First Year Building An Off-Grid Homestead


Guest Post: 

Jacob Meals

Jacob Meals

A homesteader on 40 acres in Northeastern Arizona he calls Camp Jasper. A single man trying to live a simple and self reliant life away from the hustle and bustle of the city and desires to do so organically.
Jacob Meals

I was born and raised in Northern California until I was 21. I worked a wide range of jobs from feed stores, bucking hay, framing houses, warehouses, and retail. My dream was to live off grid in Alaska and I believed I had enough experience to throw myself into that. However, life sent me into another direction. I decided to go to school and become an electrical engineer. I completed two years when life again threw me a curveball . This was in 2001 when California was having a problem with the power grid and we would have brown outs. This caused problems with the jobs I was interested in. I decided I wanted a dependable job and paycheck so I joined the Air Force. During the next 11 years in the Air Force I got married (who was also in the Air Force) and had two children. I would have been a lifer in the Air Force but I was inured training for a deployment. Unfortunately, transitioning from military life to civilian is not easy and even harder on a marriage which forced us to go our separate ways. This is how I ended up in Northeast Arizona. 

Given the situation I was in, I decided it was time to finally pursue the dream I had as a teenager. It may not be in Alaska but I found a 40 acre lot I could afford and start my homestead. The only thing I had was my truck, a large tent, some tools, and a small generator. Starting from the first day I arrived, I knew this was going to be a challenge. I made the assumption, because I had been to other areas in Arizona, that I had a good idea of what things were like here. I was way wrong. I came out here to look at the land so I knew what things looked like before hand. Nice weather, green grass, fat free range cattle roaming the area but I learned real quick that it is not always like that. If I had time I would have done far more research but I did not have that luxury. 

I arrived in April after a good rainstorm and barely made it down the four miles of dirt road to my new place. The first thing I learned was you need 4 wheel drive out here if you want get in and out when it rains. I do not have 4 wheel drive and got stuck the second day I was here. My work around for this problem is religiously watch the weather and plan several days in advance. After it rains, I may have to wait a day or two for the roads to dry enough to drive on, or in the winter wait until things freeze. 

My first task was to set up my tent. This is not easy by yourself, but even harder with 30mph winds. After several hours of frustration and cursing the wind, I got the tent set up. Several days later I was surprised with 60mph winds and rain. The second lesson I learned was tents are not an option out here, even short term. The high winds will destroy any tent in matter of minutes. The poles, both fiberglass and aluminum tubes, snapped and bent like twigs. 

While I was standing there staring at my destroyed tent a neighbor from several miles down the road drove by and recommended a place to buy a Graceland building I could turn into a tiny house. Once the roads were good I was off to find this place. I found a building I could afford and had it delivered. It is 10ft by 16ft with a loft on each end. The building is unfinished on the inside meaning no insulation and all studs exposed. I was excited though, I no longer had to worry about the wind and rain. I set up my bed and a counter for cooking. I was able to relax for a short time. The third thing I learned was the temp in the high desert, 6000ft, can drop fast even in April and May. The next project I had to complete was insulate my tiny house and buy a heater. The insulation helped but the little propane heater could only keep the temp in the 50s at night. I think this was due to the fact I couldn’t insulated the floor. In hindsight I should have insulated under the tiny house before I leveled it at a height that gave me no crawl space.

I had brought with me a 15 watt solar panel, a small 35 amp battery and 400 watt inverter. This worked for charging my phone and watching one movie on my little portable dvd player. I knew I needed a much larger system but I had to work with what I had. When it was cloudy or raining I resorted to using my generator more than I wished to. 

I knew a little about solar systems but just enough to get myself in trouble. I eventually upgraded to a 100 watt panel and two 12 volt deep cycle batteries. This gave me enough power on bad days.

Up to this point I was using a huge ice chest with several blocks of ice. Every few days I would go to town and get ice and fill up several 5 gallon water containers for drinking at cooking. At some point I acquired a small chest freezer to replace the ice chest. I didn’t really want to freeze everything so I would run the freezer off the generator until the temp dropped to fridge range and turn it off. This worked but kept me tethered to it. I did some research at the library and found a work around. I purchased an externally controlled thermostat that has a wide range of temperatures. I could have bought a fridge but I liked the chest freezer because you do not loose the air when you open the door. I then bought two 305 watt solar panels and a 800 watt inverter. My new system was a God send. I had plenty of solar power and battery storage to run my makeshift fridge and have cold food that I was no longer tethered to. 

I now had my 100 watt panel and 35 amp battery I could use for something else. I also had several 12 volt LED lights and toggle switches. So I built a box for my toggle switches and wired lights in the tiny house. I no longer had to rely on flashlights or headlamps. 

Compared to what I started with I was living the high life with lights and cold food. What I needed next was a good way to shower. For the first month or so I would heat water and put it in a pump up water sprayer. This worked but was not the easiest inside, outside was still too cold. Once it warmed up I built an outdoor shower. I took two seven gallon water containers and plumbed them together and added a hose and sprayer. The sun warmed the water enough to shower. This was awesome. The one drawback was you had to shower while the sun was out and no wind. Now life was getting a little easier. 

This outdoor shower also served as my laundry facility. I was given a small hand crank washer and an old fashioned ringer. This was much cheaper than going to the  laundromat. I made a nice clothes line to dry the clothes. The clothes dried surprisingly fast in cool weather with the wind.

At some point during the summer I went to see a friend down in Phoenix. It’s amazing how you get  use to living off grid and when you go to the city forget how easy things are there. You do not have to think about how much water you use taking a shower, washing dishes or doing laundry. You also do not consider the power you have remaining when the sun goes down and ensure all nonessentials are turned. 

Most people do not appreciate the convenience they have or how much they waste.

Once summer ended it ended fast here. The temps dropped fast and remained low. It was in the 20s and I wasn’t completely prepared. Again, I made assumptions that were wrong. Like how cold it could get. I got a larger propane heater but I did not like having to buy propane all the time. Then the temps dropped down in the single digits. When I woke up and it was 34 degrees inside I knew I need to get a fireplace. 

I bought a small wood stove and it was a game changer. I had a great time collecting rocks from the property for the base and back wall. I was finally warm even when the temps dropped low. I could get it in the high 80s, felt like the summer in Phoenix. Of course, I learned another lesson. I failed to put the chimney high enough. Things were working fine until I got a strong south wind. All of the sudden the smoke stopped going up the chimney and started bellowing back into my tiny house. I’m guessing because the chimney wasn’t above the roof and on the North side, the South wind blowing over the roof was causing a vortex and forcing the wind down the chimney. That is something I laugh at now but at the time very frustrating. Once I fixed it I rarely have a problem…..except in 50mph winds it occasionally burps. 

My next big project was to hook up my 1000 gallon water tank and running water in my tiny home. I build a base for the large tank and dug a hole for the pump and battery below the frost line. I bought a 12 volt on demand pump for my shower, sink, and toilet. I believed I had built a cover large enough to stop the rain from filling it up. Of  course I didn’t think everything through. I lined the bottom and sides with concrete but I did not seal the hole where the pipe goes through on one side to the underside of the tiny house. After a good rain, 1 inch in an hour, the box completely filled up from that hole. I was angry that I failed to consider the water coming through the hole and that I may have destroyed my new pump. I took a small bucket and emptied the box. Fortunately the pump still worked.

For my shower I got a large galvanized water trough and for the sink I got a tiny galvanized bucket that matches the shower. I used corrugated sheet metal for the walls and copper pipe for the shower head and faucet. 

Im at point that I can look at getting some animals and start a garden. I will fence off an area, 100ft x 100ft for sheep or goats for now. I would love to fence the 40 acres but my wallet is not that big. I will also get some chickens and rabbits. The garden will take some time to build up. I have mostly clay soil that seems to grow some hardy grass clumps or low growing cactus. I’m hoping the animals and straw will build up the poor soil. Once I get the animals, I know I will have many exciting and frustrating adventures.

This is a simple overview of my first year building my homestead. There are several things I learned along the way and many things I would do differently. That will be another story.

Jacob Meals

Jacob Meals

A homesteader on 40 acres in Northeastern Arizona he calls Camp Jasper. A single man trying to live a simple and self reliant life away from the hustle and bustle of the city and desires to do so organically.
Jacob Meals

 

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