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Our Homestead at the End of the Dirt Road

Buying Land

Cynthia Brownell watercolorThis blog is a first in a series of articles about setting up your homestead. When we first started, I read as much information about moving off-grid and living a simpler lifestyle. Some articles and YouTube videos were very helpful, and others were just out there. So this blog is for the person or family who is considering the big move from suburbia or urban living to the country homestead

Our land

#1 The Land

Where do you plan on buying your land? Do you already have land in the family? Are you planning on driving across the country and buying the first wooded lot you see? The following list are key decisions that you may want to consider before buying or relocating. Trust me — some of these decisions are based on our own previous naiveté and mistakes.

1. Try not to buy land sight-unseen. My husband worked as a land surveyor for several years. He would come home with stories of people who had purchased land before they saw it and later learned it was a swamp. Or they purchased land without walking the property lines, only to find out the parcel was land-locked. (Land-locked is a term surveyors used to describe a piece of land that has no legal right of way or road access.) Also, you will want to have a survey and abstract completed to make sure everything is legal and free of prior liens. Be wary of owner financing and land contracts. If you feel it is a good deal and you know or trust the owner, please hire a lawyer to draw up the paperwork to protect your interests. It is worth the extra money.

2. Make sure the land has a water source. We know of a town in the area that closed their dump in the early 1980s. The dump isn’t the issue; it is the ground water. Because of what was dumped, the houses within that area can no longer use their well water. They have water, but it is contaminated. Do your research. Was there a chemical dumping area close by? What about any fracking? What about possible buried fuel or oil tanks? This may sound a little dramatic, but a little research may save you a huge headache down the road.

3. Building codes. Before you get ready to build that five-story straw house, you might want to make sure the local codes officer will give you a building permit. I grew up in the Adirondack Mountains, a huge state park north of Albany. The park has several residents who must abide by strict building codes and zoning laws. Make sure you understand the laws and regulations before you buy your land. Fines and frustrations can add up.

4. Access to power and phone lines. One of the main reasons it took us a while to move onto our property was the idea that our road probably will not have public power lines for a long time to come. On top of that, the property is a half-mile off the dirt road. Therefore, paying for the power lines and poles is something we are not considering. It was a lifestyle change, moving off-grid — scary when you are used to having electrical service your entire life. We have now lived out on this property for almost two years, and we still do not miss the electric bill. When we cancelled our account at our rental, the operator wanted to know where our new service was going to be. When my husband told her we wouldn’t need to set up an account with them at the new location, the operator started arguing with my husband. She couldn’t fathom that we were moving to an address in New York without power. As for the phone, we have cell service, so we didn’t need the phone line.

5. School! If you have children that will go to public school, this decision is probably going to be your toughest. What is the area school like? Is it a small school? Large school? What is your education philosophy? Where are the lines for the school district? Where I grew up, our school system was centralized. Our house was one of the last houses in the district. My bus ride lasted an hour. It made for an early day and an even later night if I rode the after-school sports bus. Sometimes that bus ride was up to two hours. Take the time and visit the school. Find out if it is a good fit for you and your family.

Driveway in the winter

Overall, doing your homework before you purchase your land will save you a few headaches. We had to learn the hard way. When we first moved to the property, we just assumed we could find someone with a snow plow who could remove the snow in the winter. Most of the contractors looked at our driveway and said no way! Our road is so narrow, and we did not plan for room to store the extra snow. Trust me; we live near the Tug Hill Plateau and “lake effect snow” is a common occurrence. Now we have decided to save our money and purchase a tractor with a snow blowing attachment. This winter we had to snowshoe in and out of our property. This may sound romantic and fun, but it isn’t when you have a sled full of groceries and a blizzard whirling around your head. Suddenly the romance is gone! New-used tractor is on its way!

Why Solar Power?

Cynthia Brownell watercolor

solar panels
The solar panels set up on our homemade array

When you find out that you will be building a home miles away from the closest telephone pole, solar becomes your only option. We knew a friend of a friend who sold and installed solar systems so we received a quote, and it was a bit of a sticker shock. The cost to start our system was over our budget, so we decided to research our options and do it ourselves. We had a general idea what we wanted to run off the solar power: lights, fans, and possibly a TV with DVD player.

The first winter, we survived using battery-operated lights and fans. We soon found out that we were replacing batteries on a biweekly basis; this system was not efficient.

Finally, we saved enough money and started piecing together our solar system. The first phase was to purchase the basic solar harbor freight kit. The kit includes three 15 watt panels, two CFL light bulbs, a bus bar that you can connect eight harbor freight kits to, and a 12-volt charge controller (which we discarded). We bought an extra 15-watt panel, a 30-amp charge controller, and two deep cell marine batteries. We didn’t want to skimp on the charge controller, because this nifty little object helps control the charge going to the batteries and helps to protect them from overcharging. We also bought a 1000-watt inverter to help run the TV. The original cost to set this up was about 850 dollars, plus give or take.

To build our solar array chasse, we used two 6x6 pressure-treated posts, a couple of 2x4’s and a few 1x2’s, and a metal pipe down the center to pivot the array if we needed to adjust for the season. We didn’t want to place the panels on the roof of the cabin because of snow removal issues. We decided to build the chasse about 20 feet from the cabin and low enough that we can broom off any snow that would build up on the panels. The following weeks, we purchased the electrical conduit, junction boxes, and about 100 feet of 14-gauge, low-voltage wire.

We buried our conduit and added junction boxes and fuses to protect the system from any power surges. We also built a vented battery box and placed it in our utility room.

To our amazement, almost everything works! Not the DVD player, though. The minute we tried to play a movie, our inverter started to beep; we didn’t have enough power to run the player. We soon learned the value of the “beeps.” Once the inverter alarm beeps, that is a signal that we have drained the power. We have suddenly become very selective as to what we watch on TV and when. If we have a full, sunny day, that usually means about an hour and half of TV time that night. My husband has also learned that the inverter is still drawing power when it is hooked to the batteries. Therefore, we have gotten in the habit of unhooking the inverter when we are finished.

What have we learned from this experience?

The harbor freight system is an excellent start if you are not sure about setting up a system on your own or paying someone to set one up for you before you know the extent of your electrical needs. The kit comes with instructions, if you read them. You aren’t piece-mealing this or that and hoping it works.

The cost setting up our system was under 1000 dollars, and we are still able to upgrade when we have extra cash flow, which we are currently looking to do. Now that we know what we need and how everything works, upgrading doesn’t seem too intimidating.

We toyed with the idea of wiring the inside of the cabin, yet our system is a low voltage system. At this point, we don’t have anything that runs on a constant flow of 110 watts. The inverter helps to change the 12 volts to 120 so that we can watch TV, but we wouldn’t be able to rely on that setup for long lengths of time.

Our youngest son has also started researching wind power. The winter days are much shorter up in the cold north, but wind is plentiful. We have considered a 400-watt wind turbine and tower. His goal? Longer TV time!

If we look at what we used to pay in regards to our electric bill and how much we spent on batteries the first winter, our system has paid for itself. It is a new feeling to look at your lighting and say to yourself, “I helped create that!”

ipad charging
Our son’s iPad charging for the first time using our solar panels

Battery box
Battery box set up for our electrical system

Cynthia Brownell

Cynthia Brownell has lived in Alaska and the Adirondack Mountains in upstate NY. She currently lives with her husband and youngest son on a small patch of woods within a few miles of the Tug Hill Plateau. She’s an artist and teacher by day and an avid reader by night. Her greatest joys in life are her family — specifically, her husband and three children — and quiet, peaceful days on their homestead.