Over the holiday weekend an uncle of mine expressed strong doubts about my tiny house dream. I am not overly surprised. This uncle lives in a massive antebellum “farmhouse” (read: mansion) in an affluent part of a large city. He also resided in a “apartment” (read: luxury penthouse condo) in the heart of Washington D.C. for a while, and has a similar apartment in Paris.
This uncle is not what you might consider an a-typical wealthy individual. He built a greenhouse in his backyard with his own hands from old windows he got from craigslist, and yard sales, and the side of the road. He chops his own wood. He drives an 90s mustang convertible that he loves but punishes like a truck (such as using it to carry dozens of dirty old windows in the back seat). You’re as likely to see him in jeans and flannels or a t-shirt than you are in a nice suit and tie—I’ve seen him in both. He is a Civil War buff with a room in his house dedicated entirely to his Civil War artifact collection. He has a wine cellar and a library and his small back yard is completely taken over by his obsession: gardening. Specifically different types of peppers from all over the world.
I say all this not to impress you, but to make it clear that while his nay-saying royally pissed me off, I do value his opinion as a highly educated, successful and yet down to earth man. Which is perhaps why his nay-saying has resulted in further Solar research and this blog.
Is solar a viable option in cold climates?
Yes. A general rule of thumb is that if you can clearly see your solar panels, they can produce electricity. In fact, given equal sunlight, a solar panel on a cold day will out-produce a solar panel on a hot day.
My main concern and my uncle’s main point, was what about cloudy days? He admitted that we get almost 300 sunny days here in the south, and week-long cloudy stints aren’t that common. But there is a period of the year when there are thunderstorms almost every afternoon.
I plan to use propane for cooking, for heating water, and I believe it is possible to also set up the fridge and even lights on propane. It may even be possible to have some kind of switch, to convert them to propane when it is too cloudy for the panels to power them. But in general the only things in my house that will require electricity will be lights, the fridge, the microwave, and outlets to charge my cell phone and ipad.
However, I spend a good chunk of my day at work, and both of my apple devices have very good battery life. I could charge my iPad up to full before leaving work and have it work just fine for the evening hours. I’ve watched 4-6 hours straight of streaming TV on a single charge of my iPad.
So even if I went home to a cloudy day with no electricity, I would not be forlorn. I would still have access to my phone and iPad. I could use candles or lanterns, or battery powered lights. I would still be able to cook on my stove, still be able to use the compost toilet as it requires no electricity, and depending on how water gets to my shower and sink I would still have running water, and hot water as it will be heated with propane.
My only concerns are the fridge and AC in the summer. I already looked into the energy cost of the fridge and I don’t think that will be a huge drain. I wont use the microwave when the skies are cloudy and my solar isn’t producing, but my fridge will need to keep running so my food doesn’t spoil. I could try to just get non-perishable foods, or foods that don’t need to be refrigerated, but those tend to be higher in sodium and calories.
Not too long ago I broke down some power thoughts and what I’d need for watts. I estimated that I’d need 1780 watts. max at any given time. That’s if all my stuff is running, plugged in, charging and using power. If I don’t run the AC or Microwave when it isn’t needed, that reduces that amount. If I only turn on one or two lights I need at a time, that’s less drain. But I also learned that 2000 watt solar power won’t necessarily always be producing 2000 watts. In cloudy days it produces less, if the panels get dirty it produces less. How much less I don’t know.
I found a really great blog from someone who tested their solar system with an AC unit. It did appear to work with an average efficient AC, and they talk about eventually getting an even more efficient system.
The little research I’ve done has helped me become a bit more confident in the capabilities of solar power, especially if I manage to not use too much electricity for the most part. If my AC runs at night when nothing else is running, it shouldn’t be a problem. and I do intend on including standard RV type hookups, so I will be able to plug into the grid as needed.
So how will my life change going off grid?
I will need to change some habits. I’ll need to get used to doing new chores I haven’t had to do before. Like emptying out the toilet, cleaning off solar panels, checking my inverter and solar set up regularly (daily maybe?) to make sure it’s running efficiently. I’ll need to check my propane tanks and go get new ones when they are empty. I’ll be going to a laundry mat each weekend rather than having some kind of clothes washing at home. Though they do make man-powered washing machines, they are small and can only handle a couple of things at a time.
One of my current problems when it comes to too much TV consumption is just not having stuff to do. If I have daily chores that will cut down on the time I can just spend sitting and doing nothing. Maybe I will get a manual washing machine. I could get in the habit of washing my clothes at the end of the day. Maybe I come home and have dinner, write or draw or watch shows, go for a walk, and before bed I pull out the crank washer, change into my PJs and wash my clothes. Maybe I use a gravity fed shower so I have to fill some kind of tank with water so I’ve got water for my shower the next morning. I’ve been thinking of getting a big jug with a spigot instead of an actually plumbed sink, so maybe I’d have to take that outside to the water tank and fill it up. I don’t know how often I’d need to empty the compost toilet, but it may end up being a daily chore.
I’ll charge my phone and tablet at work so I don’t have to charge it at home in most cases. I can also download shows I want to watch at work and watch them at home to preserve my data, and only use my data for watching the occasional you tube tutorial. At least with AT&T using the Dish Network app doesn’t cost data, so I could continue to use that.
I may find that I don’t need to worry about finding stuff to do, as I’ll have some chores to do each day. I can then see myself sitting in my little window nook or out on the porch reading.
I could also get a grill, and do some outdoor cooking on occasion. I could perhaps even garden, have a small garden where I can grow some vegetables and herbs for myself. I also always wanted a little fairy garden of some sort.
It seems like a simple life, and I know some would balk at the idea of pulling out some hand-crank washing machine from the dark ages, filling it with water from a large tank outside my house, putting in some soap and the clothes I wore that day, then sitting on my porch and cranking to wash the clothes, then rinsing them out with a hose or something, and hanging them up on a line to dry like some old world peasant. And I may not do that, I may elect to let my dirty clothes pile up for the week and have a weekend chore of going to the laundry mat and running them through. I have no problem with that either. Sitting in their little waiting area and reading or drawing while my clothes wash.
I am a simple person, with relatively simple needs. Even now I use little electricity. Just my one light, charging my things which I rarely need to charge at home. I don’t have a TV, just the monitor for my computer which wont be coming with me. The only concern is still the AC. I will heat with propane, but cooling will be a thing. I cannot sleep if it’s too hot. I struggle to sleep at over 70 degrees. And in most tiny houses (and mine will be no exception) people sleep in the loft. Heat rises. I intend to have dormers, with windows I can open for good air flow through my loft. But even that wont be enough to keep it from getting up to 90+ degrees in my tiny house in the dead of summer.
All my plans for being off grid hinge on being able to run AC and a small fridge at the same time with solar power.
But it wont deter me. If it can’t be done, then that will just limit where I can park it to requiring it to be plugged in. I still intend to build my tiny house, and cross the energy bridge when it comes to it. But my research gives me confidence that it can be done.