Another Approach to Underground Construction

Another friend of mine sent this link on to me thinking I might be interested since I already live underground. This concept looks really interesting – I might even try it sometime. I have not seen it done yet so I am not familiar with all the pros and cons, but it looks interesting and viable, so I thought I would post it for your consideration. Enjoy!

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Another Use for Containers

A friend of mine posted this article to my FaceBook page and I thought I would pass it along to those of you who I know are interested in using containers for structural components. Enjoy!

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Shipping Container Homes

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Thoughts on Property Location

I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of my thoughts on what to look for when you decide to start looking for a piece of land on which to start your homestead. There are several things that will either make or break your success.

One thing I would pay more attention to the next time we start a project is to determine which government I would be under. I have found that there are some local, regional and national government systems that are very overbearing in regards to what they will let you do with YOUR land and others that are much more easy going and less restrictive. I would want to find an area that is less restrictive. Lower taxes would be nice too. It would be even better if the property prices were low too. A bit of research can help identify places where these conditions exist.

Personally, I would also look into the weather patterns of an area that I was interested in. I believe that agriculture is important in a sustainable homestead, so you want to make sure the weather is going to be favorable to facilitate a reasonable growing season. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have the perfect climate, just one that works. Also make sure it’s a climate that works for you. If you don’t like humidity, don’t settle for an area that is humid. If you don’t like snow, don’t go there. Really do your homework in this area, because once you are invested and building, it’s going to be hard to change course.

I think that another very important consideration is the availability of water. Water can come from several sources. A good well is great, all the better if the property that you are considering has a well in place so you don’t have to roll the dice. At least be in an area that has good wells around. A river or stream can also serve as a good source of water, as long as they are year around. You may have to filter this water for drinking purposes to ensure health safety. A spring can also give you a good source; just check to make sure of the quality and quantity.

While we are talking about water, another aspect of water supply is the presence of various minerals within the water as well as the hardness or softness of the water. Some water sources we have seen have so much iron present that it actually turns white clothing brown. Talking to the local people and well drillers will help you uncover any problems and their possible solutions – or at least help make up your mind that the area is not for you.

Some people buy land that they have to haul water to, but I think this makes things much more expensive in the long run and takes a lot of time to keep things going. I would strongly discourage this as an option. I have a friend that has information on collecting water out of the air through a device you can buy, but this again seems to be expensive and brings one more uncertainty into the equation.

Since I am partial to staying off grid, I would recommend that the land you are considering has some good southern exposure for solar panels. Make sure that you have shading from trees accounted for. Recently while I was in Australia, I learned that you want northern exposure when you are south of the equator. Since some of you are reading this from other countries than the USA, I thought I’d better throw that information in.

It is good to have land that is not in a flood plain where high water becomes a problem if not outright threat to life and property. Our property is sloped and has enough elevation above the valley floor that any flood will not be a problem. The slope on our property also gave us the advantage of building our underground home by digging into the side of the hill. At times I wish we had a little less slope for some of our visitors that have walking issues. You will need to balance out the slope so that it fits your situation. At least make sure you consider the slope before you make your final decision. Even if you have a flat piece of land, you can still do an underground home by bringing the surrounding earth up over the containers. I mention this in the book : Off Grid and Underground – Book Order       Just make sure you maintain good drainage.

The price is also going to affect where you buy your land. It’s amazing how the same piece of land is going to cost vastly different depending on the location. This is another area where research will help you out. A couple of good realtors in different areas could also assist you in making a good find.

Soil conditions and varmints are also something you want to consider but are not necessarily a deal breaker. The use of technologies such as aquaponics or hydroponics can neutralize many of these issues. I give some links to some of these sources in the book as well.  The stability of the soil is another part of the soil condition. The amount of rocks and rock layers should also be a part of the soil considerations. Some rocks can be good and the right depth of rock layer can be good, but some of these conditions can be deal breakers as well. Talk to some of the local people and find out what the challenges are.

If you are going to be off grid but still want to have some form of communication, one idea is to be within a cell phone tower range. We are in range (barely) and so we are able to have phone and computer access while remaining fairly remote. Sometimes we have to go to that certain spot on the property to make a call, but at least we have the communication. Other people have regular days they go into town to do their communication stuff. You just need to decide what level you want and keep that under consideration as you search for your homestead.

I hope this gives you some ideas to work with and consider as you begin your search for that little bit of heaven you can call home.

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Thoughts on Water Systems

I wanted to take some time to look at several ways to plan your water system. First of all, I would recommend that you establish your own water source that is independent of any metropolitan system if at all possible. Having your own well, spring, creek or river frontage is the best way of securing that you have water when you need it without the limitations that a metropolitan system usually carries with it. I have seen some systems that depend on rain catchment as well. Just think about being able to have water whenever you need it without it being turned off by someone or something.

I will use our system as an example and you can extrapolate off of those ideas. In our case, we have a well. We have been blessed with an abundant well, and even in the middle of our current California drought, we have plenty of water to use. Our land has a slope to it so we decided that we would design a gravity fed system so that we have the minimum number of moving parts and pumps that makes for a system that is easy to maintain.

Different properties will present different challenges. For instance, if you have a flat piece of land, then a gravity system is going to require a water tower of some sort that will require a strong well braced structure to support it. This will be an extra cost, and at that point, you will need to calculate the difference in cost to see if a tower structure is worth the price. It may or may not. If you have a sloped piece like ours, then it is much easier to make a gravity system.

The principle of a gravity system is that for every 100 feet of elevation drop, there is a buildup of 45 pounds per square inch pressure. Most city systems offer about that much pressure in their feed lines so if you can set a tank 100 feet above your home site, you will have the same pressure. Many times, as was in our case, we only had about 50 feet of elevation drop so we only have about 22 pounds pressure. We have found that we can live with that. In our orchard and garden irrigation, we have found low pressure sprinkler heads that work quite well on this lower pressure.

One of the places we needed more pressure was in our hot water circuit. We use an instant/continuous water heater that will not run on 22 pounds of pressure, so we placed a small RV 12 volt booster pump inline before the water heater and that has worked just fine. It only has to run when we want hot water. Otherwise it is on standby.

My method was to run 1 ¼ “ PVC line out of the tank to use as the major feed line. When I branched off of that to supply a particular area, then I reduced it down to 1”. When I plummed in a faucet, I reduced it down to ¾ “ line and finally when we brought the line into the house, we reduced it down to ½ “. This kept the flow at maximum so that if the water was on in a couple of different sites, it did not drop the pressure much at all.

We used schedule 40 PVC pipe for all our water pipes and buried it 18” to keep it out of the way. We do not have freezing issues where we are so that depth was plenty. If you are in a freezing area, then you will need to follow the recommendations of your local plumbing contractors.

Our well pump is a Grundfos solar pump. It can operate on any voltage from 40V to 400V either AC or DC. If you give the supplier your well depth and how far uphill you will need to pump, they will help you size your pump accordingly. Our pump can fill a 2500 gallon tank in about 6 hours of sunshine; pumping it up almost 100 feet of elevation plus the 220 feet up out of the well. So there is about 320 feet of elevation to pump the water up. This requires about 400 watts of Solar panels to accomplish this process. I am quite impressed by how well it works.

The other nice thing is that if you have several days of no sunshine, or you need to pump more water than that, you can plug the pump into a generator and pump on 110 volt and it fills the tanks even faster.

If you are taking your water from a river or other source that could carry contaminates, you will want to have the water checked by a lab to see what you are dealing with. Most areas have water testing labs available and it can be done online as well. You may need to install some sort of filter to make the water safe for drinking but that will only need to be done for the supply that you will be drinking from. Your irrigation and other needs should not be an issue.

I hope I have given you some helpful tips and things to think about. If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact me.

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I wanted to take a moment to talk about batteries. Over the years I have had a chance to try out several different batteries and have yet to try some others. If you are going to have an off grid solar system, batteries are absolutely necessary to store the energy that your solar panels are gathering from the sun. You must have enough battery capacity to store enough energy to supply your needs while the sun is not shining. Usually you need to have a small generator backup for those times when the sun doesn’t shine for days or you may need to run some power tools or cloth irons for short times – but we’ll talk about generators in another post.

There are several different concepts to work with. The most common and least expensive (up front cost) is the lead – acid battery. This is the type most cars use. The Deep Cycle style battery is usually the one you would use with a solar system since they have more storage capacity and can stand up to deeper discharge repeatedly without damage. These batteries must be checked frequently to make sure the fluid levels are adequate so that you do not “fry” the battery and ruin it. Distilled water is used for maintaining the fluid levels.

Several popular varieties are available. The L-16 style is built with a deeper plate design so that the sulfating problem common to batteries is minimized. This makes the battery taller than the average battery so you must consider this when designing the space to put them in. These batteries are currently running about $300 each, depending on where you buy them. Another style is the “golf cart” style that are currently running about $85 each at Costco. These are 6 volt batteries so you need at least two of them to make a 12 volt system. The difference in price represents the difference in Amp/Hours storage capacity. The L-16  has a 400 amp/hour capacity and the golf cart style has about 120 so you can see the justification for the price.

There are Gel – cell batteries that are basically maintenance free because they are sealed and you do not have to check the fluids. They are more expensive, but also less care required to keep them going. Many people find the cost prohibitive for using in a solar array, but they do have the plus side of less worry and usually longer life. They usually have a longer time warranty as well, so it is a calculation as to whether they are more cost effective in the long run.

Another battery that is making the headlines lately is the Lithium Battery. Most famous to date with headlines splashed all over the various press outlets is the Tesla Battery. There are two sizes that will be offered by the end of September this year (2015) The 10K (Kilowatt) model is $3500 and the 7K is $3000. While this is a heavy upfront cost, my understanding is that they come with a 7 year warranty and they are expected to last at least 10 years.

This style battery is what is being used in the electric cars and has a good charging capacity as well as very low maintenance. It also has built in a charge controller and voltage converter so that it can be added into a variety of applications. I believe that there will be competing manufacturers in the near future and the cost will come down – good ole’ market driven free enterprise!

One of the keys in determining how many batteries you will want to add to your system is the amount of amps you will be using each day. There are many solar books out there that will help you calculate that. The main thing is that you have enough batteries to hold that amount of amperage or amp/hours. The 10K batteries by Tesla would be 833 amp/hours capacity. (10,000 watts % 12 Volts = 833 amps) It would take 6 L-16 batteries to give you that much capacity (some extra too) so that calculates out to about $1800 for the lead acid batteries versus $3500 for the Lithium. Time has yet to show us if the increased costs of the Tesla batteries are justified.

For our solar array, we have 6- 210 watt panels up for a total of 1260 watts. This is sufficient to run our small refrigerator, lights, computers, sewing machine and other light appliances. If you take 1260 watts multiplied by 6 hours of solar charging per day, you have 7560 watts per day that you want to be able to use. Much of it goes to the refrigerator which we have on a timer to just run during the daylight hours when we are opening the door. If we wanted to store 1/2 of the energy to the batteries, we would need to store 315 amp/hours of battery capacity. The golf cart style battery is a 6 volt so you would need 6 of them to give you enough storage capacity for the system we have on our roof. That is a cost of about $500.

I hope this has given you some useful information on batteries and how to size your system. As you can see, if you keep your electricity demands simple, you can keep your installation costs down. It’s true that many appliances and gadgets are nice and convenient, but with a little sacrifice and planning, you can really keep costs down and still be comfortable.

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Some Pictures


This is our living room.


A look at our kitchen


Shirley doing some rock wall work for retaining wall –

Using natural stone from our digging out.


This the barn we built early on – initially for storage.


A  look at our view of the Central Valley


Pergo style flooring for the kitchenette area


Using the High Cube (9′ 6″) Container gives room for

extra storage spaces and cupboards.


Quite a bit of light comes through the solar tubes


We gave good support where we cut wall sections out.


Our driveway

View from Living Room of Container House

A look our our front door

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Welcome to My Blog

Thank you all for your interest in this concept of Off Grid and Underground. I did not know how much interest I would have until this weekend – May 8, 2015. By a wonderful chain of events I was invited to publish an article in Mother Earth News, online version about the home and homestead my wife and I have built in Northern California over the past 12 years. As people have come to visit us they have expressed much interest in our underground house and that lead me to publish the book “Off Grid and Underground”. It wasn’t until this weekend that I began to understand how much interest there really is. There have been over 500 clicks in the first day since the Mother Earth News article was released so now I realize that I need to take this blog more seriously.

I want to make a commitment with you all that I will try to answer every question that you send to me. I will appreciate if you read the book first because many of those questions are answered in the book. I want you to be able to benefit from the experience that we have had in building this home – both good and bad experiences. As I mention in the book several times, there are several things we would do differently  next time. One of the first things my wife says we would do differently would be to use 3 containers instead of two! Mom always needs more room 🙂

I will post some more pictures in the next post to give you an idea of what it all looks like. A picture is worth 1000 words – right!

Once again, I want to thank you all for coming to the blog and I want to commit to you to try and bring relevant material to you to continue answering your questions. I would also like to invite you to send information to me to post as well because I know that many of you are already joining in this lifestyle. We are living in exciting times where some wisely placed technology can serve to give us a wonderfully simplified way to live.

Joy in the Journey – Steve

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Some Thoughts on Solar Electricity

Blog #4 – Thoughts on Solar Electricity

Thoughts on Solar Electricity

In this blog, I wanted to spend some time on the subject of Solar Electricity. Over the past decade, there have been so many changes in the solar field and the changes and improvements keep coming. This will in no way be an exhaustive treatment on the subject, but maybe it can serve as a foundation for those who are considering using some kind of solar application for their home.

The technology of solar panels has advanced in several ways. The way the silicone crystals are made, the efficiencies of the crystals, the amount of room the panels take up compared to the amount of watts they produce, and the ability to continue to produce usable electricity even on cloudy days. There are other improvements I’m sure.  In fact here is a recent article I came across on the web that demonstrates that perfectly:

Internet Article

Suffice it to say, now is a much better time to be buying solar panels than ever before. First you get a much better quality panel with a much smaller footprint for a much lower cost. The cost is largely affected by China entering the market and now dominating it, but the availability and quality of silicone also has a lot to do with it.

If you have been waiting to buy a system, I believe the time is now. Many panels are selling for as low as $1 per watt right now if you do some shopping so a 3 kilowatt system will cost not much more than $3000 for the panels. Of course there are other components to consider, so the total cost will be more than that, usually about double for purposes of estimating.

Many people ask me about government rebates, but I remind them that since we are talking about placing our systems in an off grid application, that automatically prevents them from receiving a rebate. The rebates are designed only to encourage people to install grid tied systems and help provide more available electricity to the utilities grid system.

Not to worry though, even though we had to pay all the costs of our system with no rebates, we have not had a utility bill for over 12 years now. It’s pretty nice. I mention several other nice things about not being connected to the grid in my book “Off Grid and Underground” as well.

Since you are building an off grid system, you will need to have batteries to store the electricity that is being generated during the day when the sun is shining. There are several options to what kind of batteries to use and you can explore the various options at a solar store or even on-line. I went with the deep cycle storage battery. I started out my system with a couple of cheaper marine batteries with a few panels and over time, those batteries have grown into the L-16 Solar 6 volt batteries that continue to provide good service. It’s not a bad idea to start small and grow your system as you gain experience.

The other piece of equipment you will need is an inverter that converts the 12 volt electricity into usable 120 – 240 Volts, depending on your country and needs. This is another area that has come down in pricing and once again the main driver in pricing is Chinese manufacturing. What you want to look for are consumer reports on the brands you are looking at. Many made in China are under careful quality control checks that provide an excellent quality for the money. The features you want to include is the proper voltage inversions, digital readouts for amperage and voltage, and a battery charge controller option so that when you are running your back-up generator, you can charge the batteries at the same time. I recommend a 3000 watt size to have plenty of power when you need it.

And this brings us to the back-up generator. I recommend finding a good quality EU rated generator from 2,000 to 3,500 watts. I use a Honda 2000EU and it has been perfect. It doesn’t use a lot of gas and is practically bulletproof as well as the fact that it is big enough for the jobs I need to do.

My total panels put out about 2 kilowatts now, and even though that is a small system, it is enough for how we have chosen to live our lives. I talk about adjusting our expectations and attitudes in the book as well, so once you have adjusted your expectations, this level of power production is usually sufficient.  Having said that, I do realize different people have different needs and situations so you are the ultimate decision maker. Now is still a good time to buy panels and components no matter how large your system will be.

I recommend buying a good book on solar electricity – there are many available and spending some time reading it and getting familiar with the concepts and a bit of the math involved. You will need to understand the basic equations for figuring out how many amps of battery storage you will need; how many panels you will need, how many batteries you will need, how many amps your appliances will require and more. They are simple calculations, but you will need to do them to understand your system. You are always welcome to write me with questions if you are stuck. Most solar stores are eager to provide information and suggestions.

There was a time when solar was inefficient and expensive, but that is rapidly changing. I believe that solar power is here to stay, especially for those of us who choose to live off the grid as a lifestyle. Have fun learning and growing in this fascinating field. The more you learn, the more advantage you will have in providing a very comfortable homestead, off the beaten path. It really is worth the effort!





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Attitude Determines Altitude – Changing How We Think

Blog #3 -A Different Way of Thinking


I wanted to take this blog to talk about changing the way we think. When you are living in the city, suburbia, or even a town, there is a tendency to just expect that the things you need will always be there: there will always be food on the shelves at the grocery store – there will always be gas at the filling station – there will always be water when you turn on the tap – there will always be electricity when you flip a switch – things will just be there.

I don’t consider myself a “prepper” but I do consider myself well prepared for emergencies. In our area of the country, we have forest fires through the summer months and at any time the roads can be closed and supplies prevented from coming into our closest town. In the winter, we were at the store and everyone was talking about the fact that they hadn’t had electricity for 5 days because of a severe wind/rain storm pounding our area. We hadn’t even noticed because we are off grid, and our preparations had us very comfortable through this same time everyone was complaining about.

Even if you live in suburbia or city, there are many things you can do to be prepared for an unexpected event that could restrict supplies to your stores or utilities. A little extra storage of the right kind of foods that will not take up too much space and really help to keep you from panicking when everyone else is emptying out the store shelves. Even simple water storage can make a huge difference.

One thing I noticed in the Hurricane Katrina situation in New Orleans was that most people panicked and expected the government or someone else to take care of them. People tended not to think for themselves and certainly were not prepared for what took place. Personally, even if I could not get a ride or transportation, I would have walked about 10 miles in any direction and gotten out of the mess and the crazy acting people. That’s if I was living there which I would not! The large cities of our country are too unpredictable and I believe it’s time to get out of those areas into more open spaces.

But even if you feel trapped in a city environment, there are still many things you can do to be prepared for the unpredictable. Just by having some essentials at hand and not following the crowd, you will be way ahead of anyone around you. And you will do it quietly, not drawing attention to yourself so you can execute your plan of action without interference from ill-intentioned neighbors.

I believe we are too conditioned to wait for someone else to take the initiative in our lives, especially under emergency conditions. It’s time we learn to take the initiative for ourselves; to think things through both ahead of time for preparation and during events for our best course of action. I believe there are basically two types of people; the prepared and the unprepared! If you will take the time and energy to think things through and make adequate preparations, you will not be waiting for someone else to make those decisions for you. You will not become victim of a poorly executed government program.  You will be safely, comfortably secured away from the masses that are waiting at the leaking Superdome for the government to deliver drinking water while the bathrooms aren’t working!

It is my wish through this blog to bring you ideas to think about and incorporate as you see fit for your particular situation – ways to become more prepared and ready for emergency situations whenever they strike. No one gets a notice that an emergency is coming on such and such a day. They present themselves without warning and the only way to be ready is to be prepared ahead of time.

In building our off grid homestead, we were forced to begin to prepare for what might happen. We couldn’t just call up the utilities when the lights didn’t work, because we are our own utility. We had to have a working knowledge of our system so that if it stopped working, we could get it working again. We had to have extra parts around so that we could fix it in the middle of the night when all the stores were closed. The same was true for all of the other systems since none of them are provided by anyone else but ourselves.

Since we are on solar electric, we also had to learn how to do with less. You can only make so much electricity in a day and you have to portion it out carefully so you don’t run out before you can make some more. We learned that there were some things we could do without. We learned we could turn the refrigerator off during the night and save electricity for other things we needed. We became much more careful about leaving lights on that we weren’t using. Instead of demanding everything be the same as when we were on grid, we became flexible and learned to prioritize according to the system we could afford to build and maintain. We are still very comfortable, just not as wasteful.

A friend of mine says that everyone should turn their electricity off for one day a month and check on their attitude of how they deal with that situation – or maybe even the gas supply for cooking and heating. It’s amazing what attitude adjustments can be revealed under these circumstances – Something to think about any way. Challenge yourself with some simulated emergencies and see how you do. You will end up performing how you train, so train well.

Well, that’s probably enough to think about and digest for now so until next time – train well!

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