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  Building the Off-Grid Home Like an Alaskan (PART 3)
Posted by: hossboyd - 04-16-2021, 12:06 PM - Forum: My Forum - No Replies

In my last post, I talked about ways to super insulate the off-grid home like an Alaskan.  This past winter, Texas had one of the coldest and longest cold-snaps in recorded history.  Our Texas style home is well insulated for a home having four-inch walls, but it was a struggle to keep the temperature in the upper 60's/lower 70's.  Our two heaters ran continuously plus we had gas logs to supplement the heaters.  Something that would have helped was to have had the house sealed a lot better during construction.  There are two trains of thought about using heavy thickness plastic to wrap the walls and ceilings of a house to stop drafts and unwanted air intrusion.  Typically in an area of high humidity like we are, the old-timers built the attics open to the outside with a lot of vents to avoid the build-up of moisture, and the walls and ceilings were not sealed with a plastic layer.  That does a good job of keeping moisture from collecting in the insulation or on interior surfaces, but that also allows the wind to funnel through your attic and through even the smallest openings in your walls and into your home.  It also allows dust to accumulate in the attic on and in the insulation. 

    Since moisture is the real problem, we first of all, need to understand how condensation occurs.  You'll get moisture where warm moist air contacts a cooler surface (we see this on our glasses when we are on our porches in the summertime drinking iced tea).  If you wrap the inside walls and ceilings with an impervious layer (like plastic sheeting), in the winter, the cooler air will be outside the envelope and the insulation.  If the insulation is thick enough, the cooler air from from outside the envelope will be unable to migrate inward to reach the barrier.  However, if the insulation is too thin, you will get moisture on the heated side of the barrier.  If you see the interior walls "sweating" in the winter, that is the reason.  In the summer time (if you use air conditioning), the warmer moist air is on the outside and the cooler surface is on the inside.  In this case, the moisture can build up inside the walls---unless the attic is well ventilated to move the moist air out. But then we are back to where we started with drafts.

     So what's the answer?  I am open for discussion on this point, but it appears the best approach (although more expensive) is to wrap both sides of your walls and attic, sandwiching a generous thickness of insulation between the impervious layers. For the attic, you still need ventilation but the problem we ran into was the gable vents on the north and south ends of the attic.  Whenever the wind blew, it was like a wind tunnel in our attic---cold drafts in the winter and hot ones in the summer.  To better control the unwanted air flow without impairing the need to keep moisture from building up, we are planning to install commercially available gable louvers that can be opened and closed.  There are some that will operate remotely--this is what I am considering.  An added feature, although it uses electricity---is to put an exhaust fan on the attic side of the louver that you can also operate remotely.  This will not only reduce moisture in the attic, but will also cool the attic---and consequently, the rest of the house.  One other thing that is vitally important---you must have a way of getting fresh air into the envelope.  You may need to occasionally open a window or two.

     If you are building your home, you have an even better option.  Using the offset stud-wall method mentioned in Part 2, wrap the walls on both sides since there should be a generous thickness of insulation.  But do you really need an attic?  Why not design your roof with clearstory windows facing south and the roof higher on the north side to accommodate the clearstory windows.  Then, have your finished ceiling installed directly to the underneath side of your rafters (see diagram).  Again, with ample insulation (or even using the spray foam insulation) and the impervious layers if you don't foam, you totally eliminate the need for air flow through an attic space.  Add to that a positive air flow system that allows cool air in the summer to enter from below and hot air to escape through the clearstory windows, and you've got a house that breathes by itself.  In the next Part, I'll give you some ideas on the next step, and that's adding natural cooling and heating to compliment the clearstory roof.

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  Building the Off-Grid Home Like an Alaskan (PART 2)
Posted by: hossboyd - 03-28-2021, 03:35 PM - Forum: My Forum - No Replies

In Part 1, I mentioned that energy savings is the first step in going off-grid.  If you are building a home from the ground up, there are ways you can make the house better insulated but not necessarily a lot more expensive.  That means better windows and doors, tighter and better insulated walls, and more insulation in the attic.  In this Part, we'll look at the walls and ways to improve upon the traditional studwall.  In the traditional (Lower 48) built wall, the stud are typically 2"x4" lumber nailed to a top and bottom plate.  A slightly better wall is the 2"x6" stud wall.  Insulation---4" for the 4" wall and 6" for the 6" wall---is installed between the studs.  The outside wall is lined with a moisture barrier plus another layer of insulating sheathing and finally, an outer veneer covering such as brick, stucco, or lap boards (usually, the inside walls are sheetrocked).   The most obvious limitation is that the thickness of the walls restricts the amount of insulation you can install.  Foam insulation is a more expensive option, but with a much higher insulating ("R") value than fiberglass.  Either way, there is a deficiency and that's the studs themselves.  Although wood has insulating qualities, it is far inferior to either fiberglass or foam.  In the traditional studwall, the studs transfer heat and cold directly from the outside inward.  

     A much better option is the staggered stud-wall.  This was a system created several years ago by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.  In this system, you also use 2x4 wooden studs, however instead of lining them up in a row like soldiers, the studs are nailed to larger top and bottom plates (6" or 8") and staggered, with every other stud on the outside and the others on the inside.  You can put each set on 16" centers but 2' centers for the outside and the inside staggered studs will actually give you a structural stud every 12".  The attached drawing shows how the walls compare.

     With the Alaskan wall, there is is a solid layer of insulation to prevent heat or cold from moving through the studs.  Not only will this give you a much better insulated house, it is also a great way to soundproof your walls.  For Alaskans, the staggered studwall also means that there won't be any frosted nail heads showing on the inside wall.

     In the next Part, we'll look at the pro's and cons of tightly sealing the walls and attic.

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  Building the Off-Grid Home Like an Alaskan (PART 1)
Posted by: hossboyd - 03-22-2021, 11:18 AM - Forum: My Forum - No Replies

Today, let's talk about starting from scratch to build the ultimate off-grid home.  That starts with a design that considers energy conservation, but not necessarily at the expense of comfort.  At the top of the list of energy hogs in a home is heating and air conditioning.  The best solutions I've seen for conserving heat in the winter and for cooling in the summer are from homes built in Alaska (more so for heat than for cooling).

     I was a young Second Lieutenant when my wife and I were married, then a year and a half later, I was told it was time for me to transfer.  I had three choices:  Korea unaccompanied; Saudi Arabia unaccompanied; or Fairbanks Alaska accompanied.  I really didn't want to abandon my new bride who had spent her entire life in Texas (and was now pregnant with our first child)---especially so soon after we just got married.  So rather than leaving her behind, we  packed up and headed to Alaska.  If you've never been there, it is an amazing place, but one where survival is a daily concern.  People there know that the working, growing, and hunting seasons are very short and the winters long and bitterly cold.  They also know how to build a really well-built home.  Here in Texas, we see the standard Q&C homes (Quick and Cheap).  The typical homes in the south have concrete slab foundations, 2x4 stud walls, and R22 insulation in the attic.  In Alaska, you will freeze to death in a home built like that---even with the heaters running 24/7.  This March during the big Texas freeze, it got down to 17 degrees above zero and we were challenged to keep the house warm.  To put it in perspective, when my wife and I got married that December many years ago, the temperature outside of her South Texas church was 85 degrees.  If you were to build a Texas-style house in Alaska, you would notice some things when it got down to minus thirty degrees.  You would notice that all of your pipes would freeze and burst (although it may be Spring before you'd know it);  frost spots would form on your walls and ceiling wherever there was a sheetrock nail; giant icicles would form on the eaves of your roof ready to harpoon anyone standing underneath at the wrong time---if your roof hadn't caved in from several feet of snow packed on top; your attic would fill up with frost from moisture escaping the living areas; you would have very cold floors; your house would lose all of its heat whenever you open the door; and among many other inconveniences, you'd have a very cold uncomfortable place to live---if you didn't freeze to death.  

     The traditional Alaskan home is the log cabin with thick walls and a limited number of windows.  Then there is the uniquely Alaskan stick-built home, the subject of today's article.  First of all, Alaskans build basements so they can get some benefit from stable ground temperatures.  In Alaska, the ground temperatures a few feet down may still be below freezing, but they will be above zero.  In Texas, the average ground temperature is 75 degrees at ten feet below grade.  That is a temperature that is well within both the winter and summer comfort zones.  So the first step in building the off-grid home is to find a place where you can dig a basement.  I live on solid rock, so I would have to move and start fresh.  But, if you did have a basement, the next step is to keep the outside out!  A friend of mine built a house in the Alaskan wilderness and thought it would be a good idea to use treated studs with treated plywood on the earth side  for his basement walls so he could insulate them.  Although he applied a water barrier on the outside of the marine plywood, this was still a very bad idea---when the first spring thaw rolled around, his entire basement flooded and the walls warped.  The idea of the insulated walls wasn't necessarily a bad one, but having a sealed and solid masonry wall against the earth was the better way to go.  He should have gone three or four feet out beyond the planned perimeter basement wall to leave a gap between the wall and the natural earth.  Tent campers always put a trench around the perimeter of a tent to keep the water out when it rains.  He should have trenched down around the perimeter of the house a couple of feet or so below his basement floor level and filled it with gravel to catch ground water before it could get in.  In some places, a French drain is also a good idea (perforated PVC pipes that take water away from the footing).  The earth-side of the concrete or concrete block masonry wall should have a permanent water barrier applied followed by water resistant sheet insulation.  The gap between the wall and the earth embankment should be filled with small stone, again to avoid water from collecting near the foundation wall.  My friend then could have built his insulated wood wall on the inside of the masonry wall to keep his basement warm.  A Texas home could also benefit from the insulated basement wall concept since ground temperatures in the summer increase and winter temperatures decrease as you get closer to the surface. In the case of the Texas home, the real benefit of the stable ground temperatures would come from the concrete slab floor.  And finally, just in case you do have some seepage into your basement, plan for a small pit (called a sump) with an automatic pump to collect and remove any water.

     The next Part of this short series will cover the Alaskan frame construction techniques that form a nearly perfect envelope around you and your family.  This should be enough to give you something to think about until we move on to the next Part in the series of "Building Off the Grid Like an Alaskan".  As always I would like to hear your stories and will try to answer your questions.  In the meantime, may all of your days be sunny!  Hoss

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  Do You Really Want To Go Off-Grid?
Posted by: hossboyd - 03-16-2021, 06:16 PM - Forum: My Forum - No Replies

Over the years, about the time summer electric bills peak here in Texas, I get calls from people who are fed up with their ever increasing electric bills.  I also hear from those who just don't like dealing with a monopoly power company.  Here lately, it's the rolling blackouts that have people looking towards off-grid options.   If you are one of any of these, there's a few things you might want to know about.  First of all, going Off-Grid with your electricity is a major life style change.  Don't expect to have 24/7 use of all your power hungry electric equipment unless you want to sink a few hundred thousand into batteries and solar panels.  Case in point, we are installing a Lithium Ion Battery package that runs in the neighborhood of $9000 that stores about 3.5 kilowatt hours of power.  That's just enough electricity to power twenty 100 watt lights for maybe an hour and a half!  However, since these batteries are guaranteed for at least 10 years and could last 5 or more after that, $9000 may be cheap---if one unit is all you needed.  But if you want to power those same lights for 24+ hours, the price jumps to $144,000---and that's just for a few lights.  One average home as it sits may require a system costing over $500,000.  Then the question becomes, "do I really like this house or do I build a new one that is energy efficient from the very beginning?"

     So what's the answer?  That will fall into one of two categories:  those who want to take their present home off-grid, and those who want to build an off-grid home from the ground up.  The latter is much cheaper to deal with, but BOTH approaches will require you to treat your electricity like a college kid on a tight budget.  Before you take the plunge and make the investment in solar and energy storage equipment, start by reducing your demand for electricity--in other words, change your energy lifestyle.  I like LED lights because they will last a really long time and burn a fraction of the electricity as conventional bulbs.  This is an easy fix.  A major use of electricity is in cooling and heating.  Spend the money to add insulation in your attic and seal doors and windows to keep the outside temperatures outside.  The next one isn't cheap (not that any of the ones already mentioned aren't); go with natural gas or propane for heating and cooking.  Electric furnaces, hot water heaters, and cook stoves are huge energy users.   Update your air conditioner to one that's more efficient (if you haven't already).  Finally, change your habits.  Keep your temps warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter (use fans in the summer and wear sweaters in the winter???); turn off the lights you don't use; do all of your cooking at one time and eat left-overs for a few days; and wash your clothes and dishes when you have full loads.  I don't consider giving up bathing as an option, but how about turning off the TV and computers then reading a good book---trust me, it's totally commercial free and always available when you want it!

     After you have done all these things and lived with it for 12 months, you are ready to consider going off-grid, because now you know how little electricity you can get by with.  If you are planning to be totally disconnected from the power grid, you will need solar panels for charging your batteries and a backup generator to cover you during several days of cloudy weather.  Without the generator, you will need 5-times the batteries, and enough solar panels to both recharge the batteries during the day and operate you home at the same time---plus an emergency supply of flashlight batteries, candles, and an alternate source of heat such as a fireplace.  If its the hot time of year, just remember that most people did quite well without air conditioning until the last half of the twentieth century---they spent most of their time outdoors and by the way, didn't need to invest in weight-loss programs.

     Its a much easier process to design in energy saving features for a new home than to replace what you already have.  With this approach, smaller and simpler is better.  Spend the money on a really energy efficient structure and pre-plan the power consuming devices to make the most of all the electricity you use.  On the farm, we had about 900 square feet of living space:  2 unheated and poorly lit bedrooms; a small living area with a couple of lamps and a propane heater; a small kitchen with a propane cook stove, refrigerator, and single light; and (believe it or not) an indoor bathroom with a propane hot water heater, a propane space heater, and a pull-chain light.  Scattered around were a few plug-ins for the lamps and the TV (it went obsolete before it wore out).  Again, the energy usage was based on our outdoor lifestyle.  Your design doesn't need to be a hardship--just efficient and practical.  We'll talk about how to go about designing an off-grid home from the ground up in future posts, along with ways to be totally self-sufficient.  In the meantime, I will answer as many specific questions as I can on how to prep to go off-grid.  If you are already there, share your experience---if you aren't (and know those who also are interested in going Off-Grid), take time to share Hoss' Off-Grid (HOG).  

     And may all of your days be sunny!  Hoss

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  Welcome to Hoss' Off-Grid Energy Blog (The HOG Energy Blog)!
Posted by: hossboyd - 03-05-2021, 12:08 PM - Forum: My Forum - No Replies

Welcome to Hoss' Off-Grid Energy Blog!  For nearly 20 years, I have been designing and building solar as well as off-grid electrical systems in the Great State of Texas.  In this blog, you can expect down-to-earth answers to questions you might have on what it takes to go off-grid along with my honest advice on the good and the bad you might expect.  I'll also share the stories of off-grid systems that I and others have built along with the challenges involved, and please share your experiences as well.  So with that, feel free to post your stories, questions, and concerns and I will share my sometimes biased but straight forward advice.  And for the record, I am especially biased against dangerous or haphazard installations.  Off-grid energy systems have a degree of danger that warrants a higher level of caution than you might need to take for other activities.  I'm not your boss or your mother---I can only advise, so here's the legal disclaimer:
The reader understands that electricity and off-grid energy systems are inherently dangerous and assumes all risks associated with these types of installations, to include (but not limited to): electrocution; falling; wounds and lacerations; explosive gases; fire; burns; and humiliation if you failed to follow directions and the system doesn't work as intended.
With that, we are open for publication.  And may all of your days be long and filled with sunshine!  

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