Build Better Energy Habits

Before you go off the grid, unplug your energy-wasting ways and establish sustainable habits that’ll help you live well through even the toughest conditions.

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by Hoss Boyd
Switching to a solar electric system requires an energy-conscious mindset.

My wife and I enjoy a well-built home on the edge of town, with a large yard and a lot of trees. Our electricity comes from a pole in the street, our water from the city water utility, and our natural gas from the natural gas supply company. We live in South Texas, the energy center of the world, so what’s there to worry about? That’s what a lot of folks thought until a devastating winter storm hit Texas in February 2021. Many people were left without water, power, or gas. Those with wells had no electricity to run their pumps, and if you had a generator, you couldn’t get fuel. Temperatures inside even the best-built homes were dangerously low. Fortunately, our electricity and gas stayed on. Even if they hadn’t, though, we were prepared for the worst. Had we lost our power and gas, we might’ve been uncomfortable, but we would’ve made it through thanks to our proactive preparation and my self-sufficient skill set.

My know-how to get through that type of situation comes from a lifetime of surviving in harsh and difficult environments. I grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas, where my family was almost totally self-sustaining. Later in life, I lived for three years in Fairbanks, Alaska, where living off the grid was a normal lifestyle and basic survival techniques were a practiced necessity. So, although my wife and I are currently on the grid, I’m familiar with the ins and outs of off-grid energy and what it takes to live a comfortable lifestyle when you’re not connected to mainstream utilities.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to ensure your success living off the grid is to develop an energy-conscious mindset. My professional expertise is in solar energy and solar-energy storage, so I’ll share some points to consider if you plan to supplement your off-grid lifestyle with solar electricity or if you want to make your on-grid home and other buildings more energy-efficient.

When it comes to basic human needs, there are four essentials: shelter, water, food, and energy — in that order. Of those items, shelter and how you use your energy are the most relevant to off-grid solar electric systems, so I’ll focus on those.

a wooden shed with solar panels on the roof

Secure Your Shelter

Shelter was the top priority for native Alaskans, and they built warm and effective structures out of snow and ice, as well as other natural materials, including driftwood and whalebone. As settlers arrived in the area, they built their homes out of anything they could find. Initially, their shelter would’ve been temporary, such as an old Army tent with a woodstove, followed by a more permanent shelter, such as a log cabin. The general rule was to use whatever was available. While I was there, I saw some of the creative ways people make their shelters nowadays. One of the most unique was a structure built from shipping pallets with old license plates covering the outside walls and the roof.

Before any type of electricity was available, Alaskans relied heavily on fires for heat and cooking and lanterns or candles for light. Now, off-grid solar electricity is used some in Alaska, but with up to six months without sunlight, it’s more common for people to have generators for occasional electrical power as opposed to photovoltaic (PV) systems, or a combination of the two.

What I took with me from my Alaskan experience was a better understanding of how to live off the grid and still live well. At one time here in South Texas, where I live now, a home built to Alaskan standards would’ve been considered overkill. That was when energy was cheap and abundant. Now, the special energy-saving features built into Alaskan homes are making more sense for everyone, whether they live on or off the grid.

man installing insulation in to the roof of a building

Good insulation and proper sealing are the most effective methods for making a building more energy-efficient. And although adding insulation to an attic and sealing leaks around windows are both important, methods for securing your home can extend beyond those techniques. For example, many Alaskan homes have an enclosed porch-like structure that acts as insulation between the home and the outdoors. In our home, we added a well-insulated mudroom between our garage and kitchen that serves this same purpose.

If you have the benefit of designing your home, design it with energy-saving features built into it. You can also add features that make your home more PV-friendly. For example, you can plan a south-facing roof at the right angle for optimal solar generation. The slope should have an angle equal to your latitude. Our latitude is a little over 29 degrees, so a 29-degree roof slope would give us the optimal angle for year-round solar production. It’s also a good idea to keep your roof unshaded by fireplace chimneys, roof vents, trees, nearby structures, and other obstructions.

Plenty of construction manuals and online resources exist to guide you through every aspect of energy-conscious home design and construction. Investing in making your home more energy-efficient can be expensive upfront, but it’ll save you money down the road.

an array of solar inverters on a wooden wall

Reduce Your Energy Consumption

In my industry, I always advise customers to lower their energy needs before they install a solar electric system. You can do this in various ways, including by replacing incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, raising air conditioner temperatures, using ceiling fans or open windows, lowering the heat in winter, adding insulation to your attic, and sealing drafty openings throughout your home. In addition, start paying more attention to how you “spend” your energy. In our home, we usually don’t notice the energy-saving habits we’ve developed until our grandkids come to visit us. Then, we see the effects of lights being left on when no one is in a room and of people taking long showers. We’ve also noticed that families don’t huddle around a heat stove in the family room anymore. (We called it the “big room” on the farm.) Now, everyone goes their separate ways, all the while using more electricity.

Thermostat settings that are too high or too low are also a big waste of energy. To avoid this, try gradually acclimating yourself to higher thermostat settings during warm weather and lower thermostat settings during cold weather, and keep raising or lowering the thermostat a little more as you become accustomed to the temperatures. Staying active outdoors during warm weather will also help you adapt to higher temperatures. In wintertime, add layers of clothing to stay comfortable instead of bumping up the heat. You’ll notice the savings on your next bill.

three sets of solar panels next to a red tractor

Before you go off-grid, you’ll also need to drastically reduce your electricity-consuming devices and equipment. The first and primary rule for off-grid electricity is that you must size your energy resources for the lifestyle you want, and then scale back to fit your budget. Off-grid systems can be expensive, so you’ll need to decide which electricity-using appliances and devices you can do without. Once you’ve evaluated your energy needs, budget when and to what extent you’ll use those chosen items from one day to the next. Living off the grid doesn’t have to be a minimalist lifestyle like the kind I lived on the farm, but some of the same principles hold true, such as doing away with a clothes dryer and planning your washdays around the weather. (Because we dried our clothes outside, we never washed clothing on rainy days.)

white bedding drying on a clothesline

After going through the efforts of minimizing your energy consumption, you can have a less expensive solar PV system installed that can handle much of the balance. In the end, living off the grid requires lifestyle changes, but you can find creative ways to live in comfort. The grander you want to live, the more you’ll need to spend on your energy package or come up with lower-cost alternatives. Some power-using activities are discretionary, such as washing clothes, which can be timed for a sunny day. Lighting is also discretionary; encourage people to gather in the same room instead of dispersing, and be mindful of electricity-consuming activities, such as watching TV. Air conditioning can be simplified to a flow-through ventilation system or ceiling fans. Our cooling system on the farm was a shade tree and open windows, and some homes have sleeping porches for hot summer evenings.

window partially open outward

Other uses of energy are less discretionary, such as food refrigeration. For essential energy use, you’ll need to know how much draw will be on your batteries each day and plan your system accordingly. Plus, you can utilize alternatives when possible, such as canning or dehydrating your food.

Once you’ve made your energy budget, consult a solar energy or energy storage professional to help you make design decisions for your home and off-grid energy package. What you ultimately spend on an off-grid system will depend on economic alternatives. If you can’t afford a fully off-grid PV system now, consider going grid-tied for the time being — if that’s an option — or go with a more modest off-grid system. You can always add more solar panels and batteries as you see fit.

person putting a light bulb in to a black hanging fixture

Making the decision to switch to off-grid energy involves a lot more than what can be covered in this one article, but the single most important point isn’t how to build an efficient off-grid energy system — it’s how to live well with an off-grid energy system. If you want to learn more about living well off the grid, join the discussion on our blog at TeraVolt Energy. Here’s wishing everyone the sunniest and happiest of off-grid experiences!

Hoss Boyd is the president and CEO of TeraVolt Energy, a Texas-based solar energy and energy storage development company that executes commercial projects throughout the state, and a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. This article was initially edited by Kerena Reese, project team lead at TeraVolt Energy and graduate of Texas A&M’s department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.