Tuesday, August 17, 2010

One Year Anniversary: One year of camping.

As of August 17th, I have weathered summer, fall, winter, spring, and summer again in the van. It wasn't always easy, but it wasn't that bad either. Over time I have improved the interior of the van to the point where I now have reliable power, a bed, a desk, a chair, and storage. In short, it has become an adequate mobile apartment (minus a shower/sink). From the world's perspective -- I am roughing it in a van. From my perspective, I have a comfortable place to sleep.

One thing that has really helped is the presence of a local library. I can go to the air conditioned library with my laptop, get online, and stay there for as long as I like. I recently been utilizing the library to study for an Oracle certification. In fact, the library is tied in with Safari Bookshelf, so I have access to large number of study materials beyond what the library has.

Money-wise, I have continued to keep up with tracking my expenses. This spring, I had some major expenditures in solar panels, batteries, charge controllers, and wiring of the same. The end result of this is a 24V solar-charged battery system that provides 12/24V DC and 120V AC power to anything I need. I spent around $1700 on this system, so that brought my equipment costs to $4,698, or $391.50/month. My operating costs include things like generator fuel, propane, inspection, insurance, and gym membership. The total in operating costs for the year was $581, or $48.44/month. The combined total was $5,279, or $439.40/month.

For comparison, a cheap 1-bedroom apartment (in a shared house) in this area is $500/month and utilities would easily add $100 on top of that. So over the course of a year, I would have spent $7600 on such an apartment. This means that over the course of 1 year, I saved $2,321 in rent/utilities by camping at work.  What makes this more exciting is that the bulk of my cost was purchasing equipment.  Barring any issues with my equipment and assuming $50/month operating cost, my second year will only cost me $600.

Where I Went Wrong

Looking back, there are a few things I would have liked to do differently. 

  1. The mattress.  I started off with the van's mattress, which was an ok way to get started, but then I went to an air mattress.  If I had done my research, I would have learned that air mattresses and cold weather don't mix.  I replaced it with a foam mattress from Ikea, but I would have been $50 richer going with the foam mattress from the start.
  2. Solar panels.  I should have gone a full summer of measuring my air conditioner's load before building my battery/solar panel array.  I was basing it off of my usage from the end of August.  Also, I didn't get a chance to measure wattage pull until winter.  To do this, I cranked up the furnace at home and then turned on the air conditioner.  I came up with a pull of 500-600 Watts.  However, during this hot summer, I really pull 1000-1200W, about double what I built for.  In order to handle that, I will need 2-3 times the batteries I currently have, plus the copper wiring to tie it all together.  Once I increase my batteries to handle the load, I would then need to add another solar panel to recharge the system in time for each week.  If I had waited and got a full summer's worth of readings from the watt meter, I could have purchased and built with more confidence.  On the other hand, researching setting up the system was a desired learning experience that I suspect will prove useful in the future.
  3. Generator choice.  Granted, I probably couldn't have known this, but the generator I got often requires moving the choke in order to start it.  So while I was able to rig up a remote start, most of the time I still had to go to the generator and operate the choke.  I may be able to work around this using a cable and spring setup, but I suspect the result will be flaky.  Some of the more expensive generators from Honda come with remote starts (and are quieter).  The downside is that they usually only hold 2 gallons of gas.
 Camping at work has been a dual-purpose endeavor.  On one side, it has a very practical application of saving me money.  The other purpose is that of learning.  When you go "off-grid" you no longer can rely on cookie-cutter solutions.  You have to come up with your own solutions for each issue and experiment until you find what works.