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Off-Grid Living

One Year of Off-Grid Living

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings

When I first set off on a major lifestyle change last year to live off-grid, I had no clue what I was doing. Would I be plunging myself into the dark ages? Could I actually live off-grid while still working the tech job I’ve had for over 20 years? I had no idea.

What I did know is that I’m a pretty good researcher and I love a challenge. I spent much of the last two years researching solar power systems, batteries, and off-grid water solutions. I laugh now when I think back to the post I wrote about living off-grid last year for a whole two weeks. Ha! I was such a newbie, but those two weeks convinced me that I could make this happen.

And now here I am—a year and a half later—still completely unplugged. Honestly, I can’t think of a more satisfying, fulfilling time in my whole life. I have absolutely loved living a simplified off-grid life. It’s been an incredibly empowering experience and a lesson that often the most cherished and valuable things in life really are the simple things.

After a lot of delays thanks to supply chain issues and overly busy contractors, I finally made some great progress this past year building out my off-grid infrastructure. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from folks about my power system, so I thought I’d write a bit about the details, including the journey to get where I am now. On this exact day last year, I was in process of moving to the RV park for winter since I was clearly underpowered and underprepared for an off-grid Methow winter. This year? It’ll be my first off-grid winter on my land! Proof that if you dream big and start small, it does eventually come together.

Back when I thought two weeks off-grid was a huge win. Now I’m over a year off-grid.

Why off-grid?

The big question I’m asked most is “Why? Why off-grid?” 

I admit that my personal anthem has always been independence and unconventional ideas. I guess I like a good challenge and building a small off-grid home seemed like the perfect combination of independence and unconventionalism.

I also think that in the face of climate change, evaluating and considering how we use our natural resources is vastly important. With my interest and passion in conservation and nature I became really interested in trying to live a much simpler lifestyle with a much smaller footprint. I also especially enjoy the irony of living off-grid while working full-time in the tech industry.

Believe me though, embarking on off-grid living is truly an independent effort. The “system” hasn’t embraced it and certainly doesn’t support people like me who just want a simple, small, off-grid home. You’ll get little support from banks or lenders and many builders and contractors don’t do solar installations because it’s such a niche market. For those reasons, things have progressed slower than expected and I’ve had to literally be my own general contractor and project manager.

Last year’s challenges create this year’s successes.

Rural living begs you to be self-sufficient. Off-grid rural living ups the ante. I had a lot of issues to solve and tackle last year and I’ve learned a lot. It’s a good thing I’m stubborn!

Late last October I finally settled onto my undeveloped dream homestead and immediately faced a series of challenges. I was not only figuring out how to live off-grid but also figuring out how to do it temporarily in an Airstream in a cold winter climate in subfreezing temperatures.

I had no water on my land, so I trucked water back and forth from friends places and other sources before subfreezing temperatures froze my water stockpiles. Doh. Something I hadn’t thought of. I spent a few days without power when high winds blew over and damaged the controller on my only solar panel. I figured out how to be my own electrician.

When temperatures turned a sustained below freezing, my Airstream dump valves froze and I learned firsthand how much freezing temperatures diminish battery capacity. My Airstream’s two tiny stock marine batteries were barely able to keep my furnace at 50 and I couldn’t face the thought of running my gas generator most the day. I finally called uncle, realizing I was significantly underpowered to make it through an off-grid winter. 

I headed to the local RV park at the end of December and stayed through mid-March, using the time to plan out my solar infrastructure for the following year. Those three months have been my only break so far from off-grid life since last August.

One year ago today I finally called it quits and headed to the RV park. This winter? It’ll be my first off-grid one on my own homestead.

A real life game of Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never heard of Catan, it’s a popular strategy game where players collect resources to then use for building roads, settlements, and cities. I feel like I’ve been doing just that since last year—slowly collecting resources to build my infrastructure. It’s been a slow, frustrating year waiting on overbooked contractors and backordered products. 

Somehow though, I persisted, and in just the last month or two some really big pieces of the puzzle came together, like actual running water and a large solar battery bank! It feels amazing to make progress!

“All in” for water.

Back in July, after a year of waiting, I had my biggest achievement, which was actual running water on my land! Well, ok, it wasn’t running yet. I did get a successful well drilled but it takes some more work after to actually have a running water source.

I joked at the time that drilling a well felt like a $20,000 Vegas bet on a game of roulette and well, I wasn’t wrong. I had bet everything on my land having water. After moving in I found out just how many dry wells are in my neighborhood. Whew. Nothing like a high stakes game called “here’s hoping….”.

I used an experienced well-known well driller who was also a douser, aka water witch, who pinpointed the spot on my land he thought they’d find water. It was right in the middle of a large group of Nootka roses. I remember at the time telling him, “hey, the roses know, right? They must be right!” I found it ironic that this well driller, walking around with his divination rod told me that no, the roses were no sign at all. Ha! I put my faith in both him and the roses and the night before my drilling started I might have gone out and had a talk with those roses to yield me some water.

Somehow my gamble paid off. My driller hit water at 200′ and when it happened on the second day of drilling, I was so ecstatic I ran around hugging everyone, including my neighbors! The well ended up at 280′ and though slow producing at only 2gpm (gallons per minute) it was all I needed to fill an eventual off-grid cistern water system. I swear I’ve never been more excited and relieved in my entire life! Actual water on my land! Nothing has felt more amazing.

Solar-powered running water!

In late July I finally had a well, but it takes a few more steps to actually get running water, like a well pump and solar to power it. After a lot of online research and advice from my driller, I bought a Grundfos solar pump, considered one of the best on the market. I won’t lie, they’re spendy, but Grundfos solar pumps are considered reliable, long-lasting, and efficient. They can be directly powered by either the sun or wind as well as an inverter, generator, battery, or utility grid. They also run on both AC and DC current.

I bought my pump as part of a larger kit through the The Solar Store out of Bend, Oregon. The kit came with everything needed to fully install the system, including the solar panels, electrical wiring, float switch (eventually for a cistern), and various other odds and ends. Total cost was around $4,000.

My driller called in a favor to a local excavator to get me a pitless adapter and frost free installed, then a local electrician came out to get things wired up for me. Finally by the end of August, I had actual running water on my land!* I was so giddy I might have spent an entire day just watching the water run from the hydrant. I have such huge thanks for everyone who got me here!

*Ok, I only have running water when the sun is out because I haven’t yet installed a battery backup on my solar pump, but that’s a job for next year. 

How is the Grundfos working so far?

Flawlessly! I have a 280′ well with a static water line around 120′ and with only 300 watts of solar power, I can pump 5-6 gallons per minute on a sunny day. Even on slightly cloudy days I can still pump water at a slower rate of 1-2 gallons per minute if I can get at least 80-100 watts of solar power. Without a battery backup, I do have to plan ahead and make sure to fill the fresh tank in my Airstream, but having actual water on my land after a year of living without feels like the absolute bees knees!

Next big win? Solar-powered… power!

The next big chuck of infrastructure that I completed just a few weeks ago was installing 2,000 watts of solar panels hooked into a brand new Titan solar generator. I made the generator investment back in March, but like many things, the Titan was on backorder for much of the year. I was ecstatic when I finally received the full kit back in September. 

There she is! The big bad Titan generator from Point Zero energy, charging at a friend’s place. (Only one battery attached at the moment)

The Titan uses a lithium battery bank, which offers far superior performance and capacity compared to lead acid or AGM batteries. The only downside to lithium; however, is that charging them in below freezing temperatures will permanently damage the battery. It’s important for lithium batteries to be kept insulated, especially in winter.

I had hoped to remodel my grain silo into a little insulated studio, where I’d be able to keep my Titan battery bank warm this winter. Like everything else this year though, it unfortunately didn’t happen. My contractor friend got held up on other work so the grain silo will be a spring project. 

Since I’m in a tiny 19′ Airstream I don’t have enough room to store this huge solar generator system inside. Instead, my carpenter friend built me a small insulated shed, which I call the battery bungalow. The mass of the batteries inside as well as the heat generated from the inverter and my internet router kept the enclosure at a comfortable 50°F when temps dipped into the 20s.

Cold weather hardening.

I knew eventually though, temperatures would soon dip well below the 20s, so I installed a remote temperature sensor inside the enclosure as well as two 40-watt outdoor heated pads for dog kennels, plugged into a Wi-Fi/bluetooth controllable outlet on my Titan. The pads are relatively low wattage and only get lukewarm to the touch, so they’re pretty safe for the small space. When outdoor temperatures dip below freezing, I can remotely power them up from my phone.

Having two independent heaters is really efficient! A single heater seems to keep things in the 50s until the temperatures get into the single digits, then I can turn on the second heater to augment. Recently we hit near 0 a few nights ago and with both heaters on, the battery enclosure never dipped below 56°F.

Recently I programmed both heater outlets to be “home automated” so the heaters are automatically activated if the temperature sensor drops below 50°F. Once at 60°F the heaters turn off. This little automation system has been working flawlessly and when I’m away I can still monitor the battery temperature from my phone. Given the battery bank was an expensive investment, it’s been a nice piece of mind.

The Titan Solar Generator.

So far I’ve been absolutely thrilled with the Titan generator! The generator comes with a 3,000 watt inverter and can support as many batteries as you’d like to add to the system. I initially bought two battery banks, providing 4,000 watt hours and 148 amp hours of power. The system has been working so well that I splurged on a third battery, which increased my total capacity to 6,000 watt hours and 222 amp hours. It was a great move for winter when I’m spending a lot more battery power on heating.

The solar generator also has a 30 amp RV plug, so I can plug my Airstream right in and I’m instantly on shore power without having grid service or running gas generator. It’s fantastic!

I’ve been able to sustain myself through several days of inclement weather, of course dependent on how much I need to run my Airstream furnace and battery bank heater. The system is highly opportunistic when it comes to charging. With 2,000 watts of solar panels I can fully charge the battery bank from 0 to 100 in only 3 hours in full sun, though I still have yet to drain the batteries much below 40-50%. Most of the time I only need an hour or two of even partly sunny skies to be fully charged again.

Even on cloudy days with 2,000 watts of solar panels racked up, I receive enough charge to keep up with my furnace and the system stays even or barely discharges. On really poor charging days, it only takes a 30 minute window of sunshine to rapidly charge. I can also plug the Titan AC chargers into my gas generator and charge at a rate of around 1,000 watts per hour of runtime. Running the generator for only an hour or two in a couple day span of poor weather is a huge win.

The system so far has exceeded all my expectations! It’s been absolutely wonderful having enough power to keep my furnace at 60°F on cold days, charge my laptop, watch a movie if I want, and keep my refrigerator going for days, all without stressing about my battery charge. 

My solar farm is growing! In spring I’ll set up a more permanent mount, but for now, these temporary ground mounts are a great test!

After spending pretty much a full year rationing power, charging up portable battery banks to keep my laptop going, and trucking water back and forth, my off-grid infrastructure investments feel like 5-star luxury living! I’ve always believed that removing many of the things you take for granted everyday leads to a powerful form of gratitude and no doubt, I have more gratitude now than ever for the simple things in life. I am so beyond grateful that I chose to stay the course with off-grid living.

Now my next challenge is to see how my first off-grid winter goes. There will be challenges, no doubt, but I’m eager to see what I learn this time. Hopefully in spring I’ll be able to embark on the next phase of infrastructure improvements, which hopefully include a little grain silo studio, gravity-fed cistern water system, and maybe even actual septic so I can graduate out of my Honey Bucket! In the meantime, I’m enjoying the journey, a lot more power, and actual water!

Dream big. Start small.