Derek Howlett hasn’t paid an electricity or water bill in three years. On his 40-acre plot of land in Tucson, Arizona, 15 300-watt solar panels and four 2,500-gallon water tanks filled with rainwater provide power and water to a 200-square-foot tiny house Howlett built himself with he shares with his wife, Hannah, and their two dogs and three cats.all of which he built himself.
Solar panels keep the air conditioning churning through the summer. Rainwater keeps the family supplied with clean water. And a grey water system recycles back into the property’s landscaping. Essentially, the Howletts only pay for cell service, internet, and garbage pickup—and it was this financial independence that initially drew Howlett to an off-grid lifestyle.
“The cool thing about solar is there’s obviously the energy independence thing—you’re not relying on anyone else to produce power for you,” Howlett says. “From a philosophical standpoint, it’s really fulfilling.”
But going off the grid, especially if you’re a DIYer in a desert climate, is no easy feat.
Collecting rainwater in the desert
Under the blazing Arizona sun, getting enough solar power is no problem, but in a climate that gets 11 to 12 inches of rain per year, collecting enough rainwater for an entire homestead can be a problem. Initially, Howlett wasn’t sure if he could run his home on rainwater. But he was inspired to try after watching videos from Homesteadonomics, whose creator, Joe Mooney, lives about an hour away from Tucson and relies on about 90 percent rainwater in his home.
Howlett maximizes every surface on the lot to collect water. The roofs of both the tiny house and the shed on his land collect rainwater into a culvert cistern, which is used for irrigating trees and the garden. But the bulk of their water comes from a 2,900-square-foot “rain roof” Howlett built. It is essentially a large roof positioned a few feet above ground that collects enough rainwater to fill the four 2,500-gallon water tanks. After going through a two-part filtration system, this water is used for showering and washing. Water used for drinking and cooking goes through an extra round of filtration through a Berkey filter.
Water conservation is also essential: a 12-gallon water heater means short showers, and the couple uses a composting toilet. Howlett says this reduces their water budget by 20 to 30 percent because they don’t need a septic system.
Howlett also repurposes some of the water they use through a grey water system and by using grey water approved soaps that do not contain high levels of salts or boron and won’t change the pH of the water. That water is diverted toward landscaping.
“All of the water from our washing machine, our shower, our kitchen sink—it goes back out to the landscape to irrigate trees,” Howlett says. “It’s just really simple stuff, but folks have gotten away from it all.”
Not only does Howlett believe rainwater is superior in quality compared to well or city water, but he also says it’s better for the environment. According to Howlett, a river used to run through Tucson perennially, but well water has drained the water table so much it is now completely dry.
“Rainwater is definitely a big sustainability issue, especially in our part of the United States,” Howlett says. “Access to fresh water is definitely a big issue in a desert climate.”
The cost of off-grid living
Although he’s paying virtually no electricity or water bill, off-grid living requires fronting some hefty costs. Howlett spent approximately $14,000 to build his solar system and $10,000 for the rain roof. Though he will see a return on the solar panels in about 10 years, his rainwater collection system is more of a sustainability payback than a financial one.
Howlett cut some installation costs by watching YouTube videos and doing most of this work himself. Though he had prior experience with wiring while working as an electrician for four years, he believes most people can do it themselves as well.
“I think you have a greater appreciation when you do things yourself,” Howlett says. “Plus, if things fail or you need to make modifications, then you have a much better understanding of figuring out what’s wrong as opposed to always relying on someone else.”
Howlett has chronicled his off-grid journey and offers homesteading advice on his YouTube channel, Handeeman. The channel documents the building of his tiny house and off-grid structures and explains abstract concepts to viewers—for example, that lithium-ion batteries from Teslas can be repurposed in a DIY solar system.
For those who want to begin their off-grid lifestyle, connecting with local people that are already doing what they want to do can provide practical insight. Future homesteaders also can learn and connect at conferences such as the Homesteading Life Conference for more inspiration.
“I can give people rainwater advice on my YouTube channel, but there’s a lot specific to where we live and what the climate is like,” Howlett says. “So, having that local knowledge is really important and trying to do the very best you can from the get-go.”
Building for the future
Although the custom-built tiny home was initially great for the couple’s minimalist lifestyle, Howlett plans to expand on the site. With plans for children and privacy issues arising from not having their own space—both work from home—they’ve outgrown the 200-square-foot space.
“Hannah and I are introverts, and we like our own kind of privacy and such, so that’s been an issue and for a very long time we didn’t have any other outbuilding,” Howlett says. “If we weren’t working outside, we were inside staring at each other all the time.”
Howlett says they were always planning on building a larger home on the property. And next year, a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot home will be built on the lot—this time with the help of contractors. More recently, he constructed a 4,600-square-foot garage with a height of 16 feet, which will be used for storage, projects, and gym equipment, among other things. It also helps alleviate some of the privacy issues the couple has been experiencing.
With a larger home, there will be greater energy and water needs, but Howlett plans to continue the couple’s off-grid lifestyle. A 28,000-gallon water tank has been installed to collect rainwater from the garage roof to meet new water needs, and he plans to switch to a grid type solar system to power the new home.
For Howlett, this way of life gives him independence with a focus on sustainability. He believes others can do it within their means and climate as well.
“With living off-grid, you can really make it as basic as you want or as complex as you want,” Howlett says. “I’d say ours is a little more on the complex side—I just know a lot of people who live much more simply than we do.”