Category Archives: Electric

Always The Hard Way?

Ask my parents, ask my friends, ask Sarah… I always  do things the hard way.  I’m not sure why, I’ve been told it’s because I’m a Capricorn(?), but I’ve recently been recognizing it when it happens.  Por ejemplo, I can’t just make coffee in the morning, I have to preheat everything (Bialetti, Mug, 1/2 & 1/2), find the perfect blend of coffee/chicory/cardamom (5:1:dash), then watch everything fastidiously while Sarah’s ginger tea (finely chopped) comes to a boil.  The tiny house, too, has proved to be an excellent mirror to this particularly pervasive character trait.  I couldn’t just slap up exterior window trim and caulk the heck out of it.  Too easy.  I had to devise a clever interlocking system that would guarantee (so far) water-proofness.  While I DO think it’s a good system, It doesn’t work any better than the easy way, looks about the same, and complicated things greatly when I realized it’s hard to tuck the same piece of siding under two sides of a window.  Oh, and btw, I caulked the heck out of it.  Here are some pictures.

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Knowing my aforementioned proclivity toward encumbrance, it was time to run electric.  We walked through the house and discussed if we really need a three-way-switch to the loft, or even a porch light.  We nixed both because we prefer localized, movable lighting (aka lamps) that we could plug in and click on at the source.  With only electrical outlets needed in the house, the wiring was easy.  Just hook the whole house up like one big extension cord.  Plug one end in and everything works!  The first few were a bit tedious (tiny wires/connection + big clumsy hands) but once I got the hang of it, my sway towards complication began.

It started innocently enough.  I realized that I was using 12-3 Romex when I only needed 12-2 for our simplistic system (Meaning I had one extra ‘hot’ wire: see below).  wpid-20150420_140751.jpgThen I thought, “Hey!  I have two hot wires in the same casing, why not make the house on two circuits (red and black) and they can share a neutral!”  This made sense  and I later found out that this used to be a common practiceSo I wired the outside socket and the kitchen socket on the same circuit (red) and the rest of the house on black.  Good in theory, more complicated than I thought partly due to my lackluster wiring skills, and partly due to not fully understanding what it means to share a neutral.  SO, after wrestling with it over the course of a rainy afternoon, and getting some sage advice from an electrician friend, I scrapped the idea and wired it all on black.  One circuit, no problem.

Do you see the progression, though?  Can you see how it moved from a straight forward system to a more complicated/better way?  I started by recognizing my proclivities, then as I put my head down and started doing it, old habits kicked in and I wanted more/better/different.  I think this is a blessing and a curse.  A blessing because the need to improve has lead me to some pretty awesome experiences and taught me a great number of valuable skills.  It’s helped me learn things quickly and understand them fully.  It’s a curse because I tend to get stuck in the process and have a hard time extracting myself…taking a step back…and realizing that somebody has already figured out how to do this work, and I can probably trust that they knew what they were doing.

So my take away: always find out for yourself….but also trust that other people have already found out, and it’s on their firm shoulders that I wobble around on trying for something ‘new’. After all, it seems that the ‘new’ thing these days, is actually an old thing rediscovered.  Why not walk the well established path for a bit.  Find out where it leads.  Take some easy steps and get to know the trail before banking left into the brambles and steep inclines of improvised electronics and sketchy wiring.  The end.

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Next up, Insulation!

Shift-Alt-Electricity! (or Technology Part I: Electricity (b))

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Ok, ok I know I said that I’d go into our specific energy uses in this post, but I feel there’s more to say about other ways to electrify a tiny house.  So bear with me (roar) as I shuffle through some more potentially helpful alternatives besides solar.

Grid-tied  

When all the factors of embodied energy, supply, waste, ease, and cost are considered, being tied into the grid can be the steadiest, cleanest, and cheapest.  This is especially true for places like New York City, New Jersey or Oregon where you can choose what source the energy is coming from via: www.greenmountainenergy.com/for-customers/contact-my-utility.

Using grid-tied energy, the approximate cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) =  $0.10-$0.15

Biodiesel + battery bank hybrid

This involves using any regular diesel generator with waste vegetable oil biodiesel and a battery bank.  The major downside to using a biodiesel generator is that “generator sizing in a traditional site is based on peak load so that it can handle the peak load requirement when/if it is required. However, a site seldom reaches its peak load for more than a few minutes at a time.  When the generator starts on a hybrid site, it runs at a high load during the boost recharge period to charge the battery bank and power the existing site load. The generator is therefore running at a much greater efficiency (80-90%)…” (excerpted from: www.clean-power-systems.com/resources/hybrid-power-resources).

 In common English this means that when the generator is on, it produces at five kW (or more), no matter what.  If you only need three kW, two kW are wasted.  With a battery bank and a controller, however, you can collect this excess energy and run all your electric-heavy things at once.  When the batteries are charged, the generator turns off, and the units run on battery power.  It’s not 100% efficient but the price is comparable to a grid-tied system, and it’s reliable, upgradeable, and initially cheaper than solar.

 Here is the math on biodiesel:

~34.5×106 J/liter = 9.58 kWh/Liter (www.roperld.com/science/biofuelsfromalgae.htm)

1 gallon=3.785 liters.  9.58kWh x 3.785L. = 36.2603 kWh/Gallon.

 If one gallon of biodiesel costs  $3.00 (current cost in Oregon) then that works out to $0.08/ KWH  (1/36th of $3.00), assuming all power generated is stored or used.  If half of its max is used, it’s about $0.16/kWh.  With the battery bank and hybrid charge controller it would run on 80-90% efficiency, or about $0.10/kWh. 

 Here are some sources that discuss what biodiesel is, and the pros and cons therein:

auto.howstuffworks.com/fuel-efficiency/alternative-fuels/biodiesel4.htm

www.biodiesel.org/

A government-operated site that includes information on all available renewable energy sources including biodiesel fuel: www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/fuels/biodiesel.html

 Windwindpoweredsheep

Wind turbines are just too big and need to be placed up too high to be of practical use to our tiny house.  While it’s a great technology that offers little to no hassle and an unlimited capacity to turn in the wind, it is limited by the wind (or lack thereof) that is present and the location/zoning where we park our tiny house.

Biogas  

This is super cool.   An explanation from All Power Labs: “Gasification is the use of heat to transform solid biomass or other carbonaceous solids into a synthetic “natural gas-like” flammable fuel.  Through gasification, we can convert nearly any dry organic matter into a clean burning fuel that can replace fossil fuel in most use situations. Whether starting with wood chips or walnut shells, construction debris or agricultural waste, gasification will transform common “waste” into a flexible gaseous fuel you can use to run your internal combustion engine, cooking stove, furnace or flamethrower.”

While this is an incredible technology, the fuel for it is difficult to find and the maintenance would be a lot to keep up with.  It’s also not as efficient, dependent upon an unreliable source of fuel and the technology is still emerging.

 Here is a link to the “Power Pallet” bio-gas generator and the fuels that it can use:

http://www.allpowerlabs.com/info/gasification-basics/gasifier-types

www.gekgasifier.com/products/appropriate-fuels

 

Wave Power

This is just another nod to a great technology that would be extremely difficult to implement.

www.treehugger.com/renewable-energy/why-wave-power-so-far-behind-wind-and-solar.html

 

So that’s the skinny on various electricity sources.  I’m almost done running wire through the tiny house and will have a blog about that in the coming weeks.

 

 

 

Technology Part I: Electricity (a)

  Tiny House Technology

 In the next series of posts, we will explore some nuts and bolts of tiny house technology and share resources that have pointed us in the right direction.  We will also share information on electrical loads and a nuanced discussion of the embodied energy inherent in many ‘green’ technologies.  The research we’ve done has included an understanding of the embodied energy required to manufacture the product, as well as the latest research about their sustainability.  Embodied energy is “…the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery.” (www.yourhome.gov.au).

We would also like to acknowledge the ever-changing nature in the building field, as new research constantly comes to light.  It’s not possible to be “100% green,” a phrase too often left unsubstantiated in the building industry, and which has been co-opted to mean the same as “sustainable” without taking into account long-term social, environmental and economic impact.

We’re trying to do our best to be aware of our choices, avoid “soap-boxes,” vote with our dollars, and know that “purity” in building can’t really exist.  No one is perfect, most builds are not without those sheets of plywood trucked in from afar, and the rabbit hole of “100% green” is very deep.

  1.  Electricityelectric sheep

The first step we took was to gather information on electrical loads of common appliances and calculate a tiny space’s electrical needs.  From this we discovered just how much power we’ll need to generate, collect or plug into.  Here’s a resource on solar load calculation/determination with an empty chart to work from.

Here’s an interactive resource to calculate how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) one might need to generate for construction, which for us is significantly more than for day-to-day usage: Here’s one for day-to-day post-construction usage.

We are trying to use Energy Star-rated appliances when possible (www.energystar.gov) and LED light-bulbs that require a significantly lower wattage than incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs, with the same amount of lumens. Here are some recommended LED light-bulbs.

Solar 

Sarah and I have decided to go solar for the whole house.  Now that we’re living in a cabin with Solar we really get to experiment with our electricity usage and are finding that we don’t use much.  LED’s cut down on our usage in a major way and aren’t as harsh/blue as we thought they would be.  The biggest appliance we have is a juicer, which tends to be used only in summer with plenty of sun in the sky (winter feels cold to be juicing and veggies are in shorter supply).

 In terms of good solar options for tiny houses, the “Classic” unit from Sol-Man costs $4995 and can power one tiny house without an electric heater.  The Sol-Man has all the components one needs with 2.4 kWh, inverter, charge controller and batteries.  It is an easy plug-and-play system that can roll around to adjust to the sun’s location.  Sol-Mans units seem almost too big for our usage unless we decide to heat our home or hot water with electricity.

SolManIcon

Though the initial investment is large a solar electricity system requires less maintenance and pays for itself in saved electric bills over the years AND in some states you can sell the excess electricity back to the grid.  Solar technology is also improving rapidly and as the market widens costs come down significantly.

Here’s a good online solar calculator.

Some portable solar solutions: We are leaning towards the Goal Zero Yeti 400

 An all-around great resource for anything solar: www.solarliving.org

 More good resources:

www.treehugger.com/slideshows/energy-efficiency/all-solar-efficiency-breakthroughs-single-chart

otherpower.com

 

Next up: Some specifics about our electric usage and other fun ways to meet your electricity needs.