Well so far we’ve purchased the land and built a house and now we need to look at three other features of a home that will dramatically affect your off grid lifestyle and energy system. Those three items are appliances, heating, and electrical fixtures.
Appliances: Appliances have come a long way in energy efficiency but don’t be fooled, they still have a long way to go. The term Energy Star Rated isn’t all it’s been made out to be in the past. There is a lot of information out there if you take the time to look for it and this is one area you really need to do your homework
For our electrical appliances we finally decided on a “three factor” strategy. Electrical operating requirements and short cycle capability and price. In order to keep our electrical usage down, we looked for appliances that required less power to function along with the ability to operate at reduced times. Our washing machine is electric and has many choices for timed cycles. Long wash or short wash. Our dishwasher has a feature called “Quick Wash”. We found that cycle to be more beneficial than the one labeled “Eco Wash”. Eco wash sounds like a good feature but it isn’t. The dishwasher operates for about an hour on Eco wash but only 30 minutes on Quick wash, so beware of terms that sound good but are really just a another sales pitch.
We chose most appliances based on energy consumption, short cycle ability, and price but there is one appliance that we chose to buy based solely on its energy efficient design even though it was expensive. Our Sunfrost refrigerator. Refrigerators are one of the biggest energy drains on your system. Sunfrost refrigerators have a completely different design than traditional ones. They put the compressor at the top of the unit instead of the bottom. Compressors create heat and as the heat rises it warms up the cooling area above where your food is located which in turn causes the unit to turn on and run more in a never ending cycle. By placing the compressor at the top of the unit that whole process is avoided with the end result that your refrigerator runs a lot less. Will it pay for itself? I’ve never taken the time to figure it out. The unique design just made sense to us so we bought one. I’m in no way promoting this refrigerator. We just decided this would be one place we would take a stand on unnecessary energy consumption and we have never regretted it.
In summary, be prepared to do a lot of homework on your appliances. We used the library and the Internet. There are a lot of comparison charts on the Internet and the U.S. Department of energy is another good source.
Heating: In this article I will just touch on the subject of heating because to get into it properly would require one whole blog per type of heater and there are a lot of heat sources to choose from.
Underground houses utilize the natural temperatures of the earth. Passive designs use the sun. Fossil fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and propane are always an option. Wood heat is widely used. You have other choices available such as a furnace or heat pump with forced air, boilers to heat hot water, and geothermal systems.
We chose a wood fired masonry heater with propane wall heaters as backup or to be able to leave the house unattended in the winter if we needed to. I will discuss the masonry heater at length in a future blog because it is such a unique and efficient type of heater. Our 40 acres contain about 25 acres of timber and because our heater is 95% efficient and we grow more trees than we need for firewood, we actually have a net positive impact on our carbon footprint! It also didn’t hurt that I owned a masonry company and was able to get our heater at a greatly reduced price. If I had to lobby for a heat source I would push for the earth, the sun, and wood heat as the best options for the least amount of environmental impact for any home whether off grid or not.
Electrical Fixtures: We’ve all heard a lot about “phantom power” the last few years. No one seems to know exactly how much it adds up to but whether you’re off grid or not, it is a factor in your electrical consumption. Phantom power is that power required to maintain an electrical appliance in a ‘ready’ state such as standby for things like your computer, TV, or stereo system. It is the clock on your microwave, TV cable box, and stereo receiver. The only way to get rid of phantom power (thereby reducing your electrical consumption) is to turn it off. In our new home we installed extra switches next to the light switches to turn the power off to the plug - ins. It works great. Something else you can do is to buy a multiplug with an on/off switch. You can get them anywhere. You most commonly see them used for computers, printers, and monitors.
Led light bulbs are another good way to keep your power down. These bulbs are in constant design transition. Whatever you see on the market today will improve. We use both led light fixtures and fluorescent bulbs. The fluorescent bulbs vary considerable in price. One of the reasons is the time to warm up to its brightest capacity. We chose bulbs that cost less but take longer to warm up. I have yet to find it an inconvenience. I can’t recall ever having to sit there waiting for a light bulb to heat up to its capacity. Lighting is definitely a factor in calculating your energy consumption needs. Again, there are way too many options to list here, other than to point out that you need to do your homework when choosing lighting systems. You either do what you can to keep the electrical fixture wattage down or you will have to increase the size of your energy system.
Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website goodideasforlife.com .