Cabin Build Update #1

We went out to the property on Saturday. Ostensibly, to stake out the cabin and to deliver two water barrels and some bags of gravel for our impending ground breaking of the cabin. (Picture of the water barrels shown below, on the trailer.) The actual breaking ground had to be postponed due to some hurdles we are trying to overcome with digging equipment. We were going to do some test digging on this trip, so that we could get a better idea of what we need to use for digging the holes for the piers.

Anyway, we headed out around 8am. It’s about a 4 hr drive from where we live in Gilbert, AZ. It was a beautiful sunshiny day. What could go wrong? Right?

We got to the turn off from the highway, where we turn onto the dirt road that goes back to our property. You should know that the ever present enemy in these parts is mud. It’s not regular mud. Imagine mud mixed in with a healthy portion of glue. That’s what the mud is like in this part of AZ. So you have to time your trips so that there is a decent amount of time that separates your trip from the last moisture event. It had been 3 days since the last moisture event and in these parts (because it’s so dry here), that is typically PLENTY of time.

Or so we thought. Snow is a different animal than rain.

The snow from three days earlier was getting a bit deeper as we approached the property. So, even though the road was passable (muddy but not impassable), in the back of my mind I was thinking we were toast. The residual snow on the ground was MUCH heavier the further we got out of nearest town (St. Johns.) The ground was more than 50% covered by snow still (not a dusting, but inches) and it was only getting worse as we approached the property.

Midway into the ranch (where our lot is one of dozens of other lots), there is a part of the road that has washed out to the point where there was a large channel (we call them “washes” here in AZ) that goes across the road. I had forgotten it was there and it was really muddy in that location so I took a run at it so as to get through it without getting bogged down in the mud.


We hit that thing so hard I thought for sure our axle would snap. I looked back in my mirror at the trailer and I see our two blue 30 gallon barrels full of water, bounce up off the trailer about 3 feet and then come crashing back down. Luckily they stayed on the trailer. But the damage was done. Turns out it bent the axle of the BRAND NEW utility trailer and now the driver side wheel is canted outward on the bottom. It still rolls okay, but I’ll have to have it checked out.

As we continued to drive, my fears were definitely warranted. We got deeper into the ranch and realized we probably made a very large mistake and wasted an entire day for nothing. By the time we got to our lot, the trailer tires were pretty much caked with mud. My SUV tires were okay, but mud was EVERYWHERE else. Even though we made it to the entrance of our property, there was NO WAY we were going to be able to drive onto it from the dirt access road. We don’t have a road cleared and compacted yet. So we’d have gotten stuck up to our axles almost immediately.

What to do?

This trip was to drop off two 30 gallon barrels of water and 36 bags of crush rock (for the bottom of the cabin footings). So, the trailer was HEAVY. And we absolutely had to drop this off because I needed more room for the next trip to bring cement bags…etc.


So here we are on the road in front of the lot. Can’t go onto the property. Can’t very well just leave stuff here on the side of the road. So we decide to go back to the real estate office in the town (the company that sells the lots on the ranch where we bought our property.) We’d drop off our bags and barrels behind the office and then retrieve them again when we come back with the other stuff.

But how to turn around. Hmmm…

We didn’t actually get to our lot line. We got to the driveway of our neighbor right before our lot. So there is a flat area in front of his driveway that we could use a little bit of before we hit the chain that blocked anyone from driving up his access road. So I backed up into it, right up to the chain. But we have a 12′ trailer and an SUV. So, of course, I’m going to have to drive into the opposite ditch to get it all turned around. And OF COURSE, the mud is so soft and deep that the tires can’t grip enough to turn the vehicle. The weight of the vehicle just drove us deeper into the ditch and berm on the other side.

So I had to just go into the ditch and berm (actually straddling it, with the left tire more on the road and the right tire on the berm, with the ditch in the middle. I just kept moving (sliding every which way, with everyone holding their breathe) and pulled the trailer about 50 feet until there was an area where the ditch kind of became more even with the road. At which point, I could pull it all over to the left, onto the road, through sheer momentum.

We drove back to St. Johns, dropped off our stuff behind the real estate office and headed home with the proverbial tail behind our legs.

And THAT was our lovely day at the ranch.

Breaking Ground

We are planning a trip out to the ranch to break ground on a 14′ x 14′ cabin, the weekend of Feb 23rd. We were going to do it the weekend of the 9th, but the footing forms we’re going to use for the concrete piers won’t be here until the 12th or so. And Allison’s going to be in Oregon the weekend of the 15th. So, the 23rd it is!

We’re going to be using concrete pier forms made by Bigfoot Systems. On top of those, we’ll be using cardboard concrete forms called sonotubes. I’ll be posting videos of our progress.

In case you don’t follow our FB page, I announced a few days ago of our change of plans for the property. We were going to move there for 1 year to see what it’s like to live off the grid in a permanent state. We’ve been thinking long and hard about that decision and we’ve decided to cancel our 1 year sabbatical from the grid. We have lots of reasons (as you can imagine), but the chief one being we’re just now settling into our new community. Just didn’t seem like the reward was worth the sacrifice at this particular time in our lives

The good news is, we’re STILL going to build a small cabin on the property and we’re still going to outfit it for living so that in the event we do have to high tail it for our own safety, we’ll have a place to go and more importantly, a place to LIVE, that is off the grid and sustainable on it’s own.

So, the purpose of this blog hasn’t changed. We’re still going to chronicle what it takes to build a cabin and set up off grid living. It’s just that we won’t be residing full time at the property for a year as we had previously planned.

So I hope you’ll stick with us and see what it takes to do all this.

Are you a Miny or a Piny?

Still consulting with a contractor on our foundation so we can get our plans submitted to the county for our permit. We’ve decided to go with a structure that is large enough to require a permit. It’ll be 18′ x 18′ and the second story will be a full height 18′ x 18′, too. So, total sq ft (minus the second floor space where the stairs will come up) will be about 600. (I guess I’ll have to update the header image, yet again!)

I had a contractor give me a quote for them to install a cement stem wall foundation. Came to about $6500. That was for just the concrete pour… no floor or anything above it. So, as that is out of my budget, I’ve reverted back to doing it myself (to which I’m sure most of this project will default), and doing the pier system instead of a full cement wall perimeter. That is what I am discussing with the guy that’s doing my permit write up, now. What structural requirements it’ll need to meet…etc.

Meantime, I’ve been doing a LOT of watching videos and reading up on different construction techniques. I think I have the cabin pretty well mapped out in my head as to what materials I want to use…etc. I just have to get the foundation done and I’ll be off to the races.

Side note… in my research, I’ve noticed two distinct themes among the Tiny House movement. You have the group that feels it’s a moral imperative that we (humans) reduce our footprint to the bare minimum and to live otherwise is an immoral choice. I call these folks the Minys (Going tiny because it’s morally superior to living otherwise.) Then there’s the folks that choose to live tiny ONLY because of it’s practicality. It’s cheap, cozy, cool, less hassle… whatever adjectives you want to use. But it’s from a practical perspective only. There is no moral implication from this person’s perspective. I call these people Pinys. (P for practical and M for moral… in case you didn’t catch the references.)

Which are you… a Piny or a Miny? (To clarify, most Minys ALSO are Pinys but Pinys can’t be Minys. Otherwise, they’d just be a Miny, not a Piny.)  Got that?  🙂

I’ll leave you with a picture of our dog, Phinny. Since I hate posting without having at least one picture in the post. Ha!


Compost Toilet in Suburbia (Update)

So we’re about 8 days into the compost toilet experiment, and I can report that the Humanure method of collecting your waste is extremely well received. I have had waste in the bucket inside the house now for over a week (here’s the original post.) There is absolutely NO smell to it. It’s really quite remarkable. It makes you wonder why all of suburbia doesn’t just use this method. If you have a spot to compost somewhere on your lot, it would save the average household a LOT of water and give you ongoing, great compost for your flowerbeds or garden…etc. I guess water isn’t expensive enough yet. Ha!

Anyway, what a great system for off grid living. That is one challenge overcome. On to the million other challenges.

I’m still experimenting with my water catchment system. I’ll post some pictures and perhaps a video, soon.

One of the ways I’m looking at building out the mini basement (inside crawlspace for the kids to play in, under the house) is to use ICF forms. These are relatively inexpensive, great for insulation, awesome for below grade use (below ground level) and is really, really simple to construct. I think I’ll use them to build the crawlspace area, up to where the first floor joists will hang, and then assess it from there. They are more expensive than just using traditional stick framing so I’m not sure if I’ll use them for the entire shell of the house. But they’re darn near unbeatable for below grade walls. So, I’ll definitely use them for the crawlspace “stem” wall. Then I’ll see if I want to continue and just build the entire structure out of ICF. We’ll see.

Cabin update…after a LOT of thought and planning and mulling over things… we’ve decided to build a 14′ x 14′ structure, with a full second story (no loft overlook.) So, the official footprint size will be 196 sg ft. But the upstairs will be about 172 sq ft of usable, open space. Then we’ll have a flat roof that can be used as a roof deck.

Of course, I say all this but then I’ll probably keep changing the plan until the last nail is in place. I just want it to be exactly what we need for the second cabin. No more, no less.

My HOPE is to break ground sometime in Oct. But you know what they say about the best laid plans….

Composting Toilet in Suburbia

I have embarked upon a grand experiment. I have set up a “Humanure” composting toilet here in the bathroom closest to my office.

It’s about the simplest set up there is. Some peat moss (purchased from Home Depot) and two buckets. One to hold the peat moss and one to do your business in.

I used a Home Depot (no offense to Home Depot) for the defecating receptacle and I got an aluminum bucket to hold the peat moss. The metal bucket seals quite nicely, so there is no smell of peat moss in the bathroom (although peat moss smells pleasant.) I want the air to be nice and clear so if there is any lingering odors from the Humanure toilet, I want to know.

I did put a plastic garbage bag liner in the orange bucket to facilitate easy handling of the waste. I actually just got some compostable plastic bags in the mail today, after I set up the toilet. So, I will use that after I empty the current “batch”.

The pictures inside the defecation bucket, below, is pictured prior to any human deposits. What you see at the bottom is the first layer of peat moss you’re supposed to put down before starting a new batch of waste.

So far, I can report, it works. Haley has done a #1 in it and I have added #1 and #2. That was approximately 2 hours or so ago. There is no smell in that bathroom, whatsoever. After doing your business, you’re supposed to cover the deposit with a generous layer of peat moss. That’s it. NO WATER. Actually, if you use water, you ruin the effect of the Humanure toilet and it WILL start smelling. There are two ways in which waste is managed. There is anaerobic and aerobic. When we flush our toilet into the sewage, we’re using the anaerobic method. The Humanure system is aerobic, which means air only. No water is inserted into the system until it reaches the compost pile outside, and is exposed to the weather. But by that time, you have it covered with straw and it’s outside. While it’s inside, it is quite non smelly.

One thing I have discovered is, we’ll have to use an actual toilet to sit on. Sitting on the Home Depot bucket, with a compost toilet seat on it, does NOT work well for… um… men. Without going into too much detail, we have parts that don’t fit into the bucket all that well, when they are needed to be pointed in that direction. So, I think we’ll use an actual full sized toilet, but just line the toilet with compostable plastic bags and when it’s ready for emptying, we’ll just take it out and replace it with another bag. And we can store the unused peat moss in the tank that normally holds water behind the toilet. I think that’ll work nicely.

Family reactions to my experiment;

Haley… “Can I use it? PLEASE??”
Zoe… “What? Why? Huh? Mom, can I do your hair?”
Mom… Look of extreme disgust at the mention of it and refuses to talk about it. Ha!

I’ll update you on this experiment as it unfolds.

Part 2 of this post

Water Usage Reality Check

I got a water flow meter and put it on the shower head that I use.

The shower head I use is also the shower head my oldest daughter uses. We have two heads in the master shower and our girls always take a shower at the same time in that shower and of course, Allison and I use that one, as well. (NOTE: We have 4 places to take a shower in our house and all of us use the same bathroom. Talk about a waste!)

Anyway, Zoe uses mom’s shower head and Haley uses my shower head.

So I was able to measure my shower usage and Haley’s shower usage. My average shower usage is about 23 gallons. My daughter’s average is about 34 gallons. Zoe and Haley stay in the shower for the same amount of time, so you can double that when they take a shower. And Allison, bless her heart, spends more time in the shower than most people spend cooking and cleaning. (Just kidding, honey!)

So, just in shower water usage, I think we probably use well over 2800 gallons a month. To put that into perspective, that is over 50 barrels of 55 gallon drums of water.

Then I measured my shower water usage while doing one of those, water on, get wet, turn off, soap up, kinds of showers. My usage went down to about 7 gallons. And I wasn’t abnormally inconvenienced. I just stopped the water when I wasn’t actually needing it to be on me at that particular time. That’s all.

If we drop our usage down so that it reflects my lower number of 7 gallons and let’s just round up to 10 gallons. Allison and I shower every day. The girls shower every other day, or so. So, that is about 90 showers a month between all of us. That gives us a conservative estimate of about 900 gallons a month in showers.

So it turns out my completely uninformed guess of 1800 gallons a month, in a previous post, was about spot on.


Off Grid Advice – Expert Opinions

Shows where our new mini cabin location will be compared to the main cabin spot and I threw in the zip line location so you can see that too.

If you check out our Facebook page (link on our front page), you’ll see I posted some photos and videos of the property yesterday. We took a trip during the holiday weekend.

The main reason for the trip was to consult with someone (Ken) who knows a lot about the area, about building stuff, about the land, and water and sewage and, well… he’s just knowledgeable.

We’ve had 3 different spots in mind for the mini cabin and what we finally came up with was yet another spot. Best laid plans….

Some things I’ve determined based on my consult with Ken, are:

  1. I need to place the pier footings about 30 inches down, just to be on the safe side from a frost heave perspective. He said 18″ to 24″ would be fine. And my piers will be well within the interior of the home’s imaginary borders and I’ll be cladding the underside of the cabin with materials that will help to trap heat under the house. All that combined probably means I could go even shallower. But I’ll probably put about 6″ of pea gravel in a 30″ hole so the pier blocks will rest at the 24″ level. With that, I’ll be confident we’ll have absolutely no problems with front heave.
  2. A septic system is just out of the question. He said it’ll probably cost around $5K. Heck, that’s probably about half what the entire cabin is going to cost. I’m not going to spend that on a septic system. That’s just crazy. So, compost toilet it is. I’ve been reading a LOT on this topic and have come to the conclusion that the Humanure system is simply the best and most simple (and cheapest) system to compost human waste. I bought the book and it is quite detailed in what you need to do in order for the system to work well (with no smell…etc.) If you can weed through the sanctimonious “save the world” speeches, it does have some good practical information.
  3. A well is also out of the question. Ken said if he had to take a guess, he’s say we’d find water around 300 ft down. That translates into about $10K. Again, that’s just crazy when it falls free from the sky. Even if we had to truck in all our water, we wouldn’t hit $10K of usage for 4 or 5 years. And I’m pretty sure we can get about 50% to 100% of our water needs from the sky. (We’ll see what that ends up being.)
  4. Rocks are no problem. Ken said he wouldn’t be too concerned with rock slides on our hill. He said, at the most, just put up a retaining wall to block some more worrisome rocks in the event one becomes dislodged. But the slope is such that even if one came down, it would come down fairly slowly. But with where we’re going to put the the mini cabin, there is really no rock danger anyway. So, the question was mainly for any fort activity we build for the kids, into the hillside, than for the cabin.
  5. Great building season. The part of Arizona our land is in has a year ’round building season. He said the first frost doesn’t come until around mid Oct and it’s mostly really nice weather all the way through Thanksgiving. Even the winters, although can be a little cold, are not bad at all for building. Very little moisture to get in the way…etc. So, that’ll be nice to not be hampered for months on end due to the weather. That is completely different than where we moved from, in Oregon. Ha!

So I have many of my preliminary questions out of the way. My blueprints are at the drafter’s office. He’s tweaking the plans to my specifications. Once we get that finalized, it’s off to the county for a permit. That will take about 3 weeks, give or take. Then I hope to be breaking ground in mid Oct.

Allison wants to spend Christmas at the cabin. I have some work cut out for me. Ha!

Picture above gives you an idea of where our mini cabin will be (the newly picked spot) compared to where the main cabin will be built. Bonus points… I drew where our zip line will go, too. Just for the fun of it. The zip line will go from about 100 ft above that valley to about 40 feet. It’ll definitely be a heart pumper. (BTW.. this drawing is not to scale. The cabins will appear smaller if they were actually in the pictures.)