Monday, May 9, 2016

Basic composting toilets; Part 2-Composting media

In part one of this series (link) we covered the basic composting toilet container. This article will cover the various types of composting media.

It is possible to do combined urine and poo but most choose to separate the two. If you do combined, it will need more covering material and more frequent emptying of the bucket. Most also report that combined waste smells. I will cover various ways for a diverter in the next article.

Covering your "business" will aid in the composting process and also eliminate offending smells. There are three common types of composting media; sawdust or wood shavings, peat moss and coconut coir. Sawdust is the cheapest alternative and works very well. If you have a sawmill or woodshop nearby, you can typically get the material free by the truckload.

Peat moss is available at the garden store in various size bags. Price is usually depended on the size bag you purchase however the cost per cubic foot decreases quickly with larger bags. I have used peat moss for the past six months. It is simple, convenient and inexpensive. However, the harvesting of peat moss is detrimental to the environment. Thea Tapson will do a guest blog about the environmental impact of this composting media.

I have discontinue using peat moss because of the environmental problems. I now use coconut coir. Coir is the outer portion of coconut husks that is ground and compressed into a brick. The bricks are reconstituted by adding water.

The typical 10 pound coconut coir brick will make approximately three-five gallon buckets of material. For this reason, it is best to cut the brick and put a portion in a bucket before adding the water. If you try to add the entire brick to a 5 gallon bucket with water, the swelling of the coir will wedge into the bucket making it difficult to remove. Add water sparingly to the brick; for half a brick (about 5 pounds), I start with 2 gallons of water. Once the water is absorbed, I break up the pieces by hand and add more water, as needed. I typically make one five gallon container of coir and store the rest of the brick un-hydrated.

Procedure: Using composting media in a bucket toilet is relatively easy; granted not as easy as flushing a conventional toilet. When you complete your "job", scoop a couple cups of media over the "deposit. You only need to cover the material with about 1/4 to 1/2" of composting media. In a commercial composting toilet. the composting media will be contained within a vessel and a mixing rod will mix the media. This is a bit nicer because you do not need to scoop each time you do your "duty". Most of the commercial toilets also have a movable door that covers the media between potty breaks; this means you do not see into the composting vessel when you open the toilet. The trap door moves out of the way once you descend on the seat.

Bucket toilets will need to be dumped more frequently than commercial toilets. I typically dump my bucket toilet once a week. I have read that the commercial toilets can go a  month or longer between dumping.

The most frequent question about composting toilets is: Does it stink? No, once your business is covered, the composting toilet does not smell. The only smell you might sense is a slight earthy smell of the sawdust, peat moss or coconut coir.

Part three of this series will cover urine diverters. Stay tuned for more composting toilet excitement.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Basic composting toilets; Part 1-The toilet

Image from
Spend anytime on the tiny house and off-grid facebook groups or forums and eventually the discussion will center around toilets. In fact, it is usually one of the first questions asked of tiny house folk by those in conventional homes. We have become accustom to doing our "business" in a white porcelain throne and evacuating the "mess" with gallons of fresh water. However, there is another way and it is ecologically better for the environment and cheaper for the homeowner. Introducing the composting toilet. 

The most basic composting toilet consists of a 5 gallon bucket, some form of composting media and a toilet lid. Heck, you could even forego the toilet lid and just use a 5 gallon bucket lid to cap the bucket at the end of your "duty". 

Shown to the right is my first composting toilet in my tiny house. It is a bucket I found by the side of the road and a lid I removed from a discarded toilet. Cost: ZERO. I did not have access to running water so I used a plastic bag to line my bucket. Some single men will keep the simple bucket but most "civilized folk" will choose to enclose the bucket in some sort of cabinet, like shown above (this unit is marketed by Typically, these basic composting toilets will cost $300 or less; most much less. As the construction on my tiny home progressed, so did the "fancyness" of my toilet enclosure.

There is also a slew of commercial composting toilets that range in price from approximately $500 to over $2000. I am unable to review these units because I have no experience with them. However, Ariel in tiny house Fy Nyth has reviewed her Nature's Head; follow this link. Macy of Minimotives has also reviewed her composting toilet, the Separett; follow this link.  To be honest, I would like to have a Nature's Head composting toilet. However, at the current time, I have other uses for $1000.
Nature's Head Composting Toilet
I will not go into the science, theory and description of composting toilets; that has been covered very well by Joseph Jenkins in the Humanure Handbook. Most of us shelled out roughly $10 to purchase this book but it is now available free at this link. Most of the actual composting happens in a compost pile. Bucket toilets hold the "stuff" till dumped but the commercial units actually dry out the "stuff" and start the composting process a bit. It is best to separate the urine from the poo; unless you have lost your sense of smell and no one ever visits your domain. Covered poo without urine does not smell; other than a slight smell of earth or sawdust. Dump your 5 gallon bucket when it is nearly full (honestly, you need a bit of room between the bottom of your "bottom" and the top of the "business" in the toilet.  In the next installment of this series, we will discuss composting media.

Wildlife Photography: Go where the action is!

All images copyright Moose Henderson
Wildlife photography is all about being in the right place at the right time. Without wildlife, it is no longer wildlife photography. But what is the concept of "right place and right time"  Mostly, it is a matter of education and research. But, you can read about an animal till you are blue in the face (that would make an interesting photo, your blue face) and not know any more than you knew when you started your study. You also need to know "what you need to know".

So here are some clues: 

1. Animals look there best at breeding time; find out when they breed. For the large four legged animals like Deer, Moose, Elk; breeding time is called Rut. For birds, it is usually spring time; sometimes early spring if it is a warmer climate and sometimes late spring if they breed where it is not warm.

2. Find out where they breed; go there! For example, the Endangered California Brown Pelican looks best around January and can be seen reliability on the cliffs of La Jolla, California. With a bit more research, you will learn there is a cove near the cliffs with access to a prime shooting spot for these Pelicans. You will also learn this is a prime spot for morning photography, not so good for afternoon or evenings. 

Since you are at La Jolla to photograph the pelicans and the spot for photography is mostly good only in mornings, a bit more research will tell you that Sea Lions come up on the rocks below and the Harbor Seals are just down the road; there are ducks at Santee Lakes in nearby San Diego and Burrowing Owls in the park in nearby San Diego; now you have a morning shoot and a late afternoon shoot for January.

3. Find our where the animals feed and go there. For example, the brown bears feed on salmon every year; Salmon run upstream around mid to late August. Guess what, the best time to get good images of bears, relatively safe images, is when the bears are busy feeding on salmon. Trying to photograph a bear in April that has just emerged from six months of hibernation when the ground is still white with snow and the food is less than plentiful is asking to be a major part of the food chain. Not long ago, a photographer was eaten by bears in Far East Russia when he did not heed this advice; don't be around bears when there is no food to eat! 

4. Become creative. I am not a landscape photographer; a short visit to my portfolio will show you that I photograph animals, not landscapes. For me, landscapes are background! You know what, sometimes, these scenic landscapes make pretty good backgrounds. Go to these iconic places with these beautiful landscapes and put an animal in front of the landscape; you have an instant success.  

5. You say, but I am a poor photographer with no money to travel; I must work to support my family; I live in a hovel in the woods; I walk three miles in six feet of snow each day-up hill both ways; and so on. Big deal, it was -47 here in Far East Russia and I managed to get out and photograph a Ural Owl. So, cut the excuses and bring the wildlife to you. Can you afford a small bag of sunflower seeds; wow, instant success? No need for fancy bird-feeders. Just cut the bottom of a coke bottle, hang the bottom part with string, wire, zip ties, whatever to a tree limb and wait for the birds to start piling in for seed. It is best if you are hidden in a
blind or tent; if you have neither, throw a dark sheet or blanket over yourself and camera gear; anything to hide the human form. 

So let's get out there and have some fun! 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Living in a Tiny House during construction

Many of us that construct our own tiny houses are doing so on a very tight budget. I built my home paycheck to paycheck; with a very low paycheck because I am also a full-time PhD student making 10 per hour (roughly $200/week). After paying necessary living expenses (rent, food, electric, etc) there was seldom anything left for construction. If you are tough, adventurous, and good-natured; you can save a consider amount of living expenses by moving into your unfinished home during construction. 

I would not recommend anyone move-in till the house has reached the "semi-dried-in" stage. This is the stage with walls and roof. I moved in before installing all the windows and the door. I used my savings from my rent to invest in my tiny house. If you plan to move in during construction, I recommend you set priorities for the construction sequence.

My two primary priorities were a comfortable place to sleep and a toilet. The toilet was easy, I used a five gallon bucket and a toilet lid as a composting toilet with sawdust cover. For sleeping, I could have gone to the thrift store and obtained a cheap futon but I wanted a comfortable relaxing place to sleep. It was important to me to get a good night sleep and also feel good about my home. 

Therefore, the first place I began my interior construction was the sleeping loft. I installed the loft using 2x6 lumber with 3/4" pine tongue and groove boards on the floor of loft, walls, and ceiling. At first, I used plastic to cover my windows till I got the windows installed. 

I also installed two 12V lights and a 12V fan. I got a cheap battery at the junk yard for $10 so that I would have power to my lights and fan. Honestly, I looked forward to going to bed. I had a book I could read just before sleeping and my loft was inviting.

I used a step ladder to get to the loft; not a real convenient way to access the loft but functional. In the middle of the night, if I needed to "go", I would need to be careful to wake-up enough to safely navigate the ladder. As a man, I soon started using an empty detergent bottle to avoid those late night potty trips. 

After a week or so living in the loft, I found I was stopping at fast food places for meals. Building on a very strict budget, an $8 fast food meal was the loss of a couple 2x4's or a package of screws. I did not want to setup a formal kitchen but I wanted to be able to save money by preparing a simple meal. I did a simple stove and a make-shift counter of spare lumber.

Living in a construction zone was not ideal but it was cost effective. I began my build Jan. 1, 2015 with a trailer. I was building in the middle of winter. Each day after school (research and classes) I worked a couple hours and every weekend. I was able to move into my shell May 2015. It was still cold in Upper Peninsula, Michigan but I was able to stay warm with extra blankets on my bed. It was a success; I was able to complete my tiny house on my budget and began learning about my space during the construction process. This helped me better "feel" my home, decide on dimensions of the kitchen, stairs, work desk, living room area and many other factors. Drawing the plan was just not the same for me as "living the plan". Therefore, if your family situation permits living in your tiny during construction, I encourage you to give it a try during a long weekend. If it works for you, then you will save money that can be invested in your home.

All comments, questions and experiences welcome.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Solar Power: Part 7-Panels

Image from website

Solar panels make up the backbone of the solar charging system; they provide the energy that is delivered through the solar controller into the batteries. Solar technology is changing quickly. At the current time, there are three types of solar panels that fit the basic system ($3500-5000) we discussed in the first article of this series. The three types are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Each as advantages and disadvantages.

Monocrystalline panels are made from crystals of silicon and have a characteristic uniform color. The individual cells are not square because of the growth form of the crystals; the cutting process of the crystal produces angled or rounded edges. Because the silicon is grown as a crystal, the efficiency is higher; however so is the cost. They are also the most space efficient and have the longest life. Monocystalline panels suffer more when partially shaded. However, new technology has partially solved this problem with the addition of diodes that allow the un-shaded portion of the panel to continue to produce energy.

Image from website
Monocrystalline panels will be more expensive than polycrystalline. Polycrystalline panels have uneven coloring and square cells because of the manufacturing process which consist of poured silicon, not crystals. They will be less expensive than the monocrystalline panels but also slightly less efficient. Because of this loss in efficient, polycrystalline panels of similar wattage will be larger than monocrystalline panels. Polycrystalline also have slightly lower heat tolerance but this is typically not a problem for most tiny home homeowners. If mounted on a black roof, the panels would suffer because of the increased heat.

Image from
The third type is thin-film panels. These are the flexible panels. The manufacturing process consist of depositing multiple thin layers of photovoltaic material. There are multiple types of photovoltaic material but I will not detail these types. The reader is encouraged to research the different types if they desire this detailed knowledge. The primary advantage of thin-film panels is flexibility. If you have a bus tiny house and you want to contour the panels to the bus roof, thin-film would fit this application. However, thin-film have the lowest efficiency of the three types; panels of similar wattage to mono or polycrystalline will be larger. However, they are cheaper to manufacture and many times cheaper to purchase. They are also less sensitive to shading than mono or polycrystalline panels.

Solar panels are rated in watts. Panels with higher wattage will be larger. When choosing the panels, it is important to choose panels that will fit the space available. If you will be mounting the panels on an independent frame, then size will be less of an issue. Typically, higher wattage panels have a lower cost per watt than lower wattage panels.

Multiple panels can be combined in series to increase the wattage. For example, four 12V-100 watt panels combined in series will provide 400 watts of power at 12V. Remember to not exceed the capacity of your solar controller. A set of panels of 400 watts is feeding at least 33 amps of energy to the controller when in full sun (400 watts/12V=33.33 amps). However, panels will typically generate greater than their stamped efficiency in full sun so it is important to not overpower your controller. Controllers were discussed in part 6 of this series. A 40 amp controller will accept 40 amps (480 watts at 12V); 40 amps of solar panels could generate much more than 40 amps on a bright sunshiny day. This is the reason I am only using four 100 watt panels rated at 33.33 amps.

The next installment of this series will cover wiring. Wiring connects the batteries together; connects the inverter to the batteries, connects the panels to the solar controller and connects the solar controller to the batteries.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Friends that share my direction

 One of my closest Tiny House friends is Ariel of Fy Nyth. She and her tiny house are in the mountains of NW Wyoming; a place I think of as paradise. This is an area with abundant animals, not so many people, lots of outdoor activities and beautiful mountains. A couple years ago, Ariel purchased a new Tumbleweed Tiny House, 24 ft in length and lives alone except for a few outdoor cats and friends that come to visit.

There is seldom a day that we do not exchange messages. However, we have never met (as of early May 2016). We do plan to meet soon and we will be presenting a joint presentation at the 2016 Tiny House Jamboree on Off-grid Living and Homesteading.  The following picture is from her blog with tons of informative posts, many pictures of animals and also interesting info on her life. Ariel is like a daughter to me, she is such a sweetheart. Her blog is located at this link: Fy Nyth
Fy Nyth in the mountains of northwest Wyoming.
 In addition to being located in paradise, Ariel also has a large garden. She grows much of her own food and cans it in her tiny house. She also does laundry at her tiny house and she is an avid photographer. In her area, they get approximately 400 inches of snow annually (honestly, that is not a misprint, 400 inches). She has both a propane furnace and a new Grey Stove (wood stove). I am proud to call her my friend. I encourage you to visit her site and learn from her extensive experience.

Next, is Nick and Ester Emery of Fouch-o-matic off-grid. Their site is named after Nick's ability to make a functioning item from spare parts. They do not live in a tiny house; well actually they do. They are living in a yurt on their property during the construction of their "post and beam" house. Ester is the daughter of Carla Emery who wrote the classic self-sufficiency book "The Encyclopedia of Country Living". Nick and Ester have three children; one boy and two girls. We have never met, in fact, we have never exchanged letters, messages or any other form of communication. Nevertheless, I am a big fan of their youtube videos about off-grid living and homesteading. I hope you will give their site a look and I hope you enjoy it as much as I. The link to their youtube videos is: Fouch-o-matic

I have the aforementioned encyclopedia of country living and it is essential to homesteading living. I purchased the kindle edition as I do not have room on my bookshelf for a book of 900 plus pages. Below is an affiliate link to the book.

Kindle Edition

Print Edition

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Wildlife Photography Secrets: Angle of Light


 In the old days, you would purchase a package of film and inside the film box was an instruction sheet that described the concept of sunny 16, shooting your images with the sun at your back and other such general information. The makers of the film knew that shooting your images with the sun behind your back would be the easiest technique for those with little photographic experience. In this article, let’s discuss lighting. 

During full sun, there are three basic types of lighting for wildlife photos. These are direct frontal lighting, some type of angled lighting and silhouettes. Of course, there are variations and combinations of these three; but these are the three basic types.  

There is a famous bird photographer that teaches his students; “Point your shadow at the bird”; basically saying to use direct frontal lighting. He teaches that this increases his percentage of keepers because he does not need to worry if the light is on the wrong side of the bird or that the bird may have turned his head out of the light. With direct frontal lighting, if the bird turns his head to the left, the sun strikes the left side of its face; if the bird turns its head to the right, the sun strikes the right side of the face. The same type of lighting can also be used on mammals, reptiles and other crawling things. Many times, this is a good lighting technique; other times it is: ah, shall we say BORING! Direct frontal lighting means no shadows; no shadows mean no definition to feathers or fur. Take a look at your passport photo or your driver’s license photo; this is direct frontal lighting. 

My mentor and teacher, Charles Glatzer, instructs that “light illuminates, shadows define”. Basically, by moving the light a bit off angle, the light now defines the feathers, fur or texture of the animal better and gives it more depth and rounding. With the light now coming at an angle, it does make the imaging process a bit more challenging because you must wait till the animal moves its head or body into the most pleasing light angle. Few things look worse than having a shadow on the wrong side of the body or a shadow hide important details.
Wait till the light is directly behind the animal; expose for the light and you have silhouette lighting. Basically, the subject will be black and the background will be bright; if it happens to be a sunset or sunrise; it will be bright and colorful.

So when you setup your camera to photograph wildlife (or you Aunt Minnie), carefully consider the angle of the light. Many times, you can move a few feet to the left or right and completely change the mood and emotion of an image. I wish you success in your photography endeavors.

Monday, May 2, 2016

TV, movies and free shipping


We all need a bit of rest from the pressures of everyday life. TV and movies provide entertainment and relief. Many of us that live off-grid also live away from intown conveniences; such as big box hardware stores, specialty stores such as cooking supplies, or even common stores. Most of us are close enough to civilization to have internet (DSL, cable or satellite) and package delivery.

For the past seven years, I have not had cable television and have not been a subscriber of any of the paid services, such as Hulu, Netflix, etc. However, I have been an Amazon Prime member. This membership provides me free "two-day" shipping on all items directly sold by Amazon. This is an large savings because of the volume of packages I order each year.

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

Amazon Prime membership also provides all my TV and movie entertainment. Granted, new releases or current shows are not part of the membership package but many of the shows I love are part of this membership. 

They also have a discounted membership for students. As a graduate student, I have qualified for this discount; they have put no restrictions on my account because of this discount. If you have not given Amazon Prime a try, it might be worth the effort to do a free trial membership.

Order a couple items during the trial to see how you like getting free two-day shipping; watch a few movies and maybe a couple TV shows. I am a fan of the TV series Justified, NYPD Blue and Sopranos; all are available for my enjoyment with no additional fees.  I believe they also have a music service but I have not tried it. 

Some shows are only available on a pay-per-watch basis. I have never watched any of these shows. Living on a tight budget, I enjoy my Prime membership but do not take part in the other non-prime aspects. All are welcome to ask questions about my experiences. Thanks, I hope this has been helpful for those that wish to give Amazon Prime a try.

Temporary Indoor Shower


I built my tiny home paycheck to paycheck. In order to effectively use every dime, I moved into my tiny home long before it was complete. However, because I worked on the build each day after my regular work day, I wanted a way to get clean without running to some bathing facility away from my build site.

Therefore, one of the first items I installed was my bathtub and plumbing for the bathtub drain. I did not install the tub walls till much later. In order to protect the existing walls, I obtained vinyl shower curtains and tacked them to the walls. I also have a front curtain to keep the water in the tub.

I had not installed my water plumbing or my hot water tank. I live off-grid and planned an internal tank, see this article.  Before installing my internal tank, I used water totes to hold water. I used a garden sprayer to hold two gallons of water for my shower. The wand and nozzle was removable and made it much easier to use for my shower.

I would fill the sprayer tank with 3/4 of a gallon boiling water and 1 gallon of cold water. I used an electric water pot for heating the water. Because I was building my home, I was frequently using the generator so I had plenty of energy to run the water pot. Water could also be heated in a tea pot over a camp propane stove.

The same garden sprayer can be painted black and placed outside in the sunshine. The sun will heat the bottle so you have hot shower water. However, I live in an extremely cold region and I was building during the winter.

I used this system to take showers for six months. Even after I completed the basic plumbing of my home, I needed to use this system because I had not installed a water heater. I now have a shower head with an on/off switch and it is a water saving head, however it still uses more water than my former garden sprayer. I find I miss my sprayer. It was so easy to conserve water because the sprayer output was not excessive.

Maybe I will bring the sprayer back and use it. Life is good off-grid and it feels good to conserve water. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Solar Power: Part 6-Solar charge controller

The purpose of a solar charge controller is to regulate the current from the solar panels so that you do not damage the batteries. There are many descriptions of charge controller types and their function; I will not attempt to describe them in this article but I will refer you to this article. Why reinvent the wheel when it has been done well by others with greater knowledge.

However, what is not covered well in most other articles is how to choose the proper size charge controller. It is important to match the controller to the output of your solar panels. Getting a charge controller larger than your needs will not cause any damage but choosing a charge controller of insufficient capacity could cause a fire by overheating the controller.

Of the two basic types of charge controllers (PWT and MPPT), I much prefer the MPPT because of better charge regulation and because more of the solar panel output is directed to the batteries. Reading the above referenced article will help decipher a bit of the fog about charge controller types. I also recommend the Solar Electric Handbook (see link at bottom).

Solar controllers have a rated amperage. For example, my Renogy MPPT solar controller is rated at 40 amps. This is the maximum input amperage. Solar panels are rated in watts. We are back in the United Nations where everyone is speaking a different language (amps, watts, volts, etc). However, we can convert watts to amps with the following formula: Amps = Watts/Voltage.

In part one of this series, I stated that we are designing a basic 12V solar charge system costing $3500-5000. You can build a larger or smaller system, this just gives us a starting point so I can restrict my discussion to components that fit this system.

So, how many solar panels can I add to my solar charge system if I have a 40 amp charge controller. Forty amps is 480 watts for a 12 volt system. However, you do not want to exceed the capacity of the charge controller, when the sun is high in the sky with clear blue skies,  your panels will frequently exceed their rated capacity. So, let's leave a 10% margin of error (480 watts - 10% = 432 watts). Therefore, we can safely add 432 watts of solar panels to our system.

Solar panels are cheaper per watt the larger the panel you purchase. Typically, one 200 watt panel will be cheaper than two 100 watt panels. You will also save on mounting hardware, wires, and such by purchasing higher capacity panels. Panels also come in various sizes and it is important to match the panel size to your available space. This image shows the various components of my solar charge system (except batteries and solar panels); it is important to place the charge controller in an area that will get some circulation, charge controllers have cooling fins and need air circulation.

I will cover solar panels in Part 7 of this series. For my system, I choose four 100 watt panels because this fit the space I had available for my unit and this did not exceed the capacity of my charge controller. At a future date, I will install a second charge controller and four additional 100 watt panels.

There are many choices for charge controllers and books, these are the ones I have purchased and had good luck using. I wish you all well.