Running a small farm or homestead takes a lot of effort, but a world of labor-saving devices out there can make life simpler without consuming fossil fuels. One of the reasons many homesteaders decide to go off-grid is to become independent of a vastly inefficient energy system, and to take greater control of their carbon footprints. Solar, wind, microhydro, biofuels and even human power offer the means to use clean, renewable sources of energy to complete your tasks without having to sacrifice convenience.
You don’t have to be an off-gridder to share in the good fortune, either — most everything compiled in the categories here can be used without a commitment to off-grid living. You just may be surprised by how many tools, devices, utensils and implements exist as alternatives to the mainstream, fossil-fuel-powered choices we’re all so accustomed to.
Solar Power on the Farm
Solar photovoltaic prices are dropping by about 10 percent per year, and as the economic and environmental costs of conventional power rise, so, too, does the lure of solar energy. At a current installed cost of less than $3 per watt with a 50-year life span, electricity powered by the sun offers electricity without poles, wires or monthly bills.
Portable solar generators. Perfect as a source of emergency electricity and made in sizes from several hundred watts to more than 3,000, portable power stations can provide 120-volt alternating current (AC) and 12-volt direct current (DC) electricity on remote locations in one compact package. Portable solar generators come with one or more PV modules, an inverter and built-in battery storage. For the DIY-inclined, Well WaterBoy Products offers a plan to build your own 160-watt solar cart.
Solar gate openers. Often radio-controlled, heavy-duty solar-powered gate openers can operate more than 200 cycles per day, and some are sold as do-it-yourself kits. The Mighty Mule E-Z Gate Opener by GTO Access Systems controls gates up to 850 pounds and 18 feet long. The opener draws a maximum of 5 amps from a 12-volt, 7-amp-hour gel-cell battery, rechargeable from a 5-watt solar module or an AC outlet.
Solar electric fence energizers. Most of the popular fence-energizer manufacturers offer a 12-volt, solar-powered version for remote applications. One or more PV modules charge one battery or more. Small, self-contained units start at about $125.
Solar chicken coop door openers. Solar chicken coop door openers run on 12-volt batteries connected to solar panels and can incorporate a timer. The 11-by-15-inch Pullet-Shut Automatic Chicken Door ($180) mounts to the wall of your coop and operates from any 12-volt power supply, including the optional $50 solar panel and battery kit.
Solar livestock waterers. The BT Suntank from Pine Ranch Products comes in a 25-gallon and 42-gallon capacity and keeps cattle, horses, and other large livestock watered to -25 degrees and -50 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. Manual or self-fill, impact-resistant plastic tanks have a shatterproof solar-thermal panel and a bob cover to keep water from freezing. For the DIY-inclined, you can learn to Build a Solar Stock Tank.
Source: Pine Ranch Products
Solar predator lights. Several companies make an ingenious, $20 device that replicates the eyes of an animal to frighten night predators from barns, poultry coops, gardens, and property. A self-contained photo cell and battery activate a flashing red light to deter airborne and ground predators from a distance.
Solar ovens. Portable, suitcase-sized, food-grade solar ovens can reach temperatures of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit to cook, bake, pasteurize water, and dehydrate foods under sturdy transparent glass. A leveling leg, sun-tracking indicator, and thermometer assure convenient, fuel-free cooking. Prices range from $200 to $350. Save money by learning How to Build a Solar Oven of your own.
Solar refrigerators. Developed in part for vaccine storage in remote areas, these extremely efficient coolers can use up to 80 percent less energy than conventional models do. To be solar-compatible, the fridges are DC-powered and come in 12- and 24-volt configurations. Some models run on as few as 40 watts. A variety of sizes are available, ranging from about 5 to 19 cubic feet, and as both refrigerators and combination solar refrigerators-freezers.
Solar attic fans. These quiet, battery-free, direct-solar fans are self-contained and move between 850 and 1,250 cubic feet of air per minute, depending on sunlight and model size. The Solar Direct 20-watt surface PV module drives a 12-inch blade, activated by a thermal switch that kicks on when attic temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It cools up to 1,200 square feet of attic space.
Daylighting tubes. Electric lighting for the darker places in your home—bathrooms, hallways, closets, pantries—can put a surprising dent in your energy budget. Daylighting tubes or tunnels sold by Velux and Solatube combine a skylight with a reflective housing to channel natural sunlight to those dim interior places, providing a significant amount of light even on cloudy days.
Solar thermal water heating. Solar-heated water for the farm or household can supplement or even replace conventional water heaters, which account for up to 25 percent of the energy used in a home. Solar hot water is about three times more efficient than solar electric, and still qualifies for federal and state tax credits. You can build your own for just a fraction of what you would pay for a commercial system. Read our article A Double-Duty Solar Solution: How to Build a Solar Water Heater to find out how.
Solar water pumps. PV electric panels are a perfect match for arid regions where sunlight is prevalent. DC pumps are available for surface water and as submersible well units, manufactured in 12-volt, 24-volt and higher-voltage configurations. (Some models can use AC.) Submersible pumps are considerably more costly but can pump up to 15,000 gallons of water per day. Surface pumps deliver 200 to several thousand gallons of water per hour start at $600.
Solar water distillers. These devices use the energy of the sun to distill saline or contaminated water into pure drinking water. Large units provide about 0.8 liters of pure water per sun-hour in temperate climates, which is about 1.5 gallons per day. Smaller solar water distillers deliver up to 2 quarts per day. (You can build your own solar still with our plans in the article How to Make a Solar Still.)
Solar pond aerators. A floating fresh-water fountain pump sends a pulsating jet of water into the air to keep ponds and water troughs agitated to oxygenate water and prevent algae formation. A 3-watt solar module charges a capacitor which activates the pump once or twice per second.
Battery-Powered Tools and Equipment
Battery-powered tools and devices are environmentally friendly insofar as the energy used to charge them is clean. They can be charged through an inverter tied to an off-grid electricity-generating system, and with a bit of creative cobbling, some can also be charged directly from PV modules through a controller.
Electric lawn mowers. Cordless electric push, self-propelled and riding mowers have been on the market for some time, with push models starting at about $150 and riding models running at least $4,000. Mow up to a third of an acre on a single charge with the Neuton CE6 walk-behind mower. The Hustler Turf Zeon is the first electric, zero-turn mower and, according to Hustler, can mow more than an acre on a single charge. Cub Cadet’s RZT S is a zero-turn riding mower that the company says will cut for 60 minutes without power fade. Compare available zero-turn mowers in our article Best Zero-Turn Mowers.
Electric snowblowers. Electric snowblowers are available in corded and cordless models. The model you choose will depend on whether you need a machine to clear a short sidewalk or to clear 10 inches of snow from a driveway. The Ariens AMP 24 Sno-Thro has the ability to shoot snow more than 40 feet. The AMP 24 can operate for 45 to 60 minutes, according to the manufacturer, and is available at a retail price of about $1,700.
Electric chainsaws. Electric chainsaws are generally quieter than their gas-guzzling counterparts. Black & Decker makes its cordless, lithium-battery-powered 20V MAX trimming saw with an 8-inch bar to perform 150 cuts before requiring recharging. The larger GreenWorks 40V GMAX lithium has a 16-inch bar and will cut an entire cord of wood on a single charge. Oregon Power Tools’ new PowerNow 40V MAX lithium cordless saw has a 14-inch bar and cuts through 12-inch logs and costs about $400.
Solar-PV tractors. Only a few companies make tractors powered by roof-mounted solar panels. Free Power System’s four-wheeled Sun Horse 4812 is a compact tractor that can plow a field and fits into the back of a pickup truck (see a video of the Sun Horse in action at Free Power Systems’ video page). Weighing in at 790 pounds, the Electric Ox is a larger four-wheeled tractor built primarily for towing, but the multipurpose model accommodates attachments, such as a mower deck, rotary sweeper, snow thrower and dozer. Homestead Enterprises’ SolTrac Crawler can be built to order with about six months lead time.
Electric yard and garden tools. Tools available in the electric lawn care lineup include pole saws, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and weed trimmers. Part of a 12-tool collection of yard and garden tools based on a 40-volt G-Max lithium-ion battery pack, the GreenWorks cordless front-tined cultivator tills up to 5 inches deep and 10 inches wide. The manufacturer says it’ll run for about 40 minutes per charge, and cost is about $300.
Battery backup for renewable energy systems. Many renewable energy options incorporate uninterruptable power supply packages that can be charged with PV modules, though most are grid-tied standby systems that engage when grid power goes down. The battery systems can be sized to cover critical loads or entire households, with autonomy periods ranging from one to five days.
Wind Energy on the Farm
Wind may be everywhere, but not everywhere is suitable for wind turbines. For those sites worthy of the investment, however, power from the wind can be impressive — especially for supplementing photovoltaic systems. (Is a wind turbine right for your backyard? Find out what makes for a good home wind turbine site by reading Home Wind Power: Yes, in My Backyard!) Wind turbines in the 300- to 1,500-watt range are eligible for tax credits and are available in AC and DC configurations.
Electric power generation. Wind turbines for electric power are generally two- or three-bladed designs mounted on towers at least 40 feet tall. Homestead-scale turbines usually generate 24-volt DC; AC models are available for larger farm and commercial use. Only models certified by the Small Wind Certification Council have test data to back up their claims (see all certified small wind turbine models here). Models rated to produce up to 15,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) annually start at about $2,100 (plus the cost of a tower).
Wind-powered water pumps. Pneumatic water pumps use air pressure to lift or move water from source to tank. A windmill compresses the air. Some wind-powered water pumps can switch between pumping air (for aeration) and pumping water. Fluid water pumps employ a cylinder to lift and move water through a delivery pipe. Both pneumatic and fluid windmills work in lower wind speeds, and they require towers only12 to 25 feet tall.
Unlike other forms of renewable power, hydropower sites can operate continuously, as long as water is flowing. Even low-flow sites may still be useful for small-scale electricity generation.
Electricity generation. Pelton or impulse turbines driven by a river or stream can provide an impressive amount of electricity even with modest water flow rates. Storable DC power is generated by a permanent magnet alternator at 12, 24 or 48 volts to produce between 45 and 1,500 watts, depending on turbine nozzle configuration, water flow rate and head (the vertical distance water drops). Prices start at about $1,850.
In-stream generators. Have a fast-moving stream at least 15 inches deep? Drop-in-creek generators require minimal installation. The 100-watt Ampair Energy UW100 will let you generate up to 2.4 kwh per day with an upfront cost of about $1,400. AC output is rectified to 12, 24, or 48 volts DC.
Hydraulic ram pumps. This technology has been around for at least 200 years and still has something going for it. Ram pumps use the flow and fall of water to push some of it uphill without electricity. The pumps work 24 hours a day, delivering from 14 gallons per day to well over 1,500 via larger models. Costs are $565 and up, or you can make your own from plumbing parts for about $100. Read Build a Hydraulic Ram Pump to learn how to construct your own.
Sources: Rife Hydraulic Engine Mfg.
Internal Combustion With Biodiesel
Although Rudolf Diesel intended his engine to run on coal dust or peanut oil when it debuted in the 1890s, the ready availability of petroleum fuel altered his plan. Biodiesel, the modern, eco-friendly alternative to petrodiesel, is made with a catalyst that breaks down the molecular structure of a variety of plant oils and animal fats, which then replicate the structure of petrodiesel fuel. Because biodiesel has inherent cleansing characteristics that can remove deposits from tanks and lines that build up from petrodiesel, you will need to service your machine’s fuel filter more frequently in the beginning. Aside from this, you will not need to modify your engine to run on biodiesel fuel. Equipment owners should check manufacturers’ warranty limits before using biodiesel — if the fuel is made to ASTM D6751 standards, it is as safe for your machine as diesel fuel. Biodiesel comes straight (B100) and in blends (B6 to 20).
Generators. As with vehicles, diesel-powered portable generators can run on biodiesel without modification. Yanmar manufactures a 3.5-kilowatt (YDG 3700) and a 5-kilowatt (YDG 5500) portable, air-cooled generator with 120- and 240-volt AC outputs, as well as options with 12-volt DC outputs. Fuel consumption averages about a quarter-gallon per hour. Suggested retail prices begin at $3,995.
Walk-behind tractors. For farms less than 20 acres or for working steep, rough terrain, two-wheeled, walk-behind tractors offer exceptional maneuverability and efficiency. The Italian-made BCS line of tractors and several of its walk-behind models are diesel-powered, with 8-, 10- or 11-horsepower options and an independent power takeoff. BCS offers several implements, including a tiller, plows, a sprayer and more.
The human body can produce a couple hundred watts of power over a sustained period. But even though industry has largely moved toward mechanization, human muscle still has a place around the homestead. The devices here let us work smarter, not harder, by harnessing leverage and mechanical advantage to shave time and difficulty off what could be quite labor-intensive chores.
Emergency hand-cranked radios. A hand crank charges an internal battery; with the Eton FR1000 Voicelink two minutes of cranking provides about five minutes of play (AM/FM, weather band, 2-way transmitter, flashlight, siren) for a list price of about $150. Ambient Weather and Oregon Scientific make similar, less costly products.
Hand-crank cell phone chargers. The Sidewinder (about $25) is probably the best known of this ilk, in which a hand-cranked dynamo recharges your mobile phone. The cranked Eco Media Player ($200) from Ventus combines an MP3 and video player, voice recorder, text reader, photo viewer, radio, flashlight, and cell charger.
Hand water pumps. Reliable, freeze-protected hand water pumps lift water from shallow cisterns and moderately deep cased wells.
Treadle sewing machines. The Janome 712T (priced about $250) is a full-featured flatbed sewing head designed to fit the old Singer treadle base. For an hour’s time and the cost of a new belt for the machine, you can convert an electrical sewing machine to treadle power yourself. Find our conversion plan at How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Treadle Sewing Machine.
Source: Janome America
Hand weaving looms. Hand-operated table looms offer a compact size with enough features to accomplish complex weaving. Prices start at around $600.
Manual clothes washers. The James Washer is a stainless steel tub with a hand-operated agitator and an optional wringer ($618 for both). The more compact Wonder Wash from The Laundry Alternative (about $43) is a hand-cranked drum that agitates 5 pounds of laundry in two minutes.
High-wheel cultivators. These old-time tools still hold their own for managing a big garden. Hoss Tools ($140), Beaver ($95) and EarthWay ($75) each make a high-wheel cultivator that come with a variety of attachments. Hoss also offers a seeder attachment. For a DIY project, turn an old bike frame into a cultivator with the instructions in our article How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Bike-Frame Cultivator.
Push reel mowers. American Lawn Mower manufactures the Great States and Scott’s Classic reel-type 14-inch, 16-inch, and 20-inch push mowers. List price is about $160.
Manual grain mills. Hand-cranked grain mills use stone or metal burrs and can usually be adapted to a belt-drive motor. Country Living and Diamant are two popular manufacturers. The cranks are part of a large V-grooved flywheel to adapt to belt drive. GrainMaker has developed a bicycle-attachment kit for a number of its manual grain mills. Watch a video of MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors taking the bike mill for a spin.
Manual grain threshers. Threshers separate grain from crops such as wheat and rice from their stalks. Manual threshers make sense for home-scale grain production and use a foot-powered spinning reel to knock grain free from stalks.
Manual meat grinders. A large crank handle drives an auger that forces meat through a knife and perforated grinder plate. Sausage carcass stuffers can be attached. The best types are stainless steel (starting at about $100) and less costly tinned models start as low as $29.
Manual food mills. The hand crank offers more control than a motor while it pushes food through a sieve to filter pulp and seeds. Strainers and juicers are different devices but also operate by hand.
Manual fruit presses and manual wine presses. Four different sizes of screw-type cider press are sold by Happy Valley Ranch, all of which include grinders. Prices range from about $140 to $740. Weston makes a ratchet-style fruit and wine press without a grinder for around $200.
Manual oil presses. For those who prefer homemade cooking oils, the Piteba can process several pounds of nuts and seeds in 15 or 20 minutes with its crank-driven auger.
Manual coffee grinders. The hand-cranked Peugot, Camano, and the compact Javagrind and RusTek Traveller 2 operate like grain mills and offer full control and adjustable grind.