Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Let there be light!

I am the worst blogger in the world. Laura started this blog months ago with the idea that we’d both post about our experiences, but I’ve neglected to do so until now. Oh well, onward and upward!

At the end of May, I gave a workshop on alternative building. I may post more about that a bit later (let’s be honest, it took me 6 months to make my first post, so I wouldn’t bet on it), but for now I wanted to answer one of the more common questions I received.

Several people asked how we generate and store and use electrical power on our land. The short answer is “the sun”, whenever possible. For a slightly more useful explanation, I’ll break it up into a few different categories: power during the build, power for general use, and possible future expansion.

Building a house (especially one as small as ours) without power from the utility company is really not that hard. The key is to think about what you actually need and plan accordingly. In our case, I figured we’d only need a handful of power tools. Most of the smaller ones – drills, skill saw, reciprocating saw, etc. – were battery powered, so that meant I only needed to figure out a way to power the chargers. The miter saw, cement mixer, and compressor were the only things that needed to be plugged in while in use. I could have just bought a small generator and had the whole problem solved, but I set a goal to build a house using as little external power as reasonably possible (where I get to define “reasonably”, of course!), so I invested in a small solar setup at the beginning of the process.

Two other main goals were to keep the costs down and not overcomplicate things unnecessarily, so I looked to small commercially available solutions to get started. I could write all day about the options that are out there and all of the pros and cons, but I was a first time builder, so simplicity became the deciding factor. What I bought was a 60 watt solar array and a 60 amp hour battery pack with a built in inverter. With those, I have been able to charge all of my cordless tools, and run the smaller of my 2 miter saws. I could have run the larger miter saw, cement mixer, and compressor for limited amounts of time, but I did wind up buying a small generator for those to make sure we fit as much building as possible into our limited weekends. The generator I bought was the Honda EU2000. There are much cheaper options out there, but the Honda is incredibly versatile, reliable, and most importantly quiet. We are a couple of newcomers to our land, and the last thing in the world I want to do is disturb our neighbors just because we got the urge to build a house in the woods. The overall cost savings inherent in building such a small structure allowed us to spend a little more than we otherwise would to help keep our mountain quiet and beautiful.

The solar array, battery pack, and generator provided more than enough power for the build, but what about general power usage? I am very happy to say that the solar array has been our sole source of power for nearly two years of weekend build trips. Again, the key here is to determine what you really need and eliminate waste wherever possible. Our goal was not to replicate the conveniences we have in our home in Atlanta. On the other hand, we were not trying to be absolutely rustic in every aspect of life. We wanted to find a balance that worked for us, so we made a list of the things we’d like to have and how much power they used. In the end, our list turned out to be pretty small: a few CFL lights, the ability to charge our laptops and phones, and access to the Internet (for those of you who are wondering, we access the internet via an Verizon MiFi access point). Of those things, the only items that use a considerable amount of power are the laptops. We reduced that power draw by switching to an iPod touch for most Internet use. So far, the same small solar set up we purchased for the build has met all these needs admirably. I’ve even used it to power my electronic drums and a bass amplifier during our 4th of July party. Hurray sun!

When the cabin is finished I anticipate that we may need to add to our array and battery capacity. I won’t go into detail about this right now, but I believe I’ll still be able to keep it reasonable. All we’ll really be adding are a few more lights and fan or two. The cabin was wired to simply plug into the output of a generator or inverter, as an RV would in an RV park, so we have plenty of flexibility. I’ll try to post more about that as things progress.

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