Lessons From Off-Grid Living

Follow this advice about off-grid living from a 20-year veteran of producing utility-free electricity.

| October/November 2014

Both idealistic and practical reasons led my wife Michelle and me to choose off-grid living 20 years ago. After a five-year search for rural property, we found 150 acres in the woods of eastern Ontario and struck out in 1998 to build our farm and homestead.

We suffered major sticker shock when our local utility quoted us $100,000 to connect to the electricity grid. Today, we’d be looking at closer to $200,000 to connect. Especially with today’s lower prices for renewable energy and advancements in technology, if I were starting over, I’d still happily make the choice to go off-grid.

Untethered Solar Power

When Michelle and I purchased our 1888 farmhouse, it was powered by eight 60-watt solar panels. We added four 75-watt panels, which were $750 each, or $10 per watt. The following year, we replaced our propane fridge with an electric model and added another four panels. (Today, those panels would cost us one-tenth of what we paid, because the cost has plummeted to about $1 per watt!) My neighbor helped me build and weld my own solar tracker, which allows our solar array to follow the trajectory of the sun across the sky. While solar trackers aren’t necessary, they’ve increased the energy output of our system by about 20 percent.

Several years later, we were offered four 175-watt panels at an excellent price, so I went to work building another solar tracker. For each solar panel we add to our array, life gets noticeably easier because we can use appliances that might have been too energy-intensive for our previous setup. Each addition also allows us to reduce our reliance on propane, which supplements our energy for cooking and heating water. Our arrays now hold 2,300 watts’ worth of solar panels, which is more than sufficient to run a refrigerator, a freezer, two laptop computers, an LCD television and DVD player, satellite TV and Internet, a washing machine, and a kitchen fully stocked with appliances. We get by without air conditioning, which would be a major energy hog. (See “Daily Energy Consumption on the Mather Homestead,” below, for a breakdown of our appliances’ energy use.)

Lesson: Purchase additional solar panels as soon as you can afford them. In hindsight, I wish we’d had the money to purchase more photovoltaic panels sooner. Each additional solar panel has made off-grid living more comfortable — ah, the simple joy of a toaster! — and has given us more confidence to use less propane and more solar-powered electricity for our cooking and baking.

Off-Grid Battery Bank

You can install grid-tied solar panels without batteries, but to be off-grid, you’ll need batteries to store power for use at night. We replaced our system’s existing nickel-cadmium battery bank that was at the end of its life with $4,000 worth of large, deep-cycle, lead-acid batteries. The batteries are the only part of our electrical system that requires regular attention. I monitor the batteries’ state of charge and periodically add distilled water to them. You’ll need to ensure that your batteries never fall below 50 percent of their charge. Never paying an electricity bill or experiencing a power outage is more than enough compensation for the time I spend to maintain our batteries.

11/29/2017 10:30:43 AM

Very very new to this and starting small: where do I purchase and what do I purchase to take our small chicken coop heater off grid? It's just a standard heat lamp using either a 125watt or 250watt bulb.

10/16/2017 1:26:57 PM

Great article love the writing. I love hearing that more and more people moving off-grid, are taking advantage of the solar options that we have now. 20 or so years ago solar would be a dream to hope for as pricing would slowly come down year after year by painfully still too expensive increment by increment. Now solar is becoming more affordbale and with LEDs getting more efficient and less expensive as well, you can now get affordable solar lighting options like these that allow you to add security and lighting just by putting up a pole. I wondering if you could tie in those solar panels on the lights into your battery bank some how. That would be a nice touch.

8/16/2017 11:49:50 AM

Great article for anyone thinking about living off grid. My wife and I have lived off grid for only 6 years now and we have many more systems to put in place, but it takes time. We built a hot water thermosyphon system that heats the water through the wood cook stove, and the hot water is plumbed through the house for the winter months. I plan to install a solar hot water system on the roof, hopefully in the near future.

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