After the wheel, it was all downhill

Going off grid demands that you have access to the basics of energy and storing food in safe way. This is the beginning of a column where we're going to give you the blueprints of how to get that done.

9 months ago

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Since the beginning of time, the wheel and fire have been the propellers of innovation and the drive for man to move forward. God, the number of puns for a van-life in that sentence could feed a sumo wrestler for a week!

This is the first article of a new column for sustainability, just like in the other posts we're going to start with van-life and then transition to homestead scenarios.

Basic needs

In general terms, we don't go anywhere without our phones anymore. So in order to function as modern humans, we need to charge it.

Now say that at some point you are hungry and in the middle of nowhere that requires eating some non-spoiled food. In order to keep it fresh, you need to store it in a fridge, and let me guess it's 9 PM somewhere pitch dark and you need a light to see where your fork lands?

Well... that requires energy! I know. Shocker. But it is a #trustory and the story of our civilization. No matter what we do and how we always end up needing more power to do the things we need for survival.

I am guessing that in your van-life scenario you don't have a trailer in the back of your vehicle with a coal mine system therefore you are looking at options where you can harvest solar energy through the means of solar panels.

Common Mistakes

The article's title hints at harvesting energy on a vehicle. If it was an equation wheel stands to motion as energy stands to van-life

You lost me at equation...

As always we are staying on the side of keeping things super simple and not on the nerdy end because we want this information to be useful to the most and not just to these people that get wood when they see a picture of a proton floating into a flask.

The most common mistakes

I feel the tingling of your brain reaching out to the ether and saying "I need energy but I don't know what I am doing". I hear you brother and sisters in the wild and as matter of fact, most people tell us that those are the mistakes they made when they went nomad with a solar-powered system.

To sum it up:

People don't size their system well and rather than go by how much energy they need in the future they go by the budget they have right which ultimately gives you less power that you may need.

Information out there exists but because the market and options keep changing people end-ep hodgepodge-ing all they find without realizing incompatibilities and limitations of their own DIY systems.

The lack of electrical skills and the understanding of what is allowed and not allowed to do, say... by the law of physics, can harm and fry you, the van, the budget, and all calamari in it.

That sounds about right?!

Well, then let's start from the beginning of time and see if we can figure out something out of all this mess.

How much energy do you need?

let me check Wikipedia...

When I hear a contractor asking me "How much do you want to spend for this" all I can think is "Doh! Nothing...".

What stupid question is that! The reason why I call you for a quote is to figure out how much I need to shall out and not getting a triangle when I ordered a rounded shape.

WATT you said, Mario? Victoria screams from the kitchen. Don't worry Amp-honey. I was just volts-ing out nonsense.

She nods like "of course, what's new" face. Marriage... it's another solar energy system in its own right.

When dealing with electricity in or off-grid you are going to hear these three terms that to the vast majority of humans mean: hold on, let me open and close Wikipedia for a second. And I don't blame you, they are explained by literally everyone and each explanation makes you feel more stupid.

Watt, Amp and Volt

I will explain each of them and then giving you the motherload of all examples to put those individual explanations together so that you can feel Einstein too for a moment.

Those pieces of information are going to be crucial to better navigate the tools available to estimate more accurately how much energy you will need and then proportionally size your new solar gig. Also purchasing the necessary equipment mentions those terms like you were born with an electrical engineering degree.

Think of the "how much" as if you had three measuring tools: a measuring tape, a scale, and a speedometer. They all measure something but each is good to measure different things for one purpose.


Hypothetically, somebody hires you, Cristiano, to paint their shitty fence. They hired you over the other guy, Steven, because you promised to do it faster. Not better, faster.

Every second you work on that fence = more money in your pocket that you will later INVEST in the best mountain bike God ever created. Wives... Christmas is coming #justsayin

The amount of work that you do per second in the world of electricity is called WATTS.

To put it in perspective, if you were a lightbulb painting that horrible-horrible fence, Steven would barely bright up because he's going as slow as a chick coming down the stairs in a slo-mo scene. You on the other end would be as bright as a diamond in the sun of Sicily, because you have been doing a larger amount of work per second.


What is water? A bunch of droplets compressed together. Power follows the same principle, all those morons' electrons squished together are like those droplets. All the same, capricious, irrational, and when they file for divorce...oh man you are screwed! It takes 0.5 amperes to fry a man. Don't fudge with the droplets man!

Let's hypothesize that Victoria asks to go to Home Depot and buy a hose to water the plants and I come back with the best mountain bike it was ever... shit I have done it again! HOSE...HOSE... she said to buy a hose.

When I came back home, I attach the hose to the faucet, and water flows through it. Every droplet of water pushes the next until they all come out at the end of the hose. The unit used to measure how fast the droplets flow every second from point to point is called ampere.

In perspective, while painting that atrocious disgusting fence, Steven was moving the brush so slowly that it took him 60 seconds to finish a brush swipe. Cristiano, on the other end, was so efficient that in 5 seconds was ready to swipe again that brush.

The owner of that unspeakable fence would measure the quantity of your work in WATTS and your speed in ampere. Also visibly noticing that Cristiano climbs up to Raging Ridge with his evil bike while Steven is checking the closest burger joint from the trailhead. Ask Tim, if you don't believe me. #truestory

Getting more work (watts) done per second at a higher speed (ampere).

It doesn't have to be a hose (wire), it works with everything that can travel energy.


Remember when you attached that hose to the faucet to wash your brand new mountain bike? Darn it, she's right, I just don't learn my lessons. No bikes are involved here... hose hoses, it's all about hoses, which in my analogies are wires where energy travels through.

Those droplets of water packaged together came out in all forces and that my friend is called water pressure. Volts is how fast the electricity comes out to be used, say to charge an electric bike. #random_example


One last piece of the puzzle, if by accident Cristiano holds his foot on a piece of the hose he's using and then casually looking into the end of the hose to see what's going on - that is called resistance. The act of looking into the hose while the faucet is opened and water flowing is called stupidity.

Which is the same stupidity as having a car problem, opening the hood, and hoping of having a freaking clue on what to do next. #dontask

As in all things, size matters. So if you partner asks how big of a hose you bought, that would be measured, you guessed, in current.

you are not alone. Welcome to the club, have a beer from the hose. 

Putting all together

Watt (W) measures how much work (power) is done per second. Ampere (Ah) measures how many gallons per second come out. And finally, volt (V) measures how much energy is delivered to the attached appliance.

If you hear about watts per hour (Wh/energy) that is to say how much water you consume per hour to wash that fantastic beautiful new bike your wife just got you for Christmas.

nerd moment: watt-hours measure amounts of energy for a specific period of time, and watts measure rates of power at a moment in time.
for all sorts of scientific definitions on the matter. Warning headache ahead.

What to do next

Grab the specs of all your appliances, devices and anything else that uses energy to function and look at the specifications. You will find things that they look like this

If you don't want to move that giagantic 120" screen you so desperately need in your van-life, you can use this web site to gather power consumption. There are others of the same nature, you don't need to be super accurate because even the people that they do this by profession they often put specs on their products that don't match reality. Apple watch?

If you have just a wire and want to see how much that sucker is taking out of your power bill, you can use an instrument like this one, now you know all those voodo words appearing on the screen and make sense of it.

If you want to calculate the amount of energy consumed by your device in a certain amount of time, multiply the power rating of your device by the period of usage.

For example: If you have a 100W lamp that is on 24 hours for a full month, you first, calculate energy consumption

Q =Power * time = 100 * 24 (hours a day) * 30 (days a month)= 72000 Wh (Watt-hour) = 72 kWh (1 kilo Watt hour = 1000 Wh) a month.

Place everything into a spreadsheet and that will give you the base of how much you use and for how long.

Next week, in the same fashion, we're going to put together a solar energy harvesting system. We will keep it simple, funny to cruise and hopefully actionable.

We need to build something that feeds our Internet at home in case we lose power (and Internet still flowing) therefore, we will be using that as practical example of what to to buy and what to do to put all this information shared today, in good use.

For who needed more scientific details and used an off-grid site to learn that, I have the same words of the late Steve Jobs 😎🙈

the actual video

for everything else always remember 🌴 Have a bLife moment, every day and for no reason whatsoever 🤙🏽

Mario Esposito

Published 9 months ago