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.