Living off the grid might be possible in a variety of creative ways, but if you are starting from scratch then you have a lot of infrastructure to provide for yourself — electricity, water, heating and cooking fuel, buildings of all description. And if you are doing the work yourself with a helper or two, you can expect to spend a decade or so to get done with all of the projects, large and small, that are entailed. So if you haven’t started yet, better get to it!
Our style is to overdo things a bit so that projects don’t disintegrate in our daily temperature extremes and blowing dust in the spring and fall. As our weather comes almost always from the southwest, there are sheds in our neighborhood with the exterior siding on the southern exposure literally sandblasted down to the core. So we use screws instead of nails, more screws than less, high-quality exterior paint, and so on.
Experiments in solar and wind power, new technologies, conservation methods, and strengthening crops are ongoing. While experimentation is driven by necessity at times, most often it results from our wish to simplify our lives while working with nature to multiply her bounty.
In the great Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tradition, we’re posting some photos and discussion of some of our projects, and where we can, diagrams of what we’ve built. All in the hope that you the reader will have a chance to learn from both the good and the bad examples we may be setting along the way.
Our first solar system consisted of used panels and battery and new Trace inverter and charge controller, all of which we got from Northern Arizona Wind and Sun in Flagstaff. It was a fairly small system but was affordable and got us through the first couple of years. Then, when the old battery died, we upgraded the battery with a new heavy duty industrial unit and doubled the number of panels with a used loaner array, all of which did a much better job for us. In 2009 we upgraded again to some newer technology including six high power panels to replace the twenty four, thirty year old panels we had been using. These new panels increase our solar potential from 720 watts at 24 volts to 1050 watts at 24 volts. We also installed a new Outback charge controller and intend to install a couple more panels and a new battery bank this spring (2010). The older equipment will be used to power the travel trailer we use to house WWOOFers and to electrify the shipping container we are setting up as a studio for Barbara. (Yes, we have installed a door and some windows in the container).
In a solar setup like the one shown above, the main issues are orientation-related; the panels need to face South in the northern latitudes, and the best bracket angle to use depends on the season, since the sun is lower in the sky in the winter. Visit the PV Project page for our approach to solving these problems, including a visual tool we created for showing the angle of the sun for any given latitude and day of the year.
Early on we installed an Air404 wind generator. We like the idea of using as many resources as we can as we work toward self-sufficiency; wind is a natural in our area. However, we found that the small units like the Air404 don’t add appreciably to our power production. It is also, in our experience, extremely noisy and conflicts with the sounds of nature we enjoy so much. When the circuit board burned out on our unit, we realized just how intrusive that noise had become. The generator is still on top of the pole, but it hasn’t worked for the last couple of years. We’re researching another unit that will work on the same tower system, put out an appreciable amount of power and, with aluminum rather than carbon blades, be quieter. We’ll let you know how that works out.
Another step on our path toward self-sufficiency is the installation of a ¾ horse Grundfos AC/DC submersible well pump. One of our greatest challenges to high-desert, off-the-grid gardening is pushing enough water out of the deep aquifers in order to irrigate. We have always depended on a 240 volt 2 horse AC pump powered by a diesel generator for both domestic and agricultural needs. We may still need to use the AC pump to get us over the hump of water need as the gardens continue to expand, but our main water supply will be the solar powered pump (picture). With the help of an innovative pump installer, we were able to put both the AC/DC and straight AC pump down the single well. This season will tell how far we are in meeting our expanding water needs with the solar pump.
Part of making the water provided by the solar well pump sufficient is using water conserving methods such as drip irrigation to lessen water use, capturing roof runoff in holding tanks, mulching to reduce evaporation, planting drought tolerant species and deploying soil building methods such as the use of Michael Melendrez’s TerraPro and Soil Secrets microbial supplements to reduce the plants’ water needs.
Growing food and medicine
Our soil is not like the rich black loam that covers much of the midwest and southern states.
We sit atop a cinder cone, and the soil is described as “silty clay.” It needs a lot of TLC to become productive for gardening. In a sense, we are farming our soil as much as our crops, and so we pay a lot of attention to soil health, amendments, composting, mulching, and so on. We are currently in the process of expanding our square footage of prepared beds, from about 4500 square feet to over 12000 square feet. The new beds will be split between the new greenhouse, the growing tunnel, and the newly established outside beds in our lower garden.
Bees are among the most important pollinators in the world, so keeping bees on site is one way of ensuring that crops are productive. Visit our Beekeeping page for more.
One of the projects completed in 2009: a solar powered downdraft food dehydrator. We started with a conceptual drawing of this design, but the details were up to us. We’re working on a page that describes what we did in painstaking detail. Since pain is involved, it will be a little while…in the meantime, we’re now prepared to preserve foods suitable for drying. The premier dehydration candidate is zucchini! It’s so prolific, and everyone is trying to give them away at the same time every summer and fall, so it will be great to preserve them instead of watching them wither away in a basket. A very full basket.
Tomatoes also cry out for preservation, but we made soup and canned it rather than drying them. Pulpy fruits can be difficult to dry effectively, and tend to stick to the screens or whatever they are placed on, so canning is just better for such fruits. But peaches. mmm, peaches. They dry very well, and since we don’t have a lot of luck with fruit trees here (due to sustained spring winds of over 35 mph…bye bye flowers, bye bye fruit). So we’ll buy them to dry, but still get to eat every last one of them!
Amazing work and very inspirational 🙂 I have just completed my first solar dehydrator and am enjoying it’s bounty but mine is made on a small scale. Your dehydrator looks fantastic and i would love to know the knowledge behind the design so i can share the goodness with my family and friends.
If it were possible to attain a link to the page on the pain staking details i would love that. 🙂
Tasara, Billen Cliffs Community Australia