Peeing in Yogurt Containers, The Romance of Off-Grid Living

By Jack
(this is a re-post – Jack wrote this early on in our blogging effort just a couple months back and it did not get the attention it deserves…)

We were hangin’ last week laughing about all the “romantic” things that turn out not – the constant “grass is always greener” kind of imagining about living this way or that, and the more seriously unfortunate romantic notions like eager young men going off to fight in a war for “an honorable cause” only to come home (if they’re lucky) with post-traumatic stress disorder and painfully disillusioned.

Well, living off-grid has not so much life-death drama (well, can have…) but many off-grid-wannabe’s do over-romanticize the whole she-bang just out of plain in-experience.

You see – you are your only resource, mainly. Whatever goes wrong is yours to fix – or live with. While we’re not sooo far out- a trip to Home Depot is still do-able – but it still takes the better part of a day.  And make no mistake – things break down at the most inopportune moments – in fact – it gets to the point that if something breaks at a not-so-bad moment – like some winter-need thang breaks in the summer – well – you’re down right happy ’cause you get the time to fix it before ya need it again – a real bonus!

Oh yea – the title of this post? – well you see, we have composting toilets (a novelty for urbanites, I’m sure) and the indoor ones (a manufactured Swiss unit by BioLet) is pretty easy to deal with except, it takes quite a bit of electricity to run the unit WITH the heater cranked up – a necessity to dry out all the pee that several adults can manage. So, in comes the overall electrical capacities of the solar system you have. Running the heater in the toilet takes 100 to 300 watts all day – a noticeable portion of your collecting capacity, especially on cloudy days. If you refrain from peeing in the composting toilet – you only need run the fan for a few hours daily and use *a lot less* electricity. Solution? Day pees are in nature, night ones in winter are in those nice tightly snapping-shut yogurt containers emptied in the morning into next year’s garden compost.

And then there was my solution for keeping Ravi and Sunna’s 3 year old Lola warm on really cold winter nights.  Her room is 2 rooms away from the central wood stove – and it is kinda small and on the windy side of the house. We all strive to use as little propane as possible, and it’s the only other fuel we buy a small amount of besides firewood. When the temps dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, Lola’s room gets pretty chilly – down to the lower 50’s despite lotsa insulation.

I rigged up a 55 gallon drum laying on its side with a low-wattage circulating pump that can either send the 55 gallon drum water through 30 feet of solar collecting fins on the roof during the day – or if no sun – it sends the water through a copper coil wrapped around the main wood stove flu. Either way – the 55 gallon drum, over which Lola’s cute bed is constructed (with closing curtains and an insulated top near the ceiling) gets up to 80 to 100 degrees by bedtime and Lola sleeps warm and cozy even if the room temp dips into the 50’s. The warm tank of water is under her futon, so it slowly releases upward all night. Low electricity, no extra fuel source, safe solution!

Multiple Un-Romantic Tasks

There are lots of odds and ends of quirky things ya gotta do when you’re off grid (and off water mains, off sewer, off phone lines etc etc). Here’s a brief list:

– make sure all water-harvesting drains, fields, roofs are clear of debris – when it rains here it’s often in torrents –  we had rain gutters specially molded so as to catch all water sheeting down a long roof in such torrential rains. If you depend on the rainfall – you are careful to catch every drop.

– Integrate your solar power system in your everyday life – that is – you check it several time a day to make sure it’s where it “should” be electrically – then every 2 months or so – you have to “water” the batteries – top ’em off with water like you car buffs do with your car batteries – ‘cept we have 36 cells to check regularly.

– we catch all our used bath/shower waters (they are piped into the greenhouse) for growing a good portion of our vegetables in the smaller of our 2 greenhouses, that’s daily hand watering from the collecting tub in the greenhouse.

– emptying the composting toilet into the main compost every 6 weeks, the outdoor sawdust composting toilet every 6 months.

– buy, chop and/or otherwise prepare 4-6 cords of wood and cut up starter wood scraps for house heating – a late summer task.

– go to to town to buy and haul home the propane we use – every 2 months or so.

There’s more too – and its pretty pragmatic – not the stuff of romantic wilderness adventure.  But in all candor – that’s the way we planned it for the modest monies we have all had.  We wanted to live comfortably albeit with a tiny “footprint” – we do have low-water, low-electric clothes washer, fully “modern” house wiring and plumbing and the wood stoves are the most comfortable heat of any I have experienced.

The romance? The glorious quiet of the high desert. The astounding colors of sunset after sunset. The freshness of the winter air. The almost total seclusion where you can go days not seeing a car or another human being if you choose.

And, well perhaps this:  The first year after Ravi and Sunna’s house was built, I was sittin’ on the composting toilet which sits slightly uphill from the house about 30 feet away from the uphill water collecting tank.  It’s dead quiet and at that point in dusk where just the outlines are visible, with  maybe a slight shadow of the objects.  I’m patiently waiting for nature to take its course, and I look straight out and see an animal walking maybe 20 feet away between me and the water tank. “Gosh,” I am thinking, “that’s a pretty damn big coyote”. Then I see its long, swaying tail.

I make a little crackle sound in my throat. The puma (mountain lion) stops and looks. It’s a young adult and (happily) not too comfortable seeing me sitting there in my compromised position. He immediately turns and trots quickly down the hill.  I have to laugh as in my minds eye I could see myself lurching off the toilet, yanking my pants up and hobbling out as fast as I could to try to get a better look. He was gone into the deepening shadows of the night.

They are very shy, mountain lions. Seeing one was a privilege out here. A peculiarly romantic moment.

Do you have any experiences of off grid quirky events or practices or even some good stories to share? Please do here in the comments.

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3 Responses to Peeing in Yogurt Containers, The Romance of Off-Grid Living

  1. Pat says:

    Ha! great post. I saw that picture and spewed my drink on the monitor. It made me laugh…because I pictured you (though I don’t know what you look like, I’m new here) sitting perched upon your throne with your camera ‘at the ready’…waiting to snap that picture!

    Interesting title though- got me to reading. I’ll be back to read more I’m sure.

  2. Debbie says:

    Hi,
    I had to come read this after I read the title…Too funny and oh so clever of you…
    Congrats on your off grid life… we do off grid during the summer, but on winter visits to our solar powered cottage we have been known to pee in a rusty lobster pot! Us girls anyway! We have indoor plumbing that uses collected gray water and a solar powered pump for flushing the toilet!
    Came over from the HBH!
    Hope to see you at my place…Cottage Hens!
    Deb

  3. Rachel says:

    Found your site through a comment you left on Dr. Marcola’s website. Just wanted to drop a line and say how glad I found you. I LOVE the idea on how you keep Lola warm throughout the night. That idea was worth the stop.

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