The story starts in 1980 when I bought 5 acres in the Mojave Desert and moved my wife and three kids on in a 40 foot travel trailer. We had no water or electricity. I came to Southern California in 1972 as a young farm boy from Ohio. I found plentiful work in the LA basin, and learned the trade of electrician. I soon tired of the “rat race” of LA, and became a self employed electrical contractor in the desert communities of the Victor Valley.
Our 5 acre parcel is nestled in the foothills of the north side of the San Bernardino mountains at an altitude of around 3500 feet. The San Bernardinos rise to over 11000 feet and separate the coastal plains and valleys of Southern California from the interior high desert plateau.
We’re on the northeastern side in the beautiful but harsh Mojave Desert. Here we have all 4 seasons. The summers are long but not too hot as the desert goes. Average highs are about 102’ F from late June through September. We get almost half our annual rainfall from summer thunderstorms that come up the Colorado river valley from the Gulf of California.
The falls are really comfortable with cool clear nights, but the winters are cold and windy with occasional snow, comparing to much more northern latitudes like Kansas and Nebraska. The Springs bring more wind and rain, that finally slows down again with the oppressive heat of summer.
The five of us survived in the trailer while I got my business going and started the foundation for a small house.
The following is a step by step explanation of what we did, mistakes we made, and if I had to do it over again, what I would do differently.
Our 5 acres is fairly flat, but full of Joshua trees and creosote bushes. So, I had to grade the land by pulling bushes out with a steel cable attached to my pickup and dragging a section of chain-link fence around the area where we were to put the trailer. After we set the trailer in its place I hooked up the electrical generator . The next thing I did was to bring in a 2000 gallon galvanized steel water storage tank and contracted with a water hauler to bring me a tank load every week. I installed a ½ hp jet pump to pressurize the water supply. Then very quickly the holding tanks filled on the trailer, and I realized that probably the hardest thing to deal with was going to be sanitation and trash, not power and water.
I didn’t have the $2000 to install a proper septic system yet, so I built one with buried 55 gallon drums. I’ll show you in greater detail later.
I quickly realized that a 3500 watt generator uses way too much fuel to run day and night, so we had to alter our lifestyle to accommodate. This was my biggest discovery. The way we are dependant on a 24 hour available unlimited electrical supply. Well, I am an electrician, so I figured I could come up with a way around this, and I did, batteries. The dictionary defines “battery” as: A storage cell, to produce electricity now for use at a later time. This is exactly what we needed. My 3500 watt generator is used for my job, running skill saws and power drills, but we were only using it for our trailer at about 10% of its capacity. It was wasting a lot of fuel.
The most cost effective purchase you can make to become energy independent is storage batteries and low voltage lighting.
Once this is in place, you have an uninterrupted power supply that you can recharge with your gasoline generator once a day in a one or two hour period. Or you can recharge continuously with a wind generator. I tried solar voltaic cells, but they are still too expensive and produce little power.
Another option is converting the 12 volts DC to 120 volts AC with a DC to AC inverter to run all your normal household appliances. With the advance of modern electronics, these dependable units are now very cost effective.
I started out with a small 300 watt unit, but have recently gone to 1000 watt units to operate most of the appliances in my house.
In time, I finished my house, installed a proper septic system, drilled a well, and got a permanent electrical service. But I never forgot those things I learned and kept everything in place, not only for backup, in case of power failure, but as a way to greatly reduce my electrical bill and dependence from the system.
Here is what I have in place today. My house is all electric so I have every incentive to keep my bill down. My well house is the hub of my power generating and battery storage installation. It contains my 3500 watt generator, a bank of six deep cycle batteries, 2, 1000 watt power inverters, and a 60 amp distribution panel from the house. While I’m on the grid, power comes into the panel from the house. If I’m off the grid, power comes from the well house to the main house. Since my well is deep, over 400 feet, it requires a 240 volt, 30 amp circuit. No way around this. So, next to my well house, I have my 2000 gallon storage tank.
Once a day or so as needed, I fire up the generator and pump water from the well into the storage tank, and at the same time, charge the batteries. One or two hours at the most. This consumes less than a gallon of gas. Outside the well house in the orchard, I have two Windpower wind generators that are hooked to the batteries also keeping them charged. At the water tank, I have a 12 volt pump that maintains 40 psi to the house. With this system, I can switch off the main at the house and run all the appliances off the batteries and inverters. The only thing I cant run is the electric water heater and the kitchen stove, which require 240 volts from the generator. If I were going to be completely independent of the electrical utility, I would have to choose how to power these. Either purchase more batteries and inverters, or, replace these appliances with propane models. 240 volt inverters are expensive and hard to find, so I will probably go to propane appliances.
I have included drawings and more details of my installation here, and you can also visit some of our linked sites for more detailed information. I also have become a distributor for some of the products I have described here. Be sure to visit our “Handy Stuff” page. I continue to try to learn and improve my system, so please email me if you have any suggestions or similar experiences. You can be a contributor of this page with your comments or suggestions.