The Process of Escaping (Part 2)

We live in a 2003 Dutchman Four Winds 5th wheel travel trailer. It is 30 feet in length and includes a 12-foot pop-out in the living/dining room and a 6-foot pop-out in the bedroom. It includes roughly 350 square feet of living space, with ample storage inside as well as in a bay below the trailer (what we call the “garage”).

The trailer is parked with the length running north/south. The wind comes from the southwest in Kendrick Park, so our trailer serves as a wind block for the “yard” and entry which are on the east side. When it snows, the wind blows the drifts northeast… and so far, with over 25 inches of snow already under our belt this season, we haven’t had to use a shovel. (An El Niño winter is predicted, so I’m betting we’ll find ourselves stuck soon. We’ll deal with that when we get there.)

We put together a list of “home improvements” that we needed before being able to live comfortably, especially before the cold winter months arrived.

17226_10104036243103500_2476050491037864028_n

Let’s talk about the off-grid systems we have in the trailer.

ELECTRICITY

There are two 100-watt solar panels on the roof, attached to two deep cycle batteries sitting in the “garage.”

We purchased a pure sine wave 1000 watt inverter to convert the DC power of the batteries to AC power for our electronics. The inverter hooks up to the batteries, and the trailer electric cable (which would normally plug into the electric dock at an RV park) plugs into it at the other end.

The lights, ceiling fan, toilet fan, and furnace blower operate off of DC. (The fridge has that option as well, though we are utilizing it in “propane mode.”) Anything you need to plug into an outlet utilizes AC power, and thus needs an inverter or a generator (unless you are able to hook up to the grid, such as at an RV park).

The batteries can power our computers and lights for 6-8 hours during daylight, but much less time at night. Especially since they tend to lose power quickly when it is cold.

12249824_10104036242130450_6479558399773894655_nWhen we need an electric boost (as well as need to charge our batteries), we utilize a 3500 watt gasoline generator (to my chagrin, but when it’s -13º F outside you’re really not in a place to argue). We learned that we needed to turn the breaker off that included the converter when using solar, and turn it back on with the generator.

The inverter will sometimes beep at us in the middle of the night when the batteries run too low to support AC power. Luckily, the inverter came with a button and wire that can be run inside the house so you don’t have to venture out into the cold to turn the inverter on and off when needed.

HEAT

We read another blog post that made us think that a standard propane furnace in a trailer might not be enough to stay comfortable, particularly in Flagstaff.

Immediately I thought of a wood stove. My husband thought I was nuts at first, which he normally does, but then he comes around. I humored him as we explored other options for heat, such as a Dickinson stove (often featured in Tumbleweed homes and also used for marine applications), as well as some other propane options. The BTU outputs of these units were… well… underwhelming. I’m sure in other climates, or with better insulation, they work very well.

I can put up with a lot (as you will soon read), but one thing I cannot tolerate is being cold for extended periods of time. I can’t do anything until I am warm. (Seriously, I just curl up in a ball, breathing warm air into my clothes, rocking back and forth. It’s pathetic.)

Unforgettable Fire, LLC caught my attention in 2009 with their Kimberly Stove, supposedly the most efficient-burning stove on the market. While it is impressive, beautiful, and space-saving, the price tag makes it inaccessible to anyone on a budget. So Kimberly was eliminated… at least, for the time being. Bummed.

We stopped by Flagstaff Hearth and Home and spoke with Troy Baker about our project. He showed us the Avalon “Camano” wood stove, which burns at 80-85% efficiency, is mobile-rated, and works well in small spaces (under 1200 square feet).

The stove was installed halfway through October – just in time to battle the freezing nights. A friend from our church generously purchased a cord of juniper for us, and we later purchased a cord of oak. Other friends from our church kindly gave us their seasoned pine in exchange for hauling it out of their backyard (they had just installed a gas insert). The Forest Service also held its annual free firewood pick-up at the end of September, so we took full advantage of that with another friend’s pick-up truck. We ended up with around 3 cords of wood to get us through the winter… or, at least, part of the winter. (We have yet to find out how much wood we’ll actually need.)

So far we burn 7-10 split logs, 14-16″ in length, per night. My husband is much better at wielding an axe than I am. As long as we wake up every few hours to stoke the fire with another log or two, we can keep our trailer between 65-70º F even when it’s below 0º outside.

The stove, hearth pad, 10 feet of chimney pipe, outside air kit, chimney bracing, and installation cost around $3,000. Considering we want to use it in our future home one day, I figured we might as well enjoy it now rather than wait. At this point, I would consider it a necessity for our life out here this winter.

It’s hard when we arrive home late at night, after an evening meeting or event, and have to start warming up our trailer. It takes about two hours to become “comfortable.” We’ll turn on the gas generator, crank the propane furnace up, and work on creating a roaring fire. The stove itself takes about an hour to get truly hot, and then it takes another hour for the heat to emanate throughout the trailer. After that, though, it’s wonderful. We hope that most days we can get home around 4:00pm, before it gets too dark and cold. Even a little bit of sunlight does wonders for the interior temperature of the trailer.

WATER

Long story short, we enjoyed running water and hot showers for about a month before we realized that it would take an insane amount of fuel and power to run heat tape around our water tanks to keep them from freezing.

12249724_10104036230194370_8248574332222308794_nOur trailer has a 35-gallon freshwater tank (as well as 35-gallon graywater and blackwater tanks). We used to fill 5-gallon water jugs and fill the tank using a funnel and my husband’s brute strength.12208343_10104036230638480_985746169770431656_n

Then it got very, very cold. We had hoped that the heat from the wood stove would somehow transfer to the tanks to keep them just above freezing. We also had installed insulation along the water lines.

But everything froze. So we emptied the tanks and bought a counter-top water container with a spigot so we can have drinking water, wash our hands, brush our teeth, and do the dishes. We shower in town.12240131_10104036240324070_6197275115612318615_n

I’m looking forward to the warm months when we can utilize our cute little 6-gallon water heater (propane-fired) and lovely shower stall, adjacent to our bedroom. (We had bought a “bathtub” for our son but it didn’t quite fit in the shower stall, heh.) In the meantime, it’s really not so bad. When I’m cold, I really don’t want to get wet anyway.

HOUSEHOLD WASTE

Our neighbors share garbage and recycling dumpsters as part of a service. We really don’t create enough waste to need to hire anyone to pick it up, and instead take a small grocery bag full of garbage and a shoe-box amount of recycling into town every 2-3 days. In warmer months, I’d like to start a compost pile on our land. Most of our household waste is organic and thus biodegradable.

TOILET

Again, my husband was scared, but I convinced him to stop being a pansy.

Emptying and hauling blackwater is not an option since our trailer will not be moving anytime soon. So we needed a practical way to deal with bodily waste.

Enter the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. When I showed my husband this blog post, he was willing to give it a try. We had a great conversation piece in our living room at the rock house for a while while we were transitioning to full-time trailer living. It was a bit pricey (around $1,000 with shipping), but that was my compromise at my husband’s request (since I was really vouching for a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust).

There was a bit of prep work to be done in the trailer to accommodate the composting toilet. It came with a small electric fan that needed to be hooked up to DC power, as well as a vent hose that needed to hook up to one of the exhaust pipes coming out of the roof of the trailer. My husband skillfully performed the installation and even created a little base for the toilet to attach to that covered the previous toilet’s drain hole in the floor (which also required a fitted drain plug). He hooked up the toilet fan to the existing bathroom fan wires in the ceiling skylight. I installed a conduit cover over the wires to make everything look pretty.

The urine container needs to be emptied every 2-3 days; just keep an eye on it. The solids container needs to be emptied about once per month, with how often my family of three uses it. We bought an extra toilet base so that the solids can continue to compost in the base for another month before needing to switch it out. The County tells us that this waste cannot be dumped on our land without a septic system, but it can be taken to the City dump.

There is absolutely NO odor. We used to joke that the bathroom smelled better than the rest of the trailer. You can even stick your face down in the bowl (I was curious) and take a deep whiff… no odor. It looks and smells like dirt with bits of toilet paper mixed in it. We used coconut coir with a bit of water to create the “brown matter” base for the “green matter” solids to be mixed with. Coconut coir is very inexpensive; looks like a $16 large block will last us all year.

The key is separating the liquids, which are what cause odors. There is a separate container for urine which is easily emptied. The Nature’s Head toilet is easy to use, not disgusting at all, and I would recommend it to anyone living off-grid!

INSULATION

After looking at the ceiling “mini trusses” while Troy installed our stove, I’m pretty sure our trailer uses 2×2 framing. This means we’ve got about 2″ of pink fiberglass insulation and a bit of aluminum siding and outdated wallpaper between us and the subzero temperatures outside. Yikes.

We’d read about other RVers using straw bales to skirt the bottom of the their trailer so as to not be a “floating box.” Much of the cold creeps in from the bottom of the trailer. So we shopped around and found that we could get 30 bales delivered for about $10 each. I also learned the difference between hay (which animals will eat) and straw (which most animals will not eat); I’d prefer the elk didn’t eat our insulation, as cool as it would be to wake up and have one right outside our door.

The bales are really heavy. We’re talking like 60 pounds. My husband did most of the moving and arranging, though I am proud to say I was able to kick a few into place under the trailer. We then wrapped them in sheet plastic (as best we could) to help protect them from moisture, and screwed wood siding along the bottom of the trailer to “finish it out.” Classy, I know.

12247111_10104036242020670_4662475460347833592_n

We created what we call the “shed” (underneath the bedroom by the hitch), where we stacked up the bales to make walls. We then designed and built a wood frame to keep the walls upright, as well as installed a tarp to create a storage room of sorts. The tarp helps keep the cold wind out.

Inside, we use skylight insulation pillows that look like they’re covered in fleece. We just shoved them up into the skylight holes and they fit perfectly.

It can get pretty cold (freezing, in fact) inside the trailer if we don’t use heat, however it seems to naturally sit at about 10-20º above the outside temperature, which is pretty good I think. (In the summer, the reverse is true. Most folks don’t use A/C in Flagstaff as the daytime high is usually in the 80s. Get a cross breeze going through your space and you’re comfortable.)

COOKING AND EATING

12239502_10104036246641410_2387153635233122600_nNow that we have the wood stove, we can cook on top of it! We purchased a cast iron dutch oven and pan set from CAL Ranch for about $50 and I have used the pan to cook english muffin pizzas and bean and cheese tostadas so far. When the stove is really hot, they cook very quickly! I’m looking into good stove top dutch oven recipes and will experiment with soups and chili mixes this winter.

When the stove isn’t fired and we need to cook, we use the propane range and oven that came with the trailer. I used to be afraid of gas. When we were little, my mom drove my brother and me past a house that had blown up because of a gas leak. So we always assumed that gas was extremely dangerous and never to be used. Now I light that little stove and oven with little to no fear, and it works well. Just make sure the vent fan is running and the kitchen window is opened just a crack to allow for proper ventilation. Since the vent fan runs off of DC power, sometimes we’ll need to turn on the generator if it’s later in the day and the batteries have been run down.

The trailer came with a microwave that we never use… because we really haven’t needed a microwave in many years. It can work when the generator is turned on. In the meantime, we’re using it to store cleaning supplies.

I hope to build a solar oven this spring.

An apartment-sized DC/propane refrigerator (with upper freezer) came with the trailer and it works just fine. We run it off of propane. Now that we have the wood stove for heat and don’t need to run the propane furnace, we find ourselves switching out our 7-gallon propane tank every 3-4 weeks. It costs around $20 to refill our tank in town.

OPERATING COSTS

For those who are considering living off-grid in a trailer, I thought it would be helpful to list a breakdown of our operating costs compared to when we lived in a little house in town.

Water, Sewer, Trash:

Trailer: $10/week to shower at a very nice truck stop, and we pay a $25/month optional donation to our church to shower, fill up some water jugs for our counter-top water container, and drop off our garbage and recycling in the church dumpsters. (We could have also asked friends if we could have done these things at their homes.) When it warms up, we’ll be able to shower at the trailer again, so we won’t have to pay to shower at the truck stop anymore. The coconut coir for the toilet is $16/year.

House: $50/month average.

Electricity:

Trailer: solar panels create free electricity, but when we need a bit more power, we use the 3.4 gallon gasoline generator. My husband estimates that we use about 1.5 gallons of gas per night that we use the generator (which is not every night), so it’s probably safe to assume that we spend about $12-20 per week during the winter, and will rarely need to use the generator during warmer months.

House: $60 average per month.

Natural Gas/Propane:

Trailer: We use propane in the trailer and refill our 7-gallon tank every 3-4 weeks, so that’s $20-30 per month. It will be less in the warm months.

House: $50-60/month for natural gas.

Heating with Wood:

Trailer: 3 cords of wood cost around $600. We’re not sure if this will last us all winter, so let’s assume we’ll purchase another cord or so for $300.

House: $0, since we used natural gas.

So what are our conservative average monthly costs in the trailer versus the house?

Trailer: $40 for WST, $40 for electricity, $15 for gas, $75 for wood = roughly $170/month.

House: $50 for WST, $60 for electricity, $60 for gas = roughly $170/month.

It’s disappointing that our average monthly operating costs may amount to about the same… but don’t forget that we’re no longer paying rent! We estimate that we are saving roughly $9,000 per year by not renting in town; we’d still have land payments and County taxes on the land whether we live on the land or not, and our car travel has increased so that’s an added expense.

MISCELLANEOUS

We noticed a few droplets coming off the roof-antenna-handle-crank-thing in our bedroom ceiling, so we decided it would be a good idea to check the roof for cracks and leaks before the winter. We purchased a tube of RV roof sealant as well as silicone and went over our elastomeric roof with a fine-tooth comb. We also installed some vent hoods on the roof, that go over the operable skylights and reroute moisture away from the openings. For being a 12 year-old trailer, the roof is in great shape and we didn’t have to seal too much.

One night we came home late to discover mouse turds on our kitchen counter. We bought little plug-in rodent sound deterrents (with built-in night lights!) and put one inside and one in the garage, where we expect the little guy got in. We also bought a live trap.

photo1A few days later we came home late again and discovered the trap we had put on our counter was in the “closed” position. My husband picked it up and shook it, saying he didn’t think anything was in there. Before I could tell him to take it outside to check, he opened up the trap door to peek inside… and out popped a fat brown mouse! He screamed like a girl, which made me scream and laugh at the same time… which made our sleeping son cry while the mouse scurried all over the floor. He got away. We spray-foamed any holes to the garage that we could find, but would still come home to turds every once in a while. We’ve left the trap out ever since but I think the mouse has evolved.

There were some animal tracks in the snow leading into the shed under our trailer. My husband identified them as “skunk” online. We haven’t seen the little guy yet, or smelled him (luckily), but have named him “Krampus” in the meantime.

IN SUM

Sometimes it’s annoying to live in a trailer, I’ll admit. You can’t just push buttons and have things happen – you have to work for your water, power, and heat… and you have to be patient. You have to increase your level of preparedness, such as having extra water, fuel, and food on hand in case of getting snowed in.

11223501_10104036244505690_2180949417203637132_nBut when I look out at the breathtaking mountain views, and enjoy how close (and hardworking) my little family is becoming, I remember why I’m here. The reward is priceless. And when we build our home, it’ll be even better.

 

Advertisements

The Process of Escaping (Part 1)

Many of my memories of this past year are wrapped up in the pictures within this post. I regret that I was not able to write my thoughts down right away! A new year is almost here – how timely, as thinking and writing are much-needed resolutions.

We made it a habit to visit our land nearly every weekend. Sometimes, if the weather wasn’t conducive to going outdoors, we’d stay in the car looking at the mountain, drawing floor plans, and talking about our future home.

10984271_10103281730378050_3733411387693128060_n

In October we planted seeds from the giant sunflower that had grown in our garden at the little rock house. Later that month we drove down Highway 180 a bit past Kendrick Park and hiked at Red Mountain.

1505167_10103281730422960_2879953074780310420_n

In November 2014 we hosted a local gathering of “Forest Church” at our property.

In December we enjoyed our own private sledding hill while Highway 180 filled with Phoenicians who wanted to play in the snow.

10422549_10103338882659420_1760626233764111278_n

All through the winter, we enjoyed the fresh snow on our prairie.

12234976_10104036070394610_1336092961439830801_n

We drove up Saddle Mountain, northeast of our property, and soaked in the beautiful surroundings.

In the summer, my husband’s family came to visit and we enjoyed star-gazing and glow-stick fun under the dark skies.

West of Highway 180, toward Kendrick Mountain, sits an old Babbitt cabin, inhabited only by birds.

12239469_10104036231646460_7551217917306557870_n

We also camped in the forest east of Kendrick Park. We were fond of a particular spot with a spectacular view….

And then, in July, we found our trailer.

I wasn’t sure when it would happen. I crunched numbers and poured over spreadsheets to determine our different options for paying off the land and getting into a home as quickly as possible. In the end, if we were brave enough, it made the most sense to purchase a trailer, live in it while saving all the money we would have put toward rent, and instead put that money toward the down payment on a construction loan and/or paying off the land. The trailer could be lived in while building the house, and later sold to help further pay down debt. I knew that the sooner this could happen, the better – financially speaking.

In June I began spending roughly 4 hours per day looking at used trailers on Craigslist. Our price range was $3,000 – $10,000. We quickly determined that the options became much more livable as the price went up (naturally). We toured a few different trailers/motor homes in town, leaving each somewhat discouraged, usually because of the age of the units. We didn’t want to take any chances with our little boy’s health and safety, so we were perhaps pickier than other buyers would have been.

A trailer parked at Mormon Lake intrigued me. There was a simple description on Craigslist, with only exterior photos. It included two solar panels, which scored lots of points with me. I arranged for a tour, which was given to us by the owner’s neighbor parked next door. Immediately upon entry, we knew it was “home.” I called the owner and offered $9,500, which he accepted. We were over-the-moon excited!

We paid the owners to haul it to our land, about 60 miles from Mormon Lake. We were thankful for their help in making it level and showing us how the various systems worked, as well as being willing to part with it for less than blue book value. Very kind people.

Now it was time to prepare for our move.

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

As I look for properties upon which to place my future dwelling, I have to keep this in mind: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are many feasible places to live in a tiny home on wheels, from RV parks to my friends’ backyards. But I want my own land. That is something I am not willing to sacrifice, because living off the land as much as possible is a key part of sustainability.

Why do I want to own property? To live as sustainably as possible. It’s hard to find landlords who would let you build or do what you like on their property, and on a permanent basis – hence I must find my own land. I want to compost. I want to grow things. I want to place solar panels in just the right spot. And I want to grow old there.

Finding land is proving to be quite the challenge so far – not financially, but in terms of CC&Rs (land-use restrictions). The most appealing lots are in established residential neighborhoods that have minimum square footage requirements, and certainly don’t allow “temporary” dwellings. Any land within the City limits would likely not allow for a composting toilet, which is the ideal situation for truly “giving back to the earth.” I do want City water; well-digging can be risky and water-hauling is inconvenient – but they are not deal-breakers. Like I said, I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m choosing to make my life in the high desert, so water (usage, and how to obtain it) is something I need to be somewhat flexible on.

Most established neighborhoods in town were built many decades ago; they are largely energy-inefficient, have land-use restrictions, and would force me to maintain (and heat, and cool) more floorspace than I would ever know what to do with.

Here’s a look at my current living situation: I live in downtown Flagstaff in a nearly 100 year-old rock dwelling that has been converted from a carriage house, to a garage, to a preschool, and now to a 2-bedroom, 1-bath home.  It’s roughly 800 square feet, has a fenced in front patio, and a storage shed that is shared with our next-door neighbor.

TRANSPORTATION

My husband and I have shared one vehicle for the last seven years and have never found a need to purchase another. Currently, because my husband has taken a job during the week in another town on a temporary basis, I do not have access to a car – but I haven’t had to modify my life much because I’m used to walking everywhere. I walk to my office, I walk my son to his preschool, I walk to the park, I walk to events downtown, I walk to the grocery store, and I walk just for the sheer joy of it because I live in a beautiful place. Frankly, I’m happier without a car, and am more intentional about how I spend my time on errands and at home because of its absence. The transition to simple, intentional living has already begun!

However – if I did not live right downtown, close to every place that I need to be, what would I do? This is where I struggle, and of course recognize the need for other means of transportation besides my two feet. A bicycle is a great option if I were living 1-2 miles away from work or food. We own a bike trailer with seating for children, and already use paniers for grocery shopping. I also recognize that I am young and healthy, and have the energy and ability to use a bike for now. But what if I develop health problems? What happens when I get older?

What if I end up living further from town? Public transportation becomes vital at that point. If I can find a property close to a bus stop, life without a car is still very feasible; it will simply require more intentional scheduling of trips to and from the house. But if I’m way out in “the country”… what then? (Click here to see how I’m answering this question for now; no, it’s not perfect. And here is something (in my town!) that I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford, but it’s still a step in the right direction.) The further I live from the places I need to be, the less sustainable the transportation options are.

So my next thought is – where do I really need to be? And is that different from where I want to be? I’m living where I want to live, and my favorite thing to do here is walk in the woods. I’m not picky. It’s a spiritual experience for me, and I have yet to find any other experiences in life that compare. (The author of this post gets it.) So that’s where I want to be, more than anywhere else.

BUT – I need to work outside of my home, for now. I need food and other supplies to maintain health and comfort, and have to travel to obtain them. I need time with other people, and to share life together. So, sustainable and reliable transportation is vital. I’ll explore this more in another post.

ENERGY

I volunteered nearly 500 hours of my time over two years to help my church get 132 solar panels on its roof. The PV system covers over 90% of the electricity used in the church building; between church functions and community groups, the facilities are used over 12 hours per day, everyday! I discovered that taking out a loan would cost roughly the same amount as the electric bill, so the church already had it in the budget after getting the congregation to fund the down payment. The project has been recognized nationally, and the hope was to inspire other individuals and faith communities to go solar, too. You can read more about the project here.

So, of course, I will be utilizing a PV system to power my home. This means that, as much as I love trees, I need a space on my lot that does not get much shade during the day. I do not want to be grid-tied, at least not in Arizona, because the utility company pays the customer back at a much lower rate than what they are charged for drawing from the grid at night. Therefore, I will utilize batteries, and of course minimize my electric usage to begin with so I won’t need a large system. More on this in another post.

Today I requested more information about a property on Wintergreen Road, out on the east side of town. It’s within walking distance of forest land and a bus stop, and biking distance of food and supplies. There is a mobile home in poor condition sitting on it currently, but I could salvage a ton of materials from it and then dismantle it and have the leftovers hauled away. It has City water. And some big, pretty pine trees. I like it.

We’ll see if the real estate agent will let me take a look at it; so far she’s discouraging me, but I understand – because most people want a move-in ready home, or land that is all ready to be developed. I believe that sometimes good things take time, and a bit of elbow grease.

Here’s a sneak peak:

wintergreen2

And here’s the bus stop and bus route that could take me to work:

wintergreen1

We’ll see what pans out. I think I need to sit down and talk with my agent about what, specifically, I am looking for in a property, and the unusual home I want to build. Can’t wait to see her reaction. 🙂