Shipping Container Project: Solar is up!

When most people ask how my “tiny house” is progressing; they want to see pictures of the interior. Everyone is fascinated by the flooring choice, wall materials, countertops, and bathroom fixtures. However, I get very few questions about the systems that actually run everything. The entire thing is designed to be 95% self sufficient and operate in an off-grid format.

For all my fellow Energy Nerds out there — this one is for you!

Solar System Overview:

  1. Three 330 watt panels on the roof connected to custom tilt + turn mounts (Roughly 1kw of solar input total)
  2. Charge controller for managing the solar power (Renogy Rover 60 AMP)
  3. 24V Battery bank = 4x 180AH 6V deep cycle batteries wired in Series
  4. 3000 watt inverter with 9000 watt surge capability.  (AIMS Pure Sine)

Now the above system overview is probably too simplified for some people and a bunch of gibberish to others. First, I’ll provide a basic description of how this all works, and we can get technical later.

View of the 3 tilt turn panels installed

Whenever the sun is shining it’s releasing Energy that can be captured and used. The three solar panels on our roof are harvesting this energy and sending it (through thick wires) down into the container where it hits the Renogy Charge Controller. The charge controller stabilizes the solar power and inputs it safely into the batteries. It insures the batteries do not receive TOO much solar electricity (which would result in battery failure and be unsafe). It also keeps the solar electricity moving in one direction — you wouldn’t want electricity going BACKWARDS towards the panels. Basically, a charge controller is required in any off-grid solar system.


After the charge controller — the electricity is pumped into our battery bank. This is essentially four large batteries designed to be capable of holding various amounts of electricity at any given time. The amount of electricity contained in the batteries is displayed on the charge controller as a percentage. 0% meaning we have no usable solar electricity stored in the batteries and 100% meaning we are fully charged. Above you can see that I currently have 71% of usable electricity remaining, with 102watts of electricity going into the batteries from the Solar Panels. (the sun was setting at this point, because normally our panels are inputting around 700W on a sunny day) Making sense?

6V batteries wired in series creating 24V battery bank

The next step is getting the sunlight energy from the batteries to the house. This is done with our AIMS 3000W Inverter which converts the battery electricity to usable “household” electricity and sends it to all the outlets, lights, appliances, etc… Whenever the Inverter is turned on, the outlets throughout the shipping container are active. Plug something in and it works! Just like a standard household outlet. The 3000W part of the Inverter is describing how much maximum electricity we have available through this size Inverter. FOR EXAMPLE: 5 lights, radio, the mini fridge, fan, and my laptop use about 265 watts — well within the capacity of this Inverter. As you turn things on, the amount of watts rises, with the maximum available being 3000 watts.

This particular AIMS Inverter also has the option to charge the batteries from a standard “on-grid” source of electricity. If the container was near a structure that has grid power available; you can plug the container into a outlet (insuring proper breaker size for the amp draw) and have this charge the batteries or even bypass our entire system and run the shipping container off standard power.

AIMS Inverter hard at work

We will get into mechanical systems in a separate blog — but I want to note that our Minisplit (which is how we have air conditioning during summer) uses roughly 825 watts and is the biggest electrical user in the shipping container. Recently, during a sunny 90F day — I worked for 6 hours with the Minisplit providing AC the entire time. The batteries had a 100% charge when I arrived and were at 45% when I left.

Using a very inexpensive wall mounted power meter; you can view the total amount of electricity being used at any given time. Below you can see that I am using 463 watts of electricity at this point in time. By looking at this little power meter, and comparing it to the Renogy Charge controller — you can actively see if you are using more energy than the sun is currently inputting. Pretty fun thing to do as you turn things on and the sun moves around 🙂

Solar used monitor
We were using 463 watts of electricity when this picture was taken

Solar System Budget:

  • 330W Solar Panel x3
    • $215 each = $645 total
  • Renogy Rover 60 AMP Charge Controller (12/24V)
    • $215 total
  • AIMS 3000W Inverter/Charger
    • $925 total
  • Solar LCD Power/Energy Display
    • $20 total
  • 400 AMP/Hour 6V Batteries x4
    • $85 each = $340 total

$2,145.00 total cost before wiring, disconnect, switches, etc

I’ll write up a technical article later that outlines how/why we wired everything including wire sizes, connections types, lengths etc.

For now, this is a good overview of where we started at for our Shipping container tiny house renewable energy system. We plan to double the battery bank in 1-2 weeks, but for now this is working great.

Thank You,

Written By:

Luke Langhals

Thermal Camera for DIY Projects

Thermal Camera’s are an essential tool for people trying to discover energy losses and home comfort issues. For many years, these were expensive gadgets that only a professional would consider buying. However, we are now beginning to see some affordable options hit the market!

If you plan to add insulation to your home or want to find where those pesky cold drafts are originating — I would highly recommend you invest $200.00 in the FLIR Thermal Camera (on Amazon).

This nifty little device plugs directly into your Android or Iphone. It is then as simple as point and capture. Your goal will be to see where heat is leaking into and out of your home. Further, you can see how heat is moving around your house and this assists with finding plumbing/ducting behind walls.

Here are a few shots I’ve taken with my FLIR. It becomes pretty obvious where insulation will be most effective.

Hotwaterpipethermal resized
Hot water pipes wasting energy: Click picture to link to the blog
Basement Rim joists wasting energy: Click picture to link to the blog

Overall, anyone worried about Energy Usage needs to better understand where their heating/cooling air is being used. This is the most expensive part of your utility bills and understanding it’s movement will help save you money 🙂

Written By:

Luke Langhals

Luke’s Pennsylvania Housing Presentation: Breathe Easy — March 13th, 2019

Next week I’ll be presenting at the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center’s annual conference. Feel free to come learn about fresh air!

My session is from 1:15 – 2:45 PM. I will be outlining different ventilation requirements, technologies, and how they make our home’s healthier.

This conference will focus on different High Performance building techniques. I’m very excited to share my knowledge about ventilation, but more excited to hear other presenters talk about blower door tests, high performance windows, and Net-Zero energy!

There is a lot to be learned and this is the place to do it. I would highly recommend this event to anyone nearby State College, PA.

Call me an Energy Nerd….I don’t mind 🙂

PHRC Agenda 2019.PNG

Here is a LINK to the conference website:

Written By:

Luke Langhals





Tech Tip: Smart Outlets

Information is king in the world of energy saving. Understanding how much electricity is being used will give you an opportunity to eliminate waste. I picked up a pair of the Etekcity smart plugs for $27.00 on Amazon.

These smart outlets have the ability to turn power on/off from your smartphone. It also gives you a breakdown of Energy usage and allows for scheduled timers. Any plugged in appliance will have some power waste even when turned off. Gaming systems, TVs, cable boxes, and computers are notorious for wasting energy when not in use.

Here is the home screen for one of my outlets. My bedside lamp and cell phone charger have used only 0.82 kWh this month

Owning these outlets allows you to understand how much power things are using over time. Further, the schedule/timer feature provides the ability to turn off energy wasting appliances when they are dormant.

Here is the yearly chart of electricity usage from this same outlet. This tells me that I did more night time reading during the month of May.

Overall, I plan to continue purchasing more of these whenever they are on sale. Understanding and programming my electricity usage is a valuable commodity. I can save money by eliminating energy waste — I can also look cool by turning lights on and off from my cell phone!

Written By:

Luke Langhals

Insulating Hot Water Pipes

Your home’s hot water needs to travel from the tank to various locations throughout your house. In my case; I have copper pipes, but this is also applicable to Pex or C-PVC piping.

During the water traveling process, heat moves from the inside of your hot water pipe to the surrounding area. To give you a rough estimate — my home costs about $18.67 per month for hot water. I have a standard gas hot water tank. Electric tanks are generally more expensive to operate and therefore your pipe insulation savings will be higher depending on how you generate hot water. Any heat that is transferred through the pipe is literally wasted before it ever reaches your sink or shower. For this reason we want to stop the waste, save some energy, and make a more efficient domestic hot water system.


1. Heat is wasted while traveling from the hot water tank to the faucet/shower.

2. Insulating the pipes can stop this waste and allow your home to be more efficient and cost less money!

3. Pipe insulation costs roughly $2 per 6 ft section at the local hardware store.

4. Installation time is roughly 1 hour to complete the project.

5. You should save $3-$6 per month by adding insulation and your payback will be 1-3 years.

So, we begin this project in my basement. We need to find all the water pipes that are supplying hot water to various locations in the home. For me I have a dishwasher, washing machine, basement faucet, kitchen faucet, bathroom faucets x2, and a single shower. Turn on the hot water at the furthest location and allow it to run for 1 minute. This will heat the pipes up throughout your home and allow you to find the correct ones requiring insulation.

Now, travel into your basement and begin touching the hot water pipes (careful they might be hot). Mark the pipes that are warm and note there locations so we can add insulation to the correct pipes.

There will be three types of pipe insulation at the hardware store. Foam, foam self sealing, and rubber. For our purposes, I find the foam self sealing option to be best. The standard foam is roughly $.80 cheaper but you would need to add tape which lengthens installation time AND costs extra for the tape. Just buy the self sealing foam pipe insulation which cost $1.77 for me per 6 ft section at 1/2″ in size. Most of your pipes will be 1/2″ but make sure to check the various pipe sizes before making the hardware store trip.

Before insulation

Here is a picture of my basement hot water supply piping. These are 1/2″ in size and they are now warm to the touch. One of these pipes is for cold water…and doesn’t need to be insulated. Make sure to feel the pipes and find which ones actually require the insulation!

Hotwaterpipethermal resized
Thermal picture after running hot water: You can obviously tell which pipe is supplying hot water….The bright yellow is wasted heat

After finding your hot water pipes, fit a section of insulation around the pipe itself. For self sealing insulation — pull the plastic seal off and push the sections of insulation together. The insulation should now fit firmly around the pipe. I suggest starting with the sections of pipe that will fit full sections of insulation. Your insulation will not go past pipe connections and branches. You will need to cut short sections of your insulation to fit these smaller pipe areas.

Hot water pipes with insulation complete

Overall, This is not a difficult project and it is very inexpensive. This is a project that can be completed in limited time with a limited budget. After you have finished installing your sections of insulation — turn down the temperature of your water tank slightly and save some money on your utility bills.

Let me know if you have questions.

Adding Insulation in Rental Properties

Most of our rental properties have little to no insulation. Many of these houses were bought from typical “slum lords” that cared as much about their tenants as they did about the squirrels living in the attic.

Our investment strategy is simple. Give people a quality place to live at an affordable monthly rate. And guess what?…..Utility bills play a huge part in whether a home is affordable!

First, you may ask WHY we make energy efficiency upgrades when the tenant is responsible for the utility bills. This is a simple argument. The largest expense suffered by landlords is vacant properties, tenant turnover, and damage caused by unhappy tenants. We try to avoid all three of these by keeping our tenants happy! Happy tenants equal long term leases and commitment to keeping the property in good condition. We want people living in our houses to feel like it is their home. Home is where the heart is 🙂

Summary of work:

1. Seal penetrations from the living space into the attic. ie. wires, lights

2. Add blown-in cellulose in the attic for insulation

3. Add rigid EPS foam and fiberglass batts to rim joists

Cost = $450.00

Value = Lower heating bills and happy tenants

Ok, lets begin with step number one. I like to start in the basement and work my way up! Begin at the rim joists. Buy 2″ EPS foam sheets for $39.00 and R-13 fiberglass batts roll for $16.00. Read the RIM JOIST INSULATING BLOG.

Next, we evaluate whether any insulation can be added within the walls. Some of our houses have fiberglass bat insulation or cellulose insulation within the wall cavities. If drywall repair is required; we try to use fiberglass bats between the wall studs.


Finally, comes the attic insulation. We move ourselves into the attic with several cans of spray foam. we seal up exterior gaps and insulate around wire penetrations through the sheet rock. Generally, these penetrations are caused by light fixtures and ductwork. The goal is to remove the locations where the houses heated/cooled air can work its way into the attic. Any exposed ducting in the attic should be wrapped in fiberglass insulation to prevent energy from escaping your ducting. 

Now we are ready for attic insulation! Generally, I find blown-in cellulose to be the easiest to work with. I purchase the packs of cellulose from Lowes and choose the GreenFiber brand. These come in roughly 2 ft packaged cubes and the blowing machine is free for the day (with $250 deposit). First, let me warn you that this machine is heavy and you will need someone to assist with lifting this.


I start with 20 containers of GreenFiber for roughly $8.00 each. Depending on the size of your attic, you will need to estimate how many of these you will require. Carry the blowing machine inside and plug it in. Climb up into the attic with the included distribution hose and have your partner load half a package of cellulose inside the machine. Begin in the farthest corner by blowing insulation into the area between the joists. Do not insulate the soffit space to avoid covering the exterior air vents. Blow insulation into one area at a time — wait until the insulation reaches above the joist. Your goal is to get a continuous “blanket” of insulation that is a MINIMUM of 5″ deep and with the goal of achieving 8″ of coverage. Add the depth of insulation required to meet your local building code.

Have fun with this DIY project! Going from un-insulated to insulated will be a noticeable difference in both utility bills and comfort.

Written By:

Luke Langhals

Insulating Old House Rim Joists

When you begin your journey of home energy conservation — heat loss is one of the largest factors in your monthly utility bill. The best strategy is to tackle “low hanging fruit.” Start the projects that are DIY friendly and offer a great bang for the buck. Remember that whenever you are doing an Energy Efficiency upgrade — you are also supporting a cleaner planet and saving some dollar bills every month.

So, let’s begin with Rim Joists. This is the section of your home, (Usually in the basement or crawl space) where the first first floor meets the foundation. If you have an old home like me, these will be open wooden cavities with some form of brick, stone, or concrete below. Here is a picture of my non-insulated rim joists.


I am lucky to have a basement with 8 feet of headroom. This makes working down here quite practical. Even if you have a dirty, musty, hard to work in basement….this job is pretty straight forward.

Next, I will show you a picture of this same rim joist. However, It is taken with my handy thermal camera (More on that tech item later)!


So you are probably thinking — “Wow Luke! Thanks for that great picture of colorful blobs.” But let me break down what we see here. Notice the two big purple squares? These are the rim joists sucking energy out of my home. Basically, the temperature of this area is far below the temperature of the surrounding home. My thermal camera is allowing me to see the drastic amount of heat loss taking place on this particular day (17F outside temperature).

The next step will be to “break” the flow of energy from inside to outside. To do this we need insulation!

MarkisonFoamCuttingI was lucky enough to have some 1.5 inch rigid foam EPS segments laying about. This would give me roughly r6 of insulation value. I used a standard box cutter to slice the foam to size (9.5″x14″ in my case) and fit them into each section. Similar foam can be purchased from your local hardware store and generally comes in 4’x8′ sheets. I would recommend you purchase a thickness of 1.5-2 inches for this project.

MarkisonRimjoistfoamnosprayNext comes the process of sealing the edges. We do not want air to escape around our new foam inserts! I recommend simple spray foam insulation in a can. This material is very easy to work with and relatively inexpensive to buy. I found that a single can will insulated 10 sections. My entire basement required 3-4 cans at under $3 per can. (I noticed cans cost $4+ at hardware stores….however Walmart had a ready supply for $2.77).


After sealing the foam edges, I now have a solid air seal. The combination of rigid foam and spray foam should significantly reduce the amount of heat leaving my home. Personally, i don’t like to paying to heat my yard during the winter…I would say this was a successful project overall. Estimated time of completion was 3-4 hours. Good Luck!

Here is a thermal image of one insulated rim joist next to an un-insulated rim joist. As you can see — the right joist with foam is significantly warmer than the left rim joist. This picture alone will inspire me to insulate the rim joists on every house I’ll ever own.

Written By:

Luke Langhals