Investing in Energy Independence

Closing on my property last year in the Methow took an enormous amount of time, energy, and perseverance. I also had a lot to figure out in terms of off-grid RV living. By the time I finally moved to the RV park in December, I was ready for a much needed break. This winter in the Airstream has been one of the most fun and relaxing I’ve ever had! It’s also given me valuable time to slow down and remember not only why I chose this path, but also the promises I made to myself when I did. As winter slowly turns to spring though, it’s time to start thinking and planning again when it comes to my little home building project.

As a former (and returned again) resident of the Valley, I’m very aware of how precious this place is. Honestly, I still struggle a lot with the idea of building my own home, even though it’s been something I’ve been working towards for years. The last thing I want to be is yet another person building a home in the Valley. At the same time, the reason I bought the property I did, is because I feel like I can build something small in a way that has positive impact not just for myself but for a bigger purpose.

I know, it sounds cheesy, but I still believe we can all build homes in a way that serves not only ourselves but also the greater good. These days, I don’t think we can choose not to be a good neighbor when it comes to resource usage and our footprint.

When I set out to buy my property and build my home, I made several promises to myself: 

  • I would build small and keep my footprint minimal.
  • I would use local environmentally friendly materials.
  • I would find a property that allowed me to be energy independent.
  • I would find a property with the opportunity for keeping or improving open space, natural habitat, and wildlife.
  • I would find a property that had the opportunity to give back. Could I host art camps? A youth retreat? Something that brings people closer to nature, wildlife, and the beauty of it all? Could I raise or foster some animals on my land?
  • And last but not least, I would keep it small, simple, and hopefully very affordable, whatever that means in real estate these days.

The property I found fit the bill perfectly. Its big southern exposure is perfect for solar power. Half of my property could also be restored to native shrub-steppe, which wouldn’t be a small task, but is a fun long-term dream. With all the renewed focus on maintaining Washington’s native shrub-steppe, it reminded me how important it is to keep even smaller parcels like mine intact.

I also have an abundance of birds and deer on my land and I want to invest time in removing old barbed wire fences, adding birdhouses, and supporting the existing wildlife. As far as giving back? An artist friend recently reached out to me saying she would love the opportunity to come stay on my land and host a painting camp because the lighting and the surrounding country is just so damn beautiful and inspiring. I was honored and I felt like my mission of giving back was already accomplished!

I bought my property because I saw all the ways I could invest in it, make it better, and share the wealth with others.

Unconventional ideas.

For years I’ve admired Smiling Woods Yurts, which are beautiful little round homes made right here in the Methow Valley. When I bought my property I knew I wanted to build one of their unique homes. I also made the decision late last year to try to build on my own, out of my own pocket. Construction loans are quite frankly, a pain in the ass and banks love to dictate a lot about what you can and can’t build. A small off-grid home isn’t in a bank’s vocabulary. No thanks.

Of course, when you have a big idea that is maybe a little unconventional like, “hey, I’m going to build an 700-square-foot round house, be my own general contractor, and live on solar power only”, a lot of people offer a lot of advice, both solicited and not.

A sampling of the advice I’ve received over the last few months:

“Think about your resale value. Hook into power and build something more conventional that other people will want to buy.”

“You should be thinking about the resale value of your place, not necessarily what you want.”

“A round house? Why? Build a normal house and just get a construction loan.”

“Hire a builder, get a construction loan, and do something typical. It’ll be faster, a better value, and you’ll be happier in the long run.”

“A foundation for a round house is expensive, you don’t want to do that.”

“Why would you want to live on solar? That’s so stressful! Enjoy life and its pleasures, you only live once!”

Ok, the advice hasn’t been all negative. I’ve also received a lot of “you go girl” reactions. The thing is, everyone loves to tell you what they’d do, which isn’t at all what I want to do. I couldn’t care less what the “market” wants me to build. I have to remember too that a lot of people also told me I was crazy to try to live in a 19′ Airstream full time, especially in the winter, and honestly, this past winter has been the most fun of my entire life!

I have a long road ahead of me and there are a lot of ways it can go wrong, but this winter I also remembered that I have to sometimes stop, smell the balsamroot, and enjoy the journey along the way. It might take a while but I’m committed to build exactly what I want and feel good about my impacts along the way.

Investing in my home.

On my birthday in January, I made the first big investment into my future home: a $6,000 deposit to Smiling Woods Yurts to sign the contract on the design of my beautiful little round home. 

While $6,000 isn’t much in the grand scheme of building a home, I’ve been saving money like a mad woman and every dollar has been a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Cutting that check felt like one of the biggest decisions of my life. Would I be able to actually do this? Build my own home? Develop my own land? Keep my promises to myself? Boy I sure hoped so but the day I sent those funds I did an extra long ski outing to try to work out my nerves.

I chose a Smiling Woods Yurt to be my home because they’re the neatest little things ever and I’ve admired them for years. Their round space and huge ceilings are quite simply, amazing. Not only did I choose the best little home I could ever imagine, but I kept at least two more promises to myself: investing in a local environmentally friendly company and keeping it simple and affordable. My little home will be hand built right here in the Valley and require no long distance shipping.

Investing in solar.

Yesterday marked another big milestone. After a lot of research into solar power systems, a lot of considerations, and of course, more solicited and unsolicited advice, I invested $8,000 into a solar generator system with 2000 watts of solar panels, a 4000wH solar generator and even a wind turbine power port. Whew!

That $8,000 was a big deal and the biggest investment yet. I spent the winter researching the pros and cons of being grid independent as well as tons of solar generators out there on the market including Tesla’s Power Wall. I settled on a kit from Point Zero, recommended by a good friend who also bought the exact same system. It’s currently considered the best and most expandable solar generator on the market.

Last fall I received an estimate from PUD and getting grid power to my property would likely require at least a $10-15k investment and that would only get me a meter base in my field. Getting power to my building site would require a lot more excavation, land disruption, and electrician costs. An investment in solar and grid independence seemed so much easier, self-sustaining and quite frankly, so much less invasive!

An added bonus? The IRS is also offering an energy incentive federal tax credit through January 1, 2022 for alternative energy installations.

Energy independence and a simple life.

If there’s been one fantastic upside to all of this RV living, it’s that I’ve learned a lot about my power needs and how refreshing it is to live simply. In fact, my power usage here at the RV park from December to February was just over 250kWh, which set an all time record low for winter power use here at the park. Did I feel like my lower power usage equated to missing out on life? Not a single bit. In fact, it gave me a lot of confidence that I can indeed live a simple, fulfilling life and make it work on limited power.

I’ve detailed out all my power needs for my future home. I plan to use propane, which is an environmentally clean and friendly fuel, to power most of my heating needs and appliances, which means a 2kW solar system should supply all the power I need. Not only will I be able to keep my Airstream comfortably powered when I get back to off-grid living but I’ll be able to power my little home too!

It’s always kind of funny to me that when you save for something, it becomes a lot harder to spend that money, so I guess I better get accustomed to writing some rather large checks. This year might be full of them. *gulp*

If all goes well, I should get my new solar system in June and you better believe I’ll be writing more about how everything goes. I’m usually pretty private when talking about money and investments but I’ve found other blogs written by people building their own homes are incredibly useful when they talk candidly about their costs. It’s a huge piece of the challenge, especially when doing it out of pocket. I’m really excited to take the plunge into energy independence, so cheers to new challenges and simple sustainable living!