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Old 07-14-2012, 08:11 AM   #1
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Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

Hi,

I just purchased my school bus, a 97 carpenter, 54 seater. I was starting to think about designing a complete power system that is both off-grid and self-sufficient - preferably without propane or gas.

I am not needing much, I plan to avoid most household amenities like a TV, microwave, or any other major power suckers. I will have a small fridge but plan on relying on it as little as possible (it would be nice if there was a power switch to shut it off when it's empty, so batteries don't get drained). I have quite a few books on camping, survivalism, living without power/refrigeration, ie end-of-the-world-survival stuff. So I believe I can scale down my modern living needs, rely upon nature/camping more, etc. But I'm not sure about winter months, when it gets to be -5 degrees outside.

Anyway, I'm going to avoid refrigeration as much as possible, but it would be NICE if the RV could be equipped to handle a fridge, a few lights, my laptop (or 2), cellphone, etc....

When it comes to boondocking, living off-grid, etc, I'm assuming that a propane stove is the way to go, in general?

I noticed a 315 watt solar panel that is about 4'x5' for $450 online, and doing the math, to provide 3500 watts (which I've been told is maybe acceptable for an RV), I'd have to have 12 of those panels, which would cover the entire roof of the vehicle (approx 30 feet). And cost around $5500 for the panels plus whatever for the inverter, batteries, etc.

I'm curious if there are more creative ways to go about lowering power requirements, or a mix of ways to provide them - at least to make it all cheaper. And hopefully avoiding gas generators or propane (except for cooking, heating, etc). One thing to consider is that I have 3 kids and we will be doing this full-time, potentially off-grid, boondocking, etc most of the time, including winter.

Are there examples of more creative totally self-sufficient designs? What do people do to avoid cost/size limitations?
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Old 07-14-2012, 09:24 AM   #2
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

well, you gotta consider the needs of your children before yourself, and they are going to need warmth, good food and clothing, socialization and so forth. in light of that, i think you would have to design your bus around their needs, and how to best care for them. having raised children, its a full time job...

as far as living off the grid in light of the above, you can build a solar panel system which if large enough will take care of your needs most of the time. along with this, you need a proper house battery bank system, with- i suppose in your case- at least 800 reserve amp hr capacity... not cranking amps.

you will also need a pretty large water supply with 3 children, as well as a good grey and black tank system.

a wood stove would be great for heat but must be maintained properly given you have others around it in a small space.

you probably will not need 3500 watts of solar for a couple of reasons. first, thats about 3 times what is necessary, because it is producing some power at daylight, etc, even when you are not using it, and second, you would need around 12 l16 deep cell batteries at $300 each to properly store that load. i know one individual east of me that bought16 l16 batteries for his double wide mobile home, and runs 4800 watts of solar panels which runs his house summer and winter, and his well since he is totally off the grid..
i think 1200 watts and 4 l16 or close batteries which will give around 850 reserve amps will be fine for a bus. that is what i am building for mine.. and it will run most elect appliances.

it is a good idea to have propane frig ' 3 way, and water heater, and stove and furnace as well.. i built 3 separate systems in my bus.. propane, elect, and wood heat with a welded flat plate on the wood stove top as well.. also am completing the solar and battery bank..everything is covered that way.

as far as no tv, etc.. i imagine your children will want to watch tv, and do other things with electronic equipment is my guess

have fun..
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Old 07-15-2012, 10:17 AM   #3
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

Thomas ..

start here .. http://handybobsolar.wordpress.com/

.. a lot of good info ..
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Old 07-15-2012, 10:49 AM   #4
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

some good information on that website...

propane tank as well as the regulator, needs to either be outside the living area or if in a bus compartment, has got to be vented at least on the side as well as very low - like through the floor. it needs very good venting in case it outgasses due to temp rise in the outside air. as far as hoses to the appliances, there are many differing opinions on what will work to be safe. older rvs had copper, which actually works good, but some worry about vibration. standard propane hose labeled so, is yellow and also works well..
although this isn't legal, i use 300 lb test triple wall reinforced hose (which is very expensive) in my bus, because this type of hose is flexible and must be cut with a saw because of its toughness.. i use this because there is no way that chafing will occur while going through a bulkhead or rubbing on something.
propane in the line itself runs about 4 lbs..fwiw.. that is why on really cheap barbecues from china the hose may look like a thin water hose...

to consider solar, which is a very good idea, you should either purchase solar panels, or look up how to make them.. you will also have to have a good controller, and batteries..Do not use car batteries. You need deep cycle batteries such as golf cart batteries, or look up batteries on the Trojan website, and you will see the really big ones, which are the best. L16 batteries whether trojan or not are very good and cost north of 300 each, and it takes 2 to make 12v and put out 420 or so amp hrs per pair. next best choice is the 6v golf cart batteries, and it takes a pair of each wired in series to make 12v. cost is around 100 each but their smaller size means you get less of the reserve amper hours.
dont use cca amps like is listed on the wal mart batteriess and that is NOT the reserve amps. lights, etc use total amperage.. not cold cranking amps.

solar panels can be built for around a dollar a watt. on a bus to run everything, it is best to have 6-800 or maybe a bit more to run everything.. depending on how much the ac is going to run. look up on youtube about how to make a solar panel, and cells are available on eBay,, buy the best cells you can afford when making panels. i am making panels now, and plan on building 1200 watts worth, with about 1200 cost in batteries, so that i can use the solar to run one ac unit for 6 or so hrs a day.

you can also look up the plumbing and electrical diagrams, and ask people on here what they have done in those areas.. you can also send private messages to people who have done a lot of it.

hope this helps. richard
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Old 07-16-2012, 12:49 AM   #5
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

I found quite a bit of really interesting books on Amazon relating to not just solar power systems, but specifically 12V systems, direct current, etc...

There's only one blog post on that site but I believe what you meant to link to was: http://handybobsolar.wordpress.com/t...ging-puzzle-2/

I would like to go the route of creating my own solar panels, or utilizing pieces/broken ones. I'm on a serious budget and anything hands on, engineering, etc I'm totally up for. I don't want to break the bank since making the bank obsolete is pretty much my goal anyway. Primarily I just need to get a sink, beds, and a stove, to get it registered as an RV.

I wouldn't mind propane if my fridge had an option to run both propane OR electric. Do they exist?

I found an interesting stove/heat option called a "Kimberly Stove", which seems to still be in somewhat of the prototypical stages, since I didn't see any info about sales on their site. It seemed promising, offering multiple fuel sources (pellets, coal, wood, etc) depending on the weather or availability - and with a flat top for cooking on top of. From the looks of it, it looks no larger (or much different) than a medium sized stainless steel round trash can.

There were also some links to thermoelectric power generators (or whatever they're called, not quite sure) that take heat from a stove (or maybe even an engine block), and transfer it to electricity - perhaps 15-25 watts for a piece the size of an iPhone?

I was thinking about the water system since NJ requires a sink, and ultimately that means drinkable pressurized water. I wasn't sure what the cheapest (and perhaps most creative, if not too time consuming) way to get drinkable pressurized water was out of the tank underneath? I have a transfer pump that I used to drain an old pool (hoses on either end, with a motor/pump in the middle), but it uses a huge amount of electricity (close to 1000 watts), and a guy at the hardware store suggested cheap and energy efficient may involve a pond/garden pump. Though I'm not sure if it's conventional to have one of those blue pressurized tanks so it doesn't need to be on-demand (ie flip a switch to use the faucet/shower/etc). And then there's the whole filtration system to consider. I'll have to look through the RV design/maintenance and boondocking books I have.

I would think it would be interesting maybe to have that transfer pump available perhaps to somehow be able to pump fresh water from a water source into my tank (my guess is that it does about 1 gal/min, at 1000 watts), but there's the issue of pathogens that I don't know how to deal with. Maybe is there some sort of filtration system I can use that filters out potential pathogens and then puts the 'safe' water into the potable tank? Either way I'm thinking whatever water I put into the potable tank should be filtered BEFORE it enters the tank, not just as it's being used (though the latter probably makes sense too).

In general I would like to know if there's an easy way on-the-spot to test a water source for it's lack of potential pathogens. Maybe some sort of (litmus-like) kit I can have on hand? It would be nice to be able to stop by a lake somewhere remote and get a 50 foot hose that can get potable water into my (empty) tank. But I'm imagining how that kind of water isn't going to even be clean/clear. It would be an interesting fantasy to have a way to take any water source and have a system that cleans, filters, extracts, purifies, etc on-demand as the tank fills assuming it's not contaminated with pollutants, heavy metals, carcinogens, toxic chemicals, etc. That's probably a pipe dream and unrealistic, though.

I may end up buying (or devising?) a composting toilet to use since toilets are 25% of our water usage anyway.
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Old 07-16-2012, 11:15 AM   #6
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

you can buy the water purification devices that sit on a kitchen counter - or the ground.. for 3-400. they are sold for overseas areas, and they are on the internet. you can also buy smaller ones as well, even the drinking straw thingies... everyone n the boonkes should have a water purification syste

you can buy a self contained kitchen sink that has a little hand pump and you fill it at the spigot. they drain out the bottom and you hook up a small hose to it... it meets the state requirements for a sink and water supply... i have one, dont use it, and i think they cost like 30 bucks...
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Old 07-16-2012, 12:27 PM   #7
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

First you need to determine how much electricity (in watt-hours) you'll be using per day, on average. Before you come up with that number, any recommendations on solar or battery capacity are pretty much meaningless.

To find that number, take the watts of whatever device you plan to power, multiply by the number of hours (or fraction thereof) it will be used in a day. If in doubt, round UP. Repeat for all devices, sum them up and there you have it. Divide that number by 12 to get amp-hours, assuming you're running a 12 volt system.

That energy has to come from somewhere, every day. Solar panels, generator, grid, whatever.

If it's going to come from a battery bank, the bank has to be sized properly so that it can expend that energy without damaging the batteries. In general, batteries (off-grid, not cranking) should not have more than 50% of their capacity removed. It can be done, but the batteries won't live as long. You'll also have to decide how long you want to be able to go without any charging (solar, gen, etc) to your batteries. One day socked in with clouds? Two or three? None?

Assuming you'll only use solar to charge the batteries, you can use the NREL Red Book to see how many sun-hours you get per day in your location. Tilting your panels will help in winter. Multiply the hours listed in the Red Book by the wattage of your panels to get watt-hours, div by 12 for amp-hours.

There's more to it but this will get you in the ballpark.

Good luck
Sean
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Old 07-16-2012, 01:15 PM   #8
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

Quote:
Originally Posted by tomas_maly
.
I wouldn't mind propane if my fridge had an option to run both propane OR electric. Do they exist?
Yes they do as 3-way RV units and look on solar sites. Pricey though. Many RVers think they are dangerous as many RV fires start in the refrigerator area. We won't have one and got rid of the one in the old Class C we had. Replaced with an energy efficient under counter refrigerator and an under counter freezer. Like I've said before, boondocking isn't free. We don't boondock. We stay in parking lots while traveling but stay in campgrounds with full hookups when not. This is due to our business (Health Departments requires us to use "potable water from an approved source" and we must dump our waste water into an "approved sewer system"). PLUS , I have a job and need to be close to it. I'm also rather fond of the free wifi and free cable.
Quote:
I was thinking about the water system
Shurflo 2.8 gpm or Shurflo 3.5 gpm + 30 gal ABS water tank (you can glue in fittings plus repair the tank using readily available materials)
Quote:
Though I'm not sure if it's conventional to have one of those blue pressurized tanks so it doesn't need to be on-demand (ie flip a switch to use the faucet/shower/etc).
the accumulator tank is to keep the "pulsing" down (tad irritating when showering) and keeps the pump (see above) from turning on in the middle of the night when you flush the toilet. Build your own accumulator. Some folks have loud water pumps. None of ours (Shurflo 2088 Classics) ever were. I think it has to do with how they are mounted.
Quote:
And then there's the whole filtration system to consider.
if you plan on pulling water from suspect water sources like lakes & streams/rivers, then you need a really good PURIFIER ($$$) SYSTEM... NOT A FILTER SYSTEM. Like an Ultraviolet light system or Berkley "filters". If you are using "potable" water then the filters you need will vary according to your paranoia level. My paranoia level is fairly high since we have gotten bad (cysts) water before at a campground. I run a reusable sediment filter then a "whole house" housing unit which accepts a cartridge. The cartridge I tend to is is a 0.5 micron filter. My criteria is that my filter removes cysts. Using the housing I have means that I can buy replacement filters from several local sources manufactured under several different name brands. Very handy when you move around a lot. Our filter system in placed before the tanks since the filters really knock down the water pressure. Clean filtered water is all the enters our tanks and we pump from holding tank to faucets/shower/washer, etc. I will eventually add a water softener to the filters. We only use potable water. I just don't trust the water sources or the treatment plants. Plant breakdowns & accidents DO happen! We may not realize it happened until we are three states away wishing it would just stop.

Quote:
In general I would like to know if there's an easy way on-the-spot to test a water source for it's lack of potential pathogens. Maybe some sort of (litmus-like) kit I can have on hand? It would be nice to be able to stop by a lake somewhere remote and get a 50 foot hose that can get potable water into my (empty) tank. But I'm imagining how that kind of water isn't going to even be clean/clear. It would be an interesting fantasy to have a way to take any water source and have a system that cleans, filters, extracts, purifies, etc on-demand as the tank fills assuming it's not contaminated with pollutants, heavy metals, carcinogens, toxic chemicals, etc. That's probably a pipe dream and unrealistic, though.
Just because the water "looks" clean doesn't mean that it is. Your "fantasy" is an Ultraviolet system or Berkely filters (they ARE different from other filters) And you are talking a pretty high expense (or I'm just really poor). You can get a "boondocking" option as well. You may check out the Berkley systems since they are made for non-potable water. Educate yourself on filters before buying any. Most of the water filter websites have lots of info if you just look around. The Berkley site has some good info as well as the RV Water Filter Store.

Years ago there was a commercial that ran on TV showing a high Alpine mountain stream. It "looked" pure and pristine. And then a long list of the contaminants that was in the water ran up superimposed over the beautiful image. That's when I quit drinking water straight from the cricks in NC. Lots of water sources are polluted by old, disused, unknown mines. Now we did have spring water at two of the houses we lived in. Both springs had a salamander living in the cistern. Salamanders are very susceptible to polluted water. David's mother wouldn't drink our water because it had "things" peeing in it.

You should have a sediment filter inline before any filter system you end up with. Most dual cartridge systems include a sediment filter as one of the filters. The sediment filters keeps the "large" debris from fouling your more expensive filter and makes it last longer. You will be replacing filters two to four times a year (depending on how nasty your water is).

Quote:
I may end up buying (or devising?) a composting toilet to use since toilets are 25% of our water usage anyway.
Just remember that human waste, even when composted correctly, is still considered "hazardous waste" by the EPA. You may have problems getting rid of it in some areas. The "just bury it" idea may have you running afoul of the law and you may find yourself in serious trouble. I think this is another area where you need to educate yourself on the facts.

I would suggest you read Water, Water Everywhere and Phred's Poop Sheets. Read The 12 Volt Side of Life while you're at it... BOTH Part 1 and Part 2.

Backwoods Solar and the Real Goods Solar Living Source Book are my go to's for solar info. My Real Goods book is a 1999 edition I got free from the company but you may be able to check one out at your local library or perhaps find a used in a thrift store. Mother Earth News is my DIY source for a lot of things.That's the place to find out how a composting toilet works as well as how to make one yourself. Also DIY solar PV panels, solar air heaters, solar water heaters, woodstoves and lots of "off-grid" stuff. It's not set up for a mobile lifestyle, but read enough and you will figure out how to adapt a lot of the stuff.
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Old 07-16-2012, 07:25 PM   #9
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

that is the kind i was talking about.. a few hundred bucks is cheap for good water all the time.
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Old 07-16-2012, 10:05 PM   #10
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Re: Planning a self-sufficient off-grid power system

Yup, you'l want really clean water. A summer trip traveling in central america (camping) in the '70's turned out to be a life changing experience--amazing what a few bugs in the water can do.
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