Reasons for Creating Low-Budget Off-Grid

The other day, I was going through the many off-grid blogs out there, and realized that Low-Budget Off-Grid was fairly unique.

I’ve found that there are a few different kinds of off-grid blogs out there.

  1. There are the off-grid blogs of those that wanted to just live an easier, more self-sufficient lifestyle, so they sold their house and emptied their savings account, and bought a bunch of land, threw up some solar panels, and spent only $50k or so setting up their sustainable life, or
  2. They are off-grid sites that teach you how to prepare for living sustainably because the government will be declaring martial law any day now, or there will be some sort of natural disaster that will cause the complete breakdown of society.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not knocking either of these types of sites.  The first type of site is great for those that can afford to go that route, and if you have the money to spend to bring your off-grid utilities up to the same standard as you had before going off-grid, go for it.  The second type of site is important if you do believe that there’s a chance of society ending, and they will certainly help you prepare.

The thing is though, that I know a lot of people that don’t have that hefty savings account.  They don’t have a job that will allow them to put together significant amounts of money that they can use to buy a large amount of land, and a bunch of solar panels, and a contractor to build their off-grid home for them.  The people I know that want to go off-grid aren’t interested in doing it because they think society’s collapse will happen any minute.

Instead, they’re just people that are struggling with bills, struggling with debt, struggling with putting food on the table for their kids.  They’re people that want to go off-grid as cheaply as possible, because they don’t have any other way.  They’re people that are willing to put up with a bit of hardship for a while, and build systems slowly, so they can work while they build and live within their means.

I’m not a prepper.  Most prepper sites I’ve seen come at the idea from a right-wing viewpoint.  The viewpoint seems to be that godlessness is causing a breakdown of society, and will end with anarchy and war or something along those lines.  Now, I’m not knocking people for having a different viewpoint, as they’re entitled to believe as they do.  I do tend to agree with them that there is a growing breakdown in the way people treat each other, but my view is colored by my much more liberal viewpoint.  I believe that going off-grid and living sustainably is important because of issues with climate change, and with the increasing disparity in income that the working class are subjected to.  I believe that off-grid life can help ease the pain of those issues and try to bring things back on track.

I’ve seen information all over the internet on how to create certain systems cheaply, but the information is spread out everywhere, and there’s no easy place to track that information down.  I decided I wanted to compile all that information into one place.  I know I’m not the only one that needs this information, and I know that my friends aren’t the only ones I could share it with.  I know there are literally millions of people all over the US and the world that are struggling to make ends meet, and dreaming of going off-grid, and all I want to do is help make it easier for them.

This *is* possible.  Finding that piece of land to build on, and putting up a simple home, and powering it, and providing water, and feeding yourself and your family, and staying warm in the winter, and….  well, you get the idea.  Those things are all possible, and *anybody* can do them with the right mindset and determination.  Yes, it may require a major change in lifestyle to achieve, but it is attainable.

Together, we can all do this.

3 Cheap and Easy Ways To Build A Chicken Coop

When I first looked at the possibility of raising chickens, one of my main concerns was the cost of a coop.  I wanted to have something that didn’t cost a lot, but when I checked out the farm supply stores, I found coops that were anywhere between $200 and $500.  Those were way out of my price range, and I got discouraged.

With some research though, I found that there are ways to make your own coop that cost very little, or nothing at all.  I’ll explain the pros and cons of each option below.

Old Shed

Traditional_Metal_Shed

Do you have an old gardening shed in your backyard?  They make a great chicken coop with very little work, and a decently sized shed can easily house a dozen chickens.  You can convert the entire shed, or wall off a portion of the shed, and turn it into a perfect coop.  Remember to add roosts and nesting boxes, and your chickens will be living the high life.

If you don’t have a shed, check Craigslist or your local Buy and Sell pages on Facebook.  There are people giving away their old sheds all the time in my area.  All you need to do is drop by with a truck, load it up, and bring it home (safely).

The downside to a shed is that in the winter, your shed will need to be heated to keep your chickens happy, and the bigger the space, the more expensive it is to heat.

Doghouses

Castledaly_Manor_-_Doghouse_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1606827

Another great option, if you have only 3 or 4 chickens, is to use a dog house.  You can get some hinges, and make a door in the side of the dog house for easy access to the interior so you can clean it and collect eggs.  Again, nesting boxes and roosts are a necessity.I see old dog houses being

I see old dog houses being given away on Craigslist and Facebook constantly.  Most people just want to get rid of them or sell them for a few bucks, so scour your local buy and sells and pick up a good deal.

The downside to a doghouse is that they are small, so only house a few chickens, and require that you get down on your knees for cleaning.

Pallets

Chicken_coop_in_winter

If you want to get completely creative, you can always find pallets and build your own design.  You can get pallets for free from a lot of places.  Just drive around and you’ll find piles of them at many hardware stores, giant box stores, and even liquor stores.  Always go in and ask the manager if you can take some.

The cool part about pallets is that there are many designs and tutorials available online that show how to make a chicken coop out of spare pallets.  You can build as fancy or as plain as you’d like, and make it just about any size you need.

The cons of this are more varied than the other options, however.  First, you need to make sure the pallets you get are safe to use.  Check out this article to find out how to tell if you have safe pallets.  Secondly, this is the most time-consuming option, so if you’re in a hurry, this may not be the option for you.  Finally, while the pallets may be free, you’re going to need nails and screws, hinges, and other hardware, and that does add up in cost.

Conclusion

Take a look at your yard, and decide what will work best for the space you have.  Are you good with tools, or still new (and that’s okay)?  How many chickens do you plan on having?  These all come into consideration when you build your coop.  Regardless of what you choose to do, also remember that your chickens will need outdoor space, called a run, to live in as well, so take that into consideration.  Have fun, whatever you do!

Beekeeping the easier way

Beekeeping is, in my opinion, one of the most important things you can do as an off-gridder.  With the decline in bee populations, every new beekeeper is a necessity.  Without bees, humanity’s ability to produce food collapses.

So, on that cheery note, we’re going to take a quick look at beekeeping, and how to do it easily.  You’re going to notice that in this case, I haven’t said we’re going to do it “cheaply”.  This is because today, we’re not going to look at the cheapest, DIY option, but rather one that will save you time and money in the long run, as well as something that is easier on your bees.

First of all, you’re going to need a hive super, which the colony will live in and the queen will lay eggs in.  I recommend the following because it is cheap, well-made, and will work well for you.  It’s recommended you start with two of them, to give the colony enough room to grow.

Now, here is where things get interesting.  You *could* buy more of these, and build a perfectly good beehive, and the hive itself will be relatively low-cost, only a few hundred bucks.  However, then you have to take into account the cost of the tools you’re going to need to harvest the honey.  You’ll need a beekeeper suit, a comb knife, a hive tool, a frame grip, and a smoker.  You’ll need a centrifuge to get the honey out of the comb.  And you’ll need several hours worth of time and a lot of effort to get the honey out, killing many bees in the process.

This is where I suggest the more expensive option.  A hive has been developed that doesn’t require that you pull the honeycomb frames out, doesn’t require that you cut the comb open to get the honey out, doesn’t require that you spend hours and hours with lots of backbreaking labor to get the honey out.

The Flow Hive is a more expensive option, yes.  However, it requires basically turning a tap, and letting the honey pour out of the hive into a jar or bucket.  It takes minutes instead of hours, and doesn’t disrupt your bees.

Here is a video showing how the Flow Hive works.  It’s absolutely fantastic, and I think every beekeeper should invest in them.

Now, where a complete traditional hive costs somewhere around $200 to $300, and all the accessories are another $200 or so, the Flow Hive is priced higher, in the $700 range for a complete hive.  As you can see though, the ease of use makes this entirely worth it.

I have provided a link to their website, which is the only place you can currently purchase them.  I don’t have any business connection to them at this time.  I just really think they offer the best product for beekeepers.

Flow Hive website

Finally, I want to mention that when you keep bees, you’re doing a few things that are important.  First, you’re helping maintain a healthy bee population, which this world desperately needs.  Second, honey is something that everyone can use in their home, saving themselves the cost of sugar, and keeping things like high fructose corn syrup out of the house.  And finally, you can bottle that honey and sell it, making a very tidy profit.

The possibilities are amazing.

Build your own Hot Tub for Almost Nothing

When you go off-grid, you have to remember that life is about enjoying the moment, and not just about survival.    Your plot of land is hopefully going to be out in a location where you can lay back, look up at the stars, and actually see those stars in their glory, instead of having them all washed out by city lights.

What better way to enjoy that evening than in your own hot tub?  Now, you could go and spend thousands of dollars on buying a premade hot tub, and run the power to keep it running and the water hot, but that’s just not the Low-Budget way.

The video below shows what can be done with cob building.  This simple mixture of clay, sand and straw is used to build houses, ovens, and in this case, a hot tub, and is incredibly simple.  It can be time-consuming, but fun.

There are a lot of ways you could create a hot tub like this.  You could get an old bathtub and build cob around it, or you can do as the creator of this video did, and create the entire thing out of cob, and seal it with linseed oil.  You can shape the hot tub however you want, and make it as large as you want.  Your creativity is all that’s required.

In the case of the video, he uses a pump to circulate the water through the oven in order to heat the water.  My suggestion, if you want to go even lower cost, is to run a copper pipe from the bottom of the tub, coiled through the oven area, and out just below the water line at the top of the tub.  Convection will circulate the water naturally without needing electricity.

If you’re not familiar with cob, I recommend the Cob Builder’s Handbook, by Becky Bee.  In it, she details how to build with cob in detail, from the theory behind the technique, to the completion and sealing of cob to ensure it lasts for decades or centuries.  Below is a link to the book on Amazon if you want to learn more.

A Cheap and Simple Water Filter for your Off-grid Home

Today, we’re going to look at how to filter the rainwater you’re capturing.  A sand filter is a simple and low-budget method of creating clean, safe drinking water for your home.

Please note that these sand filters will filter out viruses and bacteria easily, but will not filter out heavy metals or other ground contaminants.  It is intended for use with a rainwater catchment system.

The following video explains how to make a sand filter, and gives you the knowledge as to how and why it works as well.  It is yet another piece of the puzzle you need to completely remove yourself from the grid without sacrificing your health to do it.

 

That’s all for today.

Our Chicken Coop and Run

I thought some of you might like to see what our chicken living conditions look like.  They’re pretty simple, and the chickens are quite happy.  They’re not quite big enough to be giving us eggs yet, but that’ll happen soon enough.

Make a Pop Can Solar Furnace

Depending on the style of house you build, you may need to do something to maintain the temperature of your home.  There are a lot of different options available that use different kinds of fuel, but I think the best options are the ones you build, and then they stop costing you money afterwards.

This is why I think this pop can solar furnace is a brilliant option.  In essence, you build it, install it on a south facing wall where it will be exposed to the sun, have a vent in the wall of your home near the floor where it pulls cold air in, and natural convection will pull the air through the furnace, warm it up, and vent it back into your house through another vent in the wall.

It requires no fans, and no electricity.  If you find yourself too cold or too warm, just open or close the vents.  Simple, isn’t it?

I’ve seen companies that mass produce these, using pop cans, and sell them for prices around the $2500 mark.  To build one yourself requires a bit of wood, some pop cans, some high temperature matte black spraypaint, and some clear PVC (I’d suggest it be UV stabilized, so it lasts longer).  While I have yet to make one myself (it’s on my list), I can’t see the cost of all of this going over $100.

If you do happen to make one, please post the results in the comments below so we can see it in action.

Here is a video that shows how to make one.  I’ve seen them made larger, for more heat output.

 

Complete written instructions can be found on this Instructables link

A Homemade Tesla Powerwall for $300

Last year, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors revealed info about the Tesla Powerwall.  It’s really cool, and is a lithium-ion battery with a built-in charge controller and it’s great….  Except that it is, of course, expensive.

So, leave it to the do-it-yourself community to find a way to make one ourselves, at a considerably lower cost.  I really don’t have much to say about this one, except that your results may vary.  What it boils down to is that you can buy old laptop batteries and use the cells in them to build your very own Tesla Powerwall, and do it at a fraction of the cost.

Watch the video below and he’ll explain:

Interview: Creators of the $10,000 Earthship

house exterior 4A few weeks ago, I learned about Taylor and Steph, who built an Earthship in the mountains in Santa Cruz, California.  What made it unique was that they managed to do this for a cost of only $10,000.

I found the original article over on ApartmentTherapy.com (read it here), and learned that they used a lot of found materials to cut the costs of their build.  Doors and windows were found on Craigslist, tires were free, and they built it themselves to lower the cost of their home.  I highly recommend reading the article, but when I read it, I admit I had a lot of follow-up questions that I wanted to see if I could get answers to.

I managed to track down Taylor and Steph, and emailed them some questions that I believed were important for my readers to know the answers to.

1. How long did you spend researching and learning about earthships before you got involved in building them?

house exterior 4Roughly one afternoon. I watched the documentary Garbage Warrior while living in Taiwan
and made arrangements to move to Taos almost the next day. Earthships seemed to address all of the ideals I cared deeply about: environmentalism, social justice, low-cost simple living, empowerment through self-sufficiency, and architectural innovation. My mind was blown and I was compelled to get involved as soon as possible.

2. Did you take the Earthship Biotecture course to get started on building with them?

house interior 17I did. I attended the second-ever Earthship Biotecture Academy session in the spring of 2012. I spent the rest of that year volunteering on EB projects and ultimately working on the Earthship crew on several builds across the country.

3. The articles I’ve seen about your $10,000 Earthship mention that most of your build was done using free or found materials. Where did the costs arise?

Primarily framing lumber, sheathing, roofing materials, and cement. But there are a lot of hidden costs that add up like fasteners, plumbing, tools, and transportation up and down the mountain. I hired an arborist to sustainably harvest and mill two redwoods, and the solar power system took up a decent chunk of that $10k as well. As you mentioned, we were able to successfully scavenge for free windows, doors, some lumber, all furniture, a wood stove, sink, and barn wood siding. The 500 tires were also free, as were the thousands of glass bottles that we collected and used as bottle-bricks. 

4. What were the biggest challenges you had in building your earthship?

house interior 7The first half of our building process was blissful. After a while, however, we ran out of money and started using credit cards. The biggest challenge was definitely managing debt and hustling for income without abandoning our commitment to the house. We were unwilling to back-burner the house in order to save enough money to continue. We’ve seen too many projects go unfinished that way, and have heard from too many older folks who had dreams of building a cabin in the woods but regretfully never took the leap because of lack of funds. We were determined, and using credit cards was a calculated risk we were willing to take to see our project through. We thought about it like a small, high-interest, short-term construction loan. Stressful, but worth it in the end.

5. After living in your earthship for a number of years, is there anything about earthship living that you didn’t expect, or that required a major shift in lifestyle?

house interior 4‘Earthship living’ can be as luxurious or primitive as an owner wants (or can afford). Our experience has been on the roughing it end of the spectrum, and may not be indicative of ‘Earthship living’ in a house built by Mike Reynolds and crew, for example. We had very minimal power for the first year and a half, sometimes with only a couple hours of light in the winter. We didn’t want to run a generator so we just lit candles and went to bed super early. We had no refrigeration and took a lot of cold, outdoor showers. In this sense, the simple life is not an easy life. Our place is inexpensive and funky, but it required a very real adjustment to living without some of the amenities we tended to take for granted growing up in the suburbs (such as TV, wifi, seemingly unlimited power, and water that’s always hot). Above all else, living remotely presented the greatest shift in lifestyle for us. Town was about a 30 minute drive away on winding, mountains roads, and in order to make a living we found ourselves spending more time in our cars than we ever had before. The intense automobile dependency was frustrating. This is a reality for rural living in general, however, and is not unique to Earthships. 

The greatest benefit that we experienced with the Earthship lifestyle is the direct connection to nature. When living in a house that functions in harmony with the environment, you can’t help but see yourself as part of nature, rather than as something separate from it.  

6. Is there anything you’d change about the way you built your earthship, knowing what you know now?

house interior 8I really wouldn’t. The house is perfectly imperfect. I think of it like writing a novel or a poem…you write it, finish it, put it out there, let it be; to go back and change it after the fact would take away from the magic of the original expression. Certainly I could write a long list of mistakes made along the way and say I’d try not to repeat them, but each blunder was part of the journey. As Steph and I would regularly remind ourselves throughout the build, this is our first house, not our last. 

One of the reasons I’m so curious is that another article I have posted details the building of a one-room cob house built in Great Britain, which was built for a total of $250.  There’s quite the gap between his $250 build, and your $10,000 build.  I’m trying to understand, and show my readers, what the differences are between his build and yours.  While I can make assumptions about things like the expense of the various earthship systems, I’d like to be certain.

house interior 6I’m not familiar with that particular cob house, but I do know it’s possible to build for next to nothing if that’s the priority. I love buildings like that for an art studio, office, music room, guest bedroom, etc. But a $250 ‘house’ likely offers little more than a shell. More of a shelter than a home. Presumably very little square footage, probably a composting toilet, little to no electricity, minimal water catchment and plumbing, and likely some kind of wood-burning rocket stove for warmth. One can live this way, but it’s a matter of preference and, in my opinion, not a realistic long-term dwelling solution for 2 or more people. Earthships are designed for passive solar/thermal mass performance and have guidelines beyond just four walls and a roof. 

Furthermore, basic in-home comforts tend to add up. If building on raw land with no services, to have access to water you will need to either drill a well, catch and store water, or pump from a water source. Each of these methods costs money. A composting toilet or outhouse is viable and very low-cost, but if you want a flush toilet you will need a septic tank and leech field, which also comes at a price. Without a septic tank, managing grey water from the kitchen sink can turn into a filthy and unhealthy process over time, so that will need to be considered as well. Solar electricity is becoming increasingly affordable, but even a tiny system will exceed the $250 price point you mention with the cob house. Otherwise if you want power you will need a generator, wind turbine or hydro set-up which again, takes money. Each property will have a different set of circumstances and limitations, and each occupant will need to decide what level of comfort they require within their budget. I’m all about simple and low-budget, but it’s important to have realistic expectations. 

house exterior 3We tried hard at every juncture to limit our expenses, but in order to stay true to Earthship design principles enough to maintain comfort for Steph and I (and our two dogs), the cost wound up being around $10k. This may sound like a lot compared to a $250 cob house, but recognize that the average home in Santa Cruz County sells for $700,000. It’s all relative. I suppose I could have saved money by holding out for more free materials, but keep in mind that hunting for reclaimed materials takes a lot of time. There’s a cost-benefit analysis that must be  done to determine the best course of action. In our case, on several occasions we chose to bite the bullet and pay up. As a friend of mine once told me, “There are three ways to build: fast, cheap, and good. You can do two at a time, but not all three.” 

I will elaborate in greater detail on both our building process and the off-grid lifestyle in our upcoming book titled, Nomadic Roots. Your readers can follow me on Instagram @nomadic.roots and you can encourage them to email me directly at tbraytonb@gmail.com.

I was absolutely thrilled to receive these answers, and completely agree with them on the issue of cost and value.  There are options that will allow you to build your own earthship for a cost even lower than $10,000.  It will, of course, be up to my readers to decide whether the cost savings are worth the trouble.

house interior 17My family and I will be building our own Earthship home here in Kansas in the future.  We do plan on using some of those measures ourselves, such as using a series of low-cost wind turbines instead of solar, and the cladding on our roof will be free other than the time it takes to harvest the metal.  However, whatever costs we do incur will be worth the comfort they bring.

Thanks again to Taylor and Steph for answering my questions.

Earthships the Low-Budget Way

A few years ago, I came across the concept of a radically sustainable home design known as an Earthship.  These homes really caught my attention, because the designer of this concept, Michael Reynolds, addressed the need for a house that was completely self-sufficient.

In creating the Earthship, he created a home that powers itself, keeps a stable temperature thanks to the sun and solar mass, captures it’s own water, recycles its greywater, and grows food for you.  I have not found a design that handles all of these requirements so gracefully.

In building an Earthship, you use old tires, pounded full of dirt and stacked like bricks to form the back and side walls, which are then covered over with mud and plaster to give a beautiful adobe-style finish.  Those walls are a heatsink, and store heat from the sun that radiates out into the house through the night, keeping the house at a stable temperature day and night, year-round, without requiring a furnace or other heating system.

The water system is a work of art.  It starts by catching water from your roof, directing the water into storage tanks buried in the berm behind your home.  That water goes through a filtration system to ensure clean drinking and wash water, and comes out of your taps and for use in your shower.  Once it is used there, that greywater runs into a series of long planters, and the nutrient-rich water feeds the plants, which help grow food.  The remaining water, cleaned by the natural filtration of the plants, then waits in a tank to be used to flush your toilet, instead of flushing using clean drinking water.  After that, the black water from the toilet then goes into a septic system and a number of outdoor garden cells, where it nourishes non-food bearing plants.

Electrically, the design of an Earthship incorporates renewable, off-grid energy.  Traditionally, you’ll use a solar system to meet your electrical needs, and use a combination of ultra-efficient LED lights and other efficient appliances to lower your power consumption.

Many of the Earthships I’ve seen built over the past couple of decades are beautiful, unique structures, and can be built either by yourself or by having Michael Reynolds and his crew come and build part or all of it for you.

If money isn’t a concern, and you can afford it, it’s definitely easier to have it built for you.  This will bring the cost up into the range of a traditional home.  While this is still preferable to owning a home where you have to pay for water, electricity, and heat, this site knows that it can be done much more affordably.

To be more cost-effective, you can build it yourself.  This can be done by reading the books about Earthships, which I have provided links to below.  The books explain, in extreme detail, how to build the walls, how to set up the electrical and water systems, and every other thing you’d need to know about building your own Earthship.


Doing it yourself, your costs can be significantly lowered.  In fact, I recently came across information about a couple that built their own small Earthship for under $10,000.  I reached out to them to find out how they did it, and find out what their costs were in building their home, to see whether we can find a way to bring the cost even lower.  I’ll be posting an interview with them later this week to show you their incredible build.

An Earthship is not exactly a “cheap” option, but when you take into account that it incorporates your water system, power, heat, and food, it fits well with the Low-Budget Off-Grid ideology.