Hello Readers! A lot has happened in the year since our last post. Let’s take a look at some of the projects we completed between August 2021 and August 2022…
Finishing the earthen floors
Not much compares to the beauty and feel of an earthen floor, but installing earthen floors throughout an entire house requires significant labor, awkward positioning, and long days. But it is doable, especially because you can usually break the house up room-by-room. The biggest marathon for us was the hallway/kitchen/living room, which didn’t allow for any convenient ways for us to cleanly break up the work. It took about two-and-a-half days to get all the floor material down and then another two days to finish buffing it out with a trowel. The extended time it took to complete made it more difficult to keep things looking uniform and a bit challenging to blend one day’s work into the next, but we ended up being quite pleased with the finished product.
The last photo here shows some tools of the hard-troweling trade. My set up consisted of three sections of rigid foam insulation, which I would use to leapfrog around the room, a water sprayer to re-moisten the floor, a little extra floor material for small fixups, a couple small trowels, and my handy work light. I remember that finishing the hard-troweling for this part of the house was not much fun, given that the floor had dried more than I would have liked prior to me getting back out there to hard-trowel. It was still workable, but took a lot of muscle power. Sometimes it seemed like I hardly needed the sprayer, given that my sweat dripping onto the floor was enough to moisten the floor and make it workable (exaggeration).
Linseed oil and wax
Compared to installing the floor material and hard-troweling it afterward, applying the layers of linseed oil with paint brushes was so easy and quick! We did about 4-6 coats of linseed oil in each room. We’d start with two coats of 100% linseed oil and then cut it to 50% linseed oil/50% mineral spirits for the rest of the coats. We never found it necessary to increase the percentage of mineral spirits beyond 50%. The linseed oil darkens the floor considerably and makes the floor surface a little harder.
We used Heritage Liquid Wax for the final layer of protection on our floors. It’s a bit pricey for 5 gallons, but it’s a great product and works really well. Our friend Daniel, who has a wood flooring business, brought up a buffing machine to do the main bulk of the work. Erika and I buffed the wax into the floor by hand along the edges by the walls, but Daniel did the rest with his machine. He’d pour a bit of the wax messily around a room and then follow it with the buffer, spreading it across the floor. He did the whole house in a matter of hours, and then came back on one or two occasions to finish buffing it when the wax was closer to being fully dried.
Solar array installation
Designing, permitting, installing, and troubleshooting our solar system was a massive undertaking and was quite frustrating at times. Although there are plenty of options for buying equipment and going the DIY route, it’s hard to know all the little components you need, if they’ll work together, if they’ll meet code, and if they’ll be sufficient for your individual needs. I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s out of reach or anything, as plenty of people DIY their photovoltaic systems all the time, but it can be a lot of work for the owner-builder.
We got our photovoltaic panels, batteries, combiner box, wiring, and inverter from Signature Solar. We purchased our roof mount system from S-5! (purchased through Northern Arizona Wind and Sun). We purchased rapid shutdown equipment from Tigo, and obtained AC and DC disconnects from other random suppliers.
Although it’s relatively unheard of in the off-grid solar community, we got our system permitted and approved. Again, it wasn’t a super easy process, but we made it through with a significant amount of prodding of the state plan reviewer and some help from our electrical inspector. For the most part, we were able to use the equipment we wanted to use, although we had to include a few components that we might not have included otherwise.
Putting the solar panels on the roof after so much planning, head scratching, and permitting delays sure felt good. Sean and John helped me get them put up, which made the work pretty easy. I think it took about three or four hours to put all 14 panels up. The rack-less mounting clamps from S-5! require no roof penetrations on a standing seam roof. It’s a simple, elegant, easy-to-install design.
Of course, getting the panels on the roof is just a small part of the overall system. The photo below shows (from left to right) the DC disconnect, AC disconnect, rapid shutdown, and combiner box mounted to the outside of the elegantly plastered west wall of the utility room.
And then there are the components of the system on the inside of the house. In the photo below, we see the main electrical panel, the inverter, and the LiFePo batteries.
About an hour after we turned the system on and had power going through the house for the first time in the house’s life, we had a significant failure of the Tigo TS4 modules attached to the PV panels. It was quite distressing, to say the least. It also took us about a month of long conversations, long nights, and tests to get things running again. We brought in our brilliant friend Kevin who, despite having no formal knowledge of PV systems (but a career in robotics), found our situation interesting enough to volunteer a huge amount of time helping us work through the issues. We could not have done it without him! (Tigo ended up sending us new TS4s and Kevin was able to teach them a thing or two about their own product)
Our solar system has been back online for over a month now and seems to be working quite well. Since we’re not moved in yet, we haven’t really subjected the system to our normal usage patterns, however, the system has been fully capable of handling whatever we’ve thrown at it. We have a mini-split heater/air conditioner that I’ve been running when we’re doing work at the house, and we’ve also run our electric heat pump hot water heater and other appliances at the same time. While we had to put in a lot of brainpower and equipment to make it happen, it’s pretty incredible to be using power directly from the sun in a house sourced directly from the Earth!
Final Permits and the certificate of occupancy
Although we finished the floors, painted the drywall, sealed tiles, and wrapped up a number of different small projects by the end of 2021, it took the next six months to finish the electrical and plumbing work. I was most nervous about getting the PV system inspected, but it went smoothly. We got our final PV inspection, final electrical inspection, and final plumbing inspection completed without issue. I left work one afternoon to meet the CID building inspector, and after a brief walk-through of the house, I came away with my certificate of occupancy from the state of New Mexico. It took just over 5 years from when we broke ground to get to the certificate of occupancy.
While this might seem like the end of our story, I will continue to post with some photos of the finished house and updates on the myriad projects still do be done on the house. There will be plenty details to add about how the house functions once we are living there. I’m excited to find out the best ways to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I’m excited to transform the immediate area around the house with fruit trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens. I’m excited to learn the constellations in our darker-than-dark night sky. I’m excited to experience the intangible effects of living in a mud house.
Stay tuned, dear readers! There is more to come in our saga. Just like the mud that forms our home, our lives are malleable, workable, and forever changing…