Energy SystemsRetrofittingWaste Systems & Recycling

Creating the Alternative: Inside Look into the SolTrekker

by Mo Lohre and Will Redwine

Sorry for the hiatus, but would you believe we came across a few bumps in the road? Just like with any worthwhile quest, unexpected challenges emerged. Now that we’ve had some time to address them, we are excited to share our struggles as well as our findings.

When we began the Creating the Alternative Tour we were determined to design a regenerative lifestyle while visiting and learning from initiatives that were aligned with our mission. We sought out vehicles that had the potential to run on wasted vegetable oil, from diesel buses to old Mercedes. On one of our typical bike rides around town, in Portland, Oregon, we came across an RV tucked behind a church, two blocks from our house. Its brightly painted suns and name "SolTrekker" caught our eye. We immediately assumed that it had something to do with solar technology. We were right! We could see solar panels and a painted sign that read “Rainwater Collection!”. Was this a regenerative miracle? We had to find out more since we were in the midst of trying to create our own green machine. As soon as we got home, we looked it up online and were impressed with the vehicle and non-profit associated with it.

View from the top. The SolTrekker at a trade show. Six 100 watt photovoltaic panels
covering the front of the roof and two solar thermal plates towards the caboose.

The Solar Waffle Works food
cart with student employees and
partners that helped make this
program a success

Ty and Allison Adams established the non-profit SolTrekker as a means to provide empowering educational experiences designed to help individuals of all income levels realize greater self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability. It began by building and showing the SolTrekker but grew into an additional project called The Solar Waffle Works (SWW) which is Portland’s first solar powered food cart.

SWW is operated by students in the Portland Public Schools’ Community Transition Program, designed to give them entrepreneurial experience in creating and managing a small business as well as hands-on training in food service and environmentally sustainable practices. We were really digging this non-profit’s efforts and were excited to learn more about the features on the SolTrekker so we set up a meeting.

Like mentioned earlier, the vehicle features six 100 watt solar panels covering half of the roof. Behind these lay two solar thermal panels that heat the water captured from a rainwater catchment system.

Gutters can be seen under the “Rainwater Collection!” sign which line the RV. They transport
captured water into the vehicle and gravity feed it through a filtration system that settles in
storage tanks where it can be solar electrically pumped to sinks and showers.

Water is collected in gutters lining the 28 ft long vehicle. It is then gravity-fed through two filters and settles in two 25 gallon storage tanks hiding underneath a comfy bench within the RV. It takes only one inch of rain to fill the tanks, giving us 50 gallons for showering and washing dishes, but it’s questionable for drinking. Greywater is stored in a tank below the vehicle with easy access for watering plants or simply returning it to the water table.

The SolTrekker is also equipped with an ECOJOHN Portable Incinerating Toilet which separates urine from stool, storing the urine next to the greywater tank giving the option to add a little nitrogen when watering plants. Fecal matter is stored in a three gallon bucket inside the toilet and has a warming device that speeds up the drying process, helping to eliminate pathogens. A fan and vent eradicate any potential odor.

Composting toilet accompanied with an “incinerator” which solar electrically
warms feces, helping to kill off pathogens.

The original toxic vinyl and molded roof had been stripped off and replaced with salvaged and renewable resources such as bamboo and recycled cotton/denim insulation provided by Bonded Logic Ultra Touch.

Pardon the pixelation. Above is the original toxic bathroom vinyl.
Below is a photo from restoring the water-damaged roof.

One of our favorite local non-profits, The ReBuilding Center, donated a good portion of the interior building materials. The Rebuilding Center offers deconstruction services for buildings that would have been conventionally demolished in addition to salvage pick up service and an inventory warehouse storing all that they’ve reclaimed. They sell everything at a fraction of the price, providing an affordable resource for home repairs. All profits are used to fund projects that enhance the social vitality of the local community.

The Community Gathering Place at the Rebuilding Center is built out of recycled materials
and cob. It is a covered area right outside their inventory warehouse and open to the public
24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trees are made from casted steel and recycled art pieces
donated by neighbors.

Nearly everything on the vehicle was repurposed except the kitchen counter which is made out of 80% recycled material. Fuez, the ecologically conscious company that provided the countertop, uses curbside recycled glass, fly ash and cement.

A close up of the kitchen counter made out of curbside recycled glass, fly ash and a touch
of cement. Also check out the bamboo paneling and upcycled cabinets.

We were falling in love with the RV and community partnerships that created it. When we met with Ty, SolTrekker’s director, he had just finished leasing the vehicle to The Green Living Project and was unsure about their next move with the RV. After we told him about our tour, SolTrekker was excited about us and us about them, but there was one problem… the vehicle ran on biodiesel.

In May of 2012, we were fed up with the deaths and destruction caused by petroleum and vowed not to use it anymore at all costs. Although biodiesel is a step in the right direction, there are different grades of it, varying from B5 (5% biofuel, 95% petroleum diesel) to B100 (100% biofuel). Finding B100 is tough in most parts of the United States. There are maybe a handful of stations. Furthermore, most biodiesel comes from conventional agriculture, which is heavily dependent on petroleum. If we were aiming for a regenerative lifestyle, then we needed to find B100 stations that were sourced from waste oil and open to the public. After seeking out stations, it became evident that relying solely on B100 was nearly impossible.

In Berkeley,California, Oasis Biofuels is a women/worker-owned & operated cooperative
that provides B100 made from locally sourced used cooking oil. Next closest B100 (sourced
from waste oil) station is New Leaf Biofuels in San Diego County 8 hours and 500 miles away,
which sold their B100 for less than gasoline. (Photo credit.)

Fortunately, Ty and Allison had been planning a veggie oil conversion and were willing to cut most of the normal maintenance fees in exchange for getting the conversion done. Our regenerative lifestyle was beginning to take shape and differently than we had anticipated.

Fossil fuel free! Using solar electricity to pump wasted veggie oil into the SolTrekker’s
newly converted SVO (straight-vegetable-oil), hydrogen-boosted engine, which you can
read more about in the near future.

We assumed that we would be building our own sustainable RV, but here was one ready to use and supported by a non-profit that aligned with our value system. We could make more of a collective impact by carrying out both our mission and SolTrekker’s mission. So in addition to covering regenerative initiatives we decided we would visit schools and conferences as well, spreading the word about regenerative living and getting inspired by younger generations.

Sharing knowledge at MAAC Charter School. Discussed regenerative living and our vow not to
use petroleum. In return they taught us how to build solar powered micromachines.

We were stoked about our new life and felt prepared… but man were we wrong. Nothing can prepare you for an experimental-regenerative life on the road. Tune in to our next adventure visiting CalEarth Institute, Geoff Lawton and the Emergency Veterinary Hospital where we nearly lose ToMo, our canine companion.

One Comment

  1. Your quest for petroleum-free energy is inspiring. Keep up the good work, and please keep me posted. My quest right now is to live as close to nature as I can to feel her rhythms, to learn about her systems, to practice permaculture as much as possible. Happy trails!

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