An Air Conditioner That Doesn’t Use Electricity

A man in Bangladesh has apparently invented a cheap air conditioner that works without electricity.  It is intended for the many places in the world where electricity is expensive or too scarce to waste on cooling, but would work amazingly well in any of your off-grid projects.

It’s a simple system too.  It works on the principle that when you take air and force it to compress, it loses a great deal of heat.  This principle can be shown by your mouth.  When you just open your mouth and breathe out, the air is hot.  However, when you purse your lips and blow, the air is cooler.  This system works the same way.

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Here’s how it works:

Take a board and cut it to the same size as the window you’re going to place it in.  Drill holes in a grid pattern across the entire board, and make them just large enough to fit the necks of bottles through.  Cut the body of the bottles, so you have a funnel shape, and discard the remainder of the bottles.  Fit the necks of those bottles into the holes on the board, and put the board up in your window.

What happens at this point is that when wind blows towards those funnels, it is compressed and forced through the necks of the bottles into the house, and the resulting air is as much as 5 degrees Celcius cooler than it was outside.  This could make a huge difference on those sweltering days.

The actual plans for this will be available, for free, on Eco-Cooler.com in the near future.

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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.

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

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.