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Does This Egg-Shaped Tiny House Really Work Off-Grid?

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The Ecocapsule | Photo: Nice architects

A great big egg is all over the face of social media these days. The "Ecocapsule," designed by the Slovakian firm Nice Architects, is being hyped as a personal solution to our energy and water woes. But is it all it's cracked up to be?

Still in the design and pre-production stage, the ovoid tiny house, with 100 square feet of interior living space, does look pretty cool. Its designers claim that the solar panels integrated into the outer shell, along with an included wind turbine and energy storage system, will allow the Ecocapsule's owner to live without plugging into the power grid. And the capsule's integral rainwater collection, filtration, and storage system is designed to provide similar independence from local water delivery systems.

As a glowing mention in the alternative living site Inhabitat has it, the Ecocapsule "lets you live off-the-grid anywhere in the world." But is it true?

 

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Short answer: enh.

 

Less short answer: for owners accustomed to a Californian lifestyle, the Ecocapsule might provide a subjective bare minimum of sufficiency when it comes to electrical power, as long as you pick just the right place and everything works as it's supposed to. And as long as you don't mind being slightly more hot or cold than you're used to. For water? Not so much.

Here's how we reached that conclusion.

The Ecocapsule's built-in solar panels have a rated capacity of 600 watts, and the included wind turbine with telescoping mast is rated at 750 watts. The built-in battery will be able to store 9,744 Watt-hours. (That's a little less than the larger of the two home batteries Tesla announced this month.)

Of course, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun occasionally goes down, so in order to figure out how much power the wind turbine and solar cells might actually create, we have to apply what power engineers call a capacity factor, which is essentially the percentage of the time each power source can be expected to function at the equivalent of peak capacity.

For wind turbines in good wind areas, that's usually around 18 percent, and about 25 percent for solar. We'll spare you showing our work, but applying those multipliers we learn that the Ecocapsule's power systems could be reasonably expected to provide a little more than 200 kilowatt hours for the resident's use in a month.

That's really not so bad, all things considered. Then again, a typical Californian household uses around 557 kilowatt-hours per month, and Californians are thriftier than much of the rest of the country when it comes to power consumption.

To be sure, it may be that the Ecocapsule's small size will limit power consumption: the egg doesn't have a whole lot of room for electronics. But there are a couple of problems. One is siting. Cloudier parts of the world will provide less solar power, and a nice sheltered location in a forest clearing might cut down your wind power dramatically.

And then there's the issue of climate control. Using air conditioning or electric heaters are a couple of the most power-intensive things we do on a daily basis. A smallish 700-watt space heater, used a third of each day during a cold snap, would eat up about half the power the system could provide. Same goes for AC. You'll want to stock up on blankets and paper fans.

Still, that level of power consumption is certainly feasible, and Ecocapsule's standard of living might seem completely reasonable to people brought up in more efficient cultures. To someone in the developing world, the Ecocapsule might seem like a dream come true.

But then there's the water issue.

Precise blueprints don't seem to be available, but the Ecocapsule's general dimensions -- 14.6 feet long and just under eight feet wide -- don't provide a whole lot of catchment area for rainwater. A rectangle of those dimensions could capture a little more than 70 gallons of water for every inch of rain that fell on it, assuming no leaks. The curves of the Ecocapsule mean it's got significantly less surface area than that rectangle. Call it 50 gallons for every inch of rain that falls.

In ideal circumstances, in order to maximize both power and water collection, your Ecocapsule would need to be set up in a spot with great wind and almost constant sunshine, and where an inch or two of rain falls every week. (Presumably, that rain would fall only at night, so as not to cut down on sunlight.)

You'd necessarily need to take short showers, or infrequent ones, and flush the Ecocapsule's toilet no more than a couple times a day.

And speaking of that, Ecocapsule's creators are mum on where that flushed toilet would flush things to. Presumably, if you're off the grid, you'd need a septic system, though the images provided by Nice Architects seem not to show any such plumbing beneath the graceful curves of the exterior. I suppose we could write that off as not much worse than computer ads whose product photos never show a mess of cables hooking monitor to keyboard.

At any rate, that's all if your Ecocapsule is set up in a place that gets an inch or two of rain in an average week. In California? When's the last time your neighborhood got rain that regularly? You'll be hooking up to a well, or to a local water company's pipelines. Even before the drought started, California regularly went six or eight months at a time without appreciable precip.

So. Will the Ecocapsule let you go off-grid "anywhere in the world?" Well, no. But truth be told, I kind of want one anyway. As a semi-portable shelter for one adult, or two adults who are very close friends, and which has some measure of power and water self-sufficiency and conservation baked right into the design, the Ecocapsule is pretty damned cool.

And the readiness with which social media consumers have helped promote the Ecocapsule as a solution to power and water supplies is a useful object lesson in how little most of us know about our lifestyles' actual footprints on the planet, so there's that.

The Ecocapsule's creators expect to have production models available next year. The pod is designed to fit into a standard shipping container, which is a nice detail: you can have one trucked to your lot. Just be sure to arrange for extra water. And maybe some blankets.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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