Living small in the high desert
I've often wondered what it would actually be like to have a small footprint, off-grid house. How does it work? What does it take? How much does it really cost? Does it feel like going back in time? I happen to have a friend who spent the last few years building one. He invited me over to show me how he lives.
After Chris had given me directions and the gate code, I plugged it into Google Maps to get a satellite view of what I was about to get myself into. He'd told me not to go too far down the dirt road – as GPS units tend to not find the address of his tiny off-grid house – otherwise I might not be able to turn around in my 30ft RV with a 6x10' trailer attached to the back. Looking at satellite maps, I was a little nervous.
I was headed to Dragoon, Arizona. If you've never heard of Dragoon, it's likely due to the fact that as of last census it has a population of 209 people – and those 209 people are spread out over several square miles of land. It's sparse ... and rolling in on dirt roads at 9pm trying to find your way in the dark, blustery, and bitter cold desert offers a sort of Deliverance ambiance. I'm pretty sure I hadn't imagined the banjos playing as I drove through town.
Chris has a tiny house there – or rather, a tiny-house-mansion of sorts. I've been fascinated by tiny off-grid home culture for some time now. Given that I travel full time in an RV with no "stick and brick" home, everything about off-grid life appeals to me. I've found myself researching it time and time again, and never fully feeling satisfied with the information I've come across.
Chris started construction in 2014 on a piece of property he owns in the high desert of Arizona. It's about 8 miles from the freeway down a bumpy, neglected highway, followed by about a mile of dirt road before you reach his gate.
"Originally, it was never going to be a house. The barn was to store dirtbikes and camp when we were there. I didn't get a permit, so when the county came, they said I couldn't have a garage without a house ... so I had to convert it or get it off my property within 30 days ... it's just a bunch of pieced together sh*t that I could afford at the time and then it just kept expanding and changing."
After being told to make a house or leave, he decided rather than scrap the garage, he would turn it into a home so he would have a place to stay closer to "work" at a nearby racetrack where he's a member. Chris teaches people how to ride motorcycles at a very high level.
What had begun as a 340 sq ft garage of a barn evolved into a 340 sq ft home and then into a 750 sq ft tiny-house-mansion. Earlier this year, he added a second 300 sq ft building and attached it with a small hallway to expand his living quarters. The addition is only 70 percent complete he says. He and his wife Jennifer have three kids and felt like they could use some more privacy.
You'll notice a big prefab garage in some of the photos; that came at the same time as the recent 300 sq ft addition some four months ago. After all, the garage was the reason his entire build started in the first place.
With the property being entirely off grid, that is, no hardlines of any sort into his property, basic home functions we tend to take for granted aren't always easy.
He has no well for water. Chris trucks water in – 275 gallons (1040 l) at a time – from town half a mile away where he has a bulk meter. He fills the container up that's in the back of his "beater work truck" that he bought from Craigslist for $1000, drives it to his house, and dumps it into the storage tanks on site. In total, his water storage system holds 1050 gallons (4000 l). That will last him up to six months before he has to truck in more water in the back of his pickup. "When you've got a limited amount of water, you tend to not waste any," he says. His septic system is a 350 gallon concrete tank with a leech field. That means no city sewage and no visits from the "poo truck" when the tank is full.
Electricity comes from a 1600 W Missouri Freedom Wind Turbine (which was purring along nicely as I shot photos) paired with four 295 W, 24 V Monocrystalline solar panels. They're tied into his four 400 Ah, 6 V battery bank. A single battery alone weighs in at an impressive too-heavy-for-me-to-pick-up-alone-without-injury. The batteries are wired to a 4000 W Trace SW4024 Power Conversion Center to give him standard US 110 V AC power inside the tiny home. He also has a 24 V to 12 V rectifier attached to the system to power only the lighting in the house. With this setup, he has ample power to last through the night and even a day or two longer if there were no sun or wind. All of his lights are energy efficient LEDs (except two decorative Edison bulbs that he runs sparingly). Rather than pulling 40 W from a standard incandescent bulb, he can achieve roughly the same amount of light with just 4 W. The biggest electrical drain on the entire system, he says, is his "instant on" hot water heater which has a 1400 W and 12 A draw while in use.
Having 2780 W of solar and turbine power, he's able to run a small portable air conditioning unit during the day when it's hottest during the summer. In the winter months when it's bone-chillingly cold (as was the 50ºF day I was there), he heats his home with a propane furnace mounted the the wall. He keeps a second portable LPG furnace for the especially cold nights.
In case all else fails and there's no wind or sun and his batteries are depleted, he has a Yamaha 2000 W inverter generator that he can plug directly into his grid to power everything.
Chris framed the house himself. He poured the concrete, wired the electrical, fitted the plumbing, painted, insulated ... everything. Everything except the drywall. "I hate drywall" he said with his eyes squinted and glaring at nothing and everything all at once. I didn't press the issue further. The budget for his second home isn't as tiny as the house itself: all in, including the 15 acre parcel he has, he's looking at around $80,000.
When asked if all this work has been worth it, Chris flashes me a toothy smile and simply gives me a big thumbs up.