Escaping the Sprawl

…Living in the sprawl
dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights

Sprawl II by Arcade Fire

I’ll never forget the way those 4 lines struck me upon hearing them for the first time.  As one constantly seeking rationalization for ripping up the tent stakes and disappearing – unannounced and unencumbered – into the wilderness, those words only served to stoke my fire.  Admittedly, i’m guilty of being perhaps just a wee bit knee-jerkish in regard to this subject.  Alas, once in a great while something will (usually in the form of song, speech, poetry, book, mortgage payment, etc.) trigger my flight response.

When this occurs, I typically indulge notions of life “off-sprawl” with a quick search of the internet for cheap rural land in regions I consider appealing.  Procuring pretty rural real estate on the cheap is a non-existent issue.  Just pick from any one of the dozens of online tote-the-note rural land brokers, peruse their catalog of oft-misleading pictures, select your very own 10 acre parcel and start making the low, low monthly payments of only $79.  Easy, right?

Unfortunately, many of these land brokers are less than forthright in their descriptions of these parcels.  “Cheap” comes at a price.  99% of the time, this land might seem all but unusable save for the select few that are willing to

  1. spend $$$$ drilling a well in hopes of finding groundwater,
  2. spend $$$$ coercing the local utility co-op to run electricity to the parcel
  3. die a painful, wretched death at the hands of dehydration and/or heat exhaustion.

Honestly, #3 isn’t much of an option, but #1 and #2 are typically the potential buyer’s foremost concerns.  These expenses can quickly surpass the price of the land itself.  $3,000 for 10 acres of land with a mountain view may seem incredibly cheap, but take note that the cost of sinking a 300 foot well on that “cheap” land could run 3X the original land purchase price.  Additionally, you run a high risk of not finding any usable groundwater after drilling.  Worst case scenario, you end up with a very dry, very deep $10,000 hole in the ground.  It would make a secure 1-bottle wine cellar I suppose, but you’ll need a LONG roll of string…

What about electricity?  The cost of running electricity just a few hundred feet to your land can easily run several thousand dollars.  The price ranges swing wildly depending on which utility company services your region.  I’ve seen examples of estimates totaling anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 for a 500ft run from the nearest utility pole.  Even the cheap end of these estimates seems excessive when active solar and wind-turbine electricity generation are becoming more affordable every day.

Since i’ve now left orbit on another epic Pablo-style tangent, please allow me a moment to reel this discussion back in:

The rambling, nonsensical point i’m trying to make here is that one must consider all the available alternative options for power and water – many of which you may not yet be familiar with – in order to “Escape the Sprawl” in a manner that is both reasonably simple AND cost-effective.   The primary purpose of this blog is to POINT OUT these options. Don’t automatically write-off a piece of cheap-yet-beautiful land just because there aren’t any nearby utilities…

Water

Humans need water to survive.  At the end of the day, we can survive without electricity, but not without a fresh source of water.  If you don’t have the money to take an expensive gamble on drilling a well, there are other options…although admittedly limited.  I’ll touch lightly on a couple below:

Water hauling services are available in most regions of the American southwest (I haven’t researched the subject outside of that region, so take note…).  Search for services in your area here.  Again – prices swing wildly depending on exact location and service, but expect to pay anywhere between $70-$100 per 2,000 gallons of potable water delivered.  Of course, you’ll need a storage tank or tanks, but these are also readily available and not too-terribly expensive ($529/1500 gallon tank or $999 for two here).  A quick scouring of Craigslist should probably turn up a few even cheaper alternatives, assuming you aren’t deterred by second-hand goods.  Polypropylene tanks are nearly maintenance-free, aside from the occasional cleaning and rinse.  For the sake of keeping algae and bacterial growth to a minimum, black and dark-green tanks of the opaque variety are recommended.    I have no personal experience with white and other light-colored tanks, but common sense would lead one to believe that the additional light passing through the tank walls will only serve to encourage bacterial growth and algal bloom.

Even with all the preventative sanitary measures taken, you’ll want secondary on-demand filtration if you plan on drinking water from your storage tank.  Sure – that water may have been potable when it arrived on the truck, but funky things can happen within the confines of a dark, warm body of water…even in the cleanest of tanks.  If you *wisely* choose to elevate your tanks on stands (thereby eliminating the need for electricity-robbing pressure pumps), gravity will do the work of forcing water through a gravity-fed filtration system and into your potable water plumbing. Voilà!

But Paul – what about:

  • washing laundry?
  • watering landscaped areas?
  • my Aunt Phyllis who likes to take hour-long showers?
  • poopin’?

All valid questions; no doubt.  Stay tuned to this here blog and we’ll get around to addressing all of these quandaries.  Moving on…

Water Catchment

Water catchment can be a highly-effective means of collecting and storing large amounts of water…depending on where you want to live.

As of June 20, 2011 my off-grid friends in the Presidio, TX area have received ZERO measurable rainfall since October 2010.  If they were all depending on rain collection for their drinking water…well…you get the point.  Obviously, rainwater harvesting will not be effective as a main water source in many parts of the world.  Unless you’re looking to build in the Pacific Northwest, water catchment only serves as a supplemental means of collecting water.  That being said, you might be surprised just how much water one medium-sized shower can produce if an effective means of catching it is present.

The formula for calculating potential water catchment is fairly simply.  On average, each square foot of nearly-flat roof will yield 0.5 gallons of water per 1 inch of rain.  Let’s say a small spring thunderstorm dumps an inch of rain on your 400 sq. foot roof.  A properly-designed and installed catchment system (essentially just glorified, oversized gutters plumbed to a holding tank) will yield approximately 200 gallons of water perfectly suited for bathing and gardening.  I say perfectly suited – assuming you’ve installed a system for screening out the nasty stuff that likes to find its way onto roofs, ie. bird poop, dead bugs, etc.  Of course, you could always filter this water to the point of potability as well, but there’s certainly no real need to as long as you aren’t planning on drinking it or cooking with it.  I grew up taking “baths” in a lake, so perhaps i’m not the most reasonable viewpoint on this subject, but I don’t see the harm.

Water catchment systems are incredibly easy to plan and build.  John Wells of The Field Lab built a simple system that works great.

Electricity

There are considerably more options for producing your own electricity but few scenarios where only one source of electricity is sufficient.  One thing is certain – a battery system for providing power when the sun and wind are hiding is ESSENTIAL.

We’re currently working on a power system consisting of four (4) Group 27 deep-cycle batteries that are charged continuously by a small array of solar panels and two small wind turbines.  Charging capacity of this system is ~2000 watts at peak operating efficiency. That means that this system will produce 2000 watts of electricity when the wind is blowing strong on a cloudless day.  When the sun goes down and the wind dies, the battery bank will take up the slack by offering somewhere in the area of 600 amp hours of capacity.  Realistically, this translates to about 100 hours of continuous power at a 3 amp draw, using the 50% discharge rule.  If both the sun and wind take an extended vacation for more than 4 days, power can be generated in the form of a 2000 watt propane generator.

This particular power system is designed for a 160 sq ft re-purposed shipping container unit that features 12v LED lighting and an ultra low-impact evaporative cooler which utilizes a desiccant-wheel air dryer.  We’re really excited about it but don’t want to divulge too much until it works perfectly.  We’ll talk more on that subject in an upcoming post…

Wind

In the past decade, manufacturers of affordable wind turbine generators have popped up all over the globe.  Spend 5 minutes on eBay and you’ll find 30 different generator sizes and levels of power output from as many manufacturers.  When shopping for “affordable” wind generators (<$1K), there a couple things to keep in mind:

  1. Average wind power at your location
  2. Rated output of wind generator

BuildItSolar.com has an excellent breakdown of how to calculate average potential energy output in KWH/yr.  Granted, it doesn’t take into account the efficiency levels of any one particular generator, but the data is useful nonetheless.  I’ve copied and pasted it below:

Wind turbine energy production

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch Out For Wind Turbine Power Ratings:

The power ratings usually given by the manufacturers for wind turbines are nearly useless, in that they are determined at wind speeds much higher that you will normally see.  A good rough formula to keep in mind in evaluating different wind turbines is:

Annual Output (KWH/year) = 0.01328

(D^2) (V^3)     source…

Where D^2 is the blade diameter in feet squared, and V^3 is the wind velocity cubed in mph  — this is the year round average wind speed — see wind maps below.

So, a 10 ft diameter wind turbine in 12 mph average winds might produce about (0.01328)(10^2)(12^3) = 2300 KWH/year Note that the energy produced is proportional to the cube of wind speed — having enough average wind speed is everything in wind turbines. Use the wind maps discussed below and a wind survey of your site to determine if a wind turbine will actually payoff.

The graph is of the wind energy equation shown above for various wind speeds and turbine blade diameters.

Did that make sense?  Of course, one big factor to calculate is the efficiency of the actual turbine that you’re considering purchasing.  Don’t expect much out of those $299 eBay specials.  Unless you live on the beach, turbines touting “650 WATTS PEAK POWER!” are useful for little more than charging your laptop or powering a small TV.  Many manufacturers of these cheaper turbines dubiously quote their power ratings.  Sure, it’ll make 650 watts in a 40mph wind, but what does it produce at an average wind velocity of 12mph?  Many turbines in this price bracket won’t even begin charging in anything less than 8-10 mph due to their inexpensively manufactured circuitry.  We’ll provide a breakdown and comparison of several readily-available, sub-$1k wind turbines in the near future.

Solar

The cost of utilizing solar power has lowered considerably in the past decade.  Solar panel efficiency has jumped while size has shrunk.  The price of polycrystalline panels has dropped significantly in just the past 2-3 years.  On a sunny day and during daylight hours, three modern 80 watt polycrystalline panels should average around 11 amps continuous @ 12v DC.  Total cost of this system = less than $1500.

Bottom Line

It would be wise to determine your basic daily power needs and then do the simple math. Remember – converting to life away from the grid will require some level of sacrifice.  In dry climates, clothes dry quickly on a line.  It won’t kill you to toss the dryer.  Hand washing dishes isn’t nearly as time-consuming as Whirlpool would have you think. UNPLUG: Off-Grid Escapes is all about living a simple, less-encumbered life.

Thanks for making it this far through my extended brainfart.  Tell us your thoughts!

Undiscovered, commonplace, quiet, tranquil and alive
Rolling lands laid out like a linen
No transgressions under the mud
See it all so concise and vivid
See night falling where we set fire

-Undiscovered by Monahans

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