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.
Lesson: Don’t undersize battery banks in off-grid installations. With today’s low PV panel prices, strive to oversize both your solar array and your battery bank. You’ll worry less about maintaining your electricity system, and you’ll run your generator less often.
Wind Power for Off-Grid Living
When we moved here, a broken wind turbine on a 60-foot tower sat on the property. (Turbines are mechanical entities that operate in extremely unforgiving conditions and, therefore, have a tendency to break.) I ultimately replaced the unit with a 1-kilowatt Bergey wind turbine on a 100-foot tilt-up tower. That was a huge undertaking for me, but I couldn’t find a dealer willing to do the installation. The effort to install and maintain the turbine has proved worthwhile, however, because wind picks up the slack when solar conditions aren’t ideal.
Lesson: Diversify your energy sources. Renewable energy sources can complement each other. Before we erected our wind turbine, we ran our backup propane generator 12 to 15 times per year. By investing in a hybrid solar/wind system, we’ve reduced the frequency of our generator use to just five or six times each year, mostly during the dark days of fall and early winter, when there is neither enough sun nor wind to keep our batteries charged.
Lesson: Consider wind turbine siting. To get the most out of a wind turbine, try to locate it in an open area or near a body of water. Ideally, your wind turbine should be 300 feet from barns, silos and tree lines, and at least 30 feet taller than objects that may cause turbulence. Our tree line is about 60 feet tall, our tower is 100 feet high, and we are surrounded by a forest, so while we don’t have the ideal setting, our wind power output is satisfactory, especially during November and December (our cloudiest, windiest months).
Lesson: Plan for surprises and prepare for emergencies. We went to great lengths to carefully ground and protect our wind turbine and tower from lightning, but despite our efforts, a bolt struck them in the summer of 2013. The broken DC rectifier was relatively inexpensive to replace, but we did have to lower the tower, which was a stressful experience. The takeaway? You’ll be faced with emergencies, but a diversified mix of energy sources will create a more secure off-grid setup that can weather any crisis.
Sustainable Wood Heat
Conventional grid-tied homes using fossil fuels produce about 60 percent of their carbon emissions from heating. In contrast, we heat our home with a highly efficient Pacific Energy non-catalytic woodstove and cut all of our firewood on our land. Heating with wood from our well-managed woodlot is carbon-neutral, because new growth will recapture the amount of carbon released from the trees we cut.
Lesson: Choose electric tools and power them with renewable energy. I cut more than half of our firewood with a corded electric Yardworks chainsaw run on renewable energy. To further reduce our use of gasoline, I acquired an Oregon 40-volt, battery-powered chainsaw to cut trees in the bush. I then pull the logs back to the house, where I buck the lengths into firewood with my corded chainsaw. In my younger days, I split all of our wood with an axe, but last year I purchased a Yardworks 4-ton electric log splitter, and I continue to be amazed by what it can split, as many typical gas-powered models are 28-ton. Electric equipment is rugged: I used my electric Poulan chainsaw for a decade and only replaced it when a newer model had some features I wanted to try.
Multiple Methods to Heat Water
Five years ago, we added a solar hot water heater. I welded the system’s frame, which sits on the roof of our back porch, and I did the plumbing myself. Tapping the sun’s energy to heat water is much more efficient than using it to generate electricity. We have two tanks for hot water: a 60-gallon tank for the solar hot water heater and a 40-gallon tank for a diversion load from our solar electric system. During sunny periods when I know my batteries are fully charged, I can manually divert excess electricity to the heating element in the hot water tank by throwing a switch (which I turn off as the sun starts to go down). Six to eight hours of full sunlight will usually heat both tanks. Feeling how hot our water is after a sunny day is magical.
Lesson: Vary the ways you heat water. About 60 percent of our hot water comes from our solar hot water system. During cloudy days in late fall and early winter, neither of our systems produces enough hot water for us, so we rely on our woodstove. We always have large kettles of water on the woodstove to keep about 10 gallons of hot water on demand. During winter, we fill large stockpots with water and heat them up on our woodstove for baths. We bathe in a cast-iron claw-foot tub that absorbs the water’s heat and radiates it back into the bathroom throughout the night.
Smart Food Storage
We eventually worked up the nerve to purchase a freezer to store some of the bounty from our garden. We’ve reduced the freezer’s run time by putting it in our unheated basement, which stays at about 32 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. We’ve mastered growing vegetables that store well, such as carrots, onions, potatoes, squash and sweet potatoes. During summer, we run a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and supply 50 families with a weekly box of vegetables from our garden.
Lesson: Upgrade to energy-efficient appliances. Thanks to improved energy-efficiency standards, a large modern fridge is much more efficient than a small older unit, so we upgraded to a new model.
Lesson: Build a root cellar for electricity-free food storage. We have a cistern below our kitchen, which we use as a root cellar. The cistern is cool but never freezes, and it has a high level of humidity, which is optimal for storing our garden vegetables. We put up a significant portion of staple crops this way and continue to experiment to find vegetable varieties that keep well.
Well Water and Water Pumps
We supplement water from our 50-foot-deep drilled well with water from a shallower dug well near our main garden. We use a small, solar-powered DC pump to fill up rain barrels. The solar pump also runs a drip irrigation system that we move throughout the gardens as needed.
Lesson: Pump your water in large batches. Pumping water requires a lot of power, and the biggest surge occurs when the pump first clicks on, so filling two water tanks at a time makes sense. Our cistern contains two 30-gallon water tanks that are pressurized by the deep-well pump in our drilled well.
When folks move to an off-grid, rural homestead, they often end up burning a lot of fossil fuels (and spending a lot of money) driving to and from town in an inefficient farm truck. You may want to ride a bicycle, but time, long distances, considerable physical strain and the amount of cargo you’ll need to haul will be limiting factors. Electric cars are becoming more available, but they’re still quite expensive.
Lesson: Go electric on two wheels. We have an electric bicycle with a lithium battery that charges in about three hours when connected to solar power. This marvelous machine allows me to ride the 8 miles to town without having to pedal the entire way. While I can’t haul loads that weigh more than about 50 pounds, I’ve made many trips with a good amount in tow.
Today, off-grid living is no longer a huge ordeal. We’ve had many challenges over our 20 years, but times have changed — technology is better and more affordable, and you can easily find information to master whatever off-grid skills you need. Size your energy systems properly and be mindful of checking your batteries regularly, and you can say goodbye to increasing utility bills and frequent blackouts that accompany extreme weather events. You, too, can enjoy a more secure and sustainable, grid-free lifestyle.
Daily Energy Consumption on the Mather Homestead
Our total daily energy consumption is 5,025 watt-hours, or about 5 kilowatt-hours. Compare this with the average U.S. home’s 30 kilowatt-hours per day. We have enough battery storage capacity to run our household for approximately three days if no sun or wind can power our systems.
Refrigerator: 1,000 watt-hours
Freezer: 1,000 watt-hours
Lights: 500 watt-hours
Washing machine: 1,000 watt-hours (4 loads per week)
Water pump: 250 watt-hours (1,000 watts for 1/4 hr)
Two laptops: 560 watt-hours (20 watts each for 14 hrs)
Satellite Internet dish: 280 watt-hours (20 watts for 14 hrs)
Radio: 105 watt-hours (15 watts for 7 hrs)
Television: 330 watt-hours (110 watts for 3 hrs)
Cam Mather homesteads on 150 wooded acres in Ontario, where he and his wife, Michelle, run a 50-member CSA program and a publishing business, all powered by sun and wind. Visit the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store to order his books Little House Off the Grid and Thriving During Challenging Times, available at a discount until November 31, 2014.