Getting Away From It All (Introduction) / Generating Your Own Power -- Cabins and cottages

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Clearing the land. The hard job of moving logs on a building site is made easy by a comealong, a hand tool with a ratchet mechanism that reels in a steel cable. A chain is looped around the log and hooked to the cable, a second chain (not shown) links the other end of the comealong to a tree and the handle of the come-along is moved back and forth to pull the log toward the tree.

Small cabins and cottages are often built by amateurs. In fact, a weekend retreat—whether a fishing shack or a large A-frame with a built-in sleeping loft—is the kind of building you are most likely to tackle on your own. The techniques are not as complex nor the materials as costly as those needed for a year-round house, yet a simple, well-designed structure will prove sturdy enough for years of weekend and vacation use.

The sections of this guide follow four stages in the planning and building of a cabin of your choice. Stage One is laying a foundation, chosen to fit both the building site and the structure to be supported. The second stage involves constructing the building itself, whatever the style or size. Both the foundation and the building may have to be modified to solve special problems of terrain or climate—a job so important that it constitutes a (third) stage in itself. And in the final stage the cabin is fitted with basic amenities—a water supply, a waste-disposal system, a source of heat.

At every stage, the key to success is simplicity. Any of the structures in this guide can be converted into full-time residences, but a structure built as simply as the law permits enhances the pleasure of getting back to nature. In many remote parts of the United States and Canada, building codes are nonexistent or lightly enforced, and you can put in a foundation and put up a cabin without a permit. Elsewhere, an increasing effort is being made to extend enforcement of the Uniform Building code, even in areas where violations were once ignored or winked at, but if you follow sound building practices, you will find that most rural building inspectors allow some leeway for buildings intended for less than full-time use.

Just as you do not need a structure that will endure for the ages in order to be comfortable in the country, you can enjoy your vacation without many of the taken-for-granted luxuries of city and suburban life. You do not need electric light at the flick of a switch, or hot and cold running water, or even a flush toilet. Light and heat can be supplied by kerosene lanterns and a wood-burning stove; you can build an outdoor privy or use a chemical toilet; and you can have running water almost anywhere without a maze of plumbing pipes and fixtures. A refrigerator, the one modern appliance you may not want to do without, can be run on bottled gas. And unless you plan to spend the winter in your cabin, you need, not insulate or sheathe interior walls and ceilings.

The one element that you must accept much as you find it's the land on which you build, and the choice of a building site calls for special care. In your hunt for land, take along camping equipment: most sellers will let you stay for a day or two at the site to get the feel of the land (and the equipment will come in handy later for weekend work on the location). If possible, visit a site several times to see it at its best and worst. An apparently perfect spot, with rolling hills and a gentle creek, may show its true nature in bad weather, with the hills channeling water to the place you wanted to build on, and the creek a rampaging river after a rainstorm. If you check the site under all conditions and still like it, consider other factors:

Are access roads passable all year, are they wide enough for a truck and are they legally open to you? Widening a road or building culverts under it will add considerable expense. If you have to pass through a neighbor’s property to get to your site, make sure you have or can get an easement, or right of passage.

Is water readily available and is it safe to drink? A well on adjacent property is no guarantee of water on your site. Look for other clues. For example, the presence of deep-rooted plants, such as arrow-weed, mesquite, elderberry and rabbit brush, generally indicates ground water within 20 to 30’ of the surface. If necessary, call in a professional well driller, who can give you an appraisal of the likelihood of water and the cost of reaching it—and may refund all or part of the appraisal fee if you hire him to drill the well.

Drinkable surface water from a stream, lake or pond is easy to tap, but make sure you can use it legally. In some states, mostly east of the Mississippi, you can tap any body of water that touches your property—but you may not divert all of it. In many western states, however, the first user can take all the water he wants, even if he dams it to exclude all the people downstream.

If a property meets all your requirements—and the price is right— have an accurate survey map made and a title search done to be sure the property is free and clear, before you buy it. With deed in hand, you can start turning visions of a weekend retreat into reality.

Before you begin work, make a list of the tools and materials you will need—nothing is more frustrating than the lack of a tool at a remote site. In many rural areas, you can buy lumber from a local sawmill at a real saving over the cost of buying it in the city. Wherever you buy your building supplies, you will need a small truck or van to get them to your site. For work on walls and roofs, you can rent collapsible metal scaffolding; for foundation work, you may have to rent a small, gasoline-powered concrete mixer. Nearly indispensable power tools at the site include an electric drill— or ½” for heavy jobs—and a circular saw; if no power lines are nearby, you will need a generator (opposite) to run such tools.

You can clear fairly level land yourself; grading is generally a job for a professional. With a gasoline-powered chain saw, you can fell trees as much as 40 or 50’ tall almost as easily as you section a log for firewood, and with a lightweight hand tool called a comealong you can move the felled trees around or off the site.

Generating Your Own Power

Electrically-operated tools are indispensable for constructing a vacation home. If the building site lies miles from power lines, power must be produced on the spot, by a portable electric generator.

A typical generator consists of two parts: an alternator, which produces standard 120-volt alternating current, and a gasoline engine much like the engine that powers an ordinary lawn mower. The smallest practical unit for power tools has a generating capacity of 2,000 watts—enough to run a 7" circular saw, the most power-hungry of the common hand tools. A greater capacity—generally about 3,000 watts—is necessary for such tools as radial arm saws.

If your plan for a cabin includes a well with an electric water pump, buy a generator powerful enough to handle the load—4,000 watts or more— install it in a permanent, sheltered location and consider special features to make it more useful. Some generators can be switched from 120-volt to supply the 240-volt current necessary to run most submersible pumps. Many can be modified to run on bottled gas, a convenience in a permanent installation. And a generator with an electric starter can be fitted with a switch that starts the pump whenever water is needed. A similarly equipped generator supplying up to 7,000 watts can operate additional electric de vices such as lights and a refrigerator.

Generators are rugged, reliable devices made for hard outdoor use. The alternator needs almost no attention, although electrical contact brushes wear out eventually. (Some units feature brushless alternators for virtually trouble-free operation.) The engine requires the same attention as that of a lawn mower: periodic replenishment and replacement of the crankcase oil and a new spark plug occasionally. For safety and reliable operation, store gasoline in an approved container kept sealed when not in use.

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A Temporary Power Drop

If your building site lies close to power lines and you plan to run electricity from there to your completed cabin, you can eliminate the need for a portable generator with a temporary power drop, installed completely or in part by the utility company. The temporary drop consists of an electric meter, a weatherproof circuit-breaker panel and weatherproof receptacles, mounted on a post or pole at a convenient location.

Choose a location that will be out of the way during construction but close enough to the building site so that you need not string extension cords together to power the tools. Later it's simple to move the meter and panel or to extend wires from there to the cabin. And request your temporary electricity early; in remote areas, the power company can take, months to fill an order.

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A portable power plant. The typical generator consists of a gasoline engine at one end, an alternator in the middle and an outlet box f it- ted with electrical receptacles at the other end. All three components are bolted to a frame that includes handles for carrying the generator. If necessary, the muffler can be replaced with a spark-arresting muffler, a safety feature required by law in some localities. Almost all maintenance problems for such a unit arise in the engine section. If the engine runs but the alternator produces no electricity, check the circuit breakers—located on the bottom of the outlet box of this unit—or the fuses, and reset or replace them if necessary.

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Updated: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 17:16