Sunday, March 20, 2011

Water, Power, and the Sky Bus

It is amazing how complex it is to plan a simpler life.  I am up to my ears in researching water storage, greywater systems and plumbing, varieties of composting toilets, and generators.  The closer it gets to time to move to the land, the more pressing these concerns become.  My housebuilding notebook is getting fuller by the day, and in looking back over what I've written, I can see how I'm revisiting the same topics in ever-more refined detail.

With such a huge project, breaking it down into a timeline of steps has been most helpful and is an ongoing process.  I still haven't sold the van and am now considering the strong possibility that I will not get as much for it as I was hoping, so my timeline reflects some budget changes.  Rather than having enough money up front to deal with several steps at once, I'm now looking at the bare minimum of what's needed to move to the land, set up the bus with preliminary water and power needs, and begin building.

And that's okay.  In fact, it's kind of nice to be planning at this more manageable level.  I've realized that all I really need for water in the bus is a couple of 55 gallon drums for water, one of which will be placed on the roof of the bus to supply water to the faucet, and the other for water catchment and storage for outdoor needs.  There's a community well, and a friend of mine who lives on the Mesa has a pickup truck he's going to let me use to haul water, so I'll just need one more drum or tank to use for transport.

The bus has a simple bathroom with just a toilet, so I'm considering just digging a deep hole under it and using sawdust, as a sort-of indoor outhouse.  This definitely wouldn't be a workable longterm setup, but I figure it can work for a few months while I'm building.  I'm also planning on setting up an outdoor solar shower.

As for power, ultimately my plan is solar panels, but the cost is prohibitive for me right now, so I'm looking at getting a 2000-watt generator, probably a Honda eu2000i.  After scouring the Internet for reviews of different generators, this one seems to have a consistently high rating.  My power needs for now are minimal:  two laptops, a low-wattage microwave, and two or three lights.  No refrigerator, and this is something else I'm thinking a lot about, considering such radical things for the future as building an icehouse and root cellar rather than conventional refrigeration.  This line of thought leads into a whole lot of other stuff, like considering what my family eats and why, how I do my shopping, how to eat and shop more simply, how much food I will grow myself.  I may end up with a conventional refrigerator once I have solar panels, but in the meantime, I really want to avoid it.

I checked on the bus yesterday and finally took some photos.  My short-term goals are simply to get it moved and clean enough to live in, but I've been thinking of longterm possibilities as well.  I'd like to keep it around as a guest house and eventually make it look nice and be more liveable (i.e., better insulated).  I've been considering the possibility of cobbing the outside of it, and covering the north-facing windows this way for passive solar benefits, but we'll see.

In the meantime, this is what it looks like.  Consider these the "before" photos.

When I looked at this photo, I realized that the colors of the bus match the sky, which is why I've dubbed it "The Sky Bus."

Notice the chimney pipe for the woodstove.  Brilliant!

I love that this bus was made in 1968, the year I was born, and also that it has a New Hampshire license plate:  Live Free or Die!  As I'm never going to attempt to register this vehicle to drive, I'll leave it on there.

Dining and kitchen area.  With all those windows, it really feels spacious and airy - another reason to call it the Sky Bus.
Sleeping area.  Note to self:  Remove tire.
Each sleeping bench is wide enough for a twin-size mattress.  Sweet!


  1. what a grand adventure you are stepping out on
    love the skybus, loads of potential there, and always a handy 'guest room' once you've built the house

    six years ago we left the city and moved to an acreage on an island and developed a property from the ground up, gradually proceeding from tent, to caravan, to shed, to house...and our first toilet was a basic composting bucket toilet

    the pioneer stages will give you many memories
    great to see you will be recording them for future posterity

  2. "The pioneer stages" - I love it! I may have to borrow that term.

    I love tents, but decided against one for the pioneer stage because of high winds.

    By the way, your blog is wonderful!

  3. Yes, 'the pioneer stages'. I had come up with the image of Laura Ingalls... This is quite an exciting adventure, Polli. It's lovely to be able to follow your own thought-process. Wow, this is way cool and really walking the talk.
    My prayers are with you and I send you lots of blue blessings to match your Sky bus :-)

  4. I am truly enjoying your project - thanks for sharing! I had a root cellar once and miss it to this day - vegetables kept for months.

  5. That's a wonderful bus...with a perfect name!

  6. You must, must, must read the Humanure handbook by Joseph Jenkins. A composting toilet is absolutely the way to go, but do not buy one of those ridiculous, several-thousand-dollar ones. Google "Lovable Loo" and you'll see plans that mean you can build a nice, simple toilet (complete with lid and seat) for a few bucks (or even free). Set up a three-bin composting pile aways a bit from where you plan your hive and bus to be. You'll have compost for food in a few years. Safe, cheap, clean, smell-less, and waterless. Totally self-sustaining.

    Sorry, I get passionate about composting toilets. :-D I love your blog, I love your writing, and the best to you and your family on your amazing journey!

  7. The Sky Bus looks awsome.
    I agree with chesapeake about humanure. We were going to try the system out for a week and have kept using it for over a year and a half now. The traditional toilet in our current house still works fine, but sits unused just taking up space. I wish more things were so simple, cheap and win/win.

  8. Stephanie - Thanks! Glad you're along for the ride :)

    Kerry - It really is a great bus. I can't wait to be out there in it.

    chesapeake - Thanks for the compliment and well wishes. I love your blog too!

    chesapeake and Muddome - Yes, I've been reading the Humanure Handbook in bits and piece online, but really need to get the hard copy, as I have trouble absorbing information when I'm reading on-screen. I'm definitely planning to do it Jenkins' way in the house, but I have to figure out the best way to utilize the toilet that's already in the bus while I'm living in it.

    It's great to hear such hearty recommendations for Jenkins' system.

  9. Love the skybus!

    I third the brilliance and ease of Humanure. Is the toilet in the bus connected to a holding tank that needs pumping out? If so, I'd remove it and set up a loveable loo. Makes more sense to compost rather than dig a pit and have to move the bus especially if you build a water catchment/shade structure over it.

    I'm excited for you.

  10. Thanks! Yeah, I've been thinking the same thing, but I need to go out there and look closely at how it's set up, which I haven't done yet. Things are moving at a snail's pace right now, unfortunately.

  11. Claire - just realized I never responded to your comment. I promise it wasn't on purpose! Thanks for the Laura Ingalls reference; that's actually going to find its way into my next post.

    I love the whole idea of "blue blessings," and I thank you for them :)

  12. I love The Sky Bus too, and that chimney for the stove is awesome. And you have to keep that license plate, how apt it is!

    We need to build composting toilets on our paintball site, currently the nearest toilets (regular) are a good ten minutes walk away, so I will look at 'loveable loos' myself right now.

  13. Nice! You know, you're living the hipster dream.

  14. Thanks, Eryl. I've always loved New Hampshire license plates but never thought I'd have one of my very own :)

    red-handed - I know it. Which is crazy because I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined I'd be one of those people who lives in a bus in the desert. Life takes some bizarre directions sometimes, but I couldn't be more pleased.

  15. Great blog
    Starting the same journey, just west of you in Az.

    Some suggestions;

    You may want to insulate your bus. Wood heat is great, but you still do not want the heat all leaking out of your "home". Straw bales maybe?

    Your estimate for water maybe a bit too conservative. Consider purchasing a 1000 gallon tank. Earthbag building needs dampened soil and is dirty work. The trips to pick up water are time consuming and cost in fuel. It will in the long run be more cost effective to get a larger source of water. The last thing you want to do at the end of a long hard day of work in the sun is to go get more water.

    The human manure toilets are great. Here is a youtube video on a homemade toilet.

    The guy is also building a earthbag house.

    I like the idea of an ice house, but with children you may want to consider a propane refrigerator. Not exactly carbon free, but neither is wood heat. Propane use for refrigeration decreases the solar load. Propane is very very clean.

    Best of luck and building

  16. Another suggestion. You may want to consider a larger generator. If you will be using any power tools during building, a 3500 watt min will be necessary. A 5000 is even better. There are a few companies who build generators using Honda engines, that will cost less then a Honda branded one. If you have access to a Costco, they often have some Honda powered generators.

  17. Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions, Brad. Glad to find another fellow builder.

    All of your suggestions are good, but budget considerations are the biggest determining factor for me, so my goal has been to get just the bare minimum together for now so I can put my money toward building. Eventually I will get a large cistern, but can't afford it at the moment. Since I'm building with scoria instead of earth, that helps with the amounts of water needed, and since I'll be going into town three days a week to work, driving right past the well, hauling water won't be a major issue.

    Definitely going with the humanure toilet! Thanks for the link.

    I'd like to eventually build an envelope around the bus, but again, that's not a primary consideration for me at this point, since I won't need heat over the summer while I'm building.

    A propane refrigerator is a definite possibility I've looked into. Still undecided on that one.

    As it turns out, I lucked out and found someone who's got an RV generator (not sure of the specs yet) that they're going to lend me longterm until I can get a solar power system up.

  18. Its a couple years since you posted this - but I thought I'd give you a web address for a really simple (seems anyway - we will see when we start ours in July of this year - we, like you will be building our house too, of adobe) septic system - that's really inexpensive:

    My husband and I will be using every penny we can scrape together by July of this year (2013) to purchase 40 acres in AZ. After that we will have squat! So we, too, are looking for cheap alternative ways of living and being self sufficient.

  19. Thanks for the tip! I've decided to forgo septic, though, and just stick with a composting toilet. I like keeping things as simple as possible :)

    Good luck with all your plans!

  20. I am up to my hearing in exploring normal water storage space, grey water techniques and normal water system, types of compost bathrooms, and turbines. The nearer it gets to time to shift to the area, the more pushing these issues become. My housebuilding laptop is getting bigger by the day, and in looking back over what I've published, I can see how I'm returning to the same subjects in ever-more enhanced details.

    Plumbing Mesa AZ