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Off the Grid and Constantly Aware

4/20/2011 7:51:15 PM

Tags: living off the grid, off the grid, off-grid living, Vermont off the grid, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailThis is the first in a series on Living Off the Grid. If you're off the grid, send us your story. If you dream about living off the grid, read on.  

When Paula and Matt built their home on a rural Vermont back road 11 years ago, the cost of running a utility line was about the same as buying a minimal amount of solar panels (enough for a couple without kids to get by): $10,000. The couple chose solar. “We have never regretted that decision,” Paula says. “We now have 1.5 kW in solar power, and this is perfect for our needs--most months, anyway!”

Paula and Matt started out with a 600-watt system, which forced them to think wisely when they designed their home and purchased appliances. “We built a house with plenty of natural light!” Paula says. As the family grew to four, Paula and Matt installed more panels to support a dishwasher, a front-loading washer, a (rarely used) gas dryer, a Sunfrost refrigerator, an efficient DC freezer and a computer. In winter, the family cooks and heats water on a wood cookstove, which Paula also fires up on summer mornings to prep veggies for quiche (baked in the toaster oven) later in the day.

Paula says the family has enough power to do everything it wants and needs to do. The only drawback she sees to off-the-grid living is that when parts break, wear out or get hit by lightning, the power’s off until that part is fixed. In 11 years, the system’s batteries have worn out and the inverter inexplicably burned up. “My advice is that families plan ahead for expenses like these, which can run a few thousand dollars,” Paula says.

She doesn’t miss monthly utility bills, power outages, coal or imported oil. “What I like most is that we have a constant awareness of what electrical power is, where it comes from, and how much we are using,” Paula says. “Our sons have grown up living off-grid, and their simple acceptance of this lifestyle is also one of the best things about it. I think many people on the grid view going off-grid as a sacrifice. But it doesn't have to be!”

 house 2 

Paula and Matt designed their home to get lots of natural light. 

homestead overall 

Solar panels feed the family's electricity needs, and gardens feed the family. 

paula in garden 

Paula is living the good life. 

wood pile 

Cooking and cleaning up for a family of four takes a lot of wood. 


These kids dig living off the grid.

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Marcia Freespirit
5/6/2011 2:32:41 PM
My fiance and I live off the grid in Middle TN. Right now, we use gas generators and propane. We would like the name of the company you purchased your solar panels and components from...we are ready now to move to solar. We use very little electricity. Mainly to power a propane refrigerator and watch a few DVD's every now and then. We use propane and a wood-burning stove for heating...and live without air conditioning. I don't ever want to return to the grid!

Will Brooke
4/29/2011 12:51:23 PM
follow-up for todd_12 re: dc systems... 1500char limit prevented me from adding: Your battery bank is one of the largest investments in an off-grid system. (and the source of most of your maintenance and operating costs) To maximise their life you want to have the best charging (and discharging) system available. An inverter IS that device. If you are simply dumping loads into and pulling loads out of your batteries in an uncontrolled fashion you will radically shorten their lifespan. (It can also be dangerous! lack of charge controlling can lead to catastrophic battery failure. ditto on discharging!) Replacing your battery bank earlier than you need to has a much bigger cost impact than designing a system properly and including the correct inverter (and other critical components) for your needs.

Will Brooke
4/29/2011 12:27:09 PM
re: dc systems. I work for a renewable energy company in Victoria, Canada. many people ask us about this. An inverter system the right choice for almost everyone: 1.) PV panels (and wind turbines, and even microhydro) produce variable DC voltage and variable current - in PV depends on the type of panels, how many, and the insolation (cloudy vs night vs sunny). To smooth this out you need a PV controller (preferably an MPPT type) and a battery bank. With a battery bank you now need a charger to handle the input from the MPPT. Most inverters have integrated battery charging capability. (I am way oversimplifying the system design here) 2.) Inverters are EFFICIENT!! SMA, Xantrex, Magnum even Outback inverters are extremely efficient. 3.) Inverters allow renewable input from multiple sources (wind, microhydro, PV, or generator) AND intelligently charge the battery bank (multi-stage charging, not the old buzz-box battery killer style charging you get out of a cheap automotive battery charger) or handle loads as needed (eg pass through to a backup generator). 4.) you want a workshop right? maybe even 3 phase power for that tablesaw? We design and install hybrid and renewable systems for industrial and residential off-grid and grid-tie locations. all this is possible with the right inverter system. 5.) most inspectors and electrical contractors are familiar with AC wiring, and will understand how to troubleshoot and help fix your system

4/29/2011 11:33:05 AM
Why not design and build for DC instead of AC? I realize appliances are more expensive, but then there isn't an expensive inverter to repair or replace. Aren't DC solar systems much simpler and less costly initially and to maintain? In the long run DC might be easier and less costly. Thoughts anyone?

Randy Mote
4/29/2011 10:35:27 AM
Great news,on passive homes.We built passive homes back in the late 70s.We are a 57 yr old company out of Montana that would like to get these homes back in front of the public.These homes are designed to be delivered to site and built by the owner.They are Beautiful and able to be under roof in days so you can finish/live in while out of the weather.Thank you.

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