Living Off the Grid (And Without Propane)

Our Ontario home is powered by sun, wind and wood, and consumes almost zero fossil fuels.

| October/November 2011

Kemp Off Grid House

Bill and Lorraine Kemp have been living off the grid for 20 years. They power their home with electricity from solar and wind electric systems, heat with wood, and use solar and wood-fired water heating.


Twenty years ago, when my wife, Lorraine, and I decided to move off the grid, our motivation was simple. Lorraine wanted to move closer to her family, preferably to a piece of land large enough to offer some privacy and plenty of room to support her “addiction” to animals. A lot at the back of her family’s farm fit the bill (and the wallet). There was only one downside: It would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to connect the property to the nearest electric lines. The solution was obvious: Don’t connect to the grid and instead plan to run our house entirely with renewable energy. We put our plan into action, and have been enjoying off the grid living ever since. Here’s how we run our rural Ontario home using an absolute minimum of fossil fuel energy.

An Efficient, Off-Grid Home

We built our home to look like a traditional country farmhouse from the early 1900s, and added some passive solar features to reduce the heating and cooling load. For example, the large roof overhang on the front porch shades the house from direct sunlight in the summertime while allowing the low-angle winter sun to warm the house. We also made the home as energy efficient as possible. We insulated primarily with blown-in cellulose, manufactured from recycled paper products. For areas that were difficult to insulate in this manner, we used spray foam (urethane) insulation, which has the added benefit of forming its own vapor barrier. Other energy-efficient features of our home include solar-powered vent fans, radiant-barrier insulation, vapor and wind barriers, and careful joint sealing.

Our domestic water system is “off the grid,” too, and we’ve made it as efficient and eco-friendly as possible. We have a standard drilled well with a deep-well submersible pump and a large water-pressure accumulator tank to minimize pump cycling. Our fixtures are all low-flow or ultra-low flow, which keeps our water consumption well below half the Canadian national average of 91 gallons per person per day. Our septic tank has an effluent filter, and a leaching bed that allows our wastewater to percolate through the earth and right back into the water table. To keep the water clean, we have always used natural and phosphate-free cleaners.

Solar and Wind Power

Our electrical-generating equipment originally consisted of a photovoltaic (PV) sun-tracking array with a peak electrical rating of 1.2 kilowatts. This array is composed of 16 individual PV panels rated 75 watts each. We also installed a Bergey 1.5 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100-foot guyed lattice tower.

Rounding out the electrical-generating mix is a 10 kilowatt diesel generator, which we run on between 30 and 100 percent biodiesel, depending on the ambient temperature. We would prefer to use 100 percent biodiesel all the time, but we have to add some diesel to the fuel mix. Biodiesel doesn’t work well in extreme cold, and in our location, winter temperatures can be as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

The PV panels provide approximately 85 percent of our total annual electricity requirements, while the wind turbine provides 10 percent and the backup generator provides the remaining 5 percent or less. The electricity feeds into a battery bank with a gross capacity of approximately 3,500 amp-hours. Low-voltage power from the batteries feeds into an inverter bank with a total output capacity of 6 kilowatts, which in turn supplies household electrical needs.

12/4/2016 11:22:06 AM

Wood heating is great. We heated exclusively with wood for over a decade, and held down jobs where we were away from home for long days, six days a week. Our whole life was consumed by splitting wood, stacking wood, carrying wood into the the house to be burned, burning the wood, and cleaning up after the wood (chips, ash). The house had to be winterized every time we left to visit family for a few days, in case the masonry heater couldn't keep up if the temperature fell to sharply, or in case we were delayed in our return due to weather conditions (this was frequently a problem). We would have loved heating with wood if we hadn't had to work away from home during most of our waking hours. Most people have to have a job to pay the bills. It might be nice to do if we had a pension to live on, or worked from home. We moved and use a heat pump to heat our new old tiny house, and I worship the thermostat.

9/30/2014 11:40:37 AM

I always wanted to live out in the country and have the bare minimum in terms of utilities in my home. I have been fascinated with the aspect of using renewable energy and being able to have the necessities during bad weather. I recently decided to purchase a Kitchen Queen Wood Cook Stove and I am in love. Not only can I cook with it but I can heat my home and my water. It has saved me a ton already when you look at the cost of heating with natural gas or propane anymore. I purchased my stove through If you are interested in taking a look just follow this link: Growing up my grandparents cooked solely on a wood cook stove and I always dreamed of having one. Now that prices have gotten so high when it comes to heating and natural gas alternative methods are becoming much more important. Wood cook stoves are very beneficial not only in long term but in short term as well. Take the Kitchen Queen Wood Cook Stove for example that not only allows you to cook but also heat your home and water (if you want). I recommend using when purchasing a wood cook stove. Not only do they offer great prices but they also have amazing customer service. During the month of October they are offering a deal where if you spend $3,200 you get a $100 off coupon. To get to their site simply follow this link:

rose macaskie
2/26/2013 4:10:03 PM

You say that using wood is carbon neutral which it is because any wood you grow to use as fire wood wood takes up the carbon that your burnt wood released and using wood as a fuel sort of assures that we grow trees that will take up the carbon the wod we are burnign releases into the air however, letting wood rot is not carbon neutral but can be a way of secuestring carbon for a long time in the soi so if you burn it you stop the soil holding on to the carbon in your wood. /When organic matter breaks down, the carbon in it can be returned to the air, the bubbles in champagne are an example of carbon returning to the air but it is also possible that part of organic matter rottign in the earth turns into fulvic and humic acid molecules which are molecules that contain a lot of carbon atoms and that are very durable, may last for a thousand years or more depending on whether or not the conditions in the soil are right and remain right . I dont know and am not sure if scientists know yet under what circumstances organic matter turns into humic and fulvic acid molecules as it breaks down and i dont know under what circumstances these molecules lose their longevity and themselves break down but it seems evident, as the molecules are dark brown and black, that there are not many of them in soils that have been eroded , in any soils that are the colour of the mineral that the earth is composed of in any region, so on forest floors and good soils not on ploughed arable land. These molecules dont only maintiain carbon in the soil, they also are very good at helping plants take up nutrients being good at catching onto and letting go of atoms an ability that helps chemical processes like digestion, this is a bit of science that gets above my present level and is about such things as how nutrients get through cels walls, so humic and fulvic acids secuestra carbon and help plants to grow, so in burning wood you are depleting soils and reducing the secuestration of carbon in soils, I am afraid, as i am this moment conteplating buying a ceramic type mass heater. rose macaskie madrid

mike locke
11/30/2012 5:28:42 AM

Its not possible to say without knowing where in the south you are. In desert country, use a very low energy use Coolarado system for cooling. If combined with thermal mass that is cooled overnight, the electric power use should be reasonable enough for a solar system to supply. In swamp country you have a problem.

mike locke
11/30/2012 5:16:27 AM

For reliability, the battery system should have several days worth of charge, it is not reasonable to check if the solar system is able to recharge the batteries in 1 day.. I use about 12KWH/day in a mostly electric home (gas water heater and space heater), which would require 4.4 sun-hours per day. with that size array At 38 degrees of latitude in the high desert I can expect to get at least that much for 3 seasons/year (standard charts show 5 sun-hours/day average and I doubt that the 20% above normal sun light intensity was factored in). That should get me 100% of power needs 75% of the time and maybe 50% of power needs 25% of the time, for a total of 87%. I expect Canada to be somewhat worse. OTOH, the numbers were given for a house that has less demand for electricity. BTW: for most locations solar panels (PV and thermal) at a fixed angle should be tilted to maximize output during spring/fall, not summer. Summer angled panels just sit and cook all day while the power goes nowhere since the batteries are already charged.

mike locke
11/30/2012 4:58:43 AM

Some additional information missing from your arithmetic:Connecting to the grid also costs money. In most rural locations the cost is very large. Running underground power for a 1/4 mile (due to scenic area restrictions) can be expected to cost at least $40,000; more if the line has to go under a public right of way. In this case assuming new construction the cost of electricity should be compared to the cost of maintenance on the solar system (more correctly, the total lifetime costs involved of each should be compared), not the initial purchase price. Even for tract houses built in an urban environment the cost of connecting to the grid is non-trivial. However, in such environments it makes more sense to scale the PV system to handle "peaking" rather than the whole home load and plan on being on-grid.

laurie levi
5/16/2012 2:01:20 AM

Hear! Hear!! :)

5/15/2012 5:00:05 PM

This is fine and good for the 'frozen northland', aka Canada; I would like to see articles about off grid systems in the south where the majority of electricity is used in the summer months--all SIX of them.

dean scott
11/18/2011 10:08:06 PM

I may be missing something but according to the article you are providing 85% of your electricity needs from solar with a your max is a 2700 watt array? You say you have 3500 amp-hrs of battery (you don't say what voltage) but I don't see how you can possibly keep your battery bank 85% charged on only a 2700 watt PV aarray. Is there something I am missing? 2700 watts at 12 volts will only get you 225 watts and at my lattitude (above 40 degrees) I will at best get 675 amp-hrs per day from that array.

annalea eastley
10/28/2011 8:31:04 PM

William Kemp has gone a long way in being off-grid and propane-free . . . I feel he deserves props for that. As for all of the other things he didn't talk about, there's a big, wide world ready to try them. Maybe these would be good blog topics at Mother's site, or a prime chance for you to try them out and write an article on your experiences? We're currently working on getting out on our homestead, and are taking the "high-tech or no-tech" approach. We have grid power, will have some solar power to make sure our water system is as independent as possible, but have old-time/no-tech solutions for everything else. Woodstove for heat & cooking, candle lamps for evening light/LED crank-charging flashlights, etc. I know that not all of our solutions are perfect, but it's a matter of choosing the best you can do in your circumstances. Here's to lots more folks making choices that will move us towards a better world as we can . . . and getting there in one giant leap lies so deep in the realm of improbability that we won't see it happen.

annalea eastley
10/28/2011 5:42:35 PM

We're doing some alternative power in our new place, and I would love to know the brand & model of the 2 burner induction cooktop. I can find lots of one burner ones, but have come up empty handed . . .

arielle van gundy
10/22/2011 2:02:53 AM

This is a great article! I like to see more people think out of the box! I only have 2 complaints: 1) Using an "electric kettle, toaster, microwave and small convection oven" along with an energy-efficient induction cooktop still requires a still electricity. Which he provides with solar panels and batteries. The issue is that both of these will eventually stop working and produce toxic bi-products in the manufacturing process (along with being cost prohibitive for most people) I would have loved to hear about an outside kitchen for the warmer months. 2) While it is great as I said that people are think out side of the box. It is sad that thinking non-electric as our ancestors did is such a new and revolutionary idea. I wish he would have talked about some other non-electric ideas such as a masonry heater which can be used as a space heater, water heater and stove/ oven.

charlene knight
10/18/2011 7:40:59 AM

Sounds expensive for a 24 x 16 house - maybe running electricity to the house would be a lot more I suppose

10/12/2011 3:24:07 PM

I would love to build something and go off-grid, but I don't think I could do that now. I'd like to approach this as a conservation plan. I would love to build a passive solar earthbag/adobe/cob home with a simple solar water heater (MEN project) and woodstove for emergencies. While still being on grid, I would still have a small efficient washer (Haier), induction cooking burner, countertop convection oven (Breville). I would have a portable, propane on-demand water heater (for camping and emergencies). Even being totally on-grid now and in a not-so-efficient home, I use very little electricity. If and when the price and efficiency of solar power became viable for me, then I would consider changing things over to that. There are some new developments being reported about window film being able to take the place of solar panels. The pricing and installation would change drastically. Let's hope this type of product will prove to be something to change the way we gain the use of solar power.

mel mg
10/9/2011 4:20:59 PM

I like your perspectiive on off grid living. It can be expensive, but one can start out small. like start with a small one room simple cabin or the very basics for a family's basic needs (it can be added on to in the future), a few solar panels, a smaller batter bank, etc... and DIY would help save costs. Even though you're right that solar panels aren't as efficient as we'd like them to be, for many, they are the only alternative to the only other power source being a generator (extremely inefficient if no solar panels, wind, or water source for hydro which is all too often the case- not every piece of land comes with the option for wind power or hydro power, those two things are climate specific and if there is no creek or gravity flow seasonal run-off there is no sense in investing in such expensive alternatives. The benefits would have to outweigh the costs. Most people only have the sun as their alternative power source, so they go with the solar power. Some are lucky enough to have all three (sun, water and wind) with a generator back up. I do wish we could have either wind or hydro power in additon to or instead of our solar power, but our land doesn't provide enough of the opportunity for either. Solar hot water is a great idea! And the solar oven too. I agree the solar will continue to get better.

keith karolyi
10/8/2011 3:59:34 AM

While I agree that the initial cost of an alt energy system puts it beyond the reach of most folks, we're starting to see a new wrinkle in the mix with the introduction of solar equipment leasing. Google has jumped into this by providing financing to a number of companies who will purchase the equipment, install it on your property and charge you approximately what it would cost you for the electricity from the grid. They service and maintain the system and you get the benefit of using eco-friendly solar power without the huge outlay of cash. I believe this is the way that we'll see a wider roll-out of solar power in the private sector as this catches on.

t brandt
10/7/2011 10:35:14 PM

good post, Deb--a very eloquent statement of the big picture. But I look at it this way: suppose you're the Malmute Kid living in the north country in your summer cabin and you stupidly believed AGore about GW and stayed too long into autumn. The Klondike River freezes over and you're snowed in 'til spring. You know you'll be there for 6 months before the river thaws. You have only one month's supply of wood already chopped and stacked for your fireplace. How should you use it? Use it up first, then chop more wood? Use a little pro-chopped at a time, alternating it with new-chopped? Or ignore the wood pile completely and just chop more wood? The only stupid choice is #3. You got, use it.. When our fossil sources (cheapest & easiest to use) run out, then we'll have to go to alternates. No sense at all in going there prematurely. It makes much more sense to conserve: use less energy.

tina lonnon
10/7/2011 2:37:56 PM

We are living off the grid. I think it was the best move we ever made. Now we are thinking of building an Earthship!

deborah harr
10/7/2011 2:07:16 PM

Ack, I should add, due to the inefficiency of solar panels, I personally don't feel they are the way to go, it is still and industry to watch. Personally I like wind and water turbine generated power, but here again, much maintenance, but higher efficiency. I too have watched the nuclear sector, yes there have been accidents, but far fewer accidents than any other sector generating power. And those big water turbine plants caused many deaths and destruction to the land as they dammed up the land and poured the concrete. Personally I like solar water heaters, geo-thermal pumps (did you know they make refrigerators to run off these systems now?) Anyhow, solar is expensive, it isn't efficient, but it is viable and will continue to get better. I love my solar oven in the summer time, it sits on the back porch and cooks my meals :-) All for the low cost of a $2.00 mylar space blanket, and it doesn't heat my house.

deborah harr
10/7/2011 1:57:50 PM

T Brandt, while solar systems are getting better, they are very inefficient, this much we are very aware. I was so excited when the first solar panel hit an efficiency rating of 17%. I know, by most standards 17% efficiency is not considered very good in most those looking to go off grid it was a milestone. Yes, when you look into the manufacturing requirements to make solar equipment and panels there is yet another downside, but.......the upside is the goal. For most going to renewable energy it isn't just about the bottom line, it is about supporting tomorrow, future generations with a viable option. The renewable energy sector has come quite far in the past 20 years. No doubt this sector will continue to improve. But keep in mind, the choice of living with renewable systems isn't made on the accounting side of the house. Living renewable is about fostering the future generations, the land we are supposed to be stewards of, and trying to step up to the "personal responsibility" plate. We have lived like gluttons and our environment, our overweight and unhealthy population, our food systems, these are all showing horrible future outlooks if we don't make a change. Just as we don't like our healthcare system being governed by an accountant who looks at the bottom line of "cost" when it comes to treating our illness....we want the doctor to be able to do what is best for us, after all the doctor went to medical school, the accountant went to business school. We look at living off-grid as a part of our "responsibility to future generations". If we don't take care and change what we are doing today, we are impacting and limiting tomorrow. This is what off-grid is trying to do.

deborah harr
10/7/2011 1:42:51 PM

Fantastic, simply fantastic. It is nice to see how others have gone off grid without living in a tent (lawl). Thank you for sharing this article, as we design and research how we are going to go off grid it gives me hope that it can be done! Yes I know it can be done, but so many have the idea that being off grid is living like the cavemen did. I see you still have the microwave! See Matilda, you can have your cake and eat it too!

jake vreeland
10/7/2011 4:49:24 AM

I agree with you on the nuclear power but there are too many ignorant people out there. I looked at a while back. Their prices are still too high. So I started researching the cells. If you build the panel itself the cost goes down considerably. The downside is the reliability of the cells and time needed to put the panels together. Check out

t brandt
10/6/2011 10:44:27 PM Cheapest cells listed here would cost ~$10,400 (most expensive $19,400). Add in a few more thousand for batteries; inverter, wiring, mounting frames etc add up. We won't count the value of our time. So maybe under $15,000 for DIY system-- but you still have to replace it every 20-25 yrs. (My figures are for locations north of 40deg or so; SunBelt would be a little cheaper). If the TreeHuggers would just get educated and then off our backs we could build some nuclear plants and this would be a moot argument. In the 45 yrs that I've been following the price of PV cells (& wind gen), they've always managed to keep the cost just out of reach of making it worth doing.

jake vreeland
10/6/2011 9:38:03 PM

If you do it yourself the cost of a solar system goes down considerably. A 1000kWhr/month system can be built for $10,000 if you do it yourself. It's not that difficult to learn and do if you have the desire to do so.

t brandt
10/2/2011 12:13:29 PM

A little arithmetic: cost of solar system to supply 1000kW'hr / month (ave. American family usage) ~ $40,000. Borrow that @ 5% and pay it back over 5 yrs-- $750 month-- total cost $45,000. Useful life of system 240 months. $45000/240 = $187/month-- ~ 87% more expensive than grid power. If you took that extra $87/month and bought stock in the elctric co (pays ~5% dividend/yr)., after 20 yrs you'd have another $35,000 in the bank. and own stock worth $21,000, having paid $24,000 for grid power over that period. Oh- and after 20 yrs, you'd have to replace your solar system for another $45,000. Being "off-grid" just doesn't make sense unless you're so far removed from the grid that the cost of running a new line to connect is prohibitive.

kate mccay
10/2/2011 3:13:34 AM

The article was fabulous and offered many suggestions IF you had the capital to do them all. We are off grid and have utilized our money power differently to puchase raw land and build using alternative energy. We are two people over 60 but still wanted to get back to the land. So we set our money priorities 1) buy land (with a little mortgage) 2) owner-build small...our home is a 24 x 16 cabin with wood heat, electric range, electric refrigerator, a small 6 sq ft chest freezer and a sawdust toilet. 3)use more money for the base of alternative power. Our well was drilled and we have a submersible pump that 2 stand-alone DC 140 watt solar panels run, including running the water up a slope 1200 feet to our water tank; then all water supplied is gravity fed. We put in a 200Whisper wind turpine up on the top of our tallest hill which in turn runs down into a battery bank of 8 L16 batteries. The Outback inverter inverts the DC power into AC. With this system alone we have plenty of power to run the necessities. But we had also elected not to have hair dryers, microwave, convection ovens but do have a 32" TV and Dvd player and Bose radio. We only use flourescent bulbs that save lots of energy and everything is on multiple-plug surge protecters that we turn off when we don't need it. We do have a Honda 2000 generator for backup. To this point we have spent about $35,000 on the system but it is also includes top of the line equipment, a few miles of trenching, the wiring and plumbing and labor. We are now in the process of adding in solar for a combo-wind/solar system, adding 4 - 205 watt solar panels. This additional power costed us $2300 for the panels and controller plus $300 labor. We are not adding more batteries because if you do that after your original batteries are more than 6 months old you have to completely start over with new batteries and that would be cost prohibitive. The only thing we have to change is our on-demand propane water heater into solar water heater system. So, I think for being on the land 2 years we have used our money priorities wisely and have even a smaller footprint with less electronics, a smaller home and our vegetable garden and chickens that make us almost self-sustainable.

jl wise
10/1/2011 8:36:14 PM

And remember, this set up, as with any, can be modified :-)

jl wise
10/1/2011 8:31:37 PM

Judy, I know it's overwhelming to read about such a teriffic and "elaborate" off grid set up when you think about the cost, but in reality, these set ups are not only possible, but affordable for most. If you'll recall in the beginning of the article these folks have been living off grid for 20 years. It's my guess that it took that long to get to the point where they are now and they probably went through a little (or a lot) of trial and error in getting to where they are now... likely in baby steps. We too live off grid (for over 20 years now) and have a set up almost identical to this one or close to it, however, life was not always easy. We had to "rough it" for some time and still do now and again when equipment breaks down or we need upgrading, but can't afford to do so over night. We still have things we want for our off grid life style on our wish list, but eventually we'll get there. I realize there are some people who have tons of capitol and are financially capable of running out, buying an ideal piece of land and throwing up a "Heaven on earth" off grid set up in a matter of months, but I don't believe that is the case here. In fact, I think it is rarely the case. I think what I am trying to say is to not be discouraged and instead, be inspired. I think it's great that these folks have shared their beautiful home and off grid living ideas. To the authors: I'd like to add that for your summer cooking a couple of other ideas are: A solar oven (cooks on sun alone, not connected to your system at all and works great!!) and/or a cob earth oven that is wood-fired. I really appreciate the fact that you bring up the idea of radically reducing the need for propane off grid. Enjoy!!

judy wirkkala
9/30/2011 1:28:13 PM

The initial output for this system is way beyond most people's means.

judy wirkkala
9/30/2011 1:25:41 PM

It's nice to see such an elaborate system utilized but it's obvious that this project was very well funded and there were few cost prohibitions. For the rest of us who are trying to survive in an economic hurricane, this is just way too expensive and out of the question...even if we would LOVE to do it.

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