On the ropes and off the grid

Writer Ladena Sipes did not plan to go off-grid. It just happened:

Ladena Sipes
Happiness on a backlot

We ended up broke and close to homeless for very ordinary reasons. Many people are only a few paychecks away from being homeless. Steve and I lived a very typical lifestyle until a few years ago. We had a big house with a big mortgage payment, a couple of new cars, credit card debt, etc. We lived beyond our income, charging, borrowing, refinancing, but always spending, spending, spending.

Now we live in a remote part of northeast Utah.

When we had money we purchased a 20 acre piece of recreation land and would come here to camp, fish, hike, etc. when we had time from our busy lives. The closest town….if you can call it that…is Duchesne. It is such a small town they don’t even have a single stop light. We live about 15 miles outside Duchesne.

Steve worked as an architectural draftsman and had worked from a home office successfully for 16 years. The majority of his income came from a single client and when he lost that client we were concerned, but not overly. We had some money in the pipeline and a few assets that weren’t mortgaged to the hilt. We thought it would only be a matter of time until Steve was able to replace the lost client with another lucrative contract. It didn’t happen…we waited…Steve bid job after job and it just didn’t happen……we spent what little we had…we waited too late to sell our house and instead the bank foreclosed. Bankruptcy loomed and frankly, we didn’t know how we would make it. I worked, but my income was a small portion…about 30%….of what we were used to making.

We had a two travel trailers we used for camping trips sitting in the driveway. We had considered selling them a couple of times because we were so busy we seldom used them, but hung on to them for some reason. Luckily we did because I soon started to eye them as a potential home and office. When it became obvious we weren’t going to be able to hang onto the house we sold almost everything….furniture, appliances, etc….and moved into the travel trailers on the land we owned. It was really our only choice.

I was scared we wouldn’t be able to survive. The land was unimproved, lacking even the crudest of roads, and by the time we accepted it was the RV or a homeless shelter we were down to our last thousand dollars. After paying a backhoe operator $50 to carve a driveway, we towed our RV out to the land and set about finding a way to make do in a remote area with no utilities and very little money.

Our first concern was water. We were able to charge the two RV batteries with our pickup and had a large propane tank installed for heat and cooking, but needed a way to fill the fresh water tank without towing the RV to a spigot. We went to a local beverage plant and purchased two blue 55-gallon barrels for $15 each. The barrels had been used for cola syrup, but after cleaning them at the carwash we were comfortable using them to haul our drinking water. It was fairly simple to siphon water from the barrels to the trailer as long as we kept the barrel well above the fresh water inlet on the RV.

Hauling water in 55 gallon increments gets old fast. Although hauling water teaches you to be conservative we still found ourselves spending too much time, gas, and energy hauling water. We also wanted to grow a garden and buy a few spring chickens to offset some of our food expense. We knew hauling water for a garden was out of the question and a water well in our area was between eight and ten thousand dollars. With our budget we couldn’t even dream about drilling a well.

Although we coveted a 1000 gallon polyethylene tank designed for water storage, at a cost of about $1.00 a gallon we couldn’t afford even a small one. With spring quickly approaching we knew we had to solve the problem of storing a large amount of water or forget about a garden and chickens. The solution came in the form of a sales flyer from a local retailer. They advertised Easy Set Swimming Pools for $100. After discovering the pool would hold 1722 gallons of water we immediately decided to purchase one. There are many different brands and sizes of above ground pools available. We went with the Easy Set due to price and the ability to purchase it locally. An added benefit was the ease of storing the pool during the winter months when the water was no longer needed.

We knew filling the 1722 gallon pool with 55 gallon barrels wasn’t going to work and began a search the best priced pick-up water tank available. The most affordable option was a water bed mattress in the bed of the truck, and although we considered it, I was concerned about the force of the water against the pick-up cab if I ever had to slam on the brakes. After a great deal of research we found a Norwesco Water Tank for .60 cents a gallon, about half the cost of comparable tanks. With our new 350 gallon tank we filled the pool in five trips and suddenly we had an abundance of water that was suitable for a garden and a small flock of chickens. Empowered by our success with water storage for the garden we decided to figure out a cheap method of storing potable water.

As with everything we did, our number one concern when planning for potable water storage was cost. Size, ease of building, availability of materials, durability, and ability to keep it clean were secondary, although equally important. After considering quite a few options we settled on constructing a 2000 gallon tank out of ferrocement. Ferrocement tanks are made by plastering over a wire form with cement mortar. We estimated the tank would cost around .15 cents per gallon and take about one week to complete.

Our best resource to plan and build the tank was a small book titled “Ferrocement Water Tanks and Their Construction” by Simon B. Watt. We found it used at Dirt Cheap Builder for less than $15. The book covers everything and includes vital information on plumbing and filtering. If you want a simplified version, Loughborough University offers a free technical brief that has good illustrations and covers the basics of constructing a ferrocement tank. Ferrocement.com has a handy guide available on their website that illustrates the construction of ferrocement water tanks. We referred to this guide frequently while building our tank. The ability to sculpt ferrocement is a neat benefit. Have a look at Oasis Design for an example of a ferrocement water tank that is both functional and beautiful. The photos of the tank are located in the rainwater harvesting section of the website. We found working with ferrocement was easy, affordable, and the end product is very efficient.

Once we had the water problem licked a simple and affordable way to charge our RV batteries was next on our list. We had electric to our property, but the $800-$1200 cost to have it connected was prohibitive and our long-term goal was to generate our electrical supply through solar and wind. We were able to store enough juice to run lights, the heater, water pump, and a couple of other basics for about 2 days with the batteries that came with our RV so our first task was to increase our storage. We found a local salvage nut that was selling huge batteries he bought as Army surplus for $200 each and we seriously considered buying one, but eventually declined due to our lack of knowledge about that type of battery. The best deal we found was golf cart batteries for $45.00 each. By wiring the batteries in series and parallel we were able to create 440 amp/hours of storage for under $200.

After buying the batteries we determined we had a budget of only $25 to come up with a method of charging them. We quickly discovered there isn’t much you can do for $25, but during our research we came across plans to build a lawnmower generator. We had a lawnmower we didn’t use any longer and were able to buy the other necessary parts at a wrecking yard for $19.80. The generator works surprisingly well and is something anyone can build with minimal skills and money. A month later we splurged on a small inverter from Radio Shack and were able to watch television for the first time in months! With water storage, a way to store more energy, an easier way method of charging our batteries, and television our lives became infinitely easier!

I work from home and had to have reliable telephone and internet access. We were able to find a workable plan with a cellular phone, although due to our remote location our service was extremely poor. The problem was solved when we discovered a 3-watt cell phone signal booster designed for DC home use through JDTeck. Before purchasing the booster I would frequently drop calls. After installing the booster my signal went to full power. The booster cost $200 and was a big investment at the time, but I had to have reliable service in order to work. Internet access was provided using a laptop computer and satellite internet through Direcway. The service is high speed and very reliable. With the signal booster and satellite internet I was easily able to work from a remote home office.

Greywater was another matter entirely. In the beginning, we drained our greywater directly on our sandy soil using a 250 hose to make sure it drained away from our RV. Although we knew it was far from ideal it was our only choice at the time. Water had by this time become a precious commodity to us and wasting about 40 gallons of greywater each week seemed close to sinful. We discovered through research that the state does not have jurisdiction over greywater that does not leave your home and have incorporated greywater planters and a filtering system into our future home plans.

However, we are still a couple of years away from being able to build a house and as an interim measure we planted a grove of decorative and fruit trees and shrubs we’ll use to landscape with after the house is built. The key to recycling our greywater is to use it immediately. We quickly learned if we stored our greywater more than 24 hours the bacteria would multiply and rapidly turn the usable water into a fetid mess. The RV has a 40 gallon greywater storage tank and by being extremely careful about what we put down the drains we are able to sustain a fairly good sized planting area with what would otherwise be wasted water. We drain the tank directly into the grove every other day and our plantings have flourished using this system.

We had reached a level of comfort a few months after moving to the property that allowed us to tackle the last, and in our minds, the greatest problem; the lack of a septic tank. Since arriving at our humble abode we had drained the blackwater tank into a small tote that came with the RV. The tank held 10 gallons, weighed 40 pounds, and was a nasty, potentially messy method of dealing with blackwater. It took four to five trips to the local RV dump station about once a month to empty our blackwater tank and was by far the worst job on our little homestead. We investigated using a sawdust toilet and composting our waste but balked due to several factors. We also considered building a Sunny John moldering toilet, but couldn’t afford even the minimal cost it takes to construct one. We found a myriad of options for handling human waste at The World of Composting Toilets and even considered building the outlaw septic described in Michael Reynolds’s book on Earthships (Earthship: How to Build Your Own). The deciding factor in our choice to continue hauling our waste water was an agreement we made with our local building inspector to dispose of our waste at an approved facility. We hope to build a home of alternative materials in the future and didn’t want to damage our relationship with the building department by constructing an alternative blackwater system.

Our solution was to buy a macerator and build a “honey wagon” out of one of the 55 gallon barrels we used to haul water with. The macerator is a chopping type pump that allows us to quickly empty the tank into an appropriate sized holding tank. We used a variety of fittings to convert the 55 gallon barrel into a hauling tank and are now able to empty the blackwater tank in one trip! The macerator allows us to pump the waste uphill so we put the tank in the back of the pickup, pump the blackwater tank into the 55 gallon barrel, and take the waste to the local RV dump station. We bought the macerator at RV Sani-Con for $100 and it is by far one of the best investments we have made. The fittings for the barrel cost in the neighborhood of $25. For more information about using a macerator have a look at Phrannie’s Poop Sheets.

We realize we still have a long way to go, but with a budget of less than $1500 we have licked the problem of costly RV utilities in a remote area. Our methods are far from perfect, but they work. And I was correct in my original fear that we wouldn’t survive in the middle of nowhere. We aren’t surviving. We are thriving!

We are “homesteaders” by necessity. We went off-grid because we had to…not because we were environmentalists or desired a self sufficient lifestyle. Heck…we thought we were living the good life in our six bedroom house. When water no longer comes out of the faucet if you don’t fill the tanks and the light switches don’t work if you don’t charge the batteries…well, being that intimately involved with our consumption has made us aware.

At times, we are ashamed our our previous decadent lifestyle….we wasted so much. And….odd as it sounds…it feels good…we are much happier since we accidently escaped the consumerism and rush of our “other life”. I thought we’d live and work in the trailers less than a year before finding better jobs and moving back to the city. It was an emergency move..something we had to do to survive…but, after only a short time here I know we’ll never go back to the city. We love it out here and now, staying and building a mortgage free home is our dream.

Easy Set Swimming Pools

Norwesco Water Tank

Dirt Cheap Builder

free technical brief


Oasis Design

lawnmower generator



sawdust toilet/composting waste

Sunny John moldering toilet

The World of Composting Toilets


RV Sani-Con

Phrannie’s Poop Sheets

7 Responses

  1. first all we want to thank you for all the valuable information you have posted, we are leaving to northern arizona to a remote area we have bought 5 acres only we hope to buy more in the future, we will leave in 2 months we leave beacause there is no work where we live, and we strongly feel that “things” will get out of control so we are hope to build a safe area for us and our girls who are in college thank you for all the valuable help

  2. What an amazing story. I do admire you so much. I hope you keep us updated on your progress, in building your dream off-grid home. I have been an interior designer for years, and have suddenly found myself, like you, with nothing. Luckily, you did have the land, thank goodness. I do not have any land, but I do have a treasured old Airstream trailer. You have given me inspiration after reading your story. Although I live in a nasty cold climate, there must be some way that I can make use of this asset. I have reached the stage now when I feel nauseous at some of the jobs I have worked at, i.e. kitchen renovations for $300.000 and up. All material crap. You certainly can get caught up so easily in that lifestyle.
    Hope you are still having an awesome existence with your new lifestyle. Best wishes.

  3. Thanks so much for writing about your experience. You have some very helpful tips here.

    One question — where did you fill your Norwesco water tank with fresh water?

  4. Wow. More and more of us are thinking about the possibility of loosing our homes today, and the success of pioneers like yourself is very encouraging. You were remarkably fortunate that you already owned a piece of wilderness when disaster struck.

    If your local soil is suitable you might consider building your home of adobe. With a good plaster coating inside and out as well as a good roof overhang it should make a great home which is durable as well as reasonably energy efficient. I’m a home contractor and I think that’s what I would do if I were homesteading. I would build a post frame and metal roof first to protect the site and act as a shelter while in progress (and collect water off of) and then build the walls.

    Good luck, and Merry Christmas.

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