‘Off Grid’ and Loving It!

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This is the story of how my wife, Tammy Douse, and I, Richard Douse, came to live off-grid. I’ll share how, since 1998, we have been producing our own electricity and collecting rainwater off our house roof, while enjoying all the conveniences of modern living.

The Property

Our home that we now call “Rocky Top” is a 38-acre parcel of land about a half-hour drive east of Redding. It consists of a long ridge, as well as a valley with a little winter creek running through its middle.

The first challenge was solving the percolation problem. It had been assumed, correctly, that the best building site was up on the top of the ridge that offered a sweeping view of  Lassen Peak and the surrounding area. Because of this, the percolation test was done on top of the ridge. However, far down in the valley, we were able to find suitable soil that passed inspection. We then, literally, “jack-hammered” a hole for the septic tank on the building site and ran 2-inch PVC pipe down to a leach field, 600 feet away and 200 feet below. With this problem solved, we were able to get a permit to build.

My wife and I both enjoy building, and together we first built a garage-shop-RV port which we then moved into, using our 5th wheel trailer as our kitchen, pantry and bathroom. The garage/shop became our living room and bedroom.  This would be our home for the two-and-a-half years that it would take for us to build our house.

To see if we could live “off the grid” using photovoltaic panels and batteries, we bought two ancient (1980 vintage) 110-watt panels and hooked them up to a 1500 watt inverter to convert the direct current (12 volt DC) power to normal alternating current (120 volt AC), that would then run the washing machine, TV and our computer.

Of course, we would still need water and, at the time, drilling a 300=foot well seemed too expensive. We were also concerned that the water might taste funny. Since we had been concerned about fire danger, we built our first building with an enameled steel roof. This roof would allow us the opportunity to collect rainwater that we could then store in tanks. If we were ever threatened by fire, we would have a large quantity of water on hand for fighting it.

This garage/RV port was our first home, our prototype. It was a test to see if these ideas were really doable. On completion of the garage/RV port, we installed three 2,300-gallon tanks behind it and under a roof.  If you look closely you will see a stainless steel funnel under the rain gutter and 2-inch PVC pipe that runs straight down. This joins a kind of manifold which connects to all three tanks. The tanks, as it rains, fill from the bottom. As they fill, the pipe also fills as water seeks a common level.

People ask if we get enough rain to fill these tanks. The formula is quite simple: For every 100 square feet of surface, one inch of rain will give you 60 gallons of water. This particular building will capture enough water to fill all three tanks with just 9 inches of rainfall! Unseen in this picture are our two 105-watt panels on the roof. These panels were first used in the Mohave ARCO project in the early 1980s are still working well. It is really hard to “wear out” a photovoltaic power panel as there are no moving parts, unless you count the electrons which are knocked out of their grid when hit by a photon from our sun! And then, while producing electric energy, they migrate back to where they were and the process repeats.

Well, maybe not exactly like that, but that’s the idea.

The first three tanks provided enough water to allow us to make it through our dry season while we were living in the garage/RV port. However, we knew we’d need more storage once we were living a more normal existence in a real house. So, when we built what would become the “tractor garage” we also installed more tanks. In this picture are two more 2,300-gallon tanks. Unseen are two 2,500 gallon tanks that are behind the building.

The “Main” house

During all phases of construction, my wife and I were also both working full time at other jobs. Since we did almost everything ourselves, we wound up living in the garage for 2-and-a-half years. From designing the plans to laying out string lines, we formed, poured concrete (with the help of dear friends), did the rough plumbing, framing, siding, roof sheathing and painting. Because our property is home to rattlesnakes, I decided I did not want to build on a raised foundation. Because of the grade and the multiple levels, the foundation and slab would take us the first year.  Some things, of course, are best given to subcontractors. In our case, that meant the top-out plumbing, the sheet-rock, tile work, the AC electrical in the main house, all the cabinets, carpeting and the oak flooring.

Building electricity conservation into the house construction

Since we had committed ourselves to living “off grid” – we tried to incorporate as many energy-saving features as we could think of. The house is 2-x-6 framed, which allows for R-19 insulation in the walls. The exterior was first entirely wrapped with OSB before hanging the fire resistant Hardi- plank siding.

As our area – Shasta County, California –  is well known for its industrial strength summers, we decided to vent the roof ridge by holding back the roof sheathing about four inches from the peak and then covering the gap with 1/8 inch screening. This was then covered by the metal roof cap that sits on top of the metal ridges of the roof. As a result, since hot air travels upwards naturally, the attic is vented very efficiently and passively. This helps maintain a relatively cool attic area that, in addition, has two feet of blown in insulation. This works to create a cooler ceiling so that when the temperature outside reaches over 110 degrees, we keep much of the coolness that was obtained the previous night. To bring in that late night and early morning coolness, we have installed a highly efficient whole house fan.

When needed, we have ceiling fans in the bedrooms, living room, and study.  Even on those days when the temperature is especially high, the inside our home stays in the mid 80s, which, with the ceiling fans, is comfortable. However, to make things even more comfortable, on especially hot days and nights when the temperature stays high, I installed a through-the-wall air conditioning unit this spring.

Electricity

The house is powered by photovoltaic panels which charge large industrial-sized batteries wired for 24 volts DC. There are four BP 120 watt panels on a Zomeworks tracker. We also have six BP 120 watt panels, six Sharp 170 watt panels and six 185 watt Eoplly panels facing south. Facing southeast are two BP 150 watt panels   We have a 4,000 watt inverter/charger which not only charges our batteries, but converts the electricity obtained from these sources to 120 volts AC as needed. We also have an Onan generator that runs on propane, but this does not see any use from April until some time in November when our rainy season begins.

The RV/garage now has two 80 watt panels that charge two golf-cart batteries that supply 12 volts DC to the pump that pressurizes our rainwater as well as supplying juice for a 1500 watt inverter that runs our shop tools.

A little 50 watt panel on the pergola over the pond runs the pond pump that gives us a waterfall whenever the sun is shining.

Since we have learned that you can’t really grow vegetables on stored rainwater, we invested in a 300 foot well. The well pump is a Lorentz and is run by four BP 80 watt panels. This water flows to a 2500 gallon tank that is separate from our rainwater system. This water is pressurized by another pump that gets its power from two golf-cart batteries that are charged from a two 50-watt panels on the tractor-garage roof.

 

After enjoying some success gardening in raised beds up on our ridge, we decided to garden more extensively down in our valley. We had a 80-foot well drilled and then installed a 24 volt Shurflo 9300 submersible pump, powered by the two ancient 110-watt panels we had on the garage/RV port when we began our project. This pump pulls water up out of the well and pushes it up a hill to a 2500-gallon water tank.

Most men would agree that a man can’t have too many garages, and now you see that, if you live off-grid, you can’t have too many photovoltaic panels either!

Heating, and other energy saving devices

For heating our home we have a Monitor kerosene heater, which is extremely efficient. It only uses about 70 gallons of kerosene a year. We also have a small wood stove for back-up heating. Our refrigerator is perhaps the best you can get for off-grid solar living. It is called Sunfrost, and when they say it saves electricity by a factor of five, you can believe it. It does. If every family in the United States had one of these in their home we wouldn’t need foreign oil. We have the big model, the RF19 (refrigerator/freezer) in 24 volts DC, but it can be purchased in conventional AC also.

For washing clothes we have a System 2000 horizontal axis top loader. Very efficient. It uses very little water and electricity without sacrificing cleaning ability. For water heating we have an AquaStar on demand heater. It’s great. When you turn on the faucet you get hot water instantly. When you close the faucet you are no longer heating water, only the pilot light is on. We do spend some on propane, mostly in the winter when we’re socked in and have to run our Onan 5500 watt generator for a couple of hours per day to top off the batteries. And we use propane in the kitchen.

And now, to answer the most-often asked question: “If I invest in solar power, when will I get my money back?”

This question should be easy to answer, but all the so-called experts struggle with it. They go into complicated mathematical exercises that only serve to confuse people. Let’s not do that here. Let me keep it simple.

Solar power installed on your home is an “investment.” It is similar to other highly secure investments, such as a certificate of deposit, commonly called a “CD.” With the purchase of a solar system, either on grid or off, or with the purchase of a CD, you will lose direct control of your money while the investment is working for you. The solar system is working by saving you the expense of conventional electricity. That is, in effect, paying you money by not requiring that you spend it. The CD is paying you money in interest. What you are receiving from both of these investments are a return ON your money. This return on your investment begins to accrue, in both cases, immediately.  The return will continue as long as you hold (or renew) the investment.

With an investment such as a CD, you will receive a return OF your investment when you cash it in at the end of its term. Likewise, you will receive a return OF your solar system investment when you sell your house. At that point you will no longer be an investor. You will have your money back. But keep in mind this important fact.  While an investment such as a CD will give you a fixed return, with an investment in a photovoltaic system, your percentage of return can only increase as the cost of “store bought” electricity goes up over the years.

I hope the information given above is helpful to those of you who are thinking of “going solar” and have been reluctant to take the first step. I hope you will do that. It is one of the most important things you can do for your country and our planet.  If you should have any questions, send me an email at photovoltaicman@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to have answers.

Richard Douse
Richard Douse lives with his two favorite ladies: Tammy, his wife, and Ann Margret, his cat.  They live off the grid in a home they built themselves.  They grow their own food because they don’t trust corporations doing it for them.  Douse thinks of himself as a liberal.  He believes liberals are blue-collar folk who know how to work and think for themselves.  He believes that what we do, individually and collectively, in the next 10 years will determine whether civilization continues - or goes away.
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22 Responses

  1. Avatar bruce vojtecky says:

    Living off the grid is possible in remote areas and has been done for years. In the cites it is much harder because of restrictions and crowded conditions.
    Here in Phoenix it seems solar use has exploded in just the last four years. Almost all the houses out where I live have solar panels but they do have to adhere to HOA rules which sometimes are ridiculous. Where the big use of solar can be seen are in public and retail buildings. The parking lots are covered, which gives needed shade, and solar panels are installed on the top pf the covers. The manager at FRYS on Bell road told me that their solar panels save them $10,000 a month in electricity costs. I don’t doubt that figure in this almost 24/7 AC heat. APS does have a program that aids in solar grants, perhaps REU could do the same in Redding.

  2. Investment in capturing free and ever flowing sun power must be somewhat tempered off the grid by the need to mine and maintain lead or lithium for battery storage. Data on this extraction/recycling energy use is never provided as if they and other factors don’t matter in the equation of sustainability and environmental protection. Are these considerations material compared against cost and damage
    of bringing wire to a remote location? Is the logical extension of everyone becoming self sufficient for energy and food production while living apart the most ecologically and sensitive manner of existence for ever expanding populations? What is the true land use cost of everyone living as Thoreau admonished? Is more open space preserved by apartment living? Does it matter if we will to our children a planet with a single remaining animal species aside from the bugs and pets we carry and nurture?

    • Dear Randall,
      Throw a philosophical question at me, will you? Truth is I can adequately answer your questions. You see, twenty years ago I felt we had a chance to save humanity. Now, I’m not sure at all. Oh, we won’t kill off all life on earth but we stand a very real chance of forcing Mother Nature to start all over again with Blue Green Algae. Population growth cannot be stopped and that will preclude us from winning this so-called war that so many people still do not recognize. Simply put, there’s too many pigs for the teats. It will not end well. Sorry.

  3. Avatar john says:

    Very cool!
    Why can’t you grow veggies with stored rainwater?

    • Agriculture takes a lot of water compared with 2 people bathing, washing clothes and cars, and such. I would have had to add a lot more tanks and we could look like Standard Oil with no place to grow carrots.

  4. Excellent story about how to go about living off the grid. We live very near to you, in a very efficient home, but we’ve yet to go solar. Mainly, that’s because of the expense, but this article has me thinking it might be easier and cheaper than I thought.

    • The expense was a problem for us as well since 20 years ago solar panels were much more costly and most electricians at the time thought DC was 1/2 of a band. So … we learned as we went and did all our own installing, first on the RV Garage where we lived while building the main house, and then on the main house when it was finally finished. We have added panels as the years went by. It can be a system that can grow with you if you do it right.

  5. Very Cool Richard! Thanks for sharing. Why can’t you grow veggies with Rainwater? Is it True that Solar Panels will be going up in price because of the new Tariffs?

    • Hi Richard,
      You can grow veggies that way however if we were to try to do it we would run out of water before we could pick a tomato. Tammy and I use about 65 gallons of water between the two of use. To water a garden would depend of course on how large your garden was, but we would burn through our water quickly as we use, for the garden, at least 500 gallons per day.

  6. Avatar Karen C says:

    Here is an excerpt taken from an article I saved about the subject of using stored rainwater for edibles:
    The basic problem is that metals, chemicals and possibly petroleum or plastics byproducts can leach off of the roof and out of your gutters along with the rain water.

    A second problem is that roofs can have varying amounts of bird poop, squirrel excrement and other potential bacterial contaminants.

    • I sent Richard an email to alert him about questions, but in the meantime, Karen, thanks for much for this information. Wow. Who knew? (We do, now, thanks to you.)

    • Hi Karen, You hit on the reason we do not drink the rainwater. Anyone watching the weather channel long enough will see our planet’s air circulation can bring contaminants such as dioxin from as far away as the EU and, worse, Russia. Even so we clean our rain gutters before collecting, have several filters along the way to the tanks, and when a 2,300 gallon tank is full I pour 6 or 7 ounces of Clorox into it. As far as bird poop and squirrel excrement goes, I have strict orders that squirrels are not to climb into my tanks, regardless of how hot the summer becomes. As said in the article, I use the first 1/2 inches of the first rain to clean the roof as much as possible. But I don’t get anal about this as I know that most public water sources have all kinds of things floating in them such as goose poop and even dead bodies. That’s what the Clorox is for. Thank you for asking because I’ll be a lot of folks were wondering the same as you.

      • Thanks so much, Richard. I love when writers engage with readers. It’s part of what makes aNewsCafe.com’s content so interesting: the follow-up conversations.

        (Young Robert Burke did a masterful job this week replying to comments. And I’m reminded that I should go tell him how much I appreciate that.)

  7. Avatar ZIYAD says:

    How you keep your storage tank from freezing

    • That’s not a problem, Ziyad. My exposed PVC pipes are 2 inch and it’s a rare year we even get snow. Takes a pretty good freeze to freeze pipes that size. The tanks? Not a chance.

  8. Avatar Ron C. says:

    Excellent article Richard. Learning myself for many years on sustainability and Self sufficiency I can really appreciate people who do it. Its nice to see some in our area.

  9. Avatar Yrret Schumacher says:

    You must live in a arid climate by storing that much water! Here in the South where I live water is abundant. I have lived off grid since 1977. And off grid and self-sufficient Homestead since 1992.

  10. Avatar Deb Baker says:

    Very nice descriptive article, Dick!

  11. Avatar El says:

    30 minutes East of Redding will place you right around Round Mountain? I have property there with nice views of Mt Shasta. What was the cost for the well, and would you recommended them?

    • Avatar Facts trump Opinion says:

      El: Steve Foster from Foster’s well drilling is the one to call. Honest and fair on his prices!

  12. I don’t know who is teaching this course but this one that’s offered this fall at Shasta College sounds like the one I took and then Tammy took back in 1986. If anyone reading my article thinks they would like to pursue building their own home, this might be the course for you to take first. For us it was the only course.

    CONS 150
    INTRODUCTION TO RESIDENTIAL CONSTRUCTION
    – 3
    Units
    Class Hours: 54 lecture total
    This course is recommended for entry level students in the construction
    trades. Instruction will include tool safety, estimating costs, foundations,
    framing, plumbing, electrical, mechanical, and finish carpentry work.
    The student will gain a basic knowledge of the building trades.

  13. To continue, the most important thing we learned about home building is the order of work for inspections. This is much like the order of operations in mathematics. There is a step by step in building and exactly when you call for building inspections. You absolutely do not want to get ahead of the building inspector.