Off-Grid Power in Rocky Hollow

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The Ford Pinto engine that drives the Megnin's off-grid power generation system only used about $15 worth of fuel a month yet met all their electrical needs.
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The 250 gallon water tank the Megnins filled every day, with their car engine driving the water pump

How would you like to live free of power poles and light
bills yet still have electric lights, television, a
water pump, and more for a total energy cost of around $15
a month? Well, impossible as it sounds, that’s just what my
family is doing!

My wife and I worked for several years and saved both our
money–and every single issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS–in
preparation for our move back to the land … which
finally took place in September 1978.

We bought 120 acres in the very rough timber country of
northeastern Alabama (maybe 20 of our acres are flat enough
for cultivation) called Rocky Hollow. There are no springs
or creeks for hydropower on our land, we seldom have
enough breeze to run a windmill, and we’re more than a
mile from the nearest power pole. But we’ve found that
enjoying the luxury of electricity deep in the woods
doesn’t have to be a big problem at all!

AC/DC at Our Disposal

Our home energy system began with the purchase of a 120-240
volt alternator (it’s a Sears 4,000-watt model) and a used
1976 Ford Pinto engine. Then, using a steel bracket, I
mounted the alternator so it could be driven by the
engine’s fan belt. The setup provides 120 and
240 volts AC whenever we need it … which is for a 15 minute
period every other day to run the well pump.

When the pump isn’t in operation, we use the
12-volt DC that’s produced by the engine. To do so, I
simply replaced the Pinto’s single small battery with four
larger units in parallel and the auto’s alternator keeps
our battery bank fully charged.

Next, we ran underground cable (two conductor No. 10 wires)
from the batteries in the “powerhouse” to the switchbox in
our mobile home, and hooked it up as though it were 110
volts from a powerline. However, we first had to remove
all the light sockets in the house and replace them with
12-volt sockets, which we
ordered from Newark Electronics. We then inserted
12-volt bulbs into the sockets (also from Newark
Electronics). By placing a
light over each critical area (the sink, stove, etc.), we
can have nice, bright illumination whenever and
wherever we need it.

Now perhaps you’re thinking, “Fine, they have 12-volt lights. But what about television, stereo, etc.? Such amenities
won’t work on 12 volts.”

Well, most of them won’t, I’ll grant you … but
in this day of recreational vehicles and electronic
wizardry, you can find 12-volt television sets–black
and-white or color–very readily (Sears, Ward’s, and Western
Auto all sell them). The same is true of stereo systems.
(We’ve found that a relatively inexpensive Datsun tape
deck, with a couple of decent speakers, does just fine.)

Here’s another example of how we put modern-day electronic
wizardry to work on our homestead: We bought (for $57) a
new 200-watt inverter, a device that converts 12-volt DC
into 120-volt AC … and anytime we need a small
amount of the latter “juice” (such as for our electronic
organ, small appliances, or whatever), we just turn on the
inverter and plug into it.

Noteworthy Number

Now let’s get down to some of the dry statistics …
which aren’t boring to us at all, because they involve what
we paid and what we got! The Sears alternator cost
less than $400 … the Pinto engine: $275 … the
battery bank: $280 … and the wiring, sockets, bulbs,
and miscellaneous about $100. It all adds up to a grand
total of just over $1,000 for our complete power system.
(Note that if we didn’t need a fairly large quantity of
240 volt AC power for the well pump we could get by without
the $400 alternator.)

As mentioned above, we usually run the plant every other
day. I start it, set the throttle to just above a fast idle
(approximately 1,200 RPM) and let it run for an hour.
During this period the car’s alternator is putting about 35
amps of current into the battery bank. Then I throttle the
engine up to 2,200 RPM, which is probably (I’m guessing)
the equivalent of 35-40 MPH in a car … and just
the speed required to drive the big alternator at 3,600
RPM, to provide the approximately 15 minutes of the
60-cycle-per-second, 240 volts needed by our submersible
well pump.

When I switch on the pump, the water goes into a 250-gallon
storage tank atop a 30-foot tower. Within 10 to
20 minutes the tank is full, and I can turn the system off.
During that short operating time, however, the car
alternator runs at full capacity (about 60 amps) and
charges the battery bank, if needed. (The auto voltage
regulator takes care of all that.)

Better yet, during the whole hour-and-a-quarter period, the
engine consumes less than a gallon of gasoline. Call it a
dollar’s worth of fuel 15 times monthly … or $15 a
month!

Hot Water, Too!

Here’s the best trick of all! Our Pinto power plant, like
all internal combustion engines, produces some noise, a
small amount of useful power, and a whale of a lot of heat.
In fact, the warmth generated accounts for approximately
75% of the fuel’s energy … and we manage to recover
more than halt of what is generally wasted heat.

Instead of using a radiator on the engine, you see, we
circulate the hot water through a well insulated,
500-gallon tank (it’s an old butane container) that’s
enclosed in a weatherproof box. About 60 gallons of
180°F water go into the tank each time I run the
engine. (That amounts to approximately 50,000 BTU, if you
want to get technical about it.) A coil of copper tubing
carries the water from the well through the heated water in
the top of this tank, and then into the hot water
distribution lines in our mobile home. Presto …
steaming showers!

Energy Independence

So there you have the Rocky Hollow Energy System. It’s
nothing new and nothing fancy, but it’s here now, it’s
ours, and it works! We get power for heat, lights, warm
water, television, stereo, the electronic organ, and even
our blender for $15 per month. Of course, we’re not
using as much electricity as we did during our “city” days
… but we have all we need, and for our requirements the
price of the Rocky Hollow Energy System can’t be beat!