Sunday, August 13, 2017

My Love Hate Relationship with Watching Tiny House Videos on YouTube

Image result for tiny house
Sure it looks perfect, but you'd totally freeze to death in this house out here. I did -20 F last winter bitches!
Okay, I love watching tiny house videos on YouTube especially Living Big in a Tiny House... maybe part of that is the cute host with the awesome accent...

but anyway there's something about watching these videos that kind of pisses me off. I think a big part of it is so many of the people that live in tiny homes are young married couples that seem so damn happy. It fills me with the same sad/happy lonely longing that comes from watching romantic comedies. Yes, it's a sad addiction... watching tiny house videos and romantic comedies on a Friday night while eating chocolate.

The other reason these videos get to me is the fact most of these homes look so amazingly nice--almost perfect... and mine well, my house is made of like 75 to 80% scrap wood and I threw it together in a hurry because I was homeless. I'm always working on remodeling mine--really I've been building it as I've lived in it, so my place is always disorganized with tools and crap everywhere.

Here's an example of one of my favorite perfect looking tiny homes:

I really shouldn't feel that bad though. Most people spend at least $35,000 building one of these houses. I've spent about $4500 on everything including appliances and my photovoltaic system (that price also includes maintenance costs over the last 3 years). Including the land I bought I've spent less that $10,000 on a completely functional home and 10 acres of land that will easily be worth way more than I payed for it when I get old and crusty.

Anyway, at least I can build a cool climbing wall.... I'm about 3/4 finished with mine.

Ant Mating Season, Giant Dragonflies and Wildfires

The ant orgy begins (it got like 10,000 times worse than this, but I was inside by then shaking ants out of my hair).

I've learnt a lot about ants since I've moved out here. There are millions of ants that live here and every August after it rains the ants go into a mating frenzy. Only the winged ants are capable of mating. They fly to the highest object in the area (i.e. my roof) and in a giant ant orgy go at it until the males drop dead. The females then fly off to a new location, eat their own wings then crown themselves queen and start a new colony.  Ant mating pheromones are extremely strong--they have a sweet musky honey like smell.

Anyway, as the ants go at it the lizards wait on the ground to swallow up the ones that rain down off my room (seriously you can hear them pouring off and hitting the ground--no joke there are that many of them).

The other day I saw something new that I didn't see last year: giant dragonflies catching the ants mid air and devouring them. The above video doesn't really do it justice, but the dragon flies were like the size of small finches.

People often mistake ants reproductive habits as an infestation, but they are completely harmless to people and the structure they mate on. These winged ants--like many men are only interested in one thing.

In other news there have been a lot of wildfires around here lately. The one last night was only about 15 miles away and almost consumed some of my friends homes. This is what it looked like from my land. I've never lived so close to a wildfire before. It was scary but kind of an awesome sight to see the fire in the distance and lightning flashing around it. Fortunately the fire is now under control and mostly out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Doing some research on photovoltaic systems

So, I have a degree in physics and some experience with electronics, but when I set up my solar power system (photovoltaic system) I payed more attention to the amount of money I had to spend and getting the best options available in my price range than setting things up for maximum efficiency.

In retrospect it would have been a lot better to do a little more research and spend a little more money.

If you are new to solar power I'd recommend watching the Tin Hat Ranch off Grid Solar Videos on youtube. They are great videos for explaining all the basics and how to set up a simple and inexpensive, but effective system.

This guy's setup is pretty good, but I wonder if that's a 10 amp DC breaker he used in the electrical box between the panels and the charger. It looks kind of like an AC breaker and it seems like that could cause some issues.

Also, there's some misinformation here about batteries. He says that they are too expensive and hazardous to ship, but you can easily find good batteries on Amazon and eBay.

Also, I would avoid flooded lead acid batteries and go with sealed AGM deep cycle batteries. They are safe to store inside a home in a battery box, they don't need to be vented and are superior in virtually every way in how they charge and discharge. They are a little more expensive but well worth the price difference.

I use three of these batteries in parallel. I've read that a parallel configuration isn't optimal and it is better to have them in series configurations for efficiency and increased battery life, but on a budget a parallel configuration of 100amp hour batteries seems to be the most cost effective solution. It's extremely important to use very high gauge wire and make sure each wire connecting the batteries together is the exact same length. I ended up going with this 2 gauge welding wire and crimping battery connectors onto it: 
12V 100AH BATTERY FOR SOLAR WIND DEEP CYCLE VRLA 12V 24V 48V - Mighty Max Battery brand product

Ideally I should have bought 4 100ah batteries, but I didn't only because I'm dirt poor.

Also, in the beginning I just went with the crappy PWM solar charge controller that comes with the Renogy 400Watt kit, but I'm upgrading to an MPPT controller and switching my panels into series configuration instead of parallel.

I would strongly encourage you to use an MPPT charge controller of a PWM charge controller for the following reasons:

PWM controllers often only charge the batteries when the optimal amount of sunlight is hitting the panels. If too much light is on the panels they either don't charge the batteries at all or clip the voltage at just above 17 or so volts so they are only using part of the available power from the panels. Also, if it is too cloudy and the panel voltage drops below somewhere around 14ish volts (which happens very frequently) then no matter how many panels you have the charge controller does absolutely nothing.

With an MPPT controller you can wire the panels in series not only avoiding the need for those annoying and expensive parallel couplers, but you're also drastically increasing the efficiency in many ways.  A series circuit increases the voltage and decreases the current traveling through the wire which drastically decreases the power loss over the wire. It also makes it way safer to transmit power because the wires don't give off as much heat.

The biggest benefit I can see to an MPPT controller is it can take input voltages from around 14 to 150 volts (depending on the controller) and use that to charge your battery bank. This means that if you wire 4 100 watt 12 volt panels (which actually produce more like 18 volts on sunny days) and wire them in series then even on very cloudy days your batteries will charge and this is why: Even if each panel is only producing 9 volts because it's cloudy 9v x 4 = 36v which is still way above the 14 volts required to charge your battery bank. The MPPT controller can take that extra voltage and convert it into current for charging the batteries.

So right now this is the setup I'd recommend on a budget if you're going to live off grid and I wouldn't go with anything less than this:

  • 4 100 watt 12 volt Renogy solar panels ($547)
  • 4 Mighty Max 100Ah AGM batteries wired in parallel using equal length 2 gauge welding wire. It's important that your batteries are identical and the same age if you are wiring them in parallel. Wiring in parallel increases the available current. Wiring them in series only increases the voltage. ($740 for batteries and cables)
  • 10 amp inline DC circuit breaker between the panels and charger ($12)
  • SolarEpic MPPT 40A Solar Charge Controller 150V PV input Tracer 4215BN Negative Ground with display and usb cable and temperature sensor ($232)
  • 30 to 50 amp inline breaker between the battery bank and the charge controller
  • AIMS Power PWRIX120012S 1200W Pure Sine Inverter with Transfer Switch ($143)
    • I've looked at a lot of pure sine inverters out there and this is the best one in the price range also AIMS has a great warranty on these. I blew mine (totally because I screwed up) and they replaced it without issues. Also, you hardwire these and there is a pass through feature that allows you to easily hook up a generator to your power grid.
  • 150 amp breaker between the batteries and inverter ($29)
    • I like breakers instead of fuses because you can use them as off switches and they last way longer.
Total cost is around: $1550 if you include other wiring.

Again there are less expensive ways to do this, but for a stable system I'd recommend not going any lower than this.

This provides me with plenty of power for my lower power home. I'm currently only running on 3 batteries which I'd rather not do, but wiring old batteries with new ones is a very bad idea as it will significantly lower the life of your batteries. I'll probably end up building a new battery bank when I get the money and just build in a switch to switch between the two banks.

Also my panel stands totally suck right now.... I'm in the process of designing one that can easily rotate for tracking the sun.

This is also a great video with a lot of important basic considerations:

There's also some useful information about battery charging here in this video and I really wish I learned more about lead acid battery charging before I set up my system. I really ignored some really important things:

There is currently a big problem with my PV system that I've known about for a while, but foolishly ignored. 12 volt solar battery banks should not be drained below 11.8 volts, but the AIMS 1200 watt inverter for some stupid reason only shuts the inverter off at 10 volts or lower, but even my charge controller shuts off at a higher voltage meaning if my batteries are drained by the inverter then they won't charge back up and my batteries will pretty much be ruined.  The 10 volt disconnect is under a load so the load does cause a voltage drop across the battery meaning after the load shuts off the battery voltage will be slightly higher than 10 volts. Meaning if I had a large load on the battery when the inverter shut off it may have been at something like 11.8 volts, however if I had a smaller load it would be closer to 10 volts.

So, I can either find an inverter with a higher cut off voltage, or buy a voltage disconnect that can handle 100+ amps, but these are super hard to find for some reason, or design a circuit to shut off the inverter at 11.8 volts.

After much searching I found this voltage disconnect for $60 and ordered it off Amazon:
Image result for Victron Battery Protect 12/24V-100A

Victron Battery Protect 12/24V-100A

Only time will tell how well this works, but it had great reviews and looks like a solid product.

Also, here's a video on how to correctly make battery cables:

But I made my cables more like this guy (except I used a huge pair of channel lock pliers and didn't do such a sloppy job):

Make them like the first guy: I was just being an idiot because I didn't have a crimper. So, don't be an idiot, buy the correct crimper.

Also as a side note please make sure your panels and equipment is properly grounded otherwise you've spent a lot of time and money on something that can easily be destroyed by a little lightening.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Beating the Heat with an Extremely Efficient DIY Air Conditioner (Evaporative Cooler)

So, I thought the wind would be enough to keep me cool, but with the dry air and the amount of work I've been doing outside I started to get very sick--signs of fatigue, dehydration, and heat exhaustion.

I had to face the facts: I needed some way to cool my place down or I might end up dying, and I certainly couldn't do that. I have two little ones what depend on me. Being a single mom and living off grid is quite challenging.

I had a small AC unit that I used when I lived in my mom's driveway in my RV, but I had to get rid of that. It used 500 watts of power. My solar panels max out at 400 watts and my fridge uses about 130 watts when it's on. So I needed to build an air cooler that used less than 100 watts for it to be practical.  The lowest powered AC units on the market use around 400 watts and honestly, they don't work that well. They also dry the air out, and I would need to run a separate humidifier which just adds to the impracticality.

So here was my challenge: build a system that humidifies the air and cools it down significantly using under 100 watts.  A swamp cooler (or evaporative cooler) was the obvious solution.

The evaporative coolers on the market are all really big, they use extremely huge blower motors that use a lot of power and they cost $300 and up, but the physics behind evaporative cooling is so simple and building them yourself is equally as simple.  As a physicist I'm quite qualified to explain how it works.

How an evaporative cooler works:

Heat is simply energy from the motion of the particles in a system (usually air in our every day experience). Cooling the air requires transferring energy out of the particles in the air.

Changing water from a liquid to a gas requires energy. So evaporation takes heat energy from air or the surface it's in contact with (like your skin when you sweat) and in the process cools the air or the surfaces in contact with the liquid.

So, to make an effective evaporative cooler you need to maximize the wet surface area and maximize the airflow through the wet surface.

So, I bought/used the following:

  • A $20 window fan from Walmart (the fan uses about 50 watts on high)
  • A $26 fountain pump from Lowe's (I got one that uses 6 watts)
  • A $7 DuraCool Pad
  • A plastic file crate
  • Some leftover fiber glass window screen I had
  • A hot glue gun
  • Cable ties
  • 4.5' of tubing that fits the pond pump.
  • A plastic storage container that the shorter side of the crate fits snuggly in.
  • 4 long screws
How to build it:
  1. Cut out two pieces of windows screen. One for one of the short sides and the other to line the bottom of the crate and the two lager sides. Just glue them in place using hot glue. This does two things: keeps the bugs out and stops water droplets from squirting out  from the DuraCool pads.
  2. Cut the blue DuraCool pad to fit inside the box. Two pieces just like with the window screen. One for one short side and one for the longer sides and the bottom of the crate. Hold them in place with cable ties (the cable ties easily push through the window screen).
  3. Kink the hose and one end and hold the kink in place with a zip tie. Then make a loop that fits snugly inside the part of the crate that will become the top. With a dremel tool or a drill with a small bit carefully drill small holes around the areas of the loop that are close to the DuraCool pads. Make sure to drill the holes about 2" apart in areas where the water will squirt down towards the top of the pads and not sideways through the pads or up into the pads, or too far down missing the pads all together.  Then hold the tube in place with some cable ties.
  4. Connect the tube to the pump and place the pump and crate in the plastic container
  5. Using a drill and 4 long screws screw the short side of the crate without the foam and screen to the top of the plastic container.
  6. Fill the plastic container with water--I discovered that even warm water works.
  7. Mount the window fan securely in the window and attach it and the pump to a power strip to allow you to switch in on an off easily as the cooler will cover up the switch on the fan.
  8. Place the cooler in front of the fan and use tape to cover up any gaps where the fan might not blow through the cooler. You could figure out a way to mount this system outside so the fan pulls air through like a standard evaporative cooler, but I chose to mount it inside so the fan pushes air through for several reasons:
    1. I didn't want to spend time drilling holes in my siding and building something to secure it to the outside of my house.
    2. I had the counter space conveniently below my fan.
    3. The temperature outside would heat up the water and reduce its efficiency.
    4. I didn't want to fan to have to suck wet air into it because it would reduce the life of the fan (remember this is not a swam cooler blower designed for pulling humid air.
    5. Having the box inside makes it a better humidifier because all of the evaporated water is left inside.
See the pictures for details: it should be fairly straight forward:
 I just used a few textbooks to prop the cooler into the best position over the fan and a piece of duct tape to cover up the top part of the fan because the fan was slightly taller than the cooler.

So why did I create a box instead of just having a flat system that goes over the fan? Simple: I wanted to maximize the wet surface area that air blows through.

It was 92 degrees when I first switched it on, and within an hour it cooled down my house to 84 degrees.

Today it was 84 outside and it cooled it down to 75 degrees.

When I measure the air coming directly out of the cooler it registers in the low 60's.
The above picture was taken when it was 80° outside.

It uses somewhere around 4 to 10 gallons of water per day. Which means it's an excellent humidifier.

Overall, this little swamp cooler actually outperforms my 500 watt air conditioner and it uses less that 60 watts of power when on high, plus it humidifies the air and gets rid of those nose bleeds, dry skin and waking up with a dry throat.

The really cool thing about this is when it is windy I don't even need to turn the fan on. The wind here is often strong enough to effectively push air through the box meaning when it's windy it only uses 6 watts!

This is by far the most energy efficient design for an air cooling system that I have ever seen at 6 to 60 watts and it cools a 130 square foot space down 5 to 10 degrees.

Air conditioning was the most challenging thing to figure out how to power from a small 400 watt solar grid, but I solved it! I'm freaking amazing! I just have to pat myself on the back for this one.

This is probably the most exciting thing I've built in a long time and I'm loving the results. Living in the desert has never been so comfortable, and I'm looking forward to finding ways to maximize the efficiency of this system in the future.

Moving Back Home

My daughter explaining how her ground squirrel trap works. 

So, I recently lost my job as a public school teacher (it's a difficult field to keep a position in right now), and my plan to move to Florida didn't work out, so I ended up moving back to my land to live in my RV again.  However, this time I'm determined to make several improvements to my off grid living.

My kids are with me for the summer again and we've been enjoying learning survival skills together.

I had this old 2 bedroom tent I hadn't used in years, so we set it up to use as a play space and dining area.

We found this huge bull snake under the hood of the RV.

My daughter soldered together this LED array to use as a porch light. We used the plastic from the old broken porch light and a clear plastic bottle for the cover, an old string of LED Christmas lights, and a piece of prototype board I had lying around.

I redid my power system and moved it all into my RV so I could have direct access to DC power and to increase the efficiency. I put it in the space I used to have the water tank in. It's so much nicer than having it separate in my trailer.
I finally sent back my power inverter that blew out. Really it may have been my fault, but the company replaced it with a new one without any issues. I've used 3 other inverters and the AIMS power inverter is by far the best lower cost, lower power pure sine inverter I've found. This time I replaced the 20 amp breakers that came with the RV with 10 amp breakers. This way there is no possible way I will draw more power than the inverter can put out and I don't have to rely on the fuses in the inverter (which I found often don't blow when they should in pretty much every model of inverter. I don't know why they put overrated fuses in these things).

The AIMS power inverter also has a nice pass-through feature where you can hook it up to another power source and it automatically switches over. So, I hooked my generator into it. Now when my generator is running it draws the AC power directly from that. I'm also going to set it up so the batteries charge from the generator as well when it is on, but I haven't done that part yet, but I almost never need to use my generator. Mostly only when I'm using power tools.

I now have USB and 12 volt ports like this throughout my home.

I discovered that the 30 amp inline fuses I was using were defective and had turned into heaters--melting through the plastic casing (the fuses would heat up a lot without ever burining out). I replaced them temporarily with two 15 amp automotive fuses in parallel (because one set of automotive wires wouldn't be heavy enough to carry the current load). I ordered some 30 amp breakers instead
I also built some stands for my solar panels. These are just temporary until I build some that ran rotate and track the sun. I ran out of metal pieces so I used an old pallet I found on the road for the second one.

I had a lot of problems with pipes freezing (both supply and drain pipes) last winter, so I tore out all of the old plumbing and made it as simple as possible. No faucets, just a tube from the tank to the pump to the heater then a tube from the heater to the sink that has a quick connect for connecting a hose for filling the recycling shower.  I got rid of all the p-traps since I don't have a sewer anyway and they only trap water that freezes, and I shortened all the drain pipes and made them so they drain directly into a garden area at the side of the RV. I also remounted my sink and a counter top that goes over it. It's a nice way to hide the dirty dishes and have more counter space.

I completely simplified my shower system by using my old modified bilge pump and combining it with the camp shower head. I installed a better drain with a tight fitting plug. Now I just put the plug in and fill the bottom of the shower with 4 gallons of water from the water heater, and the pressure is awesome. As long as I shower in the day time I can shower for as long as I want. So far this is way better than any of the other systems I've tried, and the most hygienic.  I got an account at the community well in town and purchased 20,000 gallons worth of water for $40. So water isn't as much of a concern. I modified the old RV water tank to use to transport water, and it fits perfectly in my trunk space.
I then use my transfer pump to pump the water into my make shift water tower. Yes, I found another use for that old dented laptop cart shell.
I realize how silly it is that the hose comes out of the top (it connects to a pipe that does to the bottom). This is only temporary until I buy a spout to go in the bottom of the barrel. It's stupid they don't come with them. Anyway, the laptop storage box makes a good lockable outside storage space for the transfer pump and hoses and gardening tools.

And of course we rebuilt the fire pit and made it even better than the other times by adding a real BBQ grill and some cinder blocks.

It's been challenging moving back out here and setting things up again, but overall I'm feeling good about how things are turning out.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The end of one adventure and the start of a new one.

I've been living in an apartment again for a few weeks now. I feel l so out of place here. I feel like a caged wild bird.  It feel so strange to do something as simple as turn on a faucet and feeling the hot water come out onto my hands. This life isn't me... not anymore.

This motor home and I have been together for over three years now, but I've decided that at the end of this school year I'm going to sell it. I'm going to sell my trailer. I'm going to sell or give away everything I don't need and travel to Florida in my car and start a new life there.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Flood Waters and Drastic Life Changes....

On Tuesday of last week my life changed completely....

The temperature rose suddenly from around 20 degrees to about 50 degrees, it started to rain and all the snow melted rapidly. I walked through the muddy mess and headed to work on Tuesday morning at 6:00am.

It seemed to be a pretty normal day, and I wasn't thinking much about the melting snow until I attempted to go home in the evening only to find the highway was completely shut down because of flash flooding caused by the rapid melting of the snow.

I drove back to the town where I work and ended up staying a week with a friend.

The next day I found out that the dam broke and the flooding was much worse than I had thought.

Image result for highway 233 nevada
The highway I usually drive to work on.

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Image result for dam montello nevada

After staying with a good friend for a week I heard word that the dirt road that leads out to my property was open.  Unfortunately, I started driving down it before I realized how bad it was. Towards the end it was a mud bog more than a road, but by some miracle I made it out to my land despite the fact that the highway is still closed.

What is supposed to be the road connecting the highway to my dirt road.

With all the road damage I was surprised and happy to see that my home was completely unharmed, and that the flooding didn't even reach my property:
All that remained of the gigantic snow drift.
I got some of my stuff and with the help of a new friend got out of there through the mud bog.
Since commuting to work is now impossible for me I had to get an apartment in town until the highway is repaired... that's something I swore I would never do again, but nature had a different plan for me.

I cried myself to sleep as I thought about my little homestead: how fresh the air is out there, the beating of the ravens' wings through the air, the quiet, the solitude, the peace I felt, the struggle to survive in 20 below weather and coming out of it not only alive, but comfortable.  One week, and I missed it already.

That same week things have transpired at my work that have lead me to feel that things aren't working out here for me, and I've decided to look for employment closer to my kids.

At this point things are pretty up in the air and I haven't made any certain decisions yet, but for now nature has forced me to take a much closer look at what I am doing with my life, and I'm going to take that to mean that there is something better out there for me, and I'm going to find it.