Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Non-toxic grey water

As you probably know, my whole house is off grid. And since I have a composting toilet, all the waste water that leaves my house is gray water. To be able to use this for anything (like watering plants) I want to be sure it does not contain anything toxic. How do I do this? By not using chemicals in my house. ....ok, almost never. I did put some bleach on one thing. Much of what I do, I've been doing for years due to having skin that reacts to lots of things, not just since moving tiny or off grid. Here's a list of what I use on a daily basis that replaces the average 150+ chemicals that are used in the average household. 
1) Shampoo - home made soap nut liquid or a homemade Dr. Bronner's combination
2) Conditioner - apple cider vinegar or coconut oil
3) Body Soap - none, it's always irritated my skin and warm water is sufficient
4) Acne Cream - apple cider vinigar
5) Face Wash - pure liquid aloe
6) Body Lotion - olive or coconut oil
7) Toner - apple cider vinigar
8) All Purpose Spray - cleaners, not always sprays, I use vinigar, baking soda, and soap nuts for all cleaning/washing
9) Dishwashing Liquid - soap nut liquid or biodegradable dishwashing liquid from our local health food store
10) Mascara - I use very little, and don't worry about it's contents too much. I've tried making my own and never got one I was very happy with.
11) Laundry - soap nuts and baking soda or borax to freshen and whiten (See my whole post on how I do laundry here.)
12) Toothpaste and deodorant - half and half mix of coconut oil/baking soda
Everything's biodegradable, and mostly edible. And seriously, not only healthier, but way less expensive. If you can save money and improve your health, why not give some of these a try?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Composting toilet - emptying the solids

Another post you don't want to read folks if you don't want to hear about poop! For the first time since moving in almost exactly 4 months ago, I needed to empty the solids bin on my toilet. (For more details on my set up in general, see this post.) I do empty the liquid container every week or so, but this was the first for the solid side of things. 

Now obviously the idea of a composting toilet it that the contents are composted. I've liked using mine so far, but still wondered how fast everything really would break down in there. If you read this post, or this one, you know I also added worms to my toilet to help speed up the decomposition. Well it seems to be working even better than I had hoped!

My best friend had assured me in no uncertain terms that I should never even think about asking for his help with this emptying chore. But really, it wasn't bad at all. In the first photo below you can see the bin with the last two days or so of deposits still pretty close to the surface. Mostly looking like dirt anyway, but the toilet paper is still intact. The only odor, even with the bin wide open was a damp soil kind of smell. Nothing sewage-y at all.

Below you can see what everything but the very top of the contents pictured above looked like. Nice loose potting soil texture, and again no smell other than a light earthy scent. Really, if I bagged this and told you it was potting soil, I don't think anyone would know the difference. You can even see a few of my little red wiggler worms sticking their heads out here since I had just dumped their whole world upside down.

Below is the outside bin that stuff will reside in as it further composts. I started with a large tub with some holes drilled for ventilation for my worms, a nice layer of shredded paper from a friend's office, and then just dumped all the contents of my toilet on top. 

I did pull out a bunch of my little worms and toss them back into my toilet along with a fresh batch of damp peat moss that you can see below. This photo contains nothing but peat moss and some worms. I wasn't sure if it would stay warm enough outside for the worms in my new big outdoor bin to be ok since I don't have a large amount of compost in there yet. But hopefully they make it, and if not, I still have my inside ones. 

I think I am very happy with my toilet despite it being one of the things I did have some misgivings about going into this whole off grid thing. And if I only have to empty it 3 times a year, that's not bad at all.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fresh Snow!

It snowed! Now I know all of you on the east coast have way more snow than you want, but we've had a crazy warm winter here. And this is the first snowfall in almost two months. Admittedly it's getting close to 50 F today and melting rapidly, but it was kinda cool to see some nice fresh stuff brightening everything up for a bit.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tiny pets and such

How do you have hundreds (maybe thousands or even millions) of pets when you live in a tiny space? Well you have very tiny pets of course. Here's a few of the critters in my house.

 Above are my two SCOBY's (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) that produce gallons of kombucha for me to drink. And there very well may be millions of little critters in those floating layers if I got out a microscope. But they all float nicely in the tops of two gallon jugs.

Then of course there are my pet worms. We've discussed them before. Hopefully they continue to multiply and will soon be in several kinds and stages of compost around here.

Then there's the tiny farming I can do. Like growing chia and alfalfa sprouts to eat. Above are chia sprouts after we ate most of them out of the dish. Below you can see them when they were just starting to sprout.

Below are alfalfa sprouts which grow well in a jar and don't need the open terra cotta dish like chia seeds. I can grow thousands of these little sprouts every week and and them to salads and other dishes. I'd like to get a few more herbs growing and maybe a few other things like ginger as well so I can buy less of my food from the grocery store. We'll see if I get around to starting all those kinds of things... But for now, my tiny house is full of lots of kinds of tiny life. And I like it that way.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Biggest current problem - Mold

I'm learning that despite living in a very dry climate, due to our extreme cold, there tends to be a lot of condensation that occurs. Especially when you live in a very well insulated house with very little square footage therefore little air movement. And when water condenses onto wood consistently, keeping it always a little damp, you very quickly get mold.

 I've now developed mold around almost all my windows. Even in this little place, I have 15 separate windows so there is a lot of space for this to occur. And on the thinner panel in the door. And along the baseboards in places where any item of furniture blocks the totally open flow of air.

The moisture come mostly from cooking in my case. With the propane heat and human breath probably being the next two largest producers.

I've now bleached all the mold spots to kill it, but between the moisture and the mold, there are already permanent stains as you can see in the photo below. Right now it seems to be staying under control since I've been trying to go around and wipe up condensation twice a day. As well as moving my small fan around the house to keep air moving in all the damp spots. And with the weather being unseasonably warm, I've also been keeping a lot of the windows open at least a crack to keep more air moving.

 All this helps. But I think the issue won't really go away until it's warm enough to keep the whole house wide open most of the time and not have condensation occurring. And I suspect the issue will return with winter. So I believe this will be a long term ongoing issue.

 I would certainly use composite window frames not wood if I had the design to do over again. It seems that having less windows but a few larger ones, without the little pane dividers would also help reduce the amount of edges where condensation could form. I'd also skip the thinner decretive panel in the door. The thicker parts do not form condensation. The metal hinges in the door conduct the cold well, forming condensation continually and dripping a steady stream of rust as you can see in the last photo. I don't know enough about building to know what could be done about that, other than maybe using a stainless steel hinge if such a thing even exists. I guess we'll see if I figure out a better way to stop/deal with this all this as time goes on.

Video Tour

I made a video tour of my house! Forgive the poor camera work, I've never posted a video before. But I think it does give you a fair idea of what my place looks like.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A little winter life

An easy way to add some new life to your house in the winter. I like to cut some willows (or any other small branches) and put them in a jar with water. Quite quickly, they grow roots and start to sprout little leaves and roots. It's nice sometimes to see new things growing when it's still very much winter outside!

Monday, March 9, 2015


Just a minute ago as I was laying in bed typing replies to comments on this blog, a fox ran right by my open window! (The house is really warm from lots of cooking and I was cooling it down so I could sleep.) Pretty sweet part of where I live! I've seen his tracks around here before but never actually seen him.

(And no, that's not a photo I took. There is a pretty bright moon tonight, and he kicked on my motion sensor flood light, but I didn't get a photo.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Worms are still alive!

I did a little digging yesterday, and looks like at least some of the worms in my toilet are doing well and are a healthy pink color. Now I'm curious to see how fast they reproduce and breakdown/condense all the matter composting in there.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Realities of Solar Power

Solar power. It's a great idea. I like the idea of being independent and free of the grid. I like that (once installed) it uses a free source of energy. I like that it's clean, quiet, and odor free. And I do not regret at all installing a solar system on my house.

But it does have a few issues. And these are some things you should know and think about if you are planning to live off grid either in your tiny house or otherwise. I knew pretty much nothing about solar power and living off grid when I drew up the plans for my house, but since then, while still no expert, I have learned a lot of things. Some of these may be pretty obvious, others, for me at least, were not. I am not an electrician so feel free to laugh at some of my descriptions or word choices. I'm just trying to write all this out in a way that makes some sense now to someone who didn't know anything about the subject a few months ago.

First, think about what are your particular reasons for wanting to go off grid? To save money on utilities? Depending on the expense of the system you choose, how long you expect to use it/stay in one place, and the cost of power through your local utility, this may or may not add up to savings over time. To save the earth and be more green? Great, but think about the power used to produce each part of your solar system and what will happen to all those parts when they eventually wear out. Batteries for instance are very large, expensive, and there is no real good way to dispose of them once they reach the end of their life. You local power plant may actually be greener in the long run. To become more self reliant and free of dependance on or regulation by others? Probably nothing else will replace this reason very well. Because you live somewhere that has no access to the grid and you still want the (major) convenience of using many things powered by electricity? Not much else will solve this one either. The last two and primarily that very last one are the main reasons I am off grid. But they are all things to think about depending on what motivates you.

Then consider the other possible ways to have power and be off grid. You could also produce power via a gas generator, windmill, or water powered turbine. These each have their own pros and cons as well. Gas generators require gas and the time and expense involved to obtain it and are noisy and smelly. But they can be relatively cheep to purchase initially and easy to set up and move. Windmills require some serious construction and obviously a steady supply of wind in their particular location. They however then are pretty quiet and require no consistent operating costs. A turbine needs a steady supply of water that doesn't dry up, freeze up, or get clogged up with sediment. But if you have that, they run around the clock and are also free of ongoing fuel costs. Depending on your location and what's available, you may want to think about one or more of these options.

So now you've decided for whatever reason or combination of reasons that you do indeed want a solar installation. First you need to figure out how much power you actually use. So you need to know how much electricity every single item uses, as well as about how much of the time that item is actually turned on. This needs to include everything that takes any electricity at all. The obvious things tend to be air conditioning, fridges/freezers, lights, heaters, water pumps, cooking (depending on what method you use), etc. Less obvious things can include the heater or stove that is propane and still requires electricity to ignite, run a fan, power an internal clock and such. Or the "ghost" draw from things like a TV that may use a little power all the time, even when the power is turned off. Calculating up this list can be a bit complicated. More on that later.

Unless you want to install a large and very expensive system, you might want to consider how important high power use items like a cable TV box, toaster, coffee maker, vacuum, curling iron, clothes dryer, microwave, blender, hair dryer, etc are to you and possibly forgo them completely. Not that you can't have those things, you just need to plan for items like that pushing the power requirements way up and decide if each one is worth it to you. Some of those items use a lot of power the whole time they are on, but they are not on very long. I.E. a microwave or hair dryer. Others use much less power at any one time, but run a lot, such as a fridge or freezer. Either situation becomes a large power draw.

Do you want to run everything in your house on AC power or DC power? Or some combination of both. The best I understand the way this works is that one is a steady stream of current coming through your lines (DC) like a faucet that is turned on. The other is an intermittent pulse of power (AC), more like a lawn sprinkler. Either one is very capable of powering things, but they are totally different and the item being used has to be designed for the power type you are using. If you plug something designed for one thing into the other kind of power you will destroy it. (Maybe explosions, sparks, smoke, melting wires, and other general fun included.) The basic advantages of DC are that it requires less work to turn the power you have created via your solar panels into this, and it's a bit more efficient. It's also more dangerous (which is why everything in your on the grid house uses AC instead), there are many less cool things that are set up to use DC power, and they are often more expensive than their equivalent set up for AC. AC has basically all the opposites of those. It takes more work to turn the power you are generating into AC, and is less efficient. But it is safer, most things are designed to work with it, and they are often less expensive than a comparable item designed for DC power.

Solar power works when the sun is shining, not at night, not (or very little) when it's raining, snowing, cloudy, etc. Every day seems to include a night, and many days, depending on your location also include one of those other weather conditions. Also it helps if the sun hits your solar panels directly. When the sun in low in the sky, (all winter if you live very far north like me) behind a tree, or otherwise indirect or partially blocked, the power output is greatly reduced. All these things need to be considered when trying to figure out how much power you can actually produce.

Next, to have power all the other hours of the day when the sun is not shining, you'll need a battery bank of some kind to store the power you've generated. And you will have to have a charge controler to safely add the power coming in from your solar panels to your battery bank. When calculating how much power things you want to use will need, be aware that your power in your battery bank is going to be measured in DC amps. Almost everything you use is going to be powered in AC amps. And a rough calculation is to multiply the number of AC amps something uses by 11 (plus a little, it's 11.04 really) to find the number of DC amps you'd need to power it.

Next, pay attention to how many amps the solar panels you are looking at can produce. My 4 - 100 watt panels can put out, in perfect conditions like a totally clear day with the sun directly overhead and no shade or dirt on the panels, 5.29 amps each per hour. That means that total, again in perfect conditions, my set up can produce 21.16 amps of DC power per hour.  That's about 2 AC amps per hour. Not very much. And like mentioned above, there are very few hours in most days where you will have these perfect conditions, if at all. These calculations are rough and ignoring details like line drop (the power you loose as electricity travels through a wire), loss while converting from one kind of power to another, and loss during storage. But they should help you get a general idea without making the calculations too complicated.

So I have a generator as a backup to my solar system. This does require buying gas. And having a charger that takes the power the generator produces and safely stores it in the batteries. My charger can add at the max, 25 amps of DC power per hour to my battery bank. So right now I'm running it every other day for at least 5ish hours to top off my batteries and make up the extra power I need beyond the ability of the weather and my solar panels. It's a very efficient and small generator, running almost 10 hours on less than a gallon of gas so this isn't too expensive. Especially with the current low gas prices.

My battery bank currently consists of 5 - 155 amp hour batteries wires in parallel. Meaning they are all connected to basically act as a single big battery. That gives me the ability to store 775 amp hours of DC energy. Which gives me just over 68 amp hours of AC power stored. Again not very much. And batteries like this don't last very long at all if you run them down to 0%. In fact, they last longest if kept around 80% or above. So try to size your battery bank so you'll never use more than 20% of it in any one day whatever your power needs are. I use somewhere between 10-15% of mine each day. Also, remember that to turn the power coming out of your battery bank into the AC power you will probably want to use, you'll need an inverter as well.

The amount of power I have stored would usually last me around 6 days if I ran my batteries from 100% to 0%. The items I choose to have that require electricity are as follows, roughly in order of the amount of power they use. Refrigerator/freezer (small and efficient), water pump, lights (all LED), internet router, laptop and phone charging, ignition in my propane oven, bathroom and hood vet fans, ignition and fan running of my now secondary propane heater, epilator, and a kitchen aid mixer which is used only rarely.

So as you can see, I've kept my electrical needs fairly low and my system is working very well for me. And right now, my system is coming in around just under $4000 total. With all the labor having been supplied by a very good friend or myself so not counted into that figure. When I have time, I want to write out a detailed accounting of this as well as more details on each piece of my particular system. Hopefully for now though, that all makes some sense to you if you are learning about installing a solar system. And maybe raises some things you haven't thought about yet. Let me know if you have any questions!