How to Set up Your Very Own Off-Grid Solar System

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Please do not make us your primary source for everything solar and the electrical part of the process. We are learning as we go and sharing that information.

When considering solar, it seemed like a no-brainer. Buy some panels, some batteries and maybe one or two random parts then put them all together and plug in to our travel trailer. Pay a bit upfront, but the government will hopefully help us be green and sustainable, and the panels will pay themselves off after 5 years and still have 15 more years of life, right?

Wellllll…. (frown-ish face), not quite. Looking back, do we regret doing solar? Nooooo, I think we would have just waited to buy everything and install them until after we were settled in because money has been tight. I suppose living on a combined salary of $30,000 (gross) and building a tiny house will do that to a couple. So below we outline the parts we had to buy, costs of everything, and a general how to do it yourself.

A. Costs (including taxes)

$860  4 x 280-watt solar panels (picked up from a warehouse in Phoenix)

$1200 8 x 225 amp hr 6v Trojan batteries (also picked up in Phoenix but at a battery shop)

$1050 1800-watt Pure Sine Waive Inverter (Amazon- pain in the butt to get because everyone was out of stock)

$600 Midnite Classic 150 Charge Controller (Online Solar Supplier)

$30 2 Gauge AWG, 30 ft. Wire (Amazon)

$45 9 x Plastic Totes to store batteries and other equip. (Dollar General)

$15 4-Way Solar Wire Connector (Amazon)

$20 Misc. Fuses and Switches (Lowes)

$80 Treated Lumber and Hardware for Homemade Solar Panel frame (Lowes)

$25 15 Amp Extension Cord (Amazon)

TOTAL = $3925 

B. Off-Grid Solar Basics

Basic Components: solar collectors, charge controller, batteries and inverter

1. The average DIY solar set-up is arranged to change the tilt of the panels twice a year, thus achieving just over 70% efficiency. Newer, very expensive 2 axis sun tracking systems can achieve 100% efficiency but at a great cost. Your panels in the Northern Hemisphere will be tilted, approximately, to the south at an angle of your latitude +15 degrees in the winter and your latitude – 15 degrees in the summer.

2. The electricity generated by the panels will be fed through the charge controller, which supplies the required voltage to your battery bank, thus maintaining your batteries at an appropriate voltage.

3. The battery bank receiving a current from the charge controller should be maintained at 80% or more capacity for prolonged battery life. Battery banks should be sized accordingly.

          For instance, we use an average of 2.5 kwh per day and our battery bank is capable of storing 10.8 kwh.

4. The current from the batteries is fed to the inverter. We chose a pure sine inverter because it is capable of powering anything you might plug in to your typical household outlet. It is more expensive so your particular household set-up may not require this. The inverter changes the voltage from, what is in our case, a 24 volt battery bank to our household 120 volts. The inverter also converts DC to AC (AC being what you need for typical household electricity).

5. Also keep in mind that, as of 2014, you get 30% tax credit for what you spend on solar from the federal government, and Arizona shells out another 25% so we will be getting back 55% of what we paid for the system. Save your receipts!

C. Tips and Help

– Once you’ve decided to design and build your own off-grid solar system, the first step is to size your system appropriately. You can do this by looking at your electricity bill and finding your average electricity usage. A handy tool in this process is a Kill-A-Watt meter. Using this, you can assess the energy uses of individual appliances.

      – After sizing your system, the first consideration should be your battery bank. The bank is where your electricity is sourced from and must           be sized correctly before considering your solar panel needs. Before you get started, you should learn a lot about batteries. Trust me, it is             worth your time and it will save you money in the end.

      – After you’ve done this, you’ll need to pair that with an adequate supply of solar power for charging. Your solar panel array will need to be           sized according to the formula: X AH * 14.5 (assuming a 12v battery bank) volts charging * 0.05-0.13 (depending on your usage) charge rate         * 1/0.77 system derating = Y watts of solar panels

– It’s time to get educated about how electricity works. Remember the terms “series” and “parallel”? How about “amps,” “watts,” “ohms,” and “volts”? You need to become very familiar with all of these terms before you get started.

     – Want some Forums? The one below is very helpful:

           Northern Arizona Wind and Sun

 – Want more information or have questions? Feel free to email or message us!

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Tips for Pulling a Trailer and Handling Leaky Sky Lights

We officially bought our very first travel trailer with limited experience in all things travel trailer-esque. And it has been a little rough. Here were some of our struggles thus far:

  1. Driving a trailer that weighs more than the truck we drove it with. A 21’ Cougar Travel Trailer vs. Toyota Tacoma with 4 cylinders… Guess who lost? Ha. Going uphill was bad (we were moving at a swift 25mph in a 75mph road- hello emergency lights) but downhill was downright terrifying! If you have never driven a trailer behind a truck, much less a trailer that was likely way too heavy for the aforementioned truck, you have never feared for your life going down a large hill.
    1. Imagine napping while your husband navigates. You get car sick so your sleeping habits while in moving vehicles is not altogether uncommon. Then all of a sudden you wake up to an intense swaying, as if you were on a boat being rocked side to side. You realize that you are, in fact, not in a boat but in a car, which makes reality that much worse. When you wake, you look in the rearview mirror to find the trailer wiggling around, trying to jump off the hinge or flip you over while insisting on its freedom. Panic. Shock. Swaying further and further, moving about the lanes as if there were no lines and it was all for us. Petrified us. Looking back now, we should have spoken with people about pulling a trailer downhill, especially a hill that had multiple signs cautioning semis about the grade of the road.
    2. Never fear, our sixth sense kicked in and Dave pressed on the brakes, straightening out the unruly trailer and settling my stomach that was just about to reject all of the food I’d eaten that day. We found that acceleration or deceleration kept the trailer’s movement at bay and led us to a much happier experience, albeit still slightly traumatizing. Besides that little, likely well-known, tid-bit of knowledge, always make sure to check your lights before embarking on a journey, gas up your vehicle before hitching the trailer, and make sure your truck or towing vehicle of choice is steady and sound without any mechanical issues.
  2. After staying with a wonderful friend for 4-5 days, we decided to forego purchasing land and instead met with a woman who wanted to rent her land. We veered away from purchasing land because of horror stories we had heard in the county and town we were moving into. Stories involving people being kicked off their land for small permitting issues or the county just saying that you could own land, own a trailer, but you could not camp on your own land (unless you have 10+ acres of course, but then you could only camp on that land for x amount of days at a time.
    1. Soap Box: PARDON? I can only camp on MY land for x amount of days. I’m so confused. Man.
  3. The insidious, tricky bastards that we could not check before buying the trailer (and honestly, we didn’t think about checking it because the seal on the edges of the trailer were new). The culprit of the leaks has been one or two screws in the sky lights. Luckily Dave is a handyman and got some 100% silicone to slap on those screws (on the roof) but the problem was monsoon season and the rain not wanting to stop. Thus far, we have remediated the main holes, but the shower has a leak somewhere that we need to locate. We are a little nervous that it will be a bigger project than we bargained for if it is behind the shower stall thing. We will see!
  4. So far we have spent:

$3800 – trailer price

$25 – silicone for leaks

$20 – wiring harness (to connect truck and trailer for lights)

           Total = $3845

Happy Travels!

Plumbing and Slumming: Composting Toilet Creation and Implementation

Warning: in case you do not know what a composting toilet is or what it entails, I want to give you fair notice that this post will mention, or dare I say, discuss excrement and where it goes at length in some areas. After doing much research and looking into composting toilets ranging from well over $1000 to very simple, homemade ones starting at $25 if you buy commercialized versions, we decided to stick to a cheap, homemade one for our uses.

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Pros of Composting Toilets: They are relatively inexpensive and do not require a water hookup to function. They are also easy to move around, so you can take it with you next time you go to a store with those germ-infested toilets. If you do that, please tell me about your experience. And they are earth-friendly as they use no water and do not require some large treatment plant to process and chemical-ify your dooky (or your “boo” as some of my summer campers used to call it. Apparently “boo” can mean things ranging from current romantic partner to poop. Am I the only one who finds this interesting?).

Cons of Composting Toilets: They smell more than a normal toilet because you aren’t transporting your waste to another area… at least not initially. Rudimentary composting toilets, like the one we are using, also require some composting agent used to cover the excrement after your bowel movements. The bigger the word, the more sanitary something sounds.

Why did we choose a simple composting toilet over one such as the well-liked Nature’s Head Composting Toilet? Nature’ head seems like a great model, but it costs well over $900, money we do not have in our current situation when there is an equally good option for our purposes. The nice thing about the Nature’s Head is it has a crank that you use to literally compost and dehydrate your excrement in the pot with a different part to pee in. With our composting toilet, with consists of some plywood around a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat on top, you use the same hole for everything.

After reading many reviews, I’ve seen some people recommend using your composted poo for trees, as the plants benefit from all of the yummy nutrients and minerals you got rid of. However, make sure not to use it for anything you plan to eat later. IF you do want to do that, maybe compost your humanure (not my term, but I think it is clever) for around 8 mos – 1 year before using it. Other options to get rid of the waste include digging a really deep hole if you have the room or throwing it away in a trash bag. If you think about it, animal poop is thrown away in bags all the time, and it is better to do so because it will decompose much faster and not require all of the resources we need for our water-heavy toilet fascination.

What did we spend on our composting toilet?

Plywood – $23

Toilet seat – $25

5 gallon bucket – $2

Sawdust – free from ACE Hardware

Plumbing cap for pre-existing toilet in RV – $1.50

Metal cap for outside city water line – $14

TOTAL COST: $65.50

 

Since we decided on the composting toilet, and we are living in a 21’ trailer, we needed to replace the trailer toilet which meant taking it out to put the composting toilet in. This required removing the pre-existing toilet (not too difficult a task), capping the exposed plumbing line (because it might get messy otherwise), and then turning on the pump to make sure everything was working. Unfortunately our line for city water on the outside of the trailer had a plastic cap not designed for much pressure so the plastic cap burst off. Dave then proceeded to run out and get a metal, fancier cap for the fresh water tank.

Side note: Things you learn about living in an RV or trailer

Make sure your fresh water tank is filled up halfway or more when turning on the hot water tank or just in general, otherwise the pump will run consistently and worry you about a break in the line.

How to Save Money While Road Tripping

How can you possibly save money while traveling? It oftentimes seems impossible that traveling could be synonymous with frugality, but we have the answer! Do you want to take road trips to really awesome places without spending significantly more than you would spend staying at your rented apartment? Well here is the answer!

Below are some tips we used during our 3 week road trip. We drove through most of New Mexico, Colorado, and part of Utah and Arizona while camping at some of the most beautiful and natural places I have ever seen.

3 weeks of road trip traveling including year national park pass and everything = $750

3 weeks just for food, utilities and rent = $1100

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Preparation

1. Take your trip at the end of your lease agreement

2. Minimize! Sell the things you don’t use regularly and put the rest in storage

3. See our packing list below for necessary & helpful items

4. Consider your vehicle when planning. We took my car, a little Kia Forte which gets 30 miles hwy, and didn’t have any issues with clearance or anything. Make sure your tire pressure is set for efficiency (usually more air in your tires) and a fresh oil change and air filter makes a big difference as well as how much weight you have in your car, so try to travel light.

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“On the Road.. Again!”

5. Camping!: Look on your map for national forest or BLM land because you can camp for free on it. Good luck finding it in the midwest or the east, but if you drive out west it is plentiful. When you enter nat’l forest or BLM land, look for road pull offs and go explore a little bit. Some of the places already have cleared areas and fire pits so it can be very convenient.

               Remember that hotel costs are crazy if you plan to be on the road for a while, so try to camp as much as possible

6. Showers… You can usually find hostels and pay a small fee to take a shower, or you can go to campgrounds and ask to take a shower. They’ll usually let you do it. On the trip, we showered the one time we spent the night at a hotel (in the middle of the trip as a treat for both of us), one time at an outdoor shower at the workplace of a friend, and other times at campgrounds or hostels. You could also get a Solar Shower if you plan on staying in one place (that has sunlight) for more than one night! Check them out.

               TIP: If your hair gets greasy quickly and you don’t want to look nasty, baseball caps are your best friend through and through! I practically lived in mine and it protected my pasty white skin from sunburn. It doesn’t get much better than that!

7. Cooking: We came prepared with both a JetBoil (great for rainy days when you need to heat something up in your tent) and a Coleman camping stove that runs on gas (so it is much cheaper to use than the JetBoil). We really tried to eat whole foods for most of the trip and make as many meals as possible, so I grabbed some of my ziploc, prepared crockpot meals, and we just heated them up on the Coleman in our percolator that also worked for coffee in the morning. While on the trip, we picked up utensils from a local thrift store and used plastic disposable plates during the trip (we washed them each time so we only brought about 4 with us). We also had a cast iron pan and small pot. If you have not enjoyed the wonders of cast iron yet, your road trip is the perfect opportunity! No washing required, just oil to wipe it off each time.

               Some of our favorite meals included cornbread on hot coals, lasagne soup crockpot meal, tacos/fajitas, oatmeal with brown sugar and dried fruit almost every morning, tea  or coffee (thank you percolator and jetboil), and potatoes any way you can think of. If you buy the processed meals like mac n cheese or instant rice or potatoes, meals are even easier.

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PROS: See many new, awesome places stressfree, don’t worry about bills, live spontaneously!

CONS: You camp A LOT, cook a lot, and might not get showers every single night

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Packing List:

  • Make sure you bring a quality cooler that will keep your food cold and buy the big block ice. The cubed ice doesn’t last half as long.
  • Easy tent for camping with bugs and mosquitoes but that has a goof rain fly
  • Sleeping pads and sleeping bags
  • A good atlas for the states you will be traveling through because they show the dirt roads you may be using to get to potential, free camping spots, and they work when you don’t have internet service on your smart phone
  • Head lamps or flashlights with extra batteries
  • First aid kit (you can make your own, just google what they typically have in them and make one that suits you)
  • Big 5-7 water gallon with an easy pour spout for drinking and washing dishes. The tall ones seem to be more convenient for space than the square ones. Can get them from walmart or many places. Bring water bottles too. I like the big ones so I don’t have to refill them constantly.
  • Dry food, trashbags, ziplocs
  • Obviously essentials like clothes and hygiene items, but try to keep it to a minimum for weight and room purposes

Obviously this list is geared towards car camping and road trips, but you could use some of this information for bigger trips as well.