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

  • The Mathers use diverse renewable energy sources, including several solar panels and a Bergey wind turbine, to power their 150-acre off-grid homestead in eastern Ontario.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • Even through Canada’s long, snowy winters, Cam Mather uses the sun’s energy to have solar hot water and to keep his farm off the grid year-round.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • The Mathers supplement their wind and solar energy with sustainable wood heat. Cam cuts wood from their forests with an electric chainsaw, then splits the wood with an electric log splitter.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • Cam makes the 8-mile trip into town hauling up to 50 pounds on his electric bike, which fully charges in 3 hours when connected to the homestead’s solar power.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • The Mathers rely on root cellar food storage to keep their garden harvests fresh for months without electricity. Here, Cam layers potatoes with sand in buckets before putting them in the root cellar.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • The Mathers run a 50-member community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The couple provides weekly harvests of organic vegetables to their customers through the summer growing season.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather
  • Cam and Michelle Mather grow the majority of their own food, plus enough to support a 50-member CSA program. They store enough vegetables in their root cellar, which is a food-storage method that requires no energy input, to enjoy all through Canada’s long winters.
    Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather

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.

RJRiley
8/24/2018 7:50:50 AM

I like https://www.solar-electric.com/ as a starting point. Currently, there are about 300 watt panels available at about 70 cents per watt which are made in Canada. If you are going off grid, or building a higher power system, you should be looking at either 48 volts or higher, this greatly reduces wire sizes. It is especially important were there greater distances are involved. Grid tie solar systems cost less, but unless you buy one which can function when the grid is down, you will not get any solar power when you need it the most. With higher power systems it is a good idea to use a charge controller called MPPT, they extract more energy throughout the day. I am a retired electrical engineer, and I built my own homestead on 154 acres over thirty years ago.


Rainey01
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.


patrick
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 http://bit.ly/2ytVraj 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.







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