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Man Builds Two Off Grid Tiny Cabins for Retirement

This off grid tiny cabins retirement story is a guest post by Michael Scheer – share your tiny house story here too!

My name is Michael and about 5 years ago I wanted an off grid place for vacation and retirement. Like many others I am tired of bills, bills, bills and knew I would never have enough money to retire on unless I became debt free and my home was paid off.

A couple years passed and as things happened I had a friend who went through a divorce (I recently moved out of my ex-girlfriends home 8 months prior) and he needed help monetarily in order to buy a home and asked me to move in. The move cut my rent in half and enabled me along with my bonus check to purchase some land I found in northern AZ at about 6500 ft elevation. Summers are mild with highs in the low 90’s high 80’s and winters are in the 40’s and 50’s with light snow. I picked up 6 acres for less than $4k.

Man Builds Two Off Grid Tiny Cabins for Retirement

Man builds two off grid tiny cabins

Images © Michael Scheer

Months later I decided to put in my first cabin, I bought a 10×18 from weatherking (apx. $4200.00), it was just a shell.

I put in paneling, bed, couch, small coleman table/sink combo and shelving. I also purchased some solar panels and four 35amp hour batteries for power. I camped out until the cabin was delivered, this was in late May. I had everything unpacked and was getting ready to work on the cabin when long behold a blizzard hit, my paneling was flying across the land, stuff was getting wet and the temp went from 75 degrees to 30 in a matter of minutes. Luckily I have one neighbor (only one) who lives about 100 yards away who came to help, we got everything inside and covered and the learning experience began.

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After a couple of years of trials and errors, and frustrating problems I am close to being done. To make a long story short the biggest hurdles are toilet, water, and power, and here is what I did..

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The toilet was expensive but I settled on a compost toilet, Natures Head, I was able to hook the fan wires up to my solar charge controller load and it works perfectly. Never smells and is as big as a conventional toilet. The cost is about $1k but worth it. Pooping in a bucket with a bag and hauling it home with you really smells, especially in the summer, I HIGHLY recommend this!!

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The water is still a work in progress but I am happy where I am at with it now. I have a 600 gallon water buffalo and two 300 gallon tanks. I can get water at the firestation in town which is about 10 miles away. (The population is 2500). I use 5 gallon buckets, one full and one empty and Zodi battery powered sprayers for my sinks and shower. So far they have lasted over a year on the same batteries, I highly recommend them. My shower is in a resin shed on the outside of my small cabin, I heat water up on my butane stove or wood stove on colder weather. A well is the next step but we shall see, so far it is out of my price range.

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Last of all power. I ended up with four 100 watt panels, ten 35 amp hour SLA batteries and a 30 amp charge controller on the small cabin, I have a cobra 1500 watt inverter, works very well. The large cabin (12×30) I have six 100 watt panels, a 45 amp hour charge controller and a 2500 watt Whistler inverter. The challenge was what size wire to use on the batteries.

The small cabin I use 4awg and the large cabin I use 0/2 awg. Since using these gauge wires I have had no problems. For the solar panels, I nailed 4×8 plywood to wooden sawhorses and then tarred the plywood (3/4 in thick). I then glued the panels to plastic solar panel moldings and it seems to work just fine. Its heavy but movable (if need be) and durable. It is very windy up there, and so far no issues and its been about 2 years.

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When it’s hot I have a portable swamp cooler which does cool by 20 degrees. I have a 5.0 cubic freezer for food. It’s an Igloo and uses less power then a small refrigerator. I know this because I bought both, first I purchased the refrigerator, which is 1.8 cubic feet and uses 185KW a year, vs. the freezer which uses 174KW a year. I also went with the freezer not only for room, but I also bought freezer packs and use a cooler as my refrigerator. This way I just switch out the freezer packs every few days and my fresh food stays cool, during the winter I can put everything outside on my porch.

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This has been one heck of a learning experience and all I have left to do is put in the wood stove in the large cabin, which will be done very soon. I watched a ton of YouTube videos and read hundreds of articles, believe me this was not easy. I re-did some things more than two or three times, so, for whomever tries this, be patient. In the end the small cabin became my bedroom/bathroom and the large cabin is my kitchen, dining and family/guest room. If I have guests I also have a flushable portable toilet on hand which I can put in the large cabin, and my sofa folds down to a queen sized bed.

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Both wood stoves are done and work great. Let me say they are not easy to understand at first so here is some helpful info. They are not like fireplaces, the dampers need to be closed in order for them to work properly, this creates a vacuum to pull the smoke out of the chimney. Believe me I found out the hard way airing out my cabin one night. In addition, they do not distribute heat by themselves unless they have a blower on them. I have read many posts whereas people were upset because they did not heat up the sq. footage as stated. To fix this issue buy what is called ECO FANS. They require no electricity or battery, they simply work by the heat given off the stove itself, there is one on the black cast iron stove pictured (and one behind the barrel stove). They are about 100 bucks but well worth it!

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I also forgot to mention what size battery I used in the large cabin, which were 200ah a piece. I also used a 45amp hour Tristar charge controller with 8awg wire to the batteries and 0/2awg wire between batteries and the inverter. These are ample to run a freezer constantly, a tv, satellite, charge phones, laptop, etc. I can even run a full sized vacuum (yes all at once). Do not skimp on the wires, I have seen them melt when they are too small (another learning experience).

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Images © Michael Scheer

Lastly I had a drain put in the large cabin, so all I need to do is bring in water, the small cabin is next and this has made a huge difference, especially since I moved the water tank closer. In the near future I may buy another large tank and put behind the cabins on the hill to gravity feed water but we shall see.

I hope this added info helps, good luck to all who try this road.

Our big thanks to Michael for sharing!

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Alex

Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Liz August 5, 2015, 2:50 pm

    Is that a toilet in the kitchen/bed area? Can’t be right? No one in their right (or left) mind would REALLY install a toilet there right?

    • Brian August 5, 2015, 5:44 pm

      Just reading the article, that is a portable toilet for use of guests when they stay over. As it is portable, you can just pick it up and move it where you want it. If I’m wrong anyone please let us know 🙂

      • michael scheer August 5, 2015, 7:34 pm

        Brian hello,

        you are almost correct, thank you for clarifying. I have 2 toilets, one compost in my small cabin, which is my bedroom and has a sink in it, and a portable flushing toilet which is currently unused in my shed. When and if I have guests over, I can bring out the portable toilet for the large cabin, I am thinking this is mostly for my female guests as I do not wish anyone to use it for the old #2 because I don’t want to clean it. That is what the compost toilet is for and works remarkably well. If for some unfortunate reason guest has to go #2 in the middle of the night, well then, they will have to clean the porta potty.

        • Brian August 6, 2015, 3:17 am

          Thx for clarifying Michael. I live in a small house (65 square metres) here in Aus and I have a small Winnebago to go into town, shopping etc. It has a portable toilet built in with hot and cold shower etc. Very common here to use these porta potti’s with chemical which can be emptied into any normal sewage inlet. Absolutely no smell with the chemical even over a long period between empties. Cheers from Aus

    • michael scheer August 5, 2015, 7:24 pm

      Liz hello, no the toilet is not in the kitchen, nor does my post state that. As stated above the small cabin is my bedroom and bathroom (there is a compost toilet in there). The large cabin is my kitchen, dining and living room. I do have another toilet that flushes as it has a 5 gallon reservoir but I only will bring it out I have guests. Meaning as of now it sits in my shed empty and unused. I hope that clarifies things.

  • Brian August 5, 2015, 5:31 pm

    Thanks for all the interesting information, it was really enlightening. Thanks for sharing and cheers from Australia

  • Chris August 5, 2015, 8:57 pm

    To Liz, Your point is? I haven’t seen an american house yet where the bath facilities are not very close to the kitchen area. Bathrooms should be in bedrooms, livingrooms, or outside period.

  • Lynnette August 6, 2015, 1:00 am

    Awesome job Michael. This, to me, is truly what the tiny house movement is all about. Being mortgage-free, leaving a much smaller footprint, making the things yourself when you can. I love it! Keep us posted.

  • Eric August 6, 2015, 5:46 am

    @Chris: You have to be kidding? A bathroom in a living room? Bizzare! Unless your living rooms in the States are vastly different from the rest of the world… somehow I don’t think so.

    @ Michael Scheer: Why did you not join the two buildings together to create a bigger usable space? I get where you are coming from with the toilet facilities and guest facilities but it seems to me especially in winter it would be easier to heat up one area rather than two, noticably if you are having guests.

    • michael scheer August 6, 2015, 1:46 pm

      Eric hello,
      It would be nice to have a much larger home, perhaps 3 bedrooms, with running water, a full bath, etc, etc. Not trying to be sarcastic but the point is missed. I am not a contractor and have limited funds. It took me two years to get where I am at now. Not to mention it is much cheaper to buy one more wood stove as opposed to remodeling 2 buildings and joining them. This separation also affords privacy for guests and myself. So in essence, would I like to do it, sure, along with many other creature comforts, but it is not feasible and really it is an extravagance that is last if done at all, a well is much more important.

  • Naomi August 6, 2015, 3:28 pm

    Thank you for sharing this, Michael. I appreciate you posting your efforts, learning experiences, and successes on the path to your cabins. Particularly you sharing things that you learned along the way. Hopefully you will post updates as you continue to do projects for your cabins. I hope to one day have my own tiny home. This is all new to me. I learned a lot of things to start learning about for off-the-grid tiny homes from your article.

  • Nancy August 9, 2015, 9:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing Michael, awesome that you are mortgage free.
    I guess the town doesn’t have any zoning regulations so they don’t care what you build on your land?
    Question, how do you keep cool when it’s hot outside?

    • michael August 9, 2015, 10:12 pm

      Nancy hi, The temp rarely hits the high 80’s, maybe 10 times a month in the summer, during those times I have a Kulaire portable evap cooler I got on ebay brand new for $70 dollars. It will and does lower the temp by 20 degrees and uses very little electricity. The town does have zoning but I am not in town, I am about 8 miles outside, so where I am at, the zoning is pretty open. In fact, if you go to the Apache county website, they have a memorandum that explains how different and possibly diffulcult it is to live in the open range. Such as needing fire or police help, lack of utilities, no paved roads, inclement weather problems, etc., its pretty cool.

  • Chris August 10, 2015, 4:18 pm

    To Eric, It’s fascinating that you find “in the living room” so repulsing. I live in the states and here, the general contractors are very cheap in the building of homes. They try to keep all the plumbing at a minimal hence the bathrooms are located so close to the kitchens. The point that I’m trying to make here is (that I don’t know why I feel the need to explain myself to you) that I have been in various countries and they do have better options for the facilities in other places of the house or structure. A couple of years ago I went to South America and there was a bathroom in every bedroom but not a central one located for everyone to use (like in North America) which I thought was a great idea because the odor would have to travel through two doors to get to a recipient (if you know what I mean). Do you get the point now, Eric?

    To Michael , My apologies for not commending you on your hard work and your struggles the first time I wrote. I saved your photos and words for future reference. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cindy September 19, 2016, 11:27 pm

    What an great set up. We are looking to do much the same in Apache County and was wondering if your close to there. If so, what permits did you have to get….if any.

    Thanks Cindy

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