A Year of Living Off the Grid: An Experiment in Home Energy Independence

While they wait for their house to be completed, a couple sets up a trailer for off-the-grid living, relying exclusively on solar electricity and propane heating.

| July/August 1983

  • mobile home
    Sara and Bill are leading a crowded life in their RV, while they work on finishing their permanent home, but it's a unique one. All their electrical needs are supplied by the sun. (Note as well the breadbox solar water heater on the trailer's roof.)
  • woman with 1980s computer
    Sara works on her solar novel (solar-powered, that is!). Photovoltaic panels provide the current that runs her Apple computer.

  • mobile home
  • woman with 1980s computer

I recently finished my first "sun-powered" novel, one that I wrote on an Apple computer run by photovoltaic electricity. Actually, solar panels are the only source of electric power that my husband Bill and I have had for more than a year. You see, we're in the process of planning and building our own energy self-sufficient (we hope!) house, and we figure that there's no better way to get into the independent spirit of the project than to live without a power utility connection at the building site. 

Of course, as many of you have found out, photovoltaic systems are most cost-effective in sparsely developed areas, where the only other energy choices are setting up alternative power sources, running a diesel-fueled generator, or having no electricity at all. But Bill has been involved in the development and manufacture of solar cells (at Arco Solar, Inc.) for over 15 years, so his pioneering nature led him to try "stand alone" living even though we're only a short distance from the power lines. 

We wanted to see if we could achieve an energy-independent home that was not at the same time a Spartan one. And, believe me, the last 12 months or so have been anything but austere! Our trailer has plenty of modern conveniences, including lights, a refrigerator, a color television, a radio, a stereo, and an indoor (electric composting) toilet. Putting all this together, however, did involve a good bit of research and experimentation on our part. We hope that those of you who fancy the idea of either living or vacationing in remote areas—whether for extended periods or for only a few days at a time—may benefit from our experience.  

Setting up the Energy-Independent Home

In a way, our residence itself gave us a slight head start, because trailers are engineered with a number of attributes for self-reliant living. The 24-foot Layton we'd picked out included a 300-gallon water tank, low-voltage lights backed up by a pair of batteries, a holding tank for human waste, and even a low-voltage (or propane) refrigerator. Unfortunately, most of these features were not designed with high efficiency in mind, since trailer owners are expected to pay frequent visits to waste disposal sites and to recharge the batteries on a regular basis while driving. That meant we'd have to seek out some specialized components for our stationary arrangement. 

During the year preceding our move to the site, we scoured recreational-vehicle and camping stores in our southern California region, but were able to locate only a few of the extra-energy-efficient components that we needed for photovoltaic living. We did find a Norcold electronic refrigerator, however, to replace the absorption-cycle Electrolux that had come with the trailer. The new 12-volt DC (direct current) icebox consumes only 80 amp-hours per day, a tiny fraction of what the heat-driven unit had used. 

It was during two trips to Europe that we located most of the equipment for our electricity self-sufficient home. After a stop to review literature at the Swedish Konsument Verket—where all consumer appliances in the country are tested and compared—we purchased a New Mullbank electric dry composting toilet from a local Stockholm department store. (We were surprised to find that there are actually 16 manufacturers of composting toilets in Sweden, largely as a result of laws restricting the use of septic systems at vacation cabins.) 

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