The Challenges of Off-Grid Living

Well, it’s winter in California again, and you know what that means- watching the snow forecast in the Sierras, complaining about the 50-degree highs, and, of course, succumbing to power outages regularly in the tiny house (yikes!). When we designed the house and performed the energy modeling, we came to the conclusion that our battery storage and hot water tank would get us through all but the worst of the California winter weather (several rainy/cloudy days in a row). But we were not anticipating a vicious hot water tank thermosiphoning problem. It seems our hot water tank is losing about 30C  by nighttime cycling from the indoor tank to the outdoor heat pump, causing the heat pump to run more frequently or for us to lose hot water (and therefore space heating) more quickly. This is the first winter we’ve been “officially” off-grid, as we had an optional grid hook-up close to where we were parked last winter, and plugged in basically from January-March.

Now, we’re learning the hard way to stop storing too much in the fridge- just cleaned out the moldy contents after we lost power for about a week. This was partially due to poor planning on our part- we didn’t make it a priority to get the house re-started last week on the one sunny day we had, and then went up to Tahoe for the long weekend and came back to (surprise surprise) moldy fridge contents. Plus, the battery had been low for so long that it needed to be restarted, by getting out some screwdrivers, loosening the plastic cover over the wiring box, and triggering the restart button. So, yesterday morning, on the one sunny day of this week, we finally restored power to the house, getting up to about 75% charge and shutting off all circuits other than the fridge and lighting. Today it’s rainy again, and by 11 this morning we were down to 36%, with some power production (83 watts) despite the cloud cover. Hopefully we’ll make it another day without losing power to the fridge, and the sun will come back out briefly tomorrow, then all day Saturday. Meanwhile, no hot water in the tiny house as the heat pump hasn’t run in weeks. We’ll hope to run it on Saturday when the house can charge to 100%.

This kind of weather monitoring and activity adjusting is perhaps in line with the lifestyle advocated by sustainability and climate change champions. However, it seems like the mechanisms for living sustainably must improve somewhat to make the lifestyle more compatible and pleasurable to a larger sector of the population (not just adventurous and go-with-the-flow graduate students), something I do believe is an attainable goal. In fact, it MUST be an attainable goal if we’re going to learn on a broader social scale how to live within natural bounds on this planet. There are already rapid improvements in the California grid to accommodate more renewables, distributed energy resources, and energy efficiency programs, seeking to fix the infamous “Duck Curve” and reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are needed to provide ramping ability (with natural gas power plants) to meet the evening peak load hours. If microgrids and what the California Energy Commission is calling “Advanced Energy Communities” come into the mix rapidly, we could be looking at a very different and more comfortable way to live a fossil-fuel-free residential life. The salient point for me is: it takes a village (or a grid!). It takes many scientists, research labs, policy makers, and test projects to create a movement of green living, not just one house or one student group. A quote from a recent Grist article on off-grid living in Hawaii is ringing in my ears as I experience this winter and all the discomforts of energy-deprived living (we are unwilling or unable to access backup power from a generator or the grid in our current location): “Inefficiency is the downfall of any individual effort to address climate change.”

Meanwhile, we are looking to expand our collaborative and community-building network of climate friendly micro-housing. New and old members of the THIMBY team have branched out and formed a new group- EMPOWER (Energy Management Providing Opportunities for Widespread Emissions Reduction)- to develop and install a smart home energy management system that would incorporate weather data, solar generation, battery state of charge, user behavior, and a series of sensors communicating to an Arduino in order to control the operation of crucial loads like water and space heating and ventilation. Ideally, this will be up and running this spring so that we lose power even less frequently, and potentially get reminded through an App when it’s time to turn off non-critical loads and prepare for hibernation. The grand plan is that this system would turn into a marketable product for both off-grid and on-grid applications.

Another part of the impetus for seeking community and networks is that we are being asked to leave our current tiny house location, which was really just a one-year temporary permission to do weeks of 24-hour “research” by occupying the house on campus property. Now, the times up and we can no longer live on non-residential zoned land. So we’re searching far and wide for a new location for the house, ideally a nice, flat, south-facing yard or property with a view ☺ The challenge is harder than we anticipated, and much of the East Bay area is notoriously hilly and overcrowded. There are options further afield, requiring longer commutes or working remotely, but it seems like right now unless tiny housers have city government connections, larger, more rural and open land spaces are the easiest places to site a house (out of sight or city officials, and out of range of potential neighbor complaints). We are considering a friend’s yard in Marin, or a possible connection through a nearby City Department of Public Works, but the latter would require that the house be fire inspected and Water Board approved at the state level requiring.... well.... hours worth of phone calls, emails, and potentially re-cladding the exterior of the house. A Herculean bureaucratic struggle? Fingers crossed that we find something soon and get to keep on living the tiny house dream.

-Laney

 



 

THIMBY: Fall Update

A new semester of living in THIMBY begins. Reflecting back on the entire tiny house experience, it’s hard to believe a year ago our team was frantically orchestrating all-hands-on-deck weekend work parties, roping in all our friends and contacts in order to finish the house in time for the SMUD competition in October. And now, I’m sitting here at the desk in front of the south-facing windows, writing this blog post. We really have come a long way. And while the house systems are still far from perfect, we have another semester here at the Richmond Field Station to make progress before moving the house to a more permanent location and handing it off to another user in the spring.

Due to weight issues, THIMBY did not make it up to Lopez Island for the summer. After getting her all cleaned up and ready to go, it turns out the house was too heavy for the 1-ton pick-up, Big Red, that we purchased to tow her up north. We found out after towing the house one exit on the highway, feeling like the house rather than the truck was in control, then taking it to a weigh station and discovering the house weighs 15,000 pounds rather than 11,000 as we thought. So, luckily nothing was hurt or damaged in the process, and we decided to cut our losses and just leave the house in Richmond for the summer.

Now, back in the house, we have some new goals for the fall. Clean the water tanks, reinstall the lower planter box for greywater filtration, improve filtered greywater end uses, perfect the heating-composting toilet, get the inverter up and running (once and for all!), gather data from the home energy management system, and finish our first academic paper on the THIMBY project-- an analysis of the building design-performance gap for the energy and water systems. We are meeting with students interested in building a second tiny house, with environmental engineers eager to optimize home greywater treatment systems, and with the Office of Local Government and Community Relations to discuss the City of Richmond’s interest in affordable tiny house communities.

THIMBY still has a ways to go in realizing its full potential as an off-grid, climate-friendly, energy and water efficient, minimalist tiny house, but it is always making progress in that direction! Perhaps the most exciting thing about the house is how it functions dynamically as a living and research space; we are, in fact, both living and learning and gathering data in the house this fall again, and that is a truth worth celebrating. The vision of a community of happy grad students living in THIMBYs is still on the horizon.

Tiny House, Big Living: Grad School Edition

THIMBY life: cozy, fun, labor-intensive, progressive, living lab. The past 4 months have been exciting for the tiny house transition from construction to living site. Yes, there were nights when we came home to find our water supply run over by a car and leaking all over the parking lot, or when we couldn’t get the heat pump to run (someone knocked the Arduino control system off the wall...), or couldn’t figure out why the inverter-battery system wasn’t working. Usually it was a quick fix, under an hour, but the energy system was a bit more complicated. The battery wasn’t charging, so the company sent some people out to manually charge it, determined the problem wasn’t with the battery, so it must be the inverter. We read error messages off the inverter screen, talked to people on the phone for hours, and finally had some guys come out to look at it. Miraculously, it was determined that the inverter had a software update pushed through remotely that didn’t fully load, so the inverter was “confused about it’s identity.” It thought it was only a grid-connected inverter, that fed solar power back to the grid, but really it’s an off-grid inverter for our house. Silly inverter. Once it recognized it’s true identity, everything started working again off-grid, except for no apparent reason sometimes the power to the house would shut off and then immediately turn itself back on. Hmm...

We spent the semester shuttling greywater samples to a Berkeley Environmental Engineering lab, driving cartons of urine to another lab perfecting urine-to-fertilizer resource recovery, and making waffles on the weekends. The cooking implements in THIMBY worked remarkably well the whole semester, and we hosted several successful dinner parties (of up to 10 people!). Grilling and porch space certainly helped with larger crowds.

Given the information about our greywater (contaminated with bacteria and organic matter, but not E. Coli thankfully), we decided to pilot an additional system, a solar concentrating technology. Typically used for solar thermal water heating, we plan to repurpose the system for solar water disinfection. The idea is to run our filtered greywater through a heat exchanger with the 90C water, and inactivate bacteria that way. The solar concentrator is set up and logging data, and will be integrated with the water loop in the fall.

Innovation never stops at the tiny house; I can imagine a day maybe a year from now where we sit back on the porch in lounge chairs (or in a hot tub hooked up to use the excess hot water from the solar concentrator), and say “Yes, everything is working perfectly as designed, and we just sit around here and use the systems and log the data through our smart Home Energy Management System (HEMS).  Grad school research is the best.” We had a flurry of activity right when the semester ended and people had more time again. The HEMS infrastructure was re-established, using slightly more durable, and solder-able, perf board. An Arduino Uno connected to a Raspberry Pi provided the hardware to log the building performance data in real-time and to control heating and ventilation units remotely. We took apart the lower planter box to replace with a more traditional slow sand filter, and installed a settling tank under the planter boxes to remove turbidity and allow the UV light to function. And, we packed up the house to be “road ready” for the next THIMBY road trip adventure.

If all goes according to plan, THIMBY will drive up to Lopez Island this summer, pulled by the trusty vehicle known as “Big Red,” a 3500 series ’93 Chevy Silverado. It was an ordeal shopping around for a functional used truck that would safely tow 10,000+ lbs, but we think we’ve got the truck for the job. The idea is to test out the systems in a truly “off-grid” setting (on a piece of farm property on Lopez), with long hours of daylight and more time to make adjustments and fixes. And, to see how mobile THIMBY really is! Stay tuned for the next post on the drive and ferry crossing to the island.  

We're on the Move: Into THIMBY

How does it feel to go from this...

To this?

Pretty darn good! A few weeks ago, THIMBY realized her second crucial stage of development: actually serving as a tiny home. One of THIMBY’s team members, Brett Webster, moved into THIMBY at the end of January, after weeks of hard work transitioning THIMBY from a demonstration home to a functioning structure capable of safely and comfortably storing a graduate student plus pared-down belongings. Well, really after a year of planning, designing, engineering, and building the tiny house from a trailer bed to a 210 sq. ft., off-grid tiny house with solar panels, a Tesla battery, and a home greywater filtration system.   

Over the past two months, the 24/7 frenzy of work parties, all-nighters, and super-human efforts needed to get the house ready for the SMUD competition has been replaced by steady progress towards getting the house ready for a resident. Meaning, coats of shellac for waterproofing the windows, waterproofing the bathroom plywood, insulating the toilet box and building the sealed lid, building extra shelving units, and integrating the carbon filter into the planter box filtration loop. THIMBY no longer exists as a competition stunt, but is now a true “living lab” for testing out residential water and energy technologies with an actual resident.

The challenges and joys of tiny living have already presented themselves in obvious ways early into the living experiment. What could be better than biking home from campus, along the Bay Trail, to your own self-built tiny home, cooking dinner on an induction stovetop with lights and radiant floor heating all powered by solar panels and a super-efficient heat pump? And then... it rains for two weeks straight so the battery dies and the house needs to be plugged into the grid to come back on, and you need 240V power, and you can’t shower with hot water because the energy control system fell off the shelf when you moved the ladder to get up to the loft...

Speaking of showers, because the greywater filtration system is currently plumbed so that greywater is filtered through a layered planter box, activated carbon filter, and UV light before re-collecting in a filtered tank, which is the cold water supply to the shower, you have to be really careful what you put down the sink or shower drains. Raw meat? Questionable. Blood? Probably ok, but worrisome at first. We’re testing out greywater filtration removal rates -- for turbidity, BOD, COD, E. Coli, nitrates, etc. -- in a Berkeley water quality lab, and will continue to gather data this spring on water quality and energy balance.  

The first few weeks in THIMBY have proved how collaborative and flexible you have to be to pioneer the off-grid variant of tiny living. Calling up team members and friends to help with critical repairs, and settling in slowly by unpacking some things and moving anything non-essential to storage, are necessary and unavoidable parts of the experience. But, in the midst of thinking critically about sustainable living, it's nice to realize you can still have 8 people over -- to discuss the next variant of water treatment systems, or just share beers and grill out on the porch with the sun setting over Richmond Bay.

THIMBY's Front Door: A Collaboration with Pella and Coldwell Banker

We’re back from the SMUD 2016 Tiny House Competition! THIMBY braved a stormy journey from Sacramento to Richmond, but she’s now safely parked at the Richmond Field Station. THIMBY took 2nd place overall in the competition, and won specific awards for water conservation, sustainability, and home life. Here are a couple photos from the competition:

It was incredible to see the house we’ve been designing and building for 2 years actually sitting in a parking lot in Sacramento. Thanks to our extremely dedicated team, our awesome sponsors, and our friends and family, we were able to create a truly 100% solar-powered, off-grid tiny home. Today we’d like to recognize the support we’ve received from two of our great sponsors, Pella and Coldwell Banker.

We worked with Pella to choose the perfect windows and sliding glass door for THIMBY. Thanks to the Pella team, we found what we had hoped for: small windows for the home’s south and east facades, and a sliding glass door that would make THIMBY feel more spacious.

It was at this point that we received a note from Coldwell Banker: how could they help support our project? We’d met with one of their realtors, Karla Parker, months prior and now CB was interested in getting more involved. After talking with their team, CB decided to generously purchase the Pella sliding glass door we’d chosen. “It made perfect sense to donate the door to this wonderful social initiative,” said Kacie Ricker in an article published on California Home. “It was a symbolic gesture for us too. Coldwell Banker opens doors for people every day.”

We are extremely grateful to these two organizations for their partnership. Over 800 visitors have already walked through THIMBY’s sliding glass doors, and we look forward to welcoming many more.   

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