings across the width of your shade. Narrower shades you may be able to get away with 2. On each of the channels that you glued the ribs onto you will be sewing 2, 3 or 4 brass rings. These rings will have to be tacked on by hand. You want to sew through the Warm Windows fabric catch the cover fabric and the rib slide plus the ring. So you are securing the shade fabrics, the rib slide and the ring all at once.  When you use the slide ribs these help to make your shades to fold up properly when you pull your shades up without any extra help. It seems like I was always having to help fold the curtains by hand while I was pulling them up, but these ribs help to make the curtains fold where they are suppose to.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOnce your shade is made you will need to install it. And rather than attach my shade to the support strip and then attaching the support strip to the window sill I simplified that process by having my husband install a ½ inch X 1 inch strip of finish trim to the inside of the window frame that has the screw eyes fixed into it (these are for your draw cords to go through). These need to be in line with the rings on your shades. Decide which side you want the pull cord to hang, and fix the last screw eye on this end of the wood strip about ¾ inch from the end.  Then I folded the top seam of my shade over about an inch and stapled front side of this lip to the front of the support strip. This was the only tricky thing in the whole process, and is probably a two man project, someone to hold the shade up while the other person gets up under to staple. One of the reasons I did mine this way was so that if I wanted to take my shades down in the summer time for the view I didn’t have to install and uninstall the support strip. We have 12 inch wide walls because our house is made with insulated concrete forms and this makes for beautiful wide window sills. I wanted to make these support strips as inconspicuous as possible so if I took the shades down you wouldn’t see them. Having said all that it turns out that I wouldn’t take those shades down during the summer anyway, they make really good shades for keeping the house cool in the hot summer months.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOnce your shades are up you will thread your cord through the rings, starting with the bottom ring on the pull cord side up through each ring, and then through the two screw eyes, and out to the side.  Thread the second and third cords the same way taking the ends through the screw eyes and cutting them to the same length.  I use orbs instead of tying the cord to the bottom ring on the shades. This way you can easily adjust them if you need to. I use orbs for the end of the draw cords as well which eliminates having to install cord locks. I just slide the orb up the cord to hold the curtain open.

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

 

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOne of the items on our “off grid checklist” was insulated curtains. At elevation 4200 feet and temperatures below zero degrees every winter, it just made sense to have them. The actual R factor isn’t all that much, (claims are from R-2 to R-5), but every little bit helps and I can assure you that in spite of the low R values these curtains make a huge difference in both comfort level and heat retention.

We burn about 5 cords of wood each year. After two winters I am going to say that these curtains save us as much as ½ cord per year and when they are in full use they make a difference of about 2 degrees warmer in the house. You begin to feel the difference in temperature almost immediately when you lower them.

My wife Laurie made our curtains so I asked her if she would write down instructions for everyone to read. This is Part 1 and next week we will finish up with Part II. The reason we are posting this in the summertime is to give everyone plenty of time to absorb and make plans for fabrication before the next cold season.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLaurie – I started my shades with the Warm Windows Insulated Windows Shade System. Warm Windows has manufactured the shade system so that all you have to do basically is to add a decorative cover fabric to match your interior decorating. The system they have produced is 5 layers thick, with a drapery lining on the outside, and the layer that will be the backside of your curtains. The next layer is the high density hollow polyester fiber, then there is a vapor barrier layer, next is the metalized film needled with another layer of the poly fiber, and finally you add the final layer of cover fabric. I know that all the components of this curtain system is available separately, and is totally feasible to build your own system but I think you will find its much simpler, tidy and easier to purchase the pre made system.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe Warm Windows website has instructions on how to make several different types of curtains with their products. I chose to start with the Roman Shade instructions and make some major changes to simplify the installation of the finished curtains, plus a few changes in the production of the curtain itself. I used a different hanging and measuring system than the Warm Windows folks suggest.  I measured the inside of the window and hung the curtains inside each window frame. Instead of using the magnetic tape I sewed ribs inside the curtain where the curtain folds when you pull the shade up. This works really well to keep the curtain right up against the window frame and make that air seal that is very important with the insulated curtains. The air pocket between the window and the curtain is not as deep as it would be if you installed your curtain on the outside of the window frame, but I like the look of the shades on the inside better, plus you are not using the magnetic strips on the inside of the curtain and on your window frame. I did try using that system some time ago on a different house and I could never get it to work properly. Lots of fiddling with trying to make the magnetic strips stick and it just never seemed to work, plus the tape is pretty expensive.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI always read and research a lot of resources before I start a project like this. This is a pretty expensive project and time and effort on your part too, so you want to put some research of your own into a project like this. The Warm Windows website has very easy instructions on making curtains with their product. I just took their information and tweaked it to fit into what we wanted. Making these curtains is not rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert sewer to put these curtains together and make them look really nice,  although a sewing machine that is working properly with the proper tension will make this job go way easier! I chose a small window in one of the bathrooms to use as an experiment to make my first shade. This way you can tweak the product your way to fit what you need. And if it doesn’t work out the way you had planned its not a large amount of fabric and work that went into it if you don’t like the finished product.

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

 

 

A lot has been written about insulated concrete forms (ICF’S) the past few years but mostly by manufacturers. We have two winters and one summer under our belts now and it’s time to weigh in from a home owners point of view.

Our temperature extremes run from 105F in the summer to -9F (so far) in the winter so we have a pretty good idea of how well this insulated building system has performed.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableICF’S are usually 2’ long x 1’ high x 2 1/4” wide Expanded Polystyrene panels that are stackable and fit together like Lego’s. Plastic inserts hold the inside and outside panels together creating a space to be filled with concrete. The end result is a concrete wall with 2 ¼” insulation on both the inside and outside.

I’m not going to get into a lot of the selling points for ICF’S in this blog. I’ll let the marketing departments and you or your contractor figure out what is and isn’t true about the so called advantages for using this system to build the walls of your home. I will say there are some advantages for sure but not all of their marketing claims are accurate.

I would rather speak to my own experiences as a home owner and general contractor about the results we got in our home.

There is no question this is a good building system over all but as with any system there are items in both the Plus and the Minus columns. Those are what I would like to focus on for this article.

Plus:

  • ICF’S are fairly easy to work with and I would put more emphasis on labor than skill for their assembly. That’s good news for people who may want to do the work themselves or for contractors who are not familiar with this system. However, the marketing claims of “fast and easy erection” will only be realized by experienced installers.
  • ICF’S are great for soundproofing. Our home is very quiet but keep in mind that part of the reason is the large amount of insulation we had blown in our attic, not just the ICF walls.
  • Properly braced they work just fine as concrete forms.
  • VOC free – no contaminants are released into the air we breathe inside our home and that is more important than ever before with the new energy codes that require our homes to be sealed.
  • More resistant to mold and rot than traditional wood framing
  • The insulation is more continuous than wood stud framing with insulation between the studs.
  • Electrical and plumbing turned out to work pretty well with this system.

Minus:

  • Even though the EP insulation is insect resistant, it has been discovered that ants sometimes like to remove the foam beads and haul them away for nest building elsewhere.
  • You will have wide or “thick” walls. If you trim out your doors and windows with wood like we did you will pay more for your millwork. Our window sills are 12” wide. Nice to set plants on but more expensive.
  • The GWB fastened okay on the inside but the siding was more difficult to fasten on the exterior than traditional wood framing.
  • When you pour the walls 8’ high all the way around your house like we did you eliminate all further access to the inside except through doors and windows. Plumbing lines will have to be backfilled by hand. Sand and gravel will have to spread by hand. Remember you are not going to have a foundation wall. Your ICF wall will go from the footing to the top plate.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableMy biggest gripe: This is the kicker for me – In all exterior building walls there is a hot/cold line, the place where the inside and outside temperatures meet and even out. That usually occurs somewhere towards the outside of the insulation. In this wall system it occurs somewhere in the middle of the concrete wall.

That doesn’t work in colder climates. We should be heating the concrete mass from the inside and the concrete will help hold that heat and reflect it back into the house, but with this system we have 2” of foam between your heating source and the concrete. What you end up with is an extremely even inside temperature that rarely fluctuates which would be fine in a more moderate climate but not so good in a cold climate. You end up using more heat than you should have to in order to push the cold line back to the outside.

In the hot summer months our house stays in the lower 70’s no matter what which is good, but in the winter months you really have to pour the heat on if you want to raise the temperatures and keep them there.

I believe it would be better to have poured the concrete walls and put 4” of insulation on the outside or purchased the ICF’S that are 2” of insulation on the inside and 4” on the outside. If I had it to do over, that’s what I would have done.

What we have works and is acceptable but one of the two options above would have been better.

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

 
 

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 goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

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 goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

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 goodideasforlife.com and Off Grid Works.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIn our last blog we looked at the meaning of “off grid” and gave a brief overview of our experiences this past year in our new lifestyle. The next few articles will detail a step by step process we went through and the choices we made in order to transcend the leap from city condo life to off grid “modern homestead.”

Research played a big part in the planning process. We talked to other people, checked out library books, read a multitude of magazines and then subscribed to the ones we felt were most beneficial to our goals. Combining research with the experiences described in the next few paragraphs will give you a pretty clear picture of the first steps we took to enter into a new lifestyle.

We each have our own set of circumstances that help determine the direction and choices we have to make. Laurie and I had purchased 40 acres of property in the east side of Washington State, 250 miles and five mountain passes from our westside condo. Our original intent was to use it for recreational purposes. I had always loved the atmosphere of a pine forest and that is what we ended up with.

The property already had a drilled well with a 1500 gallon holding tank, so water wasn’t an issue. The next thing we did was install a septic system for a three bedroom home (just in case) and after that we built the barn. Finally, we purchased a used 28’ travel trailer to stay in whenever we could find time to go visit our little place in heaven.

This was our first off grid set up. Power came from our generator and trailer batteries. We also used the generator to pump water into the holding tank which was located up the hill from our trailer and barn. Gravity flow took care of the water pressure into our trailer. We ran 150’ of 4” sewer pipe from our trailer to the new septic tank. We used the barn to store our trailer and other belongings (toys) over the cold winters. We now had a secure and fully functioning off grid system in place to practice and learn with.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs a homeowner since the age of 20, I had never been hooked up to a well or septic system before. I always had City sewer and water services. Power came from a local utility service. When Laurie and I decided to build a house on our recreational property and live there full time we had a lot of homework to do.

The first thing we did was to go to the county courthouse which had legal jurisdiction and look at what the property was zoned for, what building permits would be required, and what other permits might be required. While we were there we also discovered that our property had been surveyed and recorded. That was important because it meant our property corners would be recognized by the County as “official and approved” in case there was a dispute with adjoining property lines, corners, or fences.

We also discussed the rules and regulations for ‘access’ roads. Our property is located almost three miles from the nearest paved maintained road. We needed to know how wide the access road is, who maintains it (if anyone), can we maintain it and if so are there any limitations to what we could do, after all, the road belongs to all that it serves and passes through different private properties from beginning to end.

It turns out we were required to get an Adequate Water Supply permit, a Site Analysis permit, a Septic System permit, Building permit, and we would also have to get an Electrical permit from the State.

I used the well driller notes for the Water permit. We already had a Septic permit. I drew a scaled plan showing the property lines and locations of the buildings for the Site Analysis permit.

We were going to need a house plan for the building and electrical permits.

One decision we had to make was whether or not we could live on this property in the winter at an elevation of 4200’. As stated earlier, we were three miles from the nearest maintained road with plenty of snow and ice in between. Only one other person lived on this access road and his solution was to park his car at the bottom of the hill and ride his snowmobile down to the car and back once in a while for supplies. One more thing to research – snow removal.

In our case we had one other item to consider. No phone service and no cell phone signal. We had no desire to be cut off from the outside world. We just wanted to become a little more independent from public services than we had been. To make a long story short, our research turned up a cell phone signal booster system that allowed us to have service where none had existed previously. I’ll describe it in detail in a later blog because there isn’t very much information available right now and it isn’t as simple as going online and purchasing a cell phone amplifier and antenna.

So as you can see, there are a lot of things to consider and a fair amount of time spent in research. Before you even break ground you need to make sure of the following:

  • Your property can be used for your purposes
  • Find out what all of the permitting requirements will be
  • Consider access to your property the year around
  • What communications are available?
  • What services are available such as fire and law enforcement?
  • What medical services are available?
  • Can you get insurance?
  • Are you going to have to give up Wal-Mart or Costco?  (quit laughing, it was Costco for us)
  • If there are two of you are you both excited and committed?

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

 

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