One cabin owner’s complete list of off-grid products.
Story & photos by Michael J Walker
A birds eye view of the cabin.
Dear fellow Cabin Living readers,
A 200-watt solar array is mounted on the outhouse.
Below are links to all of the products that we have purchased relative to our off-the-grid needs issues for our cabin in the Rockies (which is featured in the September 2016 issue of Cabin Living magazine). There is a lot here and much more than I expect you will use, but I thought I’d be comprehensive and you can decide what you think is worthwhile. When there was a manufacturer’s website I’ve listed that, but many things are obscure and were just purchased from Amazon.com.?We spent about $4,800 in 2015 which was for everything – including all improvements, furniture, taxes, insurance, propane, etc. Our budget for 2016 is about $4,500 and includes an outhouse redo plus all operating costs. Those amounts are split three ways among the families that own our cabin. So, this is not an expensive operation.
A note about relying on 12-volt DC for power
It is only reasonable to do this when you have a situation where (1) You have short distances to cover – that is you have a small footprint cabin, (2) Your loads are low.? Except for the fridge and water pump, our circuits are below 5 amps all the time. That means we will never have a microwave, garbage disposal or dishwasher, but then again we didn’t want those things. When we want to use power tools or a vacuum cleaner, we use the generator.?We have a single 110-volt AC outlet in the cabin that runs to the generator, but we very rarely use it. If you start with 12-volt DC thinking and a boat/RV mindset, and know what you’re getting into, it is a completely viable approach that will keep your costs low. It is not a way to duplicate on-grid living.
The loft provides a lot of sleeping space.
The heart of the 23x15 great room is a 1930s woodstove with flagstone base. Mounted on the wall behind it is a new Williams Monterey propane furnace. Mike and two of his cabin co-owner friends built the dining room table, and Mike made the wine bottle chandelier.
About our generator
It runs on gas only, has manual start and can put out 3,300 watts.?We recently spotted a DuroMax XP4850EH Hybrid Portable Dual Fuel Propane/Gas Camping RV generator on sale at 1sale.com for $325, close to the same price we paid for our model. But the DuroMax is
dual fuel (gas and propane) and electric-start. If we had that model, we could pull the wheels off?and make a permanent installation. We’d wire an interior wall switch start in parallel with a low-voltage start running to the battery bank. I think we will still likely do that someday, but right now we really don’t need it so it isn’t a priority.
- 12-volt DC refrigerator – The manufacturer is Grape Solar. You can view the model we bought on Home Depot’s website, homedepot.com.?Grape Solar is a small company out of Eugene, Ore., that imports the basic fridge from China and then improves it for the North American market.
- Propane tankless water heater – Visit aquahstore.com/catalog. This one is sized right for us (3 GPM). The usual brands (Rheem, etc) are far more expensive and are sized for a suburban home.?Some of these Aquah models only need a pair of D-cell batteries to ignite.
- Propane Furnace – Go to williamscomfortprod.com. We had to special order the propane version suitable for 8,000-feet elevation.?The furnace does not require any electricity – the millivolt gas valve is powered by temperature and the thermostat uses a pair of AAA batteries.?So it heats by convection only – no fan required.
- RV toilet – To see the model we are buying,visit dometic.com. The trick here will be having a good draining method for the cold months.
- 12V ceiling fan – We will buy this next fall to help distribute the heat evenly: altestore.com. It only pulls 4 watts at 102 RPM.
- Shower – We will likely use this for our shower: smile.amazon.com.
Solar & electrical
- Solar charge controller – See morningstarcorp.com. This is a PWM model that is both a charge controller and a load manager.?PWM is a good technology when you only use your system periodically (use on weekends, recharge on weekdays),?as it is better at?extending battery life than a MPPT controller. Although MPPT is more efficient (and more expensive), the advantages of MPPT are minute on small scale systems like ours.
- DC power meter – We have two to measure solar produced and load: smile.amazon.com/dp/B0159W6A7A.
- Solar panels – See them at renogy-store.com. (We bought them on Amazon.com.)
- Solar angle calculator – Visit solarelectricityhandbook.com/solar-angle-calculator.aspx
- Golf cart batteries – See them at samsclub.com.
- Choosing batteries is controversial – many people have the “you get what you pay for” perspective that says you should order Trojan or Interstate batteries that are much more expensive, but will probably last longer.? Our perspective is that often the same product is sold under different brands and you are paying for the brand more than the product.?Or, in some cases, you pay double for something that will last only 25% longer.?In a few years, we’ll find out if we were right. Check out this deep-cycle battery FAQ: solar-electric.com.
- Stranded wire used in DC systems – Check out solarseller.com. We used a mix of stranded and Romex – the Romex is much cheaper for outdoor use than marine quality stranded.?A good option for lower amperage circuits is low voltage landscape wiring.? You can find that in 12-gauge wire and it is stranded and intended for outdoor use.
- Protecting electronics from inductive loads – We use a bi-directional diode across our water pump to protect the load controller.?The fridge bypasses the load controller completely.
- Voltage drop calculator – This is used for sizing DC wire gauge: calculator.net.
- Relay used to load manage the current to our fridge – See amzn.com.?We used this because we did not want the fridge load going through the load controller. The load is high current and inductive, but we wanted to take advantage of the load controller’s low-voltage cutoff at 11.7 volts (which protects the batteries) and have a single main breaker for the entire cabin.?So we wired the fridge through this relay directly to the batteries, but the relay is controlled by the load manager and the load manager is switched at the breakers.
- 12-volt DC power outlets – See smile.amazon.com. These are mounted vertically around the cabin.
- 5.6-watt 12-volt LED bulbs with conventional E26 bases – See smile.amazon.com. We used these when repurposing old lamps:
- 9-watt 12-volt LED bulb with E26 base – Go to smile.amazon.com. These are brighter bulbs for our pole lamps.
- 3-watt 12-volt LED MR16 bulbs – Visit?smile.amazon.com/ (but no longer available on Amazon.com). We used 10 of these for the kitchen and dining room. Note: They are much better than the reviews indicate.
- MR16 sockets for building your own pendant and chandelier lights – See smile.amazon.com.
- 12-volt power plugs used to retrofit conventional lamps – Visit smile.amazon.com.
- 12-volt DC Photo Sensor to control outhouse entry light – Go to smile.amazon.com.
- Make-A-Lamp kit used for rewiring old lamps – See homedepot.com.
- Pantry door light switch control – Visit smile.amazon.com. We kept leaving the pantry closet light on accidentally, so we wired it to a magnetic door switch so it would come on automatically when opened – like a refrigerator light.?Having a low voltage system meant we didn’t have to use a separate relay.
- 2-watt LED dome light used in outhouse, pantry and crawl space – Go to smile.amazon.com. This light is really bright, very inexpensive and is perfect for any place where aesthetics aren’t important?(the light is fairly cold).
Most electronics actually run on low voltage DC. The power adapters/wall warts are dropping the voltage and converting to DC. And small electronics are often USB powered. USB is 5-volts DC. So we have many car USB adapters and they are used to power phones, tablets and other small stuff – even a small fan.?My cabin computer is a tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and is perfectly powered this way.
- Rainwater harvesting parts – Check out rainharvest.com/shop. It’s the most extensive U.S. online catalog that I’ve found.
- The Texas Manual on Rainwater Harvesting – Find it here: twdb.texas.gov.
- Links to permits for the State of Colorado – Find them at water.state.co.us and water.state.co.us.
- Water pump – Go to eccotemp.com.
- 12-volt DC UV sterilizer – See viqua.com. We have gone back and forth on UV sterilization versus ozonation, but right now are in the UV camp.
Without an amplifier we get sporadic cell service, one bar that would come and go.
- Cellular amplifiers and antennas – Check out www.weboost.com. See the product we use at store.weboost.com/products/drive-4gs. And it is cabled to this antenna: store.weboost.com/products/301111. We put one of our phones in the cradle and then use the phone to provide WiFi for the cabin.?The cradle is intended for in-car use and so is a 12-volt product with an automotive style power plug.
To point our antenna, we used a combination of Android apps (“CDMA Field Test,” “LTE Discoverer”), to log data, Google Earth to determine angles to cell towers, and Microsoft Excel to analyze the data and determine what tower would be bes·t.?The antenna is specific to the carrier and the technology.?For us that means a Verizon tower on Fort Collins High School (Colorado) about 16 miles away as the crow flies. Of course you can sign up for satellite Internet and some locations have line-of-sight Internet, but then you are paying a monthly cost for sporadic use and typically bandwidth is low.? Also, the satellite Internet boxes use more power than we wanted to burn – the amplifier above uses less than 10 watts of power where satellite is typically 40-70 watts. I hope this information is helpful. Best regards, Mike Walker