I’m going into the woods and I ain’t comin’ out!

8 Dec

Does a big bear poop in the woods?

Well, not in my yard he don’t… if he knows what’s good for him!

Because I know the secret…

It just takes a little while longer to marinate bear meat. And use some bourbon in the brine, me bucko!  😉

Lately we’ve been talking about “lions and tigers and bears”… oh my!

You know that I’m talking about the economy and building and families, right?

As things get harder and jobs start looking like glimmers off in the distance, more and more families are considering moving to the country, to escape the madness of the city. It  also brings with it the opportunity to embrace new things. like gardens, poultry production and a chore list that will make that “Honey-Do” list you’re used to look like a quick trip to the supermarket.

In the last month, I’ve gotten over a hundred requests for more information about actually going off-grid.

So, for the next couple of posts, we’re going to explore the actual mechanics of going as “near ZERO” as possible. Not everyone is going to up and move to the woods, but a lot of us are looking for ways of slaying the beasts that show up on the porch at the end of each month. You know the ones I’m talking about… the power bill, the water bill,  the cable bill… you get the drift, right?

Credit to: The Daily Brainstorm.com

A pal of mine over at Tiny Houses (who is a really geeky, pallet-headed guy named Michael Janzenwho also advocates that people adopt a more self-sufficient and sustainable lifestyle because it would make the whole of our civilization stronger) has already written a great post about going off-grid.

Going off grid is about saving energy, right?

So, I’m gonna save some energy right now… by just running HIS post. 🙂

Sure, I’ll make some “smart-alekey” comments along the way, but the heart and soul of this post is Michael’s.

(You’re probably better off this way. My wife says my heart is a black lump of calcified angst and that I sold my soul to the devil long ago…”)

Before you ask;

YES, I asked Michael’s permission.

Responding by using your middle finger means YES, right? 😉

That said, All Hail Michael!

Whom I suspect was channeling ME when he wrote it…) 😉

(Comments below in italics are MINE.)

How to Move Yourself Off-The-Grid
Story by Michael Janzen

It’s easy to take flush toilets, grid-power, and fresh water on tap for granted. I can’t blame any of us for thinking that all these modern conveniences are normal… it’s the only normal we’ve known. Due to this most folks have a hard time imagining an off-the-grid life because it’s not clear what’s needed to make the leap.

(Maybe for you, you milk puppet! Can you say Marines? Field Conditions? Jumpin outta perfectly good airplanes? Motel 6?) 😉

So here’s a crash course in practical and sustainable solutions for moving yourself off-the-grid.

Pee and Poop

(Ah geez, Michael… ya just jump right into the outhouse… Oy Vey! No “Plant a pretty garden!”Or “Buy a solar panel or two…” It’s just “pee and poop” right from  the “get go”! Your momma shoulda raised you better!) 😉

Flush toilets are really insane when you stop to think about what they do. They begin by taking several gallons of perfectly good drinking water and mix it with a little pee and poop to produce sewage. Sewage is a mess and really hard to turn back into safe drinking water; but it is easy to transport to treatment plants through enormous networks of pipes, an infrastructure that need regular maintenance. To clean it up, chemicals are used to treat the water which in-turn keeps everyone in the chemical business very happy. Isn’t there a better way!?

Compost it! – Poop loves to decompose and if given a little time and the right conditions it breaks down into rich compost, yes even human poop. Remember we’re just critters just like the our furry friends and our poop will actually decompose into a safe compost, under the right conditions.

Humanure Handbook – A fellow by the name of Joseph Jenkins has actually written an book on the topic called the Humanure Handbook.  He’s also designed a toilet nicknamed, The Lovable Loo, which is essentially a 5 gallon plastic bucket in a plywood box. You might also hear these toilets referred to as sawdust toilets because sawdust is literally used to cover the deposits between visits.

The other component you need with this system is a dedicated compost pile out in the backyard with enough space to cook your poop for two years. The stink stays buried in the compost pile under a layer of straw. When you need to add a bucket load you simply pull back the straw, add the fresh material, and cover it back up. So there is some stinky work involved but the the chore is a simple one. This may also be the most sustainable, low-tech, and safe way to turn our waste into something useable.

Commercial Composting Toilets
– If the virtually free sawdust toilet seems far too gross, consider spending around $1,000 for a commercially produced composting toilet. These units work swiftly to decompose the material making them more palatable by most folks. If you move your tiny house around a lot this kind of system would be much more practical than a Lovable Loo too, because it’s self-contained and required no backyard compost pile.

(Have ya seen this one? Well, have ya, punk? It’s a pooper made of… um.. er.. never mind… It’s called a “LooWatt” and it actually make energy by um… forget it. You really don’t want to know. But if you’re interested, click the link after you read this post. AFTER! Got it? Capish?) 😉


Another somewhat tricky waste material to dispose-of is the runoff from sinks, showers, and laundry. This is referred to as greywater which will still have traces of human waste in it, so it can’t just be left to run down the street. In a normal house this water is mixed with sewage to make more sewage. Seems kind of silly doesn’t it?

The solution is to reuse and/or treat the water right there on-site instead of funneling it down a sewer line to a treatment plant miles away. There are many different high-tech and low-tech ways of dealing with greywater but if you choose to build a tiny house be sure to consider handling the plumbing for your sewage separately from your greywater. The people at Earthship Biotecture have an incredible greywater system that is built right into homes and could serve as a model for any home’s future greywater system.

Fresh Water

Instead of drilling a well or tapping into municipal water sources, consider collecting rainwater and storing it in tanks for year-round use. Rainwater harvesting is becoming more and more popular because it’s so simple and low-cost. It can also be perfectly healthy to drink with a little filtration. I wrote-up a detailed post on some ideas for rainwater harvesting which you might find useful.


The power grid is an incredibly complex network that requires constant maintenance and monitoring. The entire system is actually incredibly inefficient. For example, line loss, literally the resistance in the wires, sucks electricity from the system before it reaches its destination in your home. To compensate the utility company has to produce more just to defeat the inefficiencies of the system.

Imagine a world where people made their own clean electricity at their point of use. For such a system to remain low-cost we’d need to learn to use less power and move way from using the energy hogging appliances that grew-up dependent on fossil fuel sourced grid power. We’d also need to invest in our own off-grid systems up-front. The good news is that alternative power options are coming down in cost.

Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panel – Most folks these days are familiar with this technology, panels that produce electricity when exposed to direct sunlight. For a tiny house and a frugal occupant a few solar panels, batteries, and some simple electronic control equipment may be all that’s needed for an off-grid electric system.

(Stay tuned to this series because Steve Spence, one of the leading experts in Photovoltaic Energy Systems is going to teach you how to build a Low Cost, High Yield  off-grid system!)

Wind Turbine – If you tend to stay put and live in an area with ample wind, a small wind turbine can be a great addition to an off-grid system because it increases the diversity of you power sources. Many off-grid systems also include a backup generator that is used to charge up the batteries when the sun is not shining. By adding other renewable sources of electricity, like wind and hydro, you can reduce your dependency on fossil fuel burning generators.

(My wife say we need one of these really badly. She claims that the hot air I expel would power an Air Force Base. I have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. Hmmmph!) 😉

Micro-Hydro – If your land has water running crossing it, and you have water rights to it, you may be able to tap a small portion of it and spin a small turbine. This can be one of the most reliable and steady ways to produce electricity because as long as the water flows you have water.

All that is needed is a drop in elevation between the inlet and the turbine, some pipe, and a way to get a small portion of the water out of the stream and delivered to the tiny turbine. The inlet can simply be a submerged bucket with a pipe connected that brings the debris-free water downhill to the turbine.

Heating & Cooking Fuels

In most modern homes natural gas, propane, and heating oil are the common fuels burned. But we’re really beginning to see the true cost of using these limited natural resources. If we moved from being dependent on fossil fuels to using renewable energy sources we’d significantly reduce the risk of rising energy costs and continued environmental impacts.

– Burning wood is actually a carbon neutral way of heating a home. When a tree grows it absorbs carbon. When we burn it it releases that same carbon. If we use a highly efficient wood stove in a small living space we can actually get through the winters with little environmental impact and effort. The problem with burning wood for heating a large home is that it would take acres of trees to make it sustainable. Heating a small home requires less energy input which in turn reduces the cost, impact, and effort needed to stay warm in winter.

(And if you ask nicely, Michael will come over to your canyon and chop all your firewood for you. Right, Michael?) 😉

– Some inventive folks have actually built systems that produce methane gas from their waste, both human and vegetable. It’s rare to come across this kind of a setup, and they are reportedly a bit tricky to operate, but they can provide a renewable natural gas for cooking and heating.

(They’re easy to identify two canyons away, when the wind is blowing in the right direction. Mayhaps that’s why they’re “scarce”. If I had one, I’d have to make myself scarce, so my wife didn’t kill me…) 😉

Alcohol – I’ve not seen this done a great deal but the idea of having a small still for distilling alcohol for burning in an alcohol stove may be a viable alternative on a small scale. I plan to use an alcohol stove in my extreme tiny house experiment, Nine Tiny Feet.

(Just close your eyes and you can picture it; We’ll “see it at 11pm” and read all about it in the papers as the revenuers huff and puff and kick Michael’s little house down – trying to find his still… They won’t have to execute a search warrant on the house, they’ll just pick it up and shake the bejeezus out of it… “Honest, yer honor, we was just standing in the yard eating donuts and the still came flyin out a window…) 😉

Wrapping Up

In this modern world it’s hard to imagine life without fossil fuels, flush toilets, and fresh tap water. Actually I think it’s perfectly logical to say that without these things our lives would be very different.

Tiny houses (or ISBU houses) are much easier to maintain in good or tough times. Every time we take-on one more square foot, we increase the effort required to maintain our living space. Living more simply and sustainably lowers risk and can increase our opportunities to prosper.

Changing the way we think about the basics is the first step in changing the way we live. Imagining downsizing to a smaller home and owning fewer possessions is a giant step. But it’s a giant leap for most to learn to live without the reliance of modern conveniences. Most of us are still on the way there too, living with a foot in both worlds, testing the water and exploring. I hope this little introduction to alternative utilities helped move you forward.

(Although I’ve had some fun taking shots at Michael, he’s right. IF you really want to go off-grid, you can. The only thing stopping you from achieving that success is the level of your ambition. So, print this out and give it to your wife. I’m sure she’ll find a way to motivate you. Mine does… I just wish it wasn’t always by using her boot!) 😉

There you have it; Off Grid 101. And we have Michael Janzen to blame… er… thank for it! 🙂

(And now I have his lawyers to dodge as well, for copyright infringement…)

Stay tuned for our next exciting chapter as Steve Spence dazzles you with Photovoltaic magic!

You’ve been w-w-warned.

4 Responses to “I’m going into the woods and I ain’t comin’ out!”

  1. Jeremiah December 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    awesome post. love the bit about commercial composting toilets. I’m sure they can be had for cheaper than $1k (I friggin hope so anyway). Not sure how thrilled my wife would be by that though. :-\ Lots of information to look into though. cheers!

    • Beth December 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

      I’ve heard that some have had success building their own Clivus-type composting toilet out of concrete. It’s basically a big, concrete holding tank in the basement with one slanted side so the you-know-what will run down hill, where it will decompose. It is vented; and all it takes is a little additional water once in a while, some saw dust and vegetable kitchen scraps and the you-know-what does the rest. I haven’t personally seen one of these units, but I know that national and state parks have been installing them in remote areas with no plumbing, and the Clivus composting toilet that I have seen worked great; no smell, and the owner showed me the actual decomposed material in the composter and it just looked like potting soil, with no odor that I could detect.
      But, I would wonder about a couple of things; like do they treat the porous concrete so it doesn’t absorb liquids and odors; and given how prices on construction materials have risen since I first heard of this type of composting toilet, are they still cheaper than buying a commercial model?

      • Michael Janzen December 8, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

        Hi Beth.

        I’m going to throw out a good guess on the “still cheaper than buying a commercial model” question. I bet a commercial composting toilet would easier/less expensive for most folks than a big concrete clivus multurm style toilet. But the advantage of this kind of system is that it keep the poop out of sight and mind and can often support a normal flushing toilet. So it would be a very different experience to own a stand-alone waterless composting toilet vs a clivus multrum (or other separate tank style toilet).

        By far the most cost effective toilet is the lovable loo (sawdust and poop in a bucket – pee diverted preferably). But as you can imagine living with this kind of system would be difficult for many to make the transition. It can be a free system though… 5 gal bucket, a little scrap wood, and a humanure compost pile outside.

        As far as the stinky porous concrete question, I’m certain folks mileage would vary depending on location, humidity, what they put in it, how often they use it and remove compost, etc. But I would be very surprised if all systems didn’t eventually develop a bit of a personality, except maybe those built from things like stainless steel or porcelain (which I’ve not seen).

        Here’s more info on the clivus multrum style system: http://www.clivusmultrum.com/products-services.php

        And here’s a bit about the sawdust toilet option: http://humanurehandbook.com/

        • Beth December 13, 2010 at 8:41 am #

          Hi Michael; Thanks for throwing in your two-cents worth and the links. I think you’re on the right track about toilet options; sometimes I think we humans tend to over-think and over-complicate things. I’m all for indoor plumbing, but the complicated sewerage systems that are the norm (or even mandated) in many areas are just plain wasteful (no pun intended) and do not do an efficient job of dealing with the black and gray water that result from those systems. I know you address this is your blog; I’m just trying to agree with you. I’ve lived in a home where we set up our gray water so it watered most of a large vegetable garden and between that and the animal manure from goats, rabbit and chickens, a big compost pile and our wood stove’s ashes, our gardens produced an incredible amount of veggies and fruits. It seems as though homes should be built to recycle all such wastes…. I can see where it might be a problem in urban settings, but why not everywhere else? We only had to go to the dump a couple of times a year, since we burned almost all our garbage (that didn’t go in the composter) in the wood stove; so that now and then all we had was a box of glass jars and bag full of plastic to go to the recycling center at the land fill.

          I’m also a huge fan of earth-bermed and in-ground buildings and homes. Wouldn’t most of us use much less energy if we lived and worked in such structures? I’m not a tree-hugger fanatic or anything, I just hate needless waste and we all work way too hard for our money to be blowing it on heating and air-conditioning. Hubby & I have never had a chance to build our own home, but if we ever do at this late point in our lives, we will be putting up (or digging in) one of these homes.

          I really enjoy your blog; keep up the good work!

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