Update on Project 31 Preparations

A quick update on preparations for Project 31 (though, in reality, it’s hard to say what’s just part of my life and what counts as “preparation”…) I still haven’t decided on the exact start date, but I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-February.

It’s been surprisingly dry for the past few weeks, but it’s quite possible that the weather will get wetter during Project 31. I have about 30 gallons of rain water so far, so even if there’s no precipitation, I can probably live off of that for a month if I don’t shower (I also have 55 gallons of potable water as backup). As for sanitizing collected water, I have a length of PVC pipe, along with some sand, gravel and charcoal to make a filter out of. For actual drinking water, I’ll pass the filtered water again through a Britta filter. It might not remove 100% of contaminants, but that should make the water clean enough to not kill me in 31 days.

Progress on Hut 2.1 has been slow but steady. I finished putting up the last of the exterior rigid insulation boards last night, so practically every square inch of the walls and roof are insulated at this point. The next step is to put in the insulated raised floor, and continue with the interior “furnishings”. But I can work on that during Project 31, so I’m not in a huge rush.

I had a bit of a scare yesterday & this morning, when I realized that the charge light on my charge controller was conspicuously off, even though the batteries had run down to 12.5 Volts. My multimeter showed an unusually low voltage across the solar panel cables, which lead me to believe that the solar panel had stopped working. After trying a few different things today, I realized that the solar panel’s voltage was fine, as long as it wasn’t hooked up to my charge controller. In other words, when it was connected to my charge controller, some kind of anomalously huge resistance was dropping the voltage to almost zero, without actually sending any of the current to my batteries (I’m guessing a short of some sort). In fewer words, my charge controller is broke. Fortunately, I had another charge controller lying around, so once I did a little rewiring, I got some juice flowing to the battery array again. The broken charge controller is still under warranty, so I should be able to send it in for a replacement, which, hopefully will arrive before I start Project 31.

This incident had me thinking that I might want a back up to my 100W solar panel, in case it did decide to break. A week or so ago, I bought a 45W solar kit from Harbor Freight because it was on sale, but I ended up returning it because it didn’t seem like I’d need the additional capacity. But it might be a good idea to have another set of panels as backup, just in case. Without a backup solar panel, my backup-backup would be to use my car battery, but that would require running the engine to keep the battery charged.

Also on the topic of electricity, I ordered a Xantrex ProSine SW600 pure sine-wave inverter, which should be arriving soon. It’s only rated for 600W, but I don’t think I even own any appliances that use anywhere near that much power. The most power hungry device I own is probably my laptop, which should pull no more than 85W.

I’ve been using the stove every night since I finished the chimney, and it’s kept me nice and warm even when it got down to 15F (-9.4C) outside. In fact, keeping the heat low enough has been the bigger challenge, especially when I’m only burning wood. It’s hard to have a small self-sustaining wood fire that doesn’t burn out in 10 minutes, yet stays hot enough to ignite and burn bigger chunks of wood. I’ve been burning a mix of charcoal and wood, and might look into making my own charcoal once I’ve burned through the bags I bought for my previous experiments. I’m also continuing to gather firewood while the weather is relatively dry, with the goal of actually stocking up on a month’s worth, so that I won’t have to worry about fuel even if it gets wet and cold during Project 31.

I’ve also tried to cook using the stove, but that’s proving to be a little harder than I’d anticipated, because the cabin gets uncomfortably warm if I get the stove hot enough to cook with. I also only have the wood stove going in the evenings, so I’d need to use propane to cook meals or heat water during the day. This isn’t a huge problem, but I might need to revise my projected propane usage up, since I might be using my propane stove for cooking more than I’d anticipated.

I was originally thinking of getting a Verizon MiFi for internet, but I’ve since decided to get a Verizon iPhone, since it has the same capability as a MiFi but would allow me to cancel my AT&T iPhone plan, and have one phone instead of the current two (I have an AT&T iPhone which doesn’t work on my property, and a Verizon feature phone on a prepaid plan for when I’m on my property). The Verizon iPhone goes on pre-order tonight, and becomes available on the 10th.

23 thoughts on “Update on Project 31 Preparations

  1. I vote for using the wood stove for more cooking. Just crack a window (or many) if the heat becomes too much.

    For a slower burning fire, use the largest diameter wood you can find, hardwood if possible. Less surface area than multiple small pieces means a slower burn rate.

    Nice blog — very interesting!

  2. If your battery bank is 12V you can probably find a car adapter for your laptop and run it directly off the battery bank. That goes for about everything else you need to power too.. the inverter will use extra power and you don’t have a lot to spare with just 100W or so of collector. Most DC powered stuff is more efficient than AC anyway.

    • I think that’s generally true. The problem is, the 12V battery array is located in a clearing 100ft from my cabin where there’s good sunlight. If I go DC, I’d lose about as much power to 100ft of cable as I would to an inverter, and I need AC for my laptop (there aren’t any DC->DC car adapters for Apple MacBooks), and a few other appliances anyway. While DC is generally more efficient, getting DC versions of everything also gets expensive (for instance, a 12V car charger for my 18V power tool batteries alone would cost about $100, while the inverter only cost $50 more). Also, I use so little power that even with just 100W, I generate a surplus most of the time (assuming everything’s working). The math may work out differently for other folks, but for me, I think AC is cost effective, and the inefficiencies are acceptable.

      • True, but consider the following: You can use the inverter for occasional things like charging tool batteries. If you size the wire appropriately, you have less than 1% voltage drop with DC all the way to the house. Also, note that most good MPPT charge controllers will handle and perform better with an array voltage higher than the battery bank voltage. And that allows for an even smaller cable size. So if you got a second 100W panel making for a 200W array, you could possibly have it configured at 24V, that’s only 8A to size wire for. And your batteries would perform better and last longer in a warmer spot up against or in the house.

        Regarding the Mac.. there are a lot less power hungry devices out there that aren’t made by greedy multinational corporations that make things as simple as car adapters proprietary. My friend had an Asus Eee pc we clocked with a Kill-a-Watt at only using an average of 10 watts with a peak of about 18-20W. I just got one for myself off ebay for $100. Car adapters for them are under $10. My friend’s powered up and booted Ubuntu linux in a couple seconds. I only mention this because you said you’re planning to write a book… Well if it’s on the laptop, you’re going to be limited with 85W draw and only a 100W panel with winter sunlight.

        Btw.. If you haven’t stumbled onto this reference already I highly recommend it: http://www.sandia.gov/pv/docs/PDF/Stand%20Alone.pdf

  3. If you want to keep a small fire burning I think you need some sort of pump that blows air into it from the bottom. Maybe build something with some sort of relay that turns on and off a cheap inflatable mattress pump which has piping into a hole drilled into the bottom of your fire pit.

    • Actually, the stove does a fine job of sucking in its own air. In fact, I’m having a hard time throttling its air supply so that it doesn’t burn so hot/fast…

  4. On the woodstove…large diameter wood burns real slow like mentioned by David, so get the biggest piece you can stuff over active coals and give it a try. It keeps things moderate overnight and can be nice during the day when you’re in ‘n’ out a lot and don’t want to spend time feeding the stove. Hot water…any time I have a fire going I have a large bucket or large pan of water on the stove. It’s handy for household chores and also stores heat very well..come in with cold hands and wrap them around the bucket. Consider an outside regulated combustion air source. Caulk stove seams with heat resistant caulk…stops unregulated combustion air from entering the firebox. On cold days when I keep the stove lit, I often make a stew on the stovetop, and keep my coffee pot hot with plain water also for coffee singles, tea, instant soups.

    I have an automotive jumpstarter battery that goes everywhere with me…everywhere. It charges directly off a cigrette lighter plug in the vehicle, or off a seperate AC adapter. I use it for a backup for my laptop, I have a USB charge adapter for those devices, for a portable light (nite outhouse visits), with small inverter it runs a drill or sabresaw, for my dc water pump to draw water from my stream & push it thru my filter. Oh, and it can jump start the car too! If you’re out in the boonies, a dead car battery is a real bummer…it’s very handy.

    Good luck.

  5. You have a nice little home going there. I like it.

    One question though, why is the title A Laptop and a Rifle ?
    That Rifle appears to be a Marlin 39A – 22LR but it shows the wrong ammo next to it, they look like .223’s.

    In anycase, great job on the house.


  6. I have a Steri-pen which I use for making sure that water is clean for drinking. It kills the DNA of anything that might be in the water, so that I don’t have to boil water or use chemicals. It is an outstanding product.I bought mine through BatteryJunction on the net. It runs on AAA batteries…….my small house without facilities is in the Amazon and I have always needed to be supercareful of drinking water. I would encourage anyone living off the grid to have one : water can be made safe in less than two minutes.
    Also I have a Weza which stores electricity for things like cell phones: it is powered by foot! (also filled by ac in house) Excellent to have around the house here in the northeast of the USA too……for I can easily light up a room with it and a worklight, use a laptop for a very long time……etc. Janina

  7. With the power inverter, I know you have your heart set on AC, so I won’t try to change your mind. Just a few points though. First, this guy makes 3rd party mac 12 DC converters and is highly praised by the Technomadia folks. http://mikegyver.com/

    Two, you can save a lot of money by getting a modified sine inverter. Are you sure you need a full sine? The only things that will matter are items with AC motors (your battery powered tools don’t count) and AC Florescent lights. Something to think about.

    Data wise, my family (in our suburban home) has decided that the mifi was a better option. I personally prefer to use simpler phones (whatever is free with the plan), the mifi to our systems, a “lightweight” general computer (I have an Asus netbook with a Atom 450 processor, ~8 W power in general use, the wife uses a Samsung Galaxy Tab with wifi only, ~1W in general use), and a heavy weight which is reserved only for major needs (I have a Intel desktop which will be replaced with a Alienware 11″ when it dies, the wife a toshiba laptop). Maybe a similar plan will help you. You don’t get the trendy iphone though.

    Finally heatwise. A bit of thermal mass around your stove can help you by letting you burn short hot fires, but continue to get heat from them for several hours. something as simple as a 3 sided wall of scrap masonry will do wonders.

  8. As far as making sure your water supply does not make you ill you can do many things that will kill pathogens: Add some colloidal silver to your pitcher or a couple of drops of bleach, or boil it. Don’t count on the “filters” to kill the pathogens that could make you ill.

    Keep up the good work! Nice to see some fellow pioneers doing more than just talking…

    • I’m not really worried about pathogens, since I’m assuming rain/snow won’t pick up a whole lot of bacteria and viruses while it’s falling through the sky. Having said that, most of the water I end up consuming will be boiled anyway, since I rarely drink cold water this time of year.

  9. As far as phones go, the Mrs and I dropped AT&T after hurricane Ike. Verizon was spotty at Casa de Geek and during the hurricane we completly lost comms. Verizon customers had service from our area and we used their phones along with the VFD radios to communicate all across the county to coordinate relief efforts. Verizon earned lifetime customers that week.

    As for power, Have you considered getting a small wind turbine to back up the solar? In our area, when it is less than bright light it is usually windy because a storm is coming through. Just another potential source of power instead of buying more solar panels as backup.

    FOr charging and running various devices, you are right, line loss in trying to get 12VDC over that much distance at any sort of usable amperage would kill the efficiency. Putting an inverter with a remote enable switch in the house would be a good way to go. That way you could turn it on only when needed and you can do it from cabin 2.1

    • I’ve considered wind, and I don’t think it makes a lot of sense where I am. The cheap wind turbines seem to require 25mph+, which only get maybe once a month. The more expensive ones work with less wind, but don’t make sense financially.

  10. Your water plan is missing an easy-to-add element. The flitration will get the gunk out but may leave biological eleemnts (bacteria etc). You can solve this by adding
    1.333 oz bleach to every gallon of water. Let sit 30 minutes before drinking. (this is a pint for every 12 gallons).

    Bleach is cheap and you can even make your own from pool shock and water (more for saving transport and storage costs than to make purchase savings).

    You can pre-treat water and it will keep fine for a good long time, expecially if you store it in opaque containers, as light can break down the chlorine and eventually let the buggies repopulate.

  11. Hi, Ryo! You shouldn’t be too worried about bacteria, viruses or parasite. If you pick only recent snow from a clean place (i.e. your roof, or a plastic sheet), there should be no problem at all. Of course, there’s no thing like “risk-zero” but… who the hell wants a zero-risk life?

    • My thoughts exactly. I’d rather take the slight risk of drinking contaminated water, than ingest bleach as some have suggested. There are cases where bleach is warranted, but I don’t think this is it.

      • There is nothing wrong with ingesting some bleach, and you can get sodium hypochlorite solution that is made for potable water use, from camping stores etc.
        Calcium hypochlorite tablets are used sometimes, as they, unlike a solution of either hypochlorite, is stable over the long term.

        there are also inexpensive ultrafiltration units, or “candle” ceramic units are even cheaper. Like a lifebottle but a fraction of the rice.

  12. Just a cautionary note: Be VERY careful using any amount of charcoal indoors. It generates CO which is colorless, odorless and quite deadly. A good Carbon Monoxide detector won’t set you back too far. Better yet, keep up the wood consumption and work your way through the learning curve! Good luck with life!!

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