Off-Grid Water and the New Pumphouse

As we get ready to build our new home, we are trying to get the infrastructure in place before all the REAL construction starts.  The septic tank is in place, as is our well.  We have an orchard that is already producing fruit, a temporary garden site, a place to live on site while we build the house, and a gravel driveway with lots of gravel.

One of the last things we need to do is build a house to enclose our well head, the water storage tank, a booster pump and a pressure tank.  A lot of people don’t enclose these components, and that’s okay, but we want everything to last as long as possible and we also want a safe, clean water supply. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors are a bit shady, so we don’t want any of our equipment to go missing.  We also won’t have to worry as much about someone or something fouling up our well.

Ray built this water tower a few years ago, and it works very well giving us enough pressure to run a hose, flush a toilet or take a shower. Unfortunately, California Code Book says we can’t use it for our new home. 🙁

Being off-grid, we have had some challenges figuring out a system that is both energy efficient and will also pass California’s over-bearing and unnecessarily strict building codes.  You see, we really wanted to just use gravity fed water drawn from the wonderful water tower that Ray built some years ago. Unfortunately, we are required to install fire suppression water sprinklers in our home, which requires that a certain water pressure be maintained for a certain amount of time, and the water tower cannot supply this requirement.

Not only do we have to pay for this unwanted fire suppression water sprinklers (about $5,000 is the cheapest quote we have received thus far), but we also have to pay for the booster pump, pressure tank and all the necessary extra solar panels, batteries and wiring to support them.  Harrumph!

Why don’t we want the sprinklers?  Because, so far, we have heard of more insurance claims from damage caused by frozen sprinkler pipes (we live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains) bursting in the winter than we have heard of homes saved by the fire sprinklers.  Besides, we are also are required to have a fairly expensive smoke detector system that is integrated within the system.  Also California Code. Also a lot of money.

A lot. 🙁

We decided to build the pump house just like we built our tool shed (which we turned into our bunk house), with a concrete slab upon which two levels of concrete brick will be mortared, then the rest with framework of 2 x 6’s, and finally a metal roof.  Of course, the first thing we had to do was figure out where the building would be built!  We knew we wanted to include the original concrete slab that surrounded the well head.  It took a while to figure the best orientation: where a window would go and which way the ridge of the roof would run.  We also needed to decide how big the building would be.  We didn’t want it to be too big, but at least big enough to be able to move around inside to work on components and turn on/off switches and/or faucets.

Building an Off-Grid Pump House

Figuring out where to put the pump house, and how many concrete blocks will be needed.

We started out framing with 2 x 6’s for the concrete slab, because we wanted about 2 inches of gravel with about a 4 inch thick slab for the floor.  Ray figured out a system of Off-Grid Pressurized Water Systempipes and faucets and such, which were all imbedded into the concrete slab.  Since the slab was going to be fairly large, we decided to pour half of it one day, wait a day for the first pour to set up, then finish the slab with another pour.  So glad we did this because we hand mixed in a wheelbarrow a total of 52 bags of cement!  My back is aching!  As you can see in the picture to the left, we set rebar into the concrete along the edges, that will tie into the concrete block and make the block wall more sturdy.  Pressurized Water Off-Grid

The PVC pipes for two faucets and the household water supply pipe, along with electrical conduit for two wires was buried in the gravel under the concrete.  With everything either being in walls or underground within the building, we are hoping none of them freeze. One of the wires goes from the solar panels to the pump, and the other wire is actually a sensor wire. The sensor wire will be placed inside the water storage tank and trips the solar pump off when the tank is full.  Our pump is a really cool brushless pump, with a direct current motor that we bought from Advanced Power Inc. (previously called Robison Pumps) and runs on solar, batteries or generator.  Perfect for off-grid applications.

Cool, huh?

Once the entire concrete slab was poured, we next needed to set the concrete block.  We used 6 inch wide block (it also comes in 8 inch wide) because we plan to use 2 x 6 lumber for the framing, which would make the whole building look more uniform.  At least that’s the plan!

Setting concrete blocks is not easy work, but Ray had a bit of experience from being a hod boy for his step-father when he was young, and we have completed several projects over the years with concrete block and also clay brick.  Working with the concrete blocks and mortar, I must say, is nasty stuff – especially if you don’t have good gloves!  I ended up losing the skin on some of my fingers when it was all said and done, from the lye in the mortar mix!  Seriously…  I could rob a bank because I don’t have fingerprints right now!   Hahahaha…

Fortunately, we were able to get the two rows done in just a few day’s work.Water Systems Off-The Grid

Once the block walls were up, we had to fill the voids with concrete.  Not only does this make the walls more stable, but the concrete holds in the J-bolts, which will eventually Pressurized Off-Grid Waterhold down the sill plate, which holds down the framework.  In the picture above, you can see a loose J-bolt, and another one imbedded into the concrete.  You have to leave enough of the J-bolt above the concrete so that the sill plate will fit over, and the bolt will have enough room to tighten down.  You can see in the picture to the left how we filled each void in the concrete block with cement.  It’s not pretty, but it works, and the sill plate covers everything anyway, so you will never see this view again!

The best part?  All of the cement/mortar work on the pump house is done!  Wahoo.  Now I can grow my fingerprints back again.  😉

Finally, Ray set the sill plate.  He had to drill holes for all the pipes and bolts that intruded through the board.  The boards were put on right after we had finished filling the concrete voids of the wall, so that the pipes would be held in the correct position as the concrete cured.  With the sill plates attached, we are now ready to start framing the walls.

We were so excited when John at Precision Pump and his two apprentices placed the rest of our equipment!  These guys are professionals and had the entire system up and running in no time!  We got a Gould Booster Pump and an Amtrol Pressure tank – both American made, which is important to us.  You can see the schematic of our system in the picture below.  As always, you can click on a picture for a better view.How to get pressurized water off-grid

The water is pumped from the well by a solar pump, and flows into the water storage tank.  You can see the blue ball valve in the line between the well head and the water storage tank.  That stops the flow of the water into the storage tank so that the water can flow through the faucet in the picture that says “unpressurized water from well pump to faucet”.  Of couse, there is a little bit of pressure, just not a whole lot.  The upright PVC pipe at the upper left corner is where the electricity comes in from the solar panels and powers the solar pump.

The other faucet is fed by the pressurized tank.  Now look at the square of rock in the lower right corner of the concrete slab, where two PVC pipes disappear.  The skinny pipe is the one that leads to the pressurized water faucet.  The larger pipe will lead down the hill to our home.  We don’t want to trench and set the line for that until most of the heavy construction is done, for obvious reasons.

Building off-grid water system with pressure

The upper red circle shows where the electricity for the booster pump comes in from under the concrete. The electricity will come from the household solar system. Follow the red line to the pressure switch – the gray box – inside the second red circle. This controls the booster pump turning on and off, based on the pressure within the pressure tank. Following the red line around brings you to the booster pump, the blue thingy.

What happens is the booster pump will be fed by electricity from the solar system that will be placed on the roof of our house.  It pumps water from the water storage tank into the pressure tank, the big off-white thing next to it.  The pressure tank is what gives us enough pressure for household use and brings up to code for our future fire suppression sprinklers.  The booster pump runs on 110 and is 1-1/2 horse, which was important to us since we are off-grid, and keeps the pressure tank between 30 to 50 pounds of pressure.

household off-grid pressurized system

This picture shows where the electrical comes out (or goes into) from under the concrete in the pump house. The line on the left is from the solar panels that power the actual well pump. The one on the right is coming from our future household solar system, that will be on our roof. Once the heavy work is done on the house, we will trench and place the conduit with the wires, along with the 2″ PVC pipe for the water for the house.

In the meantime, as we are living in our travel trailer and small bunk house, we hooked up this system to the trailer and – WOW.  The pressure is absolutely wonderful!  I can actually rinse all the shampoo out of my thick hair now!  Whoopeeeee!

Now…   on to framing!

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Update on our Building Plans

Yes.  I know.  I haven’t posted anything for a while.

We have been busy, busy, busy.

Yeah – snow.   Yippee… not!                          But seriously, the winter that we stay up here the whole time in our tiny cottage, we have had record rain and lots of snow!


We have also had lots of rain and snow, computer problems (darn hackers), along with limited data availability to blog because we are using up all our data researching stuff for our new home!

We are preparing to submit our plans for the second time to the plan checker for our county soon. We are building with a product called Faswall, which is an alternative building product, so the county is being a bit nit-picky with their code requirements.  The only thing holding us up right now are the corrections for electrical plans.  We gave them to the guy we thought was going to be our contractor about a month ago who said he would do the corrections for us, but he has yet to get back to us on them. Perhaps this is a sign that we shouldn’t hire him.  The electrical plans were mostly done the first time we submitted.  So, to keep the ball rolling, we are contacting another guy to see how much he will charge to complete the electrical plans for us. Harrumph!The newest house plans

In the meantime, we have been doing a lot of planning and shopping and dreaming.  First, we saw this building in Sonora, California, that we just fell in love with!  Since we will have quite a bit of retaining wall, built with concrete block, we really liked how it looked with the gray brick.  Stunning!  So, we went searching for gray brick to use as wainscotting on the outside of the house, accents for the top of the retaining walls and bricking up some columns.  We will also use the brick for the facing of the masonry heater inside.

Believe it or not, even though gray is becoming one of the more traditional colors for brick, we had a hard time finding some. We finally found this brick at a brick yard in South Sacramento.  It doesn’t have the variegation of light and dark gray that I like in the picture above, but it does have some variety and it is fairly rustic looking, so I think this is what we will end up with!

Gray Brick

I think it’s beautiful, what do you think?

Then, while in Sacramento, we went to IKEA to shop around looked at their kitchen cabinets.  My sister remodeled her home a few years ago, and used IKEA cabinets in her kitchen and has been very happy with them.  In fact, I helped put her cabinets together! Since we are building our home on a strict budget, the cabinets are fairly easy for the do-it-yourselfer to install, and they wear well, we are ALMOST certain we will use these.  In fact, here is a computerized picture I drew up on their website tool of what our kitchen could look like with the IKEA cabinets.

I love the way this kitchen looks. Gray cabinets, classic subway tile backsplash, medium brown wood floors.  The range, refrigerator, vent hood and dishwasher will all be stainless steel.

The only problem is that we haven’t decided what color to use.  The style of this cabinet comes in gray or off-white.  I know that gray cabinets are becoming all the rage, which is one reason I am reticent to use them, but we only have one window in the kitchen, and that window faces north and is covered with 12 feet of patio cover, which would make the kitchen fairly dark.  Yes, we are installing one of those solar tube thingys (don’t know which one, yet) over the kitchen island, but with dark wood floors and gray cabinets, we are afraid that the kitchen would be just too dark!

Old kitchen

I loved my old kitchen in the valley. This is a picture of the breakfast nook right next to the kitchen, which shows the white cabinets and wood floor. I am thinking that white cabinets might actually be the way to go,.

Now, the truth is that I love white kitchen cabinets.  I had white cabinets in the house we had before we move up here to our homestead and absolutely loved them!  We had medium dark brown laminate floors and I was obsessed with that combination. The problem?  I want a farmhouse sink.  The one IKEA sells.  The farmhouse sink is white white but the cabinets are just slightly off-white.  Yes, IKEA sells cabinets that are white white and would look good with the sink, it’s just that the style of the white-white cabinets are not mine.  They are just too modern for me.  I am more of a traditional gal.  Wood stained cabinets?  Well…  I don’t think they would look good with wood floors.  Too much wood for me.

What would you do?  I could sure use some advice on this one!

Another decision we have been researching (and researching) is the solar system that will power our off-grid house.  We attended a large “home show” in Sacramento, CA and a smaller one in Chico, CA and talked with quite a few solar companies.  Let me tell you, about 95% of the solar companies out there are for grid tied options only…  they don’t do off-grid.  In fact, some of the smaller companies who said they would do off grid didn’t know as much about off-grid solar as we do! When we started asking them questions about their systems and they talked to us about micro-inverters, we learned to politely walk away.  You don’t use microinverters in an off-grid application.  One guy even tried to tell us he would use the new Tesla Powerwall.  Well…  Um…  No.  We talked with Tesla representative last fall (after being on their list for almost a year!) and the Powerwall is NOT to be used for an off-grid application.  We politely walked away from that guy also. We have been dabbling with solar power on the homestead for several years now. We are running a 5 cubic foot freezer, our satellite TV receiver, flat screen TV, lights, a small refrigerator, and laptop and cellphone charges on a less than 1 kilowatt system with some generator back-up. (SEE HERE and HERE) We did find four companies that we feel would do a good job with our solar system, so to get a fair bid, we are asking each to give us a 4 kWh system to include everything needed for a complete off-grid situation, along with installation on a two story standing seam metal roof.  So far we have received only one bid.  We have also seen some pretty nice solar electric “kits” at online stores.  Renology is an online alternative energy store that has quite a few off-grid options.  Here is one we like:   renogy-4500-watt-48-volt-monocrystalline-solar-cabin-kit.  Another company Wholesalesolar has kit that is a bit more expensive, but may be more complete as it includes mounting racks: the-lodge-4.68-kw-18-panel-astronergy-off-grid-solar-system.  Of course, we would have to hire an electrician to hook it up for us, and that would add to the cost, so before we were to commit to something like that we would also need to get a quote for installation.  Plus, we would still have the cost of the batteries to back-up the whole system.

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

Right now we are also in the process of building a shed over our water well so that it can enclose the well head, a 500 gallon holding tank, a pressure pump and a booster pump.

You can see where the actual well head is with the concrete surrounding it. We plan to incorporate the concrete in a larger slab about 8 x 10, that will house all the pieces and parts of our water system that will supply both our house and our fire sprinkler system.

We had a local contractor (he is a fire sprinkler installer) give us a quote on a system he would install for us, including the water requirements (pump, booster pump, holding tank, pressure pump) and the requirements for the sprinkler system.  He said he would use all USA manufactured parts (something we desire if at all possible) and explained what we would need for the whole system to be up to code.  This is a bit tricky because of the required fire sprinkler system in our house which has certain pressure requirements, along with the water for the house.  Well, believe it or not, he lied to us about what we would need! He gave us the cadillac system with integrated this and that, and told us that it was code. When we called the county to verify, we realized that the chump was trying to over-sell us!  Arrrrruuuuugggggghhhhh! That was about two months ago. We found a company from a neighboring town who will do the job for a lot less. Then we had a local pump and well guy come up that said he could install just the water system (not the fire sprinkler system) and would send the quote on-line in a week or so, but never did. That was over a month ago. We don’t want that quote anymore.  ;(

What is with these guys?  Apparently we are on mountain time!

We found another guy who actually showed up when he was supposed to, gave us a quote we liked, lowered the quote because we are doing some of the work ourselves, and has returned every single one of our phone calls.  I will be proud to recommend him for any locals and I will show you his work when he is done.

So, let me know what you would do about the kitchen cabinets.  I had a friend suggest “kitchens to go” or something like that, so I will be doing more research into that during these next few weeks. Also, I have found a few possibilities at both Home Depot and Lowes.  Even though we haven’t even broken ground yet, I am researching these things now so we have a better idea of the costs involved.  Hopefully we will also be hearing from a few of the other solar companies we have contacted and will get some reasonable bids. There is one company I hope comes in with a great bid because the owner, Loren, has some other very innovative ideas regarding water heating along with the solar electric.

Okay – so now you are pretty much up to date with our lives at this point!  Please leave a comment if you have any ideas, questions, comments…  just click on the comment bubble next to the title of this post, but keep it family friendly, please!

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A Solar Powered Freezer

Living in our travel trailer, off-grid, has presented quite a few challenges.

First, there isn’t enough storage space.  We have had to be quite ingenious in finding ways to store things we need for our everyday living.  But one thing we just didn’t have enough space for was food.  Sure, we have a closet for our canned and boxed goods, but the little refrigerator/freezer in our travel trailer just wasn’t going to cut it!  Especially if we didn’t want to have to run to town every week!

We decided to see if we could find a very energy efficient freezer to store our food. After a few google searches we found an Igloo 5.1 cubic foot chest freezer for sale at Best Buy.  Sure, there were a couple freezers that were more energy efficient, but they cost lots more – one of them almost eighteen hundred dollars more!  So, we had a choice:  do we spend money on a beefy solar system to run an energy efficient freezer, or spend more money on a more efficient freezer and less on the panels.  We opted to spend the money on solar panels.

Why didn’t we use a propane freezer?  Well, what if there came a time when we couldn’t get into town for more propane?  What would we do then?  What if the SHTF and no propane was available…  at all? Besides, propane is a petroleum product and we are trying to use the least amount of fossil fuels as possible here on our homestead.

So, back to the electric Igloo freezer.  Here is the Energy Star Guide for this freezer:A freezer run on solar power

Do you see that it only costs twenty-one dollars a year to run this appliance?  Holy Cow, that’s less than two dollars a month!  At just 172 kilowatt hours per year to run this freezer, we figured it couldn’t be too hard to set up a solar system to run the freezer.

With that in mind, we bought the freezer.  Ray did some more on-line research and found a company called “Windy Nation” that sells solar panels, charge controllers, inverters – just about anything you would need to set up an efficiently run solar system.  They put together entire “kits” – all you have to do is tell them what appliance you want to run and how many watts would be required to run the appliance (or appliances). Their customer service department is excellent and they have guys that will give you installation advice over the phone.  With a smile!  It’s rare to find good customer service these days.

When we got the panels (in just a few days) and unpacked them, we were very pleased!  They were just what we needed.

The first thing Ray had to do was to build the tower that the panels would rest upon.  Fortunately, we just had some very tall oak trees removed so that our fruit orchard would receive more sunlight, and sunlight (of course) is good for solar panels!   Ray built the tower next to our tool shed with redwood treated 4” x 4” posts set in concrete for stability and 2” x 4” lumber for tie-ins and support.

How to run a freezer with solar panels

Here Ray has two of the panels up. The tree to the right was rotting, so Ray put the dish and the smaller solar panel on the new tower also.  The smaller solar panel runs the lights in the tool shed.

Once the panels were mounted on the solar tower, they had to be kept covered so that they would not receive any sunlight.  Why?  So Ray wouldn’t get shocked when he was setting up the rest of the system!

how to run a freezer off grid

Here are the charge controller, inverter, batteries and the freezer.

Do you remember our laundry shed?  Well, there was some room left in there, so we put the freezer, the charge controller, inverter and the batteries in there.  Ray built a shelf for all the components right next to the freezer, with the batteries at the very bottom.

The specifics:

We bought four – 100 watt polycrystalline solar panels,  100 feet of 12 gauge wire (made for solar), a 1500 Watt inverter and a 40 Amp charge controller.  The batteries are deep cycle marine “Die Hards” from Sears. The batteries were wired in parallel for 12 volt, which was then inverted to 110 volts for the freezer.  We also have a 50 Amp auto-reset circuit breaker on the wires coming from the solar panels before they go into the charge controller, for safety’s sake.  And for just in case, Ray put 3 feet of a copper pipe into the ground with grounding wire, so the charge controller and inverter won’t blow up if the line gets a surge.

How to electrify a freezer off-grid

Here is a better picture of the charge controller and the inverter. Good stuff, Maynard!

How does it work?  Beautifully!

We have been using it for about three months now and have had no problems!  I recently bought 36 pounds of bacon and 40 pounds of chicken breasts from Zaycon Foods.  (If you have never heard of Zaycon Foods, you’re missing out!)  After just a day in the freezer they were frozen solid!

I mean  S.  O.  L.  I.  D.

how to power a freezer off-grid

The freezer is almost full already! Of course, a full freezer uses less energy than one half-full.

“So”, you may ask, “what happens in the winter when the sun doesn’t shine as much?”

Good question.

You see, during the summer we get plenty of sun, which I suppose you already know.  Lots of sunlight = lots of solar power to run the freezer, right?  Right!  But it is also warmer and so the freezer has to run more to keep the food frozen.

However, in the winter the outside temperature is much colder, so the freezer doesn’t have to run as much, which is great because there isn’t as much sunlight to charge the batteries!

It’s a beautiful system, isn’t it?

We are learning a lot about solar systems.  Well,  Ray is.  I still get volts and amps and all that mumbo-jumbo jargon confused!  When we build our new home, we plan to run almost everything with solar power.  All the lights in the house will be LED, we will use an energy efficient refrigerator (no icemakers, digital displays, etc.), and a whole house fan and ceiling fans instead of air conditioners.  Also, we have put our name on the long list for one of those new Tesla batteries!

How to run a freezer with solar power

The solar power tower! The four big panels run the freezer. The two small batteries on the bottom are for the motion detector lights on the outhouse. The panel on the very top runs lights in the tool shed. Of course, the Dish is for our TV!

Our goal is to be completely independent of any need for outside energy – eventually.  At this time, the oven/range in the house will be run on propane. With no vampire lights.

“What are vampire lights?” you ask.  Those are the little digital read-outs (time, timer, temperature, etc.) that can be found on your range/oven, refrigerator, microwave, etc.  You would be amazed at how much energy these little lights use over the course of a year!   The range we have decided to buy is made by Premier.  You can see it by clicking HERE.  We will also be installing a hybrid solar/propane tankless hot water system.  But that’s just about it in terms of using fossil fuels for our new home.  Of course, if we can’t get our hands on propane, or if the price skyrockets out of our reach, we can always cook on our outside barbeque grill, bake in our future pizza/bread oven or even cook/bake during the winter in our masonry heater.  These are all future projects and we can’t wait to tackle them!


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