The Essentials

 The Essentials


I wanted to spend the time in this blog talking about what I consider to be the most important areas to address for different levels of existence. You can take care of basic needs and survive, but that’s not much fun or comfortable. You can add in some comforts that make life a whole lot more enjoyable, but even these need to be prioritized. Some are very expensive and others are modest in cost, so I want to go through some of these to help give proper consideration to each aspect.

Shelter is in my opinion the most important need to address. Of course, there are different levels of shelter that provide varying degrees of comfort, but it is important to at least be able to protect yourself from the elements. If you can’t maintain your body heat in cold conditions or keep cool in excessive heat conditions, your ability to stay alive will deteriorate rapidly. In our situation, we started out by camping with a tent in the summer months and by fall when colder weather started to move in, we had progressed to a 5th wheel trailer that offered insulation and a small heater to offer warmth and comfort. Eventually, we built our underground home that works very well at keeping cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

In keeping debt free on our homestead, we started out simple with what we could afford, and progressed as we could pay for it. It took about 10 years to finally get to the point where we had our situation permanently set to our liking, but we maintained livable conditions as we went along, gaining in complexity as we could pay for it. Even now, our situation is much simpler than the standard household in the US, but it is very sustainable for our lifestyle. You can read more about the home we built in our book, “Off Grid and Underground”.

Water came into our consideration fairly early on – you can only live without water for about 5 days before serious problems hit. We started by hauling barrels of water from a community filling station, but knew that we didn’t want to settle for that as a permanent answer for our situation. I do know people who have no better choice than this and learn to live with it, but we decided to see if we could get a good well in place. If you want to have a good agriculture program, I believe that you will need a well in place.

We were blessed to have an excellent well and began to place an irrigation system in place. An advantage to our property is that we are on a slope so we designed our system to pump from the well up to a holding tank at the top of the property. From there, we used gravity to carry the water throughout the irrigation system and home water supply. We are lower in pressure than the standard city water supplies, but it is sufficient and we use low pressure fittings and valves for most of the system that work just fine. Our home water supply has a small 12 volt booster pump in line so that we can increase the pressure where needed for home applications.

This gravity design allows us to operate our irrigation and water supply most of the time without the use of pumps and pressure tanks. The only pumping we have to do is from the well up to the holding tank as the holding tank empties. Running the well pump for about 2 hours fills the tank. This is better on the well pump since they last longer if they are not off and on for short intervals all the time. They like to run for extended periods.

We have finally installed a solar pump in for our well and I recommend the Grundfos pumps. Our pump is able to operate on 40 – 400 volts either AC or DC at any time. We run on the sun’s DC power from solar panels most of the time, but if it’s cloudy or we need an extra tank full at night during the hot spells, we can pump with our little generator on AC power. It’s a great combination!

Food is the next level to consider. You can live without food for about 40 days, but somewhere along the way, you are going to need to bring it into the picture for sustainable living. There are two aspects of food to consider. First, you need to be able to produce food on your homestead for sustainable living. This will necessarily involve establishing an orchard and garden area – and I might suggest getting involved with an aquaponic program for your food production. In any case, you will need to be able to produce what you want to eat in order to be self-sustaining.

Preparation of your food is going to be another consideration for your design. You will need some kind of kitchen type facility to prepare your food in. Eventually you will most likely have this in your home, but up till that is in place you may need to build something else. We actually built a structure that combined as our laundry, bathroom and Kitchen. This gave us the ability to prepare our food comfortably while we were still in the “camping” phase of our building project. It still is very useful to use on hot days or if we have friends come over to visit. It also would work well if you had several friends over for a special occasion or campout.

Sanitation is another consideration for sustainable living. Early on, we placed a small septic system for our trailer, but within a short time, we had a large system placed fairly low on the property so we could bring several bathrooms into it. Once that system was in place, we did the building that had the kitchen, laundry and bathroom so that our sanitation was taken care of. We have since brought a couple other bathrooms into the system and there is room for several more as time goes on. I recommend building a large system so you can add to it as the need arises without having to expand the system at additional cost.

Energy is an important consideration as well. Energy takes in several systems. You need some type of energy for cooking, heating, lighting and appliances. We chose to use solar energy for the bulk of our needs. Our lighting is all solar. Our refrigerator is on solar, and our computers run off solar. We don’t have TV, so we don’t have to worry about bringing in any cable service. Our internet access is by mini-fi from our local cell phone carrier – wherever we have a phone signal, we have internet access.

Anything that requires heating elements is usually not good to try to run on solar so our cooking is done with propane. Our water heater is propane also. We use an on-demand water heater so we don’t use extra gas for a pilot. We also have a small propane catalytic heater for cool winter days, and in the barn we have a large wood stove to provide heat. All of our heating and cooking sources are non-electric. The propane is provided by using 90# bottles that we can take into town and fill when needed.

The propane we use and the gas we need for the generator are the two weak points we have in being totally self-sustaining, but we are a whole lot closer than most – especially those who live in the suburbs and are totally dependent on being plugged into the grid. At least we can have spare tanks and cans available that allow us to ride out a supply problem for longer than most.

This brings us to the last category we will look at in this blog – Storage. I believe it is important to have storage in place so that you can have extra food supplies, extra fuel supplies, extra parts for your system repairs, needed equipment, extra household items (otherwise known as junk!), tools and assorted other items. We built a barn for this purpose and it has served nicely. In the beginning of our project it allowed us to store our household items without having to pay for storage and now it houses the above mentioned items. It could even be built out into livable space if the need should arise.

Another type of storage that works out well and is inexpensive is either 20 or 40 foot containers. They are water/weather proof and may have a secondary use being used in an underground home like we built later on. Other types of structures to consider could be: yurts, concrete preformed structures, semi-permanent canvas “barns”, pre-fab structures – I’m sure you could put several more options in here.

I hope by now you are starting to think about how you would like to establish your homestead and be able to sustain a comfortable lifestyle with what is truly essential, but absent of many of the things we don’t really need. The way we did things is not necessarily the only way to do it, but maybe it will help to stimulate thoughts on how you might want to approach your particular situation. If you have any questions, be sure and send them in. In the meantime, HAPPY HUNTING!

Categories: Planning an Off Grid Homestead | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “The Essentials

  1. It is my understanding that there can be two major problems using shipping containers partially or completely underground. 1. Contact with moisture in the soil can promote rusting and deterioration of the metal and problems with the wood floor, requiring a heavy-duty moisture barrier, and 2. The container is designed for downward pressure on the corners for stacking on a ship, not inward pressure on the sides from the soil, requiring reinforcement of the side walls. Have you needed to address these issues? Thanks, Tom

    • Hi Thomas-
      I have addressed those issues. I just posted to Vernon and I will add a couple of things. The floors of the containers are coated with a tar substance by their manufacturer and in 7 years we have not had any problem with this – added to that the fact that we have a large drain field that they are sitting on so virtually no water touches them. Secondly, I believe that the 6″ cement pad on top of the containers acts as a stabilizing effect to keep the weight distributed to the corners so that they are still the strongest part of the structure. After 7 years in place, we have not seen any change in our walls.
      Hope this helps. Thanks for you interest.

  2. Vernon Graff

    What are your concerns or solutions about rust of the metal containers ? And water drainage around base of container. Also what might have been spilled and absorbed by the wood floor that you have closed yourself in with. One more question, have the side walls bowed in any from ground pressure. I have been thinking of doing the same thing for a long time. I have an organic farm with a windmill and gravity fed gardens. But not off the grid.

    Vern Graff
    Crestview Farms
    Arcadia, Oklahoma

    • In the book I tell how I protected the sides and bottom with huge french drains – 18″ of gravel around all the sides up against 4″ of Polystyrene Board and 6″ of drain gravel underneath. Sides bowed slightly when we put the gravel in but after 7 years in place no more. We have fairly stable soil here so you ma;y need to put a retaining wall of some sort if your soil is shifting. Old tires could be one source that’s cheap. We have the floors covered with Pergo style flooring, linoleum, or carpet – the containers come with 1 1/4 ” mahogany plywood floors. We were allowed to select our containers so we chose ones that were relatively clean and free from rust and dents. We also paid to get 3 extra coats of paint so they would be better protected.
      As far as rust, there are systems out there that use zincs and a small electric charge to protect the metal from rust – much like ships use to protect their metal hulls in salt water.
      Hope this helps. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions. If you don’t have the book, it does answer many of these questions. Thanks for your interest.

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