A year and a half ago, I moved from the greater Seattle metro area to a rural property in southwest Idaho — and I needed a place to work, so I built myself a solar powered office out of a Tuff Shed! I’ve worked from home in the past, and knew that I need a separate workspace to maintain isolation between my work and the rest of my life. And also because I work with lithium batteries, small electronics, soldering irons, spot welders, power supplies, and other dangerous equipment that isn’t exactly kid-safe.
Building the Office
It took me three weeks of full-time work to go from bare ground to a functional office. During this time, I built a foundation (I got the shed at a discount as a fully built unit, which required a smooth and level surface), helped slide the shed into position, foam-insulated gaps around the windows and doors, stuffed the walls and ceiling with rock wool insulation, put a layer of foam board over the insulation, installed plywood walls, cut a huge hole in a wall for an air conditioner, installed a ton of shelves, built myself a lab bench on one end, hooked up a large battery bank in a box outside, built myself solar panel mounts, installed the charge controller and inverter, and ran wireless internet to the house — it was quite the project!
My office is solar powered because my property is a thin layer of dirt on top of a base of basalt. The house is connected to the power grid, but trenching around here usually involves explosives. I’ve been interested in off-grid solar power for years, and this project offered me an amazing opportunity to build such a system, deal with it on a daily basis, and learn a ton about actually running an off-grid power system all year long.
Energy comes from 10 SolarWorld 285-watt Sunmodule panels. I have 8 of these mounted on south-facing wooden frames, and the remaining two hinged on my east wall. I call those two my “morning panels,” and they very effectively capture the sun coming over the horizon before the main panels are producing much power. If needed, I can swing these around to the southwest to capture extra sun during the afternoon and evening.
Power from the panels flows through a MidNite Classic 200 MPPT charge controller into 8 Trojan T105-RE flooded lead acid batteries, then into an Aims Power 2000W inverter/charger (6000W peak).
Inside my office, the computers sit on a wrap-around desk I’ve had for over a decade. A Raspberry Pi 3 runs constantly to monitor the power system, a large desktop runs Folding@home (folding.stanford.edu) and BOINC (boinc.berkeley.edu) if I have excess power, a power-sipping iMac handles general desktop duties, and a few laptops round out my computing needs.
On the other side, a 7.5’×2′ lab bench serves as my working area for building and tearing down battery packs, designing and analyzing small electronics, and whatever else I feel like doing. I’ve got a soldering station, spot welder, oscilloscope, bench voltmeter, and various other tools easily available.
Winter in Idaho is cold and snowy — which isn’t great for a solar-powered office. A small inverter-based generator provides power for battery charging on cloudy days, and a ventless propane heater brings the interior temperature up on chilly mornings. If it’s a sunny day, I have no trouble — the electric heating elements in my air conditioner and a small under-desk heater work beautifully. The rock wool and foam board make for a well-insulated shell that keeps me warm all winter long. The batteries get cold sitting outside, but lead acid doesn’t freeze unless it’s extremely cold or the batteries are deeply discharged.
Internet and Work
I work remotely from my office, so a pair of rural wireless internet connections (one on the house, one on the office) keeps me connected to the world. The house and office are linked with Mikrotik wireless radios, and I can run the entire property off either connection.
My work qualifies as “deep work” — I focus on deep technical tasks for long periods, and having a distraction-free environment I can customize to my needs is absolutely incredible. With a cordless drill, I can modify my office whenever I feel like it, and there’s nobody tapping me on the shoulder to ask if I feel like lunch right now. I’ve worked in many different environments, and this is, by far, my absolute favorite. I cannot say enough good things about having your own isolated workspace for deep technical work!
An office like this is a perpetual project. As I find things that don’t work well, or that I want to change, I can simply change them. An impact driver and a box of screws, combined with the plywood walls, means I can mount things wherever I want. I’m also increasing the insulation before next winter with some under-floor foam and some window plugs.
I’m very happy with how my office turned out. More space would always be nice, but the smaller interior space is easier to heat and cool, and kept the finishing costs lower. A team of people would certainly make the initial setup quicker!
You can find more details about this project, as well as Graves’ other work, on his blog.