Project 31 Debrief

Around noon today, I officially concluded my 31 days of Project 31. I’m still here, though I’m no longer strictly adhering to the rules I’d setup for my month-long challenge. One of the first things I did was to start up my car, just to make sure the battery still had enough juice (I hadn’t bothered charging it during Project 31). It started up just fine, so I know I can get out any time I feel like it. About the only other change is that I’m back to drinking tap water I previously hauled in from town. I’m out of clean snowmelt, and I’m not entirely certain the months-old water I’ve been drinking for the last few days is actually all that clean.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be writing a few posts about Project 31, but in this post, I’ll report on how things ended up in terms of water, food, fuel, etc, etc.

I succeeded in meeting my goal of only using water I’ve harvested on my property. The weather was very cooperative, and despite weeks of completely dry weather leading up to Project 31, I got a nice snow storm on Day 0. All told, I got probably about 24 inches of snow during the first half of Project 31, so I was able to harvest plenty of snowmelt by packing snow into a pot and melting it on my wood stove every night. Most of the snow on the ground had disappeared by last week, but I had enough filtered snowmelt stored to last me up until 2-3 days ago, when I switched to my “backup” source: water from a bin I’ve had out for months. My stomach got a little upset yesterday, and I’m suspicious of the water. While snowmelt is unlikely to harbor biological contaminants, the water in that bin has been exposed to the elements for months, so it’s possible it might’ve picked up some bugs. The water I drank had been filtered previously and placed in an unmarked container, so it wasn’t until after I drank the water that I remember where it’d come from. In the future, I think I should be a little more careful about marking potentially contaminated water so I don’t forget to boil it first.

My food stores did remarkably well, and most things lasted far longer than I’d expected. I still have some fresh vegetables left (some potatoes, one red cabbage, a butternut squash, about a pound of brussels sprouts) , and ate the last of my fresh meat for dinner tonight. The only losses to spoilage were one zucchini, one sweet potato, and bits of a couple of tomatoes (most of which remained salvageable). So, considering how I didn’t use any refrigeration other than a couple of coolers, that’s not too bad. Of course, average temperatures of around or below freezing certainly helped keep things fresh.

I’m also happy with the variety of food I had. Even though I haven’t eaten out in a month, I’m not really craving anything, which is a bit surprising. I guess cravings, whether we know it or not, may often be triggered externally. For example, next time I go out to the city and see signs for all kinds of restaurants, I might suddenly crave fried chicken, or sushi, or chinese food, or greasy diner food, or…. But, here, away from such temptations, I’m perfectly happy with what I have/had.

In terms of quantity, as I’d initially predicted, I ended up with a surplus. I hardly touched any of the non-perishable foods, I still have a dozen eggs, a loaf of bred, a small stack of tortillas, most of a 2-pound block of cheese, an entire block of salted pork, and the vegetables I mentioned earlier. Overall, though, I’m glad I had an overabundance of fresh ingredients because the threat of spoilage compelled me to cook and eat fresh cooked meals. I wish I’d brought less meat, especially since I had so many eggs, and I think I could’ve done without bread. I was able to bake scones, so I’m pretty sure I would’ve been able to bake other bread-like substances as well, if I had to.

I started off with just my 100W solar panel, then setup the 45W panels part way in. For the most part, that was enough power, and my battery array generally stayed well above 12V, usually in the 12.3-12.6 range. That all changed in the last week, when I started spending a lot more time on my laptop to follow the news from Japan and keep in touch with my family. It’s also been mostly overcast this past week, so with those two factors combined, my power deficit skyrocketed. I decided not bother conserving power too much because I knew Project 31 was almost over, and estimated that I had enough reserve power in my battery arrays. My estimation was off by a day, and my battery array got down to 11V last night, at which point my inverter shut down. Mostly, that just meant I had to stop using my laptop, and to some degree, that was a quality of life improvement. I lit candles, switched to battery-powered lights, listened to music on my battery-powered iPod speakers, and read a book instead of obsessing over the news.

At this point, I think there are two ways to think about this power outage on my last day. Most people will probably say that I ran out of power. The other way to think about it is that I used too much power. The solution changes depending on which perspective you take. If I ran out of power, then I need more power (i.e. add more generating capacity). But if I’d used too much power, the solution is to simply use less. I’ve considered getting something like an iPad, which would use less power than a laptop. Ironically, though, for the price of an iPad, I could buy another 200 Watts of solar panels. The third option is to buy neither, continue to use my laptop, but to use it less. So, actually, there are 3 options: increase efficiency (buy an iPad), increase energy supply (buy more PV), reduce consumption (read more books).

Gasoline – Didn’t use a drop. Yay!

Propane – Used about 2.5lb, so a little more than my goal of 2lb.

Heating – Only burned wood from my property. I ran out of chopped wood in the last week, but had plenty of wood in 2-3ft lengths stashed under my hut that I had to cut to 6-8″ lengths. It’s been too wet for the last couple of weeks to harvest more wood, though there were a few days in the middle when I was able to shore up my supplies. Using my cordless saw to chop wood became a problem towards the end though, when I started running low on power. I’ll definitely be getting a bow saw, as many readers suggested.

Hut 2.1 proved to provide adequate shelter during this very wintery month. During Project 31, there were 3 winter storms, with snow accumulation up to 16 inches, temperatures down to -10F, and winds gusting up to 45mph. Through it all, Hut 2.1 kept me warm, dry and happy, and that’s about all you could ask for from a home.

Improvements made during Project 31 include the raised insulated floor, the kitchen, and a desk. The only major project I didn’t get around to was the kitchen sink. I’d originally planned on putting a bathroom inside Hut 2.1, but decided that I’d rather have more open space in the hut than a bathroom. The outdoor composting toilet suffices for now, though I might put a roof over it so I don’t have to do my business in the snow.

I was somewhat ambivalent towards having an internet connection for most of Project 31. On the one hand, it allowed me to update my blog and upload pictures. I also occasionally chatted with friends, and I think that was enough to keep me from getting lonely. On the other hand, I ended up spending way more time on my laptop than I would’ve liked. I read far fewer books, and probably spent less time outside than I would’ve otherwise.

During this past week, though, I’m glad I had an internet connection, even if I used it to follow news a bit more obsessively than was probably necessary. If I were out here without access to information, I probably still would’ve heard about the earthquake and the nuclear disaster, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to date, and I know that would’ve driven me nuts. I’m also glad I was able to stay in touch with my family. I can’t think of another time when I exchanged as many emails and Skype calls with my family as I did this past week.

Over all, I think I’ll keep the internet connection, and try to find other ways to moderate/regulate my usage. So, this is an open problem for now.

Personal hygiene is overrated. I took a shower once during Project 31, when it got warm and I got a little sweaty. But, other than that, I haven’t really had the desire to bathe. I don’t know of any other animal that bathes obsessively like humans do, and frankly, I don’t think it’s actually healthy. In my experience, there are 3 parts of your body you need to keep clean: your feet, your hands, and your mouth. If left alone, your feet can practically rot away, dirty hands could be a problem if you use them to eat or prepare food, and you’ll lose your teeth if you don’t brush and floss regularly. But just about everything else takes care of itself.

Other thoughts
… will be posted in another post. My laptop is almost out of power, so I’m just going to post this.

21 thoughts on “Project 31 Debrief

  1. internet. I think that if it were spring summer fall your internet use would be less as you would be outside more.
    power. it would be less as you would have more light from the envireoment.
    bow saw. yes!
    more power and deeper reserve is a definite in my book .
    I really enjoyed reading of your journey , thanks
    learning how to live small is a great education

  2. Congratulations Ryo! And thanks for sharing, you have identified many of the really important things in life, may we all learn as much as you have. Reflection, above all.

  3. Congrats on accomplishing your goal, and many thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts with all of us. I’m curious about what part of so-called “civilization” did you miss the most?

    This summer, I hope to find a property in northern Ontario, and spend most of the year up there. It may be a while before I am ready to spend a winter there (due to the -40° winters), but your experiences with -10°F temperatures has suggested that it might be possible for me to stay year-round. My situation will be slightly different than yours — I already live in a 22-foot RV trailer, so I am thinking of building a heated “garage/workshop” to park the trailer in, and live in the trailer inside the garage.

    At one point, didn’t you mention that one of your goals was to produce only one bag of garbage? I didn’t see that mentioned in your summary; were you able to achieve this (hopefully without needing to burn plastic)?

  4. A radio am/fm/sw is great for news and uses much less power than a laptop. Good for keeping ya company. Great project.

  5. Ryo,
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your narration of your adventures. I have a yearning to do similar things in a small home of my own and reading of the positive and negative experiences you have had give me much to ponder. Bravo! for your successful project. May you go on to more adventure in your quest of life!

  6. Congrats!

    I have an ipad, i am using it now. I used to keep the laptop beside the bed for surfing/reading before bed. Since i switched to my ipad, my hydrdo bills have noticably decreased, not tonnes of money, but i can actually see the difference. As for the idea of an ipad, with the version 2 out, i and apple dropping new prices on the v1, used ones should be getting cheap, a simple 16 gb wifi only model would be pretty affordable.

    Good thinking on the “using too much/running out” logic. Smplify your life and you will have power to spare!

  7. Congrats on making your goal.

    Thanks and keep up the good work. As far as your power situation, I did some quick math and it seems to me that you’d be far better off expanding your battery bank first then add more solar cells as your economic situation improves. I’d still add some sort of wind generation capability on top of your solar cells. Yes, windchargers are a pain in the posterior but they can work 24/7 even in a slight breeze, where as solar cells are only average 6 hours max potential a day.

  8. Nice work! I personally would love to take 31 days off of work to try this but the wife insists that I need to pay the bills! With the woodstove you always have/had the ability to wash..before we got our tankless propane water heater we would boil water on the stove..and with all that snow you had lots of water! As you mentioned, hygene is not the most important thing when you are alone but I thought I would mention it anyway! Also, check out on can get some small 90w turbines for under $100 if you look around..nice for those nights when you want some juice!

  9. You know, I was with you all the way until you got to the bit about washing. As far as I’m concerned, civilisation begins and ends with hot wash water. I also don’t want to live forever alone in a hut.

    Congrats on making it through the project.

  10. Congratulation on making it for the full 31 days. I would be interested in knowing how you adapt when you re-enter civilization as we know it.
    As for the toilet, just build a shed around it, putting it in the cabin would require some type of ventilation I would think.
    The power issue towards the end of the 31 days I can relate to, I live in a house that is 2/3 rd’s run off solar. When we have rainy days like today it means no tv for the kid to save on the batteries.
    Have you made any plans as to what is next in your life?


  11. Delighted to have followed your postings during Project 31, and will continue to follow your blog. I have a question. In your view of using less power, how much is too much? That is, with the solar setup you have, what items were you running off that electric and for how long each day? I’m curious because as I look down the road toward my own future, a cabin in the woods is sounding very tempting.

  12. Great blog (I found it through your KickStarter which I also think is great). I just had a question about your battery usage. You said you let the (assuming deep cycle) batteries run low and at 11v the inverter shut off. My inverter, too, will shut off at 11v. I’m not an electronics guy, but doesn’t that mean your battery bank was close to 0% and that it has irrevocably harmed the batteries to get that low? If that’s the case, I wonder why inverters don’t have a higher shut off rate – mines not controllable either.

    • Inverters and other 12V devices shut themselves off at 11V (or lower) to prevent discharging the battery completely. Note that it’s the devices shutting themselves off; not the batteries “running out” of power. If the load didn’t shut off itself, 12V batteries will continue to discharge down to 8V and below, and that’s when damage occurs.

        • According to that page, they treat 10.5V as “0% of usable power”. But that doesn’t mean a battery will stop outputting power at 10.5V. It just means, according to the site, you shouldn’t consider anything below 10.5V as usable power. The amount of damage that occurs also depends on the battery type, temperature, frequency, and other factors. Discharges down to 10.5V will decrease capacity, but it won’t kill the battery outright (especially not if it’s a deep cycle or AGM battery). Sometimes you want that extra bit of power (say, in an emergency) even if you’re sacrificing battery life in exchange. Imagine you’re in a sailboat in an emergency. Which would you sacrifice: power for your radio, or battery life? If it were me, I’d run the battery down until there simply wasn’t enough power to operate the radio, which might be way below 11V.

  13. We built a super insulated solar home and moved in in 1984.
    We had 5,000 sq ft of organic garden, that I fed with compost from grass clippings. The strawberries were the most work. In contrast 100 apple trees were little work. We had chickens and other animals the time we lived there until 1999. Both my wife and I are electrical engineers. In 2000 we were in Sendai for 3 weeks at her parent’s cabin on the beach. I have hundreds of guns, but most are just piles of parts that are a work in progress.

    I used to think that more land would make me happy, but..
    Happiness is not as much where you are, but more who you are with and what you are doing.

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