On-Grid or Off-Grid

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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I have always been of the opinion that there are two ways to learn from mistakes. Making your own is one way but the best way is learning from others mistakes. This topic is what we have learned from making our own mistakes. We all make mistakes and poor decisions throughout our lives and possibly our choice of a power source for our homestead will enable others to make a better choice.

When we first built our home and considered whether we should go off grid or on grid we chose on grid. In retrospect that may have been the wrong decision. 20+ years ago solar was pricey and most components were then made in either Germany or Australia. We considered using a generator/inverter combination but that required more frequent maintenance coupled with the extensive deep cell battery back up. When we priced our options solar was far more expensive than other options available. We knew that prices would come down once solar became more popular and had increased demand but when factoring in the pay back period solar was out of our price range. Both solar and generator require considerable battery components which have to be replaced at regular intervals.

The generator option still required a fuel source, inverter, and a separate building where it could all be housed to muffle the sound and protect the equipment. It is nice and quiet in the mountains to the extent that even a muffled generator would be mildly annoying. It also required much more work which we didn’t believe we needed when all the other routine tasks were factored in by living in the mountains. We heat with a wood stove and that certainly requires a lot of work and we didn’t want to include the additional maintenance and work involved in generator power. Going on grid was the least expensive method and the pay back cost was the shortest of the three options. Installation was a little more costly because our community requires all utilities to be run underground but it was still much cheaper than the other two options at that time.

Lacking an accurate crystal ball we failed to consider the power outages that we would have to contend with by being on grid. While our electric service is underground the power lines that feed our area are above ground and run over the mountains. Therefore they are exposed to wind, falling trees and heavy wet snow which all create power outages. Sometimes getting to the break in the line is difficult for the repair crew in the winter. Most outages last only a half day or less but we have had a few that lasted several days. Another consideration we failed to factor in were the electric rate increases. We receive our electricity from a co-op but they have to purchase it from a larger energy producer. When that supplier raises their rate it is passed down the line to us consumers. We have had several increases in our rate with the latest one set at 8.75%. We did not look far enough into the future to recognize that this would likely happen or have the over all impact on our finances as it does. We jumped at the cheapest option available at the time which turned out to be not so economical in the long run. Had we gone solar, even at the high cost, our pay back would have occurred about now and we would not have to contend with rate increases or occasional outages.

Solar has now become a more affordable choice and from our friends who have installed solar we are told it is reliable and almost maintenance free. The only down side we have heard would be when it remains cloudy or storms for more than a day. Now when we consider the cost and reliability of solar it would have been a very cost effective choice even though priced higher than on grid costs. With the rate increases, which we have no control over, we now realize that going off grid may have been a more cost effective option. I have heard that some states are now considering taxing those who use solar. I’m not sure how they can get away with that since they do not own the sun.

Another factor to consider is what will be your usage. Our small cabin only uses lights, an infra red heater, a oil coil heater, energy saving kitchen appliances and small normal household appliances. We heat with a wood stove, and cook with propane. Our hot water heater is a 6 gallon heater which serves us well and requires very little energy. Even with small electrical usage having consistent rate increases and occasional power outages is distressing. It also seems our power outages are never simply restored but fluctuate between being on and off several times before they finally come on to stay. This means that our satellite TV system goes crazy and we are repeatedly resetting electric clocks. Knowing what we know now I believe we may have chosen differently for our power source initially had we spent more effort in looking ahead.

Photo courtesy of Leland Dirks.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com

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