Off The Grid
15 years ago I bought 13 acres of cedar forest in NW Arkansas with the idea of building a self sufficient homestead/retreat. The first thing was to organize a water supply. There had been a well drilled on the property so I called the local driller to come do a clean out on the well to rid it of debris. With that done, water was at 90 feet in a 250 feet well. So far so good.
I studied on the perfect pump and water system and bought a 12/24 volt DC submersible Shur-flo pump. I hooked this up to a couple of 30 watt solar panels, a small charge controller and 2 12 volt batteries. 5 gallons a minute! During this process we found that the water well makes 1/2 pound pressure natural gas. That had to be capped off and sealed. If we pump 100 gallons of water out of the well it liberates gas at about 20 liquid gallons every 12 seconds for 5 hours until the water table comes back up and chokes it off. Lots of gas but not much pressure but enough for household use. We laid pipes to bring the water and the gas to the cabin.
Cabin: I lieu of building, I bought a pre-fabricated Amish cabin and had it hauled to the property. It was unfinished inside so we went to work with wiring for 12 volt, insulation, plumbing, sheet rock and oak flooring. We took into account that with a small living space (180 sq. ft) that normal household appliances etc., would take up too much room. I decided to look into RV parts. We found an RV salvage yard an hour or so away and purchased a kitchenette, propane refrigerator and an RV water heater. The small sinks and small 3 burner stove with oven was the perfect match for the little cabin. 500 watts of solar hooked to 4 LG16 6 volt batteries provide plenty of electricity to power the refrigerator, ceiling fan, stereo, 9 inch TV, 9 inch DVD player and several 5 watt lights. I had the local cabinet maker fill the cabin with cabinets, closets, pantries and storage space. The funny thing was adding the cabinets made the space seem larger. I suppose getting rid of the clutter was the real reason.
Heat and Air: It gets very hot and humid here in the summer and some kind of air conditioning is a must. Knowing that I could never produce enough solar power to run a conventional air conditioner I had an idea. The water from the well is 56 degrees year around, if that could be used to cool the building it would be great. I went to the local salvage yard and bought the “under the dash” air conditioner parts out of a wrecked Ford Escalade.. I took the saws all to it and pared it down to the squirrel cage blower and a small heat exchanger. A quick stop at the lumber yard for some tubing and valves and VIOLA – air conditioning. I run a pencil stream of well water through the radiator and turn on the blower. Moisture in the air is condensed on the surface of the heat exchanger and drips off. The waste water comes out at about 80 degrees and is dripped on to the garden. The whole unit pulls about 3 amps at 12 volts and pumps out volumes of air at about 58 degrees. In just a few minutes the cabin is cool and the humidity is gone. The best part is it pumps out 58 degree air when it is 10 below zero. It doesn’t take much of a fire to heat the cabin from 58 to 75. One could say it is true geothermal heat and air.
The cabin has a “ice shack” Canadian stick stove for heat. Again, it is a very small space and the little stick stove does a great job. You end up burning all of the scrap wood one would have normally thrown away. The stick stove has enough cook top to brew coffee and cook with a small skillet at the same time.
Toilet? Yes, pretty handy. I decided to build an outhouse as I needed a place to store tools anyway. I chose to do a composting toilet in the outhouse as the waste ends up on the compost pile and will be growing tomatoes in a year or so. The toilet itself is just a 5 gallon bucket enclosed in a very nicely finished Amish Ash wood box with a walnut toilet seat. With the toilet and outhouse done I hung a lantern in it and decided that wasn’t good enough. I took a 50 watt panel, a couple of 5 watt squiggle bulbs and went to work. The outhouse is now solar powered with a porch light, interior light and a stereo. All the comforts of home!
Bathing. Not having room inside for a bathroom I thought a hillbilly hot tub was the answer. Down to the local farm supply for some cinder blocks and a 6 foot long stock tank. I built a firebox out of the cinder blocks complete with a stack. Redwood scraps were soon fashioned into a wooden lattice for the bottom of the tank (you can burn your butt when you sit down on a hot wood fired stock tank.) We placed the stock tank on the firebox, filled it with water and lit a fire. In about 30 minutes it was almost too hot to climb in. Some flat stones were found to damper the fire down to a pleasant 104 degrees. I found an old 12 volt bilge pump and attached it to the bottom of the tank and hooked it up to 30 watts of solar and turned the hot tub in to a Hillbilly Jacuzzi. It’s also good for washing clothes or scalding pigs.
Last month I found a tankless, outdoor water heater for $100 from Northern Tool and installed it on the north side of the cabin. It came complete with all the hardware and fittings for an outdoor shower. Simply hook it up to a propane tank and a water hose and enjoy. I built a pvc cage for shower curtains for the less adventurous and placed some paving stones under the shower for foot comfort. It is not only a great way to cool off and clean up but it is quite liberating to be showering outside in the wilderness.
Propane: I bought a 330 gallon tank and had it filled on site. However, I didn’t hook it up to the cabin. Instead I purchased a wet tube hose bib for the tank to enable me to fill all of the small propane tanks that are used around the property. In a survival situation, I might be the only person around who can fill your little propane tanks. Only a couple of chickens or a goat for that tank full LOL.
Food: I have canned everything from bacon to butter and have a year to year and a half’s worth of stored food. It is all stuff that I like to eat which makes meal time very pleasant. I studied French cooking when I was a youth and play very well in the kitchen. I can tell you that there is no reason to eat poorly.
Medicine: I have a pretty well stocked pharmacy including suture kits and injectable Lidocaine. I keep all kinds of over the counter meds and a few types of antibiotics. Alcohol, peroxide and foot powder are a must. Hand sanitizer is jellied alcohol which is also a great fire starter.
Living it: I stay 3 to 4 days a week at the cabin. Even during the drought and 110 degree days, the cedar forest has been cool and pleasant. By doing this I find deficiencies and work on remedying them. I have really begun to enjoy the wilderness, the wildlife and the quiet. I have found how much electric I can use in a given day and how much can be produced. Living in the woods has taught me to be prepared for any situation. Have spare parts and tools. It would be horrible to have thousands of dollars worth of solar panels and not be able to use them for the lack of a length of wire or a simple fuse. Be prepared! One can’t think of everything. Living in your retreat will let you know in a hurry of things you have forgotten or should have to survive comfortably. Did you remember to bring the nail clippers? How about hair clippers?
Garden: My garden is lacking as I have no soil to speak of. I have managed to get grapes and blackberries to live but not necessarily flourish. I am in the process of planting things that will come back from year to year. Berries, fruit trees, Asparagus and grapes. When I compost enough soil to grow a kitchen garden I will.
Taxes: Because I have no utilities coming on to my property, my three little buildings are taxed as sheds or barns. These three sheds all have their own electric supply etc., it is simply not supplied by a utility. The taxes on my 13 self sufficient acres are $19 a year. Should I grid tie and bring electric on to the property, my taxes would go to around $400 a year.
My cabin is secluded and defendable. It is far enough off of the beaten path yet within a 15 minute drive to a small town. It is pure enjoyment and come the time, it may be one of the few places liveable in an uncertain world.
Off the grid 8 years
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