Living Offgrid Affordably #11: A Plan Comes Together

Reader Contribution by Jeff Chaney
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After almost dying from asphyxiation, then settling in for the winter in the last article Time To Batten Down The Hatches, I felt pretty good about my chances of being around to actually see spring arrive. It was the end of November by now, and it never dawned on me that I would be living in a 12 x 20 foot room for at least the next three months. I was too busy with everything else at the time to think about that. Being alone for an extended span would allow the creative thought process juices to really flow. I had to come up with a plan, a floor plan, that is.

As discussed in early articles, I did not have a large retirement account to fall back on in later years. A better idea to me was to try to set up a lifestyle and home that would not cost a fortune to maintain. Not having a lot of money would not be a bad thing if I didn’t need a lot of money. What a concept! I intensely disliked the amount of “typical” monthly bills that everyone just assumes are part of life. So, how abnormal would we have to become to minimize or eliminate “monthly bills”? As it turned out, not very.

After a massive amount of pondering, I decided to stray from the conventional technique of laying out a house floor plan. Certain things had just always been done a certain way, and the question I had was, why? Some things made no sense to me. I then set out to turn conventional thinking on it’s ear.

Before starting this fiasco, uh project, I wanted to use a 12/12 pitch roof, a 45 degree angle, which is very effective at shedding debris, rain, and snow. The steep slope would lessen the likelihood of leaks, as well as facilitate the ventilation and heat distribution ideas I had for the interior.

The first, and I think most groundbreaking, epiphany involved the kitchen cooking stove and the refrigerator. The cook stove is the second largest heat source in the home. What sense does it make to place the refrigerator immediately adjacent to, or very near, a large heat source? The operation of one is quite detrimental to the other, creating inefficiency and higher operating costs for both. There had to be a better way.

I decided to construct a “cooler box” on the opposite side of the kitchen from the cook stove. This “cooler box” would be a room, 4 x 6 feet, heavily insulated, with a door. The fridge would go inside, and this room would help insulate it from the heat of the building, especially in winter. I could weatherstrip the door threshold, then run a pvc vent pipe to the outside to flood the “cooler box” with cold air during the winter. A valve would close the vent in summer. All of this should minimize fridge run time year-round. The “cooler box” would also serve as a root cellar. The southwest corner of the building would not be the optimum location for this room, but the arrangement surely would work better than the standard. We will cover all the details of “cooler box” construction and refrigerator installation at the appropriate time.

Up to this point, my toilet facilities had consisted of the use of backcountry camping regulations. Sewer lines were not available, and a septic system would be costly. More importantly, lots of trees would have to be removed to accommodate the drain field lines. I made the decision to test the effectiveness of a composting toilet. I had also installed a “grey water” drain for the kitchen and bathroom sinks, and shower stall. I will cover this step later in great detail. I was unaware at this stage that hugely unforeseen problems would need to be dealt with.

My thoughts now turned to heating and ventilation. I would heat the building with a wood stove, since I could not walk on the property without tripping on firewood! But, the aforementioned chalet style roof, in tandem with the half loft and half cathedral ceiling, created difficulty with heat distribution. The loft would be very warm year-round, but the heat would be needed down on the main floor during heating season, and expelled during summer. A low cost, but very effective, solution came to mind.

What about water? There have been news reports lately about a community nearby that is having technical difficulties with their water system. Residents have been without water for a week, and are getting desperate. There were no “city” water lines present at my location, plus I didn’t relish having to pay the monthly bill, which would surely increase with time. I had used a deep well before, with great success, but the problem here is that a well is an unknown cost that one can not begin to estimate. In previous years, within a mile of my property, one well went 128 feet deep, mine was 329 feet, and another was over 700 feet. All three wells were within a mile of one another. This cost could range from around $5000 up to $20,000, or much more. Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks! Why all the worry about obtaining something that falls from the sky for free? “Manna from heaven!” I love it when a plan comes together.

A roofing material compatible with this approach would be needed. Standard asphalt shingles would be troublesome, due to the “pebbles” that dislodge from them over time. These could be filtered out, but added maintenance was a detriment. Metal roofing was unattractive because it would contribute to heating in summer. After some research, I stumbled across a beautiful solution, to be explained later.

The water holding tank technique would play right into my hands. I could install a tank to accommodate cold water downstairs, and a second, larger tank located on top of the collar ties that connect opposing rafters above the loft floor upstairs, for hot water. The upper tank would be in the warmest part of the building, and be very easy to mate with a solar water heating system. Water pressure would be lowest from the lower tank, but according to my calculations, sufficient for my needs.

I have had some good ideas, but will they work in practice? The great engineer’s question. Just because it looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily mean it will work. Next time, we will start finding out if, and how well, they suffice. My brain is tired after all this thinking, but one can not forget to reuse and recycle any and everything, when possible.

Photos by Jeff & Kathy Chaney

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