Tag Archives: ideas

Power in the middle of nowhere

One thing we love about our piece of property is that you really feel that you are in the middle of nowhere. Even though we have a neighbor, and at least at the initial home site, he’s a 2 minute walk away, there’s a real feeling of being “out there”.  But with that feeling, comes some challenges, after water, comes a need for power.  We do after all still live in a connected world that requires power, and connectivity creates international communities that I hope we never lose.

So, how do we deal with power when we don’t have any?  The most obvious answer, given where we are situated, istoduse solar energy for day to day uses, including lighting, and even heating and A/C.  Well, at least that’s the idea. And while it is feasible to put together a big enough solar system for all of this, I think it’s more realistic to assume that we will still end up with a generator providing at least some level of peak power support.

Well, a generator seems to be a reasonably un-controversial source of power, until you realize that in the great state of California, we mere mortals are no longer allowed to purchase high efficiency diesel generators (that could also run off of bio-diesel, or even vegetable oil).  At least not new ones, and while I’ve done a little bit of searching, and have found a few diesel generators floating around second hand, diesel still has some negatives, especially for a generator setup that at least initially might only be used once every couple of weeks or months.  That is that even though it is a more stable fuel than gasoline, it still has issues with sludge buildup and water contamination.  Gasoline, on top of being less efficient, is even less shelf stable, and would effectively require being cleaned out after every use.  On top of which there are a number of other issues (such as carburetors gumming up even if they are used regularly, etc.) that make gasoline a less than desirable fuel, last but not least being that the price is starting to creep up again, and I do fully expect to see 5$/gallon gas by next summer.

So how to resolve this dilema?  It turns out that we will likely be getting a gas generator after all, and that rather than gas, it will be set up to run off of propane or natural gas!  This provides equivalent efficiency, cleaner burning gas, no gumming of the system, effectively infinite shelf life, and the ability to use the same fuel to run a number of other systems as well (such as a LNG refrigerator and/or Air Conditioner!).

There is at least one company that makes retrofit kits (http://www.propane-generators.com/carb-conversion.htm), and the retrofit looks mighty easy to boot.  So for an extra 2-300$, you get an efficient power system, a fuel that doesn’t need to be stabilized and used in a limited time frame, and a generator that could still be run of of regular gasoline in a pinch!

Now the only question:  what size generator to get?  Oh, and electric or pull start?  Oh, and should I get one big enough to run my welding outfit?

Actually that last question is a good one. One of the areas I’m currently investigating, and will be writing more about in the future, is using DC to run a welding setup (see the prior post on welding with batteries). I’m looking at the best way to tie all of these power users and generators together for all of the different needs in building and maintaing, and most importantly enjoying this home away from home.

But before I get too far off topic, I want to leave you with one last thought.  Given that I mentioned bio-diesel and other alternate fuels, I though it interesting to consider that there is an alternate fuel for a gas/gasoline powered engine as well… Methane.  We don’t have animals, so this isn’t actually a great solution for us, but if we were to get perhaps a couple pigs or even  a bunch of chickens, it would be possible to ferment the sewage from the animals to make gas as well!

Moving the containers – II

Since the helicopter idea is a non-starter (at least not during this budget cycle), we’re going with big-yellow machinery, namely an industrial scale forklift. Often these are used around lumber yards, or construction sites to move pallets of supplies around and  up 20+ feet in the air.  We’ll be using one to at least get the containers into the property proper rather than sitting out in the cul-de-sac where I’m sure the nieghbors love their new modern art, but I’m less than enthused, as I can’t even container camp in them where they are.

With the forklift, we’ll be able to at least get the containers close to their final destination, and given that it’s been nice for the last week and a half, I am hopeful that the soil may be more co-operative at this point, and may even let us move the containers close to their current destination (note, I still have hopes of eventually moving these containers to their “final” destination on the other side of the wash in the future).  However, I’m also thinking ahead to the potential eventuality that either we can’t lift them directly into place (which would be one of the benefits of the use of a forklift of this scale), or that for whatever reason, we still need to drag them into their final resting spot, to which I’ve designed a sled to lift the back of the container off of the ground to hopefully simplify the process of moving the containers around.The stacked 2×6 beams should provide enough clearance for most of the obstacles I’m trying to get over, and the 2×4 beams across the back provide both bracing for the skids and a “cleat” to catch the back of the container.  The actual positioning of the cleat and the angular cross beam and front cleat will depend on the actual container construction, so I’m not yet convinced that this is the right exact model.  But I believe that this is a solid enough solution to keep everything together at least for a drag across the ground.

The 20′ containers that I purchased also have forklift pockets (I was not able to find a forklift locally with tines that can spread wide enough to fit in these, but that’s what they are there for), but my intention is to string a heavy chain or a lenght of tubular webbing through the pocket, and around the front cleat on the sled to keep the sled oriented in the same direction as the contaienr, and to help it get over any rough ground more efficiently.

Well, enough planning, I’m heading up to the property on Thursday evening to see if we can’t do what we weren’t able to do a couple of weeks ago…

Solar Ivy?

I saw this link about the SMIT Solar Ivy project over on the Jetson Green site, and I thought it was quite clever.  Little solar ‘petals’ rather than one big panel.   I was thinking that while I don’t have huge walls to cover with something like this, I do want to add a sun shade/rain catchment sail over the container and deck area of the build, and having something like this on top would be a nice way to break up the surface and enhance the potential shade provided, while also producing power!

Anyway, check out the SMIT Solar Ivy site for more on this interesting idea.

Another thought on shutters

I’m spending an awful lot of time thinking these things through, but I would really like to get to a design that, once in place, works nearly right the first time (I’m still somewhat of a realist), and hopefully is replicable by others that want to do the same sort of thing!  I mentioned previously the idea of welding the fram on to the wall of the container, and then cutting out the shutter (now welded to the frame), and doing this on the inside. Today I was fiddling with doing the same thing from the outside, and while I think that would work just fine (and the 1″ or so shutters sticking out aren’t going to make the containers so far out of ISO compliance as to make them un-moveable, at least by land), I think the interior route still is a better solution.  If for no other reason than the baffels created will also provide to properly enclose the closed-cell foam insulation that will be applied after the shutters and interior studs are in place.  The shutter barrier being inside also means that there’s a flat square surface onto which it should be possible to mate the window/door units as well.

I still like the original model of cutting through and then edging the shutters in, which would still provide a flat surface and a baffle for the insulation, but I am not convinced I can work at the tolerances that requires in the field while learning to weld… Oh, and I am taking a class on how to weld in the near future :-D

For those interested, here’s a view of the new baffel shutter (in an exterior location) where you can see the baffels before being fit snug up against the wall.

How about shutters “inside” the building?

My current shutter design requires:

1) Cut out the shutter interior material (~4″ less than the final opening) out of the wall itself

2) Cut out the actual shutter space (this will create a 2″ wide “O” cutout from the wall, with the shutters already removed from the interior)

3) Weld 1″ wide by 2″ deep steel tube around the opening, and the shutter (after cutting the shutter in half and removing another 1″ from the new cut sides of the two shutter sides).  This is trick, and needs to be square

4) Insert the shutters back in the opening (tubing to tubing) and weld on the appropriate hinges.

I still think this will make a very nice shutter, but it is complicated by the fact that the shutters need to be cut out and then trimmed.  Keeping everything square is the big trick in this, and that’s where an alternate idea has presented itself.

We had dinner with friends Chad and Anna (and their charming daughter Nimue) this evening, and as we were discussing this particular component of the container process, Chad suggested just welding the frame to the interior of the container.  I thought this made a lot of sense, in that you can build the frame, add the hinges, make sure nothing binds (perhaps even add some cross bracing), and then weld the shutter frame to the wall.  You can add a baffle of either 1/8″ thick steel plate, or just add an appropriately cut out 1×1.5″ tube steel insert, which will fully connect the frame at the top and bottom of the shutter. If you leave an appropriately sized gap (1/8″ should be adequate) around the shutter frame and its mounting frame, you should be able to:

1) Weld the frame up on a known flat surface and weld on the hinges

2) Check for and remedy any twisted hinges, or areas on the frame that bind (which should be ok with the 1/8″ gap).

3) Weld the frame to the sidewall of the container

4) Drill through the container wall to mark the actual location of the shutter gap (between the wall frame and the shutter frame) on the exterior

5) cut through the exterior, either with a cutting torch, plasma cutter, a cutting wheel on a rotary grinder, or even a reciprocating saw (like a sawzall)

Using 1″ tubing would still take a small amount of the interior space away, but this would potentially be masked by the interior walls anway. The biggest benefit is the ability to attach the shutter to the frame prior to cutting out the shutter, and being able to make sure the frame isn’t binding prior to cutting out the shutter!

Now, with a 3.5″ metal stud set all the way to the “outside” of the corrugations int the side wall, there is stil a 1″ gap between the shutters and the wall edge.  This isn’t enough for the doors I’m looking at (5″ framed width is in the spec sheet), but perhaps I’ll look into some custom doors instead.  They’ll stil be thicker than 1″, but if I can get them down to 3″ rather than five, then they don’t stick so far into the interior as to look odd.

I think this model makes even more sense than the original, even if it means sacrificing an additional interior inch of space on one wall.

Welding with no power?

When building a house on a metal frame, eventually you are going to have to deal with the need to weld something.  No, really.  It’s the most logical solution. And unless you are building your container house out where you have a nice power supply (a 6+KVA generator would help), you’re going to have to figure out how to weld without the unlimited power we city dwellers have come to expect.

MIG welding headCertainly one solution is the generator->standard 220V welding setup.  But there’s the first rub.  You need a sizeable generator to power a welding rig (usually ~5+KW minimum) if for no other reason than to get the 220V plug which most MIG welders need. This might be fine if you already want a large generator as backup for your place, but most people would do fine with a 1-2KW generator, rather than the much more powerful 5KW scale generator. In addition to the size, there’s the fuel consumption. Going from hours per gallon to gallons per hour between the two ends of the spectrum.  There’s also getting the generator in place (again, not an issue if you plan on keeping it in/near the cabin), especially if you decide to rent one, where a good road makes this easy, but if you’re like us, where we don’t have a good path to where the containers will be, it certainly adds to the challenge!

One potential solution, given the fact that we’re looking at solar as a key energy provider for our studio, is to weld with DC.  It turns out that welding systems are DC anyway, but usually there’s a large AC/DC conversion along with start control and other fancy bits within the box that the welding head is attached to.  So why not just run direct DC?  Well, that’s just what’s avaiable, either with built in batteries (something like: http://www.hobartwelders.com/products/battery-powered/trek180/) or standalone with your own batteries (as in: http://www.readywelder.com/).  But since these systems are fairly straight forward, and if you can get away without the shielding gas supply, you could build your own (as shown here: http://www.instructables.com/id/SpoolGun/)!

I’m going to look at the build your own route myself, as I already have the equipment for a fairly sizable solar platform, and as long as I can get away with fluxed welding wire, this should work out really well! Interestingly enough, there’s a “solar golf cart welder” instructable as well (http://www.instructables.com/id/SolarWelder/)  which at least based on the commentary leads me to believe that I’ll have plenty of power for small welding jobs, though not perhaps for the behemoth job of building out the metal shutters. It does make me wonder about solar plus a generator->battery charger setup. As this might be an interesting “hybrid” setup. As the comment went, you might draw 150A for welding, but only for a short time.  And if you can feed in 30-50A (plus whatever the solar provides), it might well be that the batteries act more like a big capacitor rather than managing the longer term power storage that batteries are known for.

Clearly, there’s still a lot to learn about how much actual power is required for welding, and what the best methodology will turn out to be, but we’ll experience many of these options soon enough!

Steel Studs rather than Wood?

I’m hopeful that the ground will dry out enough over the next week (given that it looks like we’ll have good weather at least through this coming Sunday) that we can actually move the containers to their final destination.  Even if not, we’ll have them close enough that I hope to be able to drag them the last ~100 yards in the April timeframe when the ground really will start to turn back into the concrete that it resembled last August.

In the interim, I plan to continue to flesh out the interior of the containers so that they can become living spaces, even if that occurs prior to their final location change.  That effort would be a good test of the road-worthiness of these boxes, especially if we have to drag them any appreciable distance.

To fill out the interior, I’m planning on framing out walls ~2″ from the interior of the side wall waffle.  The extra space will be filled with a closed-cell spray foam insulation, and the walls will then be clad either in plywood or standard gypsum.  I actually like the idea of using marine grade plywood, which would make for a truly robust space that could handle any potential interior condensation, but cost may be a limiting factor.  One interesting shift from most housing, which may help manage costs to a certain extent, is that the interior sheeting has even less of a structural component than it does in a stick built house, not that it provided all that much to begin with. By placing studs on 2′ centers, and filling the void with spray foam, it should be quite reasonable to use a thin, 3/8″ plywood, rather than a thicker gypsum board.  I think that a nice varnish or even an oil finish will really provide for an interesting interior.  And if we don’t oil the walls, we have the option of painting as well.

I also just realized (after working on my model for a couple hours this evening), that I forgot to include the windows in the back side of the container.  The “front” wall will remain window free, as that will be one end of the bathroom, but there will be a window on either end of the bathroom, for light, and to add a bit of additional space to what will otherwise be a fairly cramped space.

I also need to add the interior wall, and add the raised bathroom floor.  So far (except for my weird header in this iteration of the model), this looks to be a good weekend project.  I think it’s realistic to think that I can at least get the walls framed in a weekend, and then plan on sprayfoam for the following weekend.

So, the only other point here, is that I think we’re going to go with steel studs rather than wood.  This lends it self to the studs being welded to the sidewalls where appropriate (not all studs are going to line up on the wall waffle, at least based on this model, but I haven’t measured the actual container waffle yet, so we’ll have to see).  Certainly the footer and header can be tacked on, and the cieling joists can also be spot welded into place.  This means that the frame will effectively be an extension to the exterior, even though that will also create a thermal channel from the exterior to the interior.  This may be a bad idea, and I’m certainly open to suggestions/reccomendations here as well.  One thought I had is to use 2.5″ channel, which is avaialble at Home Depot at least, and leave a 1/2″-1″ gap between the framing and the actual container wall, which will then be filled with the expanding foam.  This would provide a solid vapor/thermal barrier, but makes the interior shell free-floating until the foam is in place.  Could be interesting though, and it might be a simple matter of providing a few welded ties between the shell and the framing until some sections of foam are in place, which can then be cut out before the rest is foamed in (or left in place, given that the small pins won’t be much of a thermal conductor as the entire stud would be).

More thoughts, more concepts. I can’t wait to actually get this put into practice!

A model for the kitchen?

I was perusing the make blog, and saw this article on a kitchen for one’s bar-b-que adventures:

http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2011/01/moveable_kitchen.html

I like the grey-water capture concept, and the simple water input model.  The embedded burner isn’t a bad touch either.

I beleive we’ll end up witha slightly more “classic” model for the kitchen, with a bathroom and kitchen sink sharing a wall, and a shower as well.  The grey-water capture is something I still need to put together, and even if we do end up with a composting toilet, I’ll still want to have a design for a black water and grey water management system.  The black water would come with us when leaving the system to be dumped along the way home (there are still RV dump stations at some of the rest-stops along the way), while the grey water would be processed in an earth tank located near the grey-water output.

Rainwater Catchment – Water Filter

With the container delivery in process, my thoughts have turned to catching water.  We’ve already done an analysis, and can clearly catch thousands of gallons of clean water off of the two container roofs, but I’ll need to add gutters to redirect the water, and I will still want to pre-filter the water before it goes into the tank to try to reduce the quantity of dirt that will get into the system (some will always manage to get in anyway, but I want to minimze that).

So I’ve been thinking about the filter systems I’ve seen floating around.  First, you want to try to avoid leaves and other “large” particles from even getting to a media type filter, so a pre-filter is in order.  One thought I had was to attach one of the leaf over-flow covers onto the top of a gutter section. These are the sorts of things that use surface tension to keep the water flowing into the gutter while the leaves are supposed to just shoot right off.  Since I won’t be in a position to place full length gutters the day the containers arrive (expecting early on the 17th), I was thinking of just placing a tarp along with a short section of gutter fastened to a cistern. This will at least allow us to capture some of the initial influx of rain, and let me test out the filters I’m considering.

The first actual filter is one I’ve seen described in a few rainwater catchment documents and sites,called a bypass filter. Basically, it’s a tube that hangs down below the downspout and has a slow leak valve at the bottom and a floating captive ball in the tube.  The idea is that the first “flush” from the roof/tarp dumps its dirt into the bypass (expected to be fairly fine stuff, light blow-sand, etc.), floating the ball up to the top where it eventually blocks off the bypass.  The rest of the water then flows across the bypass to the cistern.  The bypass will slowly leak out and will re-fill from a continued rain event, or eventually empty out and be ready for the next event.  Eventually it will become necessary to wash out the bypass in order to get rid of the accumulated muck.  My model includes a standard outdoor faucet for the slow leaking valve, which may even be large enough to allow a washout of the bypass without having to disassemble the filter all together.

The second filter is a sand and charcoal filter.  This is fairly straight forward, with the only “trick” being that I expect to line the outlet of the filter with a piece of geo-textile to act as a screen against sand and charcoal being flushed out and into the cistern propper.

So other than this model forcing the cistern deep under ground, I think this is the solution for rain catchment.

Container Shutters – II

I decided to do a bit more modeling around the accordian shutters, and built out a sketchup model that takes into account the actual size of the Jeld-Wen (Home Depot) windows and french doors.  I’d much rather have a completely open side, but everything I’ve read says you really want at least one brace in the middle of a 20′ container side, so I’m leaving a 6″ section of the side in place, and will add a c-channel brace on the back end of the fairly thin side wall to provide a structural connection between the floor and roof trusses.  With the accordion shutters, you still get an un-obstructed view straight out, but you do now have 3′ wide blinders on either side of your view.  Not idea, but I think this is about as good as it’ll get for now.  The benefit here is that there is still a way to completely re-close the container.  Since the shutters will be edged with 2″x1″ tube steel, and the corrugation in the side walls is ~1.5″, this should keep the entire enclosure within the ISO frame, and yet still give the greatest unobstructed view that is still openable by hand with no mechanical assist.

There is one more design that I still want to investigate, which would be these smaller shutters, but with a winch based mechanism for raising the shutters.  My real concern is that if the winch fails, there’s no “easy” (i.e., non-heavy-weight-champion-strenght-requred way) to open the shutter, making this a bit less flexible if the winch fails for any reason.