Homesteading with a Shipping Container House – Part 2, The Property

May, 2010 (Part 1 of this Series can be Found Here)

In the last segment, we left off with the land closing and estimates of initial costs.  It has been under a week since then and I’ve already been able to put a full day’s work in at the property.  Over that weekend, I rented a medium-sized roto-tiller from Home Depot ($55/all day) but apparently I should have rented the heavy-duty, larger one.

My plan was to go out to the property, measure and stake the estimated house site, and then clear all of the prairie grass and topsoil.  I figured this would take a good part of the afternoon to clear an approximate 45 ft. x 20 ft. area.  I was sadly mistaken.  I started the day bright and early, which is rare for me.  I was awake and already drinking my first cup of coffee by 7:00 am (unheard of!) and started to plan my day and what tools I would need in order to clear the topsoil and begin leveling a pad.

At the last minute, I debated on bringing my lawn mower with me.  I didn’t feel like hooking up the trailer and my only cargo capacity in my Jeep Wrangler is a rear cargo ‘deck’.  Since I planned to carry the roto-tiller there, I figured I could do without the lawn mower and would simply tear up the ground – weeds, tall grass and small plants alike – with the tiller.  This was my first mistake.  Anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.  I should have hooked up my trailer, brought extra gas tanks (I already carry a 5 gallon jerry can mounted on the Jeep), 2-cycle oil in case the tiller needed some, 5 gallons of water and a lawn chair.

But I was a new land owner and couldn’t wait to get out there and get my hands dirty!  I quickly packed my tools and rushed towards Home Depot – 30 miles away.

Everything went smoothly and while there, I debated on just renting one of the large Bobcat backhoes.  It had a blade on the front that would do some serious clearing and was $179 to rent all day.  It even came with it’s own trailer.  Hmmmm.  I stood there awhile pondering it and then thought… no, the roto-tiller will work fine!

With the tiller strapped to the rear cargo deck, I was headed towards my newly acquired chunk of land, ready to do battle against the prairie grass on the back acre and a half.

For simplicity sake, here are pictures of the property as you drive in from the road so that you’ll get a better idea of what I’m faced with – the entrance is marked with a blue arrow.

Click the pictures to enlarge them.

In the picture below, you can see the well location
is marked with a t-post on the left; to the right of the small tree and barely visible.

The picture below is taken back in the treeline
to the left, rear corner of the picture above.
The stream runs the entire length of the property
through the trees on the righthand side of all the pictures
and is fed from a large pond on the neighboring acreage.

After speaking with the local electrical company, I discovered they would provide the first 300 feet of line free of charge … if I promise to be a 1,400 kw per month customer.  While that is a decent monthly average for the typical home in America (factoring in winter months), one of my goals is to become and remain a sub-400 kw “customer” and use propane for water heating.  They informed me it was an “all or none” offer.  If I didn’t sign up, I incurred the total cost to run electricity from their step down pole to my house.  I never really planned to be off-grid.  Sure, it was a goal and something I would work towards, but I had not prepared to start out like this!

The well site is at least 800-900 feet from the rear of the property, where their electric pole is.  Initially, I planned to just suck up the cost to run heavy duty, excess well pump wire from the house to the wellsite and even that had me a bit unhappy due to the cost.  But to lay down actual electrical line – the type required by the electric company – would be twice that for a 300 foot run!

After doing some brainstorming and consulting with my friends at AlphaRubicon, I decided that I could place a large water storage tank – something like 1,200 – 2,000 gallons – next to the wellhouse and simply wire the wellpump to run off of a 240v generator when I needed water.  An on-demand sort of system, if you will.

A good generator capable of running a 3/4 HP pump with 240v (5,500 wtts running, 8,250 peak start-up will more than cover it) costs about $700.  It is a portable means of electricity that could simply be wheeled out to the wellsite when the time comes to fill up, and brought back to the house to plug in large electrical items the rest of the time.  A generator of this size was already in my alternative energy plan, but again, I had not planned to purchase it or use it for months.  And here I was, about to incorporate it as my main means of electricity!  I suppose I am starting to get off the grid by accident and misfortune already!

Click to Enlarge – UPDATE: I have since changed the above water delivery idea. Continue reading parts 5 and 6 to see the updated ideas.  I no longer plan to use the generator and have shifted focus to a manual water pump design.  I also purchased a 2,800 watt Yamaha whisper-quiet generator for an alternative power source (mainly for the new camper that I purchased.)  The same general concept will be used for the water pumping, as I continue talking about below, but I feel that a manual or solar backup pump will be more useful as I do not need to rely on fuel. End Update.

Without digressing too far from the main point of this entry, the water storage tank sits at an elevation that is 10 feet higher than the proposed house site and approximately 500 feet away.  After filling it up with a 10 GPM wellpump (a few hours to routinely refill, I imagine), it will then gravity feed the house via 1″ PEX water tubing buried near the frostline (18 inches here).  After entering the house, I will most likely incorporate a 12v RV-style pump to pressurize the indoor plumbing.  Newer models of 12v pumps have automatic switches in them, so if you turn on a faucet – it immediately kicks in and delivers water.  A propane instant-water heater will be tied into this same system to provide hot water to the bathroom and kitchen but I’ll get into this in much greater detail in later installments of this series.

Now, let’s get back on track, shall we?

I was just arriving at the property to begin clearing the brush.

After getting everything marked, roughly measured and staked out – I fired up the roto-tiller to begin shredding up the ground!  Except, it didn’t shred much.  Instead, it began to violently strangle itself with nearby roots and small plants.  Within a 30 seconds, the blades were almost completely covered in thick vines and starting to slow down.  Hmmm.  Note to self: learn how to properly operate a roto-tiller and be aware of it’s limitations (and purpose!) before thinking you can do anything with it.  I spent the next 10 minutes taking the blades off and trying to untangle the roots that had wrapped themselves around the shafts.

Did I mention that this was Day One of my attempt to stop smoking?  You can read about that struggle here, but just imagine the colorful slurry of words that were exiting my mouth in the blistering heat that day.

After taking a break, I decided that I would make a quick trip to the local Wal-Mart and pick up a really cheap lawn mower.  You see, the house I’m living in right now is over 40 miles away and I drive a Jeep.  That means it would cost me $15 in gas just to drive home, grab MY mower, and come back to the property.  That would also take close to 2 hours.  Then, how would I get the roto-tiller back to Home Depot and take my mower home?  They won’t both fit on my small cargo rack.  See what I mean about doing things correctly the first time?  I should have brought my trailer and mower.

I hide everything under the large tree closest to the homesite and jumped on the highway.  I figured there was a Wal-Mart nearby – I once read some random statistic that you are rarely more than 20 miles from a Wal-Mart in most populated parts of America.  Well, they were right.  The closest Wal-Mart was 18 miles away and by the time I learned this, I was half way there.  Ugh.  This was supposed to be a quick trip!  I finally found the podunk, no-where on the map Wal-Mart Supercenter and park right next to the Home and Garden Center.  I then discovered that apparently no one in rural areas ever need to buy lawn tools because there was only one aisle devoted to gardening and landscaping and it consisted of gloves, more gloves, some 2-stroke oil and a weedeater.  ONE weedeater.  And it was the smallest thing I had ever seen.  There was no way I could use that to clear the type of shrubbery and wild grasslands I now own.  The ever-so helpful salesclerk pointed me to their mowers – all 3 of them.  The cheapest one was $139.99 and it was a piece of junk!

I left Wal-Mart with the midget weedeater ($65), some extra trim line ($2?) and headed back to the property.

After spending several hours using the back-breaking tiny weedeater and constantly fixing the trimline, I had cleared a formidable path.  I set out with the roto-tiller and (after finally figuring out how to use it properly) made some real progress.  That rear metal pole is NOT a kick-stand to rest the machine on!  That’s what digs into the dirt!  Another useful entry under the “Duh!” category.

Between the aggravation of the day, the blistering heat, and going all day without a single cigarette, I was ready to call it quits at 6:00 pm.  All in all, I went way over budget for the day but it’s okay.  I now have a little weedeater and made some progress.

The above picture is evidence of my attempt to stop smoking on a workday.
Being aggravated to such an extent, I tried spinning my tires in 4-wheel drive while going back and forth over the topsoil!

This coming weekend, I will be back out there with my mower (I wish I had a large tractor and brush-hog!) to clear some more area and to meet with my septic tank contractors (part of the total financed package price).  Hopefully, they won’t tell me any bad news – like, I can’t place the septic where I’ve already roughly planned it!

In closing, I figured I would leave you with two panoramic pictures of the property!  See ya next time in Part 3!

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