Living Offgrid Affordably 10: Time To Batten Down The Hatches

Reader Contribution by Jeff Chaney
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 After building walls and a “roof” (loft floor) last time in Finally, Something Goes Up, we are about to be “under the gun.” Winter is here and nights are getting downright cold. Surviving until spring is the next order of business.

At this point, work needed to be done, both “inside” and out. A means to follow weather reports, in addition to some lighting at night, would be a groove. After researching all the alternatives for about ten years, I had never viewed a solar module in person. This seemed a perfect time to try the technology to see how well it actually worked.

I had previously obtained a catalog and planning guide from Backwoods Solar, and was impressed with the fact that they “live” what they sell. I ordered one Kyocera 120 watt solar module. In the fall of 2002, it cost $575. A 130 watt version can now be purchased for around $400. At a nominal 12.5 volts, it would produce a maximum of 7.1 amps. When it arrived, I leaned it against the east facing wall, outside a window. The wire ran through the bottom of the window (I soon drilled a hole in the wall, ran the wire, then caulked it) to two automotive 12 volt batteries. An automotive voltmeter was installed to monitor the “system.” We had power!

The next logical move was to install an automotive radio. We could now follow weather reports, plus have some background music to work by.

After one week of use, we had plenty of “juice,” so I installed a recreational vehicle light fixture. It was a 13 inch, 12 volt florescent, with a one amp load when on. The setup proved a resounding success, a semblance of civilization!

Using this arrangement successfully for a few weeks, I decided to purchase a 13 inch, 12 volt television. It would allow viewing of weather radar, which proved invaluable. I could now make informed decisions about where to work (inside or out). TV run time had to be monitored closely, especially on an overcast day, or with a cloudy forecast. I could not excessively discharge the batteries. This system allowed approximately 4 hours of radio time, 2 hours of lighting, and at most 1 hour of TV time, on average, in sunny weather. Using solar power on a small scale, one quickly learns that electricity is at a premium from December to February. Power usage MUST be watched closely and/or curtailed at this time of year, to protect the battery bank.

As a result of winter moving in, I chose to install a propane barbecue grill. Cooking on the fire outside was getting cumbersome.

Facing a very cold night ahead, I realized some form of heat would be needed. Since my “half house” wasn’t anywhere near sealed, I didn’t think there would be a problem using the grill to warm the place a little bit. WRONG! I almost died from oxygen depletion and carbon monoxide poisoning. Candles would not burn. My brain was affected so that I didn’t realize what was happening. I felt the effects as much as two weeks later. Do not attempt this at home!! When using propane or gas, be sure to ventilate adequately.

A temporary solution to the quandary was a portable kerosene heater. As soon as possible, I purchased a small wood cook stove. After all, here were 12 acres of free fuel at the ready. What a wonderful idea. I ran the stovepipe out the rear west facing window, using a piece of sheet metal in the lower window space, past the black tarp above. When the temperature outside dropped, inside remained nice and toasty.

I endured the winter of 2002 with this setup, which worked surprisingly well. On a few occasions, the outside temperature dropped to around 8 degrees. During these times, I was able to maintain an inside temp of 70+ degrees!

A couple of times that winter, we recorded 3-4 inches or more of snow. When these snow events were forecast, I remained awake all night to be available should the plastic covering the front half of the building collapse, resulting in water damage to the contents. That failure never materialized. I have since joked that I invented structural plastic!

During clear weather, I worked outside trimming trees, cutting firewood, or configuring the driveway. In foul weather, I worked inside, performing tasks such as pre-cutting the rafters. When it came time to roof the building, I wanted the operation to move quickly and smoothly, which meant completing as much of the work beforehand as possible. Once the building was “in the dry,” I could resume a normal work pace.

At this time, I precut most of the lumber for the staircase. To feel comfortable, I sometimes measured six or more times before sawing. Scrap had to be kept to a minimum.

I also began to think about the interior layout of the building, and consequently the layout of the main house across the road. Remember, this building was an experiment, a smaller version of the main house. It would be disassembled in the future, the materials to be used to construct the main house.

We are as prepared as we knew how to be for the upcoming winter. Cold and snow are “outside,” with major work going on inside. It certainly would be a long, cold, dark winter. Thoughts concentrated on getting the roof on when spring finally came. But we never forgot to reuse and recycle any and everything!

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