How to create enough free energy to power a family home on wheels

One question we get asked all the time, is ‘how do you live off grid without mains power?’

This is a great question and one we weren’t quite sure about navigating ourselves, when we started out. We wanted to avoid relying on batteries as much as possible, and didn’t have the means to cover our roof with solar panels just yet so we had to get creative.

The first and most obvious solution is lighting. There are loads of super cheap solar lights on the market now and we have tried a few different ones. We found the outdoor solar lights to be the best! Some are all-in-one and can slide off the stake which goes into the ground and you are left with just the light unit itself. They have a solar panel on top, rechargeable batteries inside and super-bright L.E.D’s underneath or on the side. They have a sensor which automatically makes the light come on when it gets dark, and an on/off switch. We found these great to use as a torch or to hang on the wall. We have half a dozen or so, and they are the perfect shape to lay along the dash during the day while travelling. Once you park up they are fully charged and ready to go. There have been times when it was cloudy or we forgot to pop them on the dash, and they stay charged for ages.

image courtesy bunnings

I have an obsession with fairy lights (Hello, Pinterest!) and have them strung up around the bed in our house. They are so pretty and cast a soft romantic light in the bedroom. I would love to put them in our bus bedroom when we get to the final decorating stage very soon woo hoo!

You can now get a variety of solar powered fairy lights and Christmas is the best time of year to find them. I wanted some for the front window of our bus but the ones I liked only ran on battery. I had a small solar panel from another set of lights so I just cut and joined the ones I liked to the solar panel. (This is a super-simple project [pos to pos, neg to neg] and 12v will not cause you any harm if you get a zap, but unless you are confident please don’t play around with any kind of electricity yourself.) So I now have my little fairy lights strung up in the front window and the solar panel on the dash. In the evening when it gets dark they turn on by themselves and we can just switch them off if need be 🙂

all images courtesy of Pinterest

Refrigeration was the next thing we needed to address. We found a small 12v upright fridge/freezer combo which was big enough for our family, and also purchased this 90w solar panel and battery to store the generated power. We were super happy with the quality of this panel as a lot we looked at were quite flimsy. Figuring out how much power is generated through a solar system is pretty complicated, we discovered. After a fair amount of research and lots of advice from ‘experts’, we were confident that the panel and battery would power our fridge with some electricity to spare. This wasn’t the case, and unfortunately it only generated about 2/3 of the power we needed so we ended up purchasing a second 90w panel and now it runs like a dream! For now coming into the cold weather we can turn the fridge off at night to conserve power without too much hassle, and we will upgrade to a large solar setup once we sell our house. Jack later came across this fantastic super easy to understand article all about solar from redarc which we wished we had found earlier. It is extremely detailed and covers everything you need to know about portable solar systems. Check it out if you’d like to learn more.

 

Cooking is easy and as with most caravans/RV’s/motorhomes, we are using LPG. We bought this awesome one from Wild Earth and are really happy with it. We are building a special bench top to house it and the LPG will go in a hatch underneath the bus with a gas-line up to the kitchen. This is not exactly free as there is the ongoing cost of LPG, however gas cookers have come a long way. A bottle of LPG lasts months and costs $20 to refill, so its a pretty good option.

image courtesy of wild earth

On the topic of cooking, we recently discovered this little gem and would love to get one for hiking or just a cup of tea on the go. This awesome biolite energy campstove is so cool! It runs on a tiny fire but actually produces energy so that you can charge your devices. Seriously! If you haven’t seen them before, check it out!

image courtesy of wild earth

Heating and cooling chew a lot of electricity in a conventional home, however there are many ways to raise or lower the temperature without mains power. The first and most important step is insulating your vehicle/tiny home. This helps keep the inside cool in summer and retain the heat in winter. This post How we improved our home on wheels to easily survive an Australian heatwave has loads of tips on how we insulated our bus and kept cool in Summer without air conditioning. When it comes to heating, my sweet and very clever welder/fabricator/engineer husband is building us a tiny ‘rocket stove’ to go in our Bus for the winter. If you haven’t heard of these, check them out here on Pinterest. They are awesome! Basically they are a tiny wood stove which burns small sticks in the most efficient way to produce the maximum heat output. They come in all manner of shapes and sizes and range from a tiny DIY tin-can stove to beautiful free form ovens which can heat an entire home, under floor/bed/lounge heating and enough free hot water for a family all powered by burning small sticks and twigs.

all images courtesy Pinterest

When it comes to heating water there are so many options. During the summer it was easy to just use solar camping showers for a wash, and we heated a small amount of water on the gas stove for washing dishes or bathing bubs. Now that we are getting ready to move into our bus full time we need something more permanent, and with the cold weather approaching it’s nice to be able to have a hot shower inside. On the roof we are fitting 6-inch black poly pipe which stores a surprising amount of water and retains the heat from the sun quite effectively. This will gravity feed (along with a cold water pipe installed inside the bus) to both our shower and kitchen sink. Occasionally there just isn’t enough sun to heat water in this way, and those are the bitter cold days when you really need a steaming shower! We plan on sourcing a metal water urn and utilizing our rocket stove by wrapping copper pipe around the flue to heat the water as a backup, which will also gravity feed to the shower at the turn of a tap.

image courtesy Pinterest

When we are away from town water supply, we will have a portable 12v pump to draw water from creeks or dams to fill our tanks. These little pumps run off solar power quite effectively and move a surprising amount of water!

We do have a portable petrol generator. While this isn’t free, again it is very economical to run. You can now buy pretty much any appliance that will run on 12v or can be converted with some basic electrical know-how (ie; cutting out the transformer) but there are a couple of things I am a bit precious about. 1, I NEED a decent washing machine. Spending hours up to my elbows in cold manky water with a tiny twin tub for a family of 5 just doesn’t appeal to me. Hell no! And 2, I’d like a vacuum cleaner with decent suction power.

So. Every couple of days I am happy to fire up the generator to do a load of washing for an hour, run over the floors and plug in all the little rechargeable bits and pieces. I am happy to sun dry clothes as we don’t get a lot of rainy days. (although as I write this we are having unprecedented rain and flooding!)

Speaking of which, we have a bunch of those rechargeable USB power banks. You can get solar powered ones now, too cool! They are able to store a substantial amount of energy for recharging all of your tech gadgets, fans, you could even use them for travel hair dryers/straighteners. This involves replacing the 240v plug with a USB plug and again removing or bypassing the transformer from regular appliances. Adding a USB plug to an appliance is easy, you just have to make sure it is an android (generic) plug and not a data cable. Ie don’t use your old iphone charger, it won’t work. And obviously you need to make sure you have the wires the right way around, pos-pos, neg-neg.

The last item which is essential (for us) to be able to recharge is our trusty laptops. I have a 12v travel adapter which plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car. Our bus runs on 24v but has a 24-12v inverter for all of the electricals in the dash. I plan on installing a triple ‘cigarette lighter plug’ in the dash which will charge the laptops while traveling.

All of this sounds a bit messy, and a fancy $20,000 solar setup would be fan-dangle (yes I made that up. I’m sleep deprived!) but one advantage of having everything running off different sources is this: if something goes wrong it doesn’t take out everything. If a solar system crashes for whatever reason and you are solely reliant on that then you are in for an uncomfortable time until it is fixed.

As you can see there are plenty of options when it comes to powering your tiny home. Honestly there are so many more I could write about but this is turning into a book and if you’ve made it this far you’re probably in need of a pee. I hope this has given you some fresh ideas and if you have anything to add I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

Until next time, happy travels!

Dust x

Disclaimer: Electricity can be dangerous, don’t play with electricity. I take no responsibility for dumb decisions. Leave it to a licensed electrician 🙂

Published by

Mum, Wife, Adventurer! Life is meant to be enjoyed not endured. I hope to inspire you to get out and live the best life you can, no mater how broke you think you may be. Join my family and I on our awesome adventures in Molly169, (our vintage bus & home) as we explore life on the road and share our latest travel hacks! :)

Leave a Reply

*