Monday, November 14, 2011

My Life Off the Grid

A bank of batteries we use to store solar power

When I was traveling earlier this year in the Guppy, looking for a warmer, healthier place to live where my arthritis wouldn't hurt as bad as it did in the Pacific Northwest, I mostly camped at places where I could hook up to electricity. Once in a while, I'd overnight at a Walmart, casino or truckstop, but then I really only ran the houselights and didn't attempt to really "boondock," where you live off the grid for some time.

I had done some reading about how to boondock, but I lacked confidence. For one thing, I was traveling alone, and it didn't seem like a good idea for me to go out and stay in remote places by myself. For another, I didn't really understand how to work anything except the house lights.

Early in my travels, when I tried to turn on the inverter, it screamed like a cat you'd just stepped on, which apparently meant it wasn't getting any juice. Later on, when I got new batteries and a new alternator, the inverter worked fine and I finally learned that I could plug in my computer or charge my phone or run a little fan--but this was late in my travels. Probably 6000 miles into them.

When Steve asked me to join him in Arizona this winter, living in his 5th wheel at Coyote Howls, a primitive RV park, he warned me that in some ways it would be like camping and that I may not like it. However, so far, I am enjoying it just fine. And it's been very valuable for me to see how a person actually lives off the grid. It's giving me a lot more confidence about my future travels in the Guppy.

Steve's 5th wheel, bike and trucks

I don't know any technical jargon. I tried to learn some from books, but it was all way over my head. I'm smart, but in an artsy literary way, not scientificky or mathy. (See, I like making up words.)

Anyway, what I do understand is, we use solar power. We are currently using four solar panels and four batteries. Steve used to use just two batteries, but with me and my computer here, now we have four. Basically, for every two or three hours of sunshine, we get an hour of being able to use the computer or DVD player or vacuum cleaner or whatever inside the 5th wheel.

Solar panels on the ground and on top of the 5th wheel

Usually there is plenty of sunshine in the Sonoran Desert. Occasionally we get a cloudy or rainy day, and then we may have to choose between getting online or watching a DVD that night. But that's okay--Coyote Howls has a clubhouse that has regular 110v power (ooh, that's pretty technical for me!) and we can take our computers up there if we want.

When we want to use electricity for anything besides lights in the 5th wheel, we go outside and turn on the inverter. Then we go back outside and turn it off when we're done.

The inverter where we turn the electricity on and off

There are some things you can't do with solar power, regardless of how much sunshine you are getting. We can't run an air conditioner, but that's fine. This time of the year, it's temperate enough to not need one during the daytime, and it's downright chilly at night. I also cannot use my waffle iron (it's in the Guppy for when I go camping someplace where I hook up to electricity), my sewing machine, my iron, my toaster, or basically anything that has a heating element.

For sewing and ironing, I can go up to the clubhouse, and I do. I iron there pretty frequently because I sell vintage scarves and Western wear on eBay, and I need those things to look good before I photograph them.

For making toast, we have a primitive toaster made out of an old coffee can that we use on the propane stove. We use propane for refrigeration, cooking and heating. The original propane furnace that came with Steve's 1978 Holiday Rambler 5th wheel no longer works, but he installed a propane wall heater that keeps the living room, bedroom and kitchen warm. Also the fridge in Steve's rig doesn't work and needs either replacement or a very expensive repair, so we use the fridge in the Guppy. This requires a little walking back and forth before and after cooking, but it's not a big deal.

The kitchen, looking into the bathroom

We can also heat water using a propane water heater, but currently we're not doing that. We take showers in one of several community bathrooms here at Coyote Howls, and we just heat up a little water on the stove to do dishes. We will start using hot water and taking showers here in the 5th wheel later this winter, when it gets colder and it becomes unpleasant to go use the showers in an unheated community bathroom. But for now, not having hot water in the RV is no big deal.

The living room, with the bedroom up the stairs

Living in this campground is not exactly "boondocking," because we do have a water hook-up instead of having to use water from the 5th wheel's tank. However, we buy drinking and cooking water rather than using the water that comes from the hose. They've upgraded the water treatment here in Why, but there are still very old pipes, so the water doesn't taste good.

We don't, however, have sewage at individual campsites here. So we use a Blueboy, which is a portable sewage tank. Every week, Steve empties the blackwater into the Blueboy, which he hooks onto the back of his truck and empties at one of the campground's dump stations.

Steve and the Blueboy

We have a very large lot here at Coyote Howls--larger than any city or suburban lot where I've ever lived in the past. The Guppy sits across the lot from Steve's still-unnamed 5th wheel, and I've been slowly emptying it out and putting some of my vintage fabric and art supplies in the shed. Soon I'll be able to use the Guppy as my eBay reconnaissance vehicle, taking it for trips to Phoenix, Tucson, Prescott or wherever to buy new inventory. I plan to get to Phoenix later this week.

The Guppy, parked across the yard from the 5th wheel

I also plan to use the Guppy to go camping and exploring. We're going to take it down to Rocky Point in Mexico and spend some time camping on the beach. I may also head to Quartzite later this winter to meet up with some VanDweller friends and then head further west to Palm Springs to do some upscale eBay shopping there.

In between trips, I'll be using the Guppy as my eBay office and art studio. Steve has an extra solar panel in the shed that I can use to keep the Guppy's house battery always charged enough to use the inverter to power my computer. And the solar panel is small enough that I can take it along and use it on my various trips. So I will finally get out and do some real boondocking with the Guppy this winter.

So that's essentially what it's like to live off the grid. We have to be conscious of our use of electricity, but it's really not a big deal. I don't feel the least bit deprived in any respect. In fact, we were in Ajo for a monthly fair at the downtown Plaza on Saturday and I had my blood pressure checked by a nurse from the local clinic, and my BP is the lowest it has been in many years. I'm feeling very relaxed and happy with the slow pace of things here.


  1. Hey there Soaring! BP sounds great, you sound great. One comment, I use my sewing machine on my inverter... and don't see why you can't. It's a low voltage thing. Doesn't seem to draw much??? Check it out. Look forward to seeing you again at RTR.

  2. Sounds like you are settling in....sounds like fun!

  3. Thanks, Charlene, I will see if I can use the sewing machine in the Guppy once I have the solar panel set up there. Hi Bridget!

  4. Sounds nice. Not like ho-hum nice, but really NICE.

    We are not at all clear about why our inverter doesn't work. However, we use a small (200 W) inverter as we need it; it plugs into a port, wherever a port may be, and we get AC (not A/C). It's magic.

  5. Sounds like you're having a good time. Takes a while to figure it all out, I'll bet, but you seem to have done it.

  6. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the fun here! keep up the good work.Thanks
    Off the Grid Living

  7. Hi there! I just found your blog today (followed from a comment you left over at Lucky Duck), and have to say that I was reading this entry with fascination. I'm currently in the "can I really do this" phase of thinking about going full-time, and it was so nice to see someone spill some of the nitty gritty without making me feel stupid in the process. I'm usually okay with the mathy and artsy and literary parts of the equation, but the scientificky end of it scares me silly.

    Look forward to reading back in your archives, and getting to know you. The more I find people like you on the internet, the more I get convinced that maybe I can do this too! It gets my blood all excited, and I have to settle back down and take it one step at a time.

    *scurries off to gather more information.....

  8. p.s. thanks for the photo illustrations ... I feel smarter already ... never heard of a Blueboy before today, and now I can file it away under "other options to consider when boondocking". Great stuff! Happy happy ... and thanks for sharing.