Off-Grid Living | How To | Considerations | Cost Factors | Frugal Economics Of
Is off-grid living really an affordable option? Consider a combination of a working off-grid supplemental system.
The term off-grid sounds appealing and green. For most the reality of moving from grid dependency to totally living off-grid in the same home and lifestyle will only be a dream.
With the advances in batteries, and solar technology the availability of products to live off-grid or less dependent on the grid couldn't be cheaper, better and safer than they were just 10 years ago.
For most who are already living in a typical grid tied home, in order to duplicate the power usage needs to live off-grid still will not be affordable.
With some deep commitment and huge sacrifices away from modern conveniences living off grid can happen on a relative small budget of just a thousand to a few thousand dollars.
In many ways to live frugal off-grid will mean reverting back to the middle 1900s when grid power was first being introduced.
By using modern technology the extremes of living those hard times can somewhat be diminished..
A combination of grid power with an active off-gird system also serving as a backup power supply for the most essential items might make better sense on a limited budget.
Some utilities will even allow you to sell back excess capacity to the power company.
The main issue living totally off-grid in Southern areas will be the heat/humidity and lack of air conditioning.
The power requirements to run a central air system will require an off-grid power plant size that will be well out of the reach for most.
For the ones that can afford a system, it just may not make return on investment (ROI) sense for them.
True living without an electric bill is appealing but to what cost? Then the expense of maintaining an off-grid system after it's paid off is something that's not often considered.
The term off-grid doesn't mean that you give up all uses of electric conveniences.
It just means you will have to figure out how to power those conveniences, how much power they consume and how much you’re willing to spend to do so.
If you were to walk over to your breaker box today and flipped off the main power switch what electric items in your home could you do without or power alternative?
Unless you live in a backwoods cabin with a gas cook stove and wood burning stove for heat, going off grid can get very expensive.
The reality to have a minimal integrated off-grid power plant to run a home you’re looking at spending anywhere from $40,000 for 1500 square feet up to $60,000 for a 3,000 square ft home. Even then you will need to sacrifice or reduce some high watt usage items.
To fully integrate an existing 200 Amp capacity home you’re easily looking at a six digit price tag.
Basically taking out a second mortgage for 15 – 20 years just to pay for an off-grid system.
This doesn't consider the upkeep and battery replacement cost as well as the DC appliances needed.
DC powered appliances can cost two to three times the cost of standard A/C appliances.
Just like computers, the cost of solar and other off-grid components continues to drop as more competition builds. In the next 10 years the concept of living totally off grid with modern conveniences might become more budget neutral.
A more conservative approach might be to begin small by reducing the dependence on grid power while working on more energy efficiency.
This can be accomplished by converting over to non-electric products where you can or finding more energy efficient products.
Having a backup power system or a grid connected off-grid system might be the best solution for most.
Backup power systems are designed to provide just enough power for a few essentials to get through a power outage.
In our unpredictable weather patterns and threats on our grid power systems having some off-grid capabilities does make sense.
Most will run out and purchase a gas power generator for backup power.
The problem with a gas generator is that they take a lot of expensive gas. In fact so much gas that it becomes unsafe to store the amount needed to run even a 5000 watt generator 24/7 for even a week.
Basically 5 gallons of gas for 12 hours of use, 10 gallons per 24 hours, 70 gallons for 7 days.
Gas also has a very short storage period before it becomes problematic in the carburetor in as little as 3 months.
Gas engines that are left idle become unreliable to start when they are really needed.
A solar and wind powered battery bank with inverters can be used as a backup. Dollar for dollar they won’t be able to supply the amount of Amps and Watts that a Generator will.
Batteries will also drain quickly and will need high storage battery capacity. Both solar and wind power are only optimal when the sun shines and the wind blows.
To live totally off-grid takes a high focus on power consumption in watts and amps.
The American appetite for modern electrical conveniences has grown tremendously since the middle 1900s as many American homes were being connected for the first time to the grid.
In those early years most homes could be powered from a 30 Amp 110 volt service. This powered a few lights, a refrigerator, radio and a washing machine.
As Americans opted for modern electric dryers and ranges the average home went to 100 Amp 220 volt service. An electric dryer requires 30 amps and an electric range requires 50 amps.
Most homes built today have 200 Amp service to power the additional items such as air conditioning, which a central unit can require up to a 50 amp service.
To put this all into perspective a 5000 watt generator will only provide about 30 amps or 5KW continuously running at full power.
Unless you have deep pockets, to live totally off-grid as an affordable option one would have to figure out how to revert back to using that 20-30 amp surge capacity once again.
The usage would have to be minimal and balanced with the off-grid power system for a good portion of the day so that the batteries could recharge.
Air conditioning will still be out of reach on this size of system until you starting moving into a more expensive 100 Amp capacity system.
Other appliances will need to be ran off gas such as the cook stove, dryer and hot water heater.
The advances in energy efficient appliances and light bulbs have helped the cause immensely.
The ideal off-grid backup system will be one that is used daily in tandem with a grid power system.
Not only will the system be available in emergencies, the system would be maintained and used along with the families daily activities.
This type of system will only provide a very minimal impact on removing that power consumption of the grid bill. The psychological impact of saving something will be still be satisfying.
Lighting is one of the lowest power consumption items that you will use. If all that you did was add a small solar powered charged system to run one battery the cost of doing so could be under a $1000.
Equipped with a 20 watt LED 12 volt light bulb used in RVs a family could use several of these lights each evening powered off a single 12 volt deep cycle car battery.
A good deep cell marine battery should power up to 200 watts for 3-5 hours before needing recharging during the next day with a solar panel.
This lighting could be a table lamp or floor lamp that is frequently used for reading, as well as wall fixtures in hallways, bedrooms, bathrooms and other rooms of the home. These lights would be used in tandem with other grid lighting as well as provide task lighting during a power outage.
Even 12 volt circuits can short out and cause a fire so wiring should be purchased from a reputable source supplying off-grid home and RV wring equipment.
Low voltage circuits will also need to be fused or ran through a circuit breaker and connected to wall plugs and switches.
Plugs should be converted from a typical AC plug to one for low voltage systems to prevent someone from plugging them into a regular grid AC plug in.
Batteries should be wired and kept outside in a ventilated area as lead acid batteries produce toxic fumes.
If you want to keep the lighting more portable, table and wall lamps with battery compartments might be a good choice. These lights use a sealed motor cycle or ATV battery and can power one LED bulb for a few hours each evening for almost a week before needing recharging.
These lights are made and used in the Amish communities for their primary lighting. The Amish are moving away from oil and gas lamps in favor of the safer and cooler battery powered DC LED lights.
When you add an inverter or other high consumption DC supply, the battery as well as charging capacity will need to increase.
Short term use to run an electric mixer, computer to check e-mail or a small TV to catch up on the evening news from a 800 watt surge inverter will work on this small of a system. However, to be able to run an inverter for several hours at a time will require more battery and charging capacity.
This is where the balance of power consumption and the available budget hits the reality phase.
Increased solar panel charging and battery capacity quickly adds to the expense.
This is also where incorporating non-electric appliances into the daily routine will reduce current power consumption but will also be available for emergency use.
Such items as hand crank mixers are used by the Amish and available to the general public.
Before grid power was ever available hand crank and human power kitchen tools were used in homes for daily food prep.
Gas appliances are a good item to replace electrical appliances with. Their electric counterparts are a big watt user and require mostly 220 volts to operate.
These would necessitate a large and expensive off-grid system. When grid power fails natural and propane gas will probably still be available.
Gas appliances generally cost less to operate. A gas furnace blower can be periodically ran off an inverter, however an electric furnace will require that 50 Amp 220 volt service again placing it out of range of affordability for an off-gird power plant.
Other alternative heating sources still include wood and solar. Increasing insulation and using thermal windows will help keep a home warm.
The other big energy culprit is the refrigerator and a freezer. Even though the new energy efficient appliances only use less than 5 Amps that’s still 500 watts pulling from a battery powered inverter.
That’s equivalent to running 25, 20 watt LED bulbs.
During short term and extended power outages this is where a gas powered generator can come into play.
To live totally off grid on a limited wattage means more canned, dried and cured foods just like they were done before grid power.
Just running a generator on and off for one hour periods during the day can help maintain a freezer, run a well pump to fill the pressure tank and do some of the chores where electrical items are needed.
Basically making 5 gallons of gas last for days instead of 12 hours.
Good emergency planning includes running electrical lines to these areas of the home to power off a generator circuit instead of running extension cords.
It is illegal to allow generator power to back feed into the grid lines, so a separate system should be used or a manual transfer switch installed by a qualified electrician.
A refrigerator is a real dilemma when it comes to off-grid. Gas and 12 volt models are available but they are expensive and are not as large and decorative as their AC counter parts.
In the olden days ice boxes were used before electric refrigerators. The problem using one to live off-grid today is that the ice block industry no longer exist to supply the blocks of ice that would be needed every few days.
At one time ice blocks were actually delivered to the home.
The Amish are taking advantage of newer insulating materials and building ice storage houses to store ice blocks made during the winter months.
They are able to keep an ice box stocked with ice all the way through the summer months as well as use the ice house for cold food storage.
According to the USDA a refrigerator will only keep food safely cold for about four hours if unopened during a power outage.
On the other hand a full freezer will hold the temperature for about 48 hours if full or 24 hours if only half full.
The family will probably need to condense down cold perishable foods into a dorm size refrigerator that will use only 1.5 amps or less or invest in a 12 volt operated ice box used for camping.
Keeping the cool is the next dilemma for off grid living. Some of the solutions might be looking back into the history books on how people coped before A/C.
If you noticed most older homes were built with large covered porches, many of these porches were also screened.
In the heat of the summer families used these porches for living and family rooms and even extended bedrooms during the evenings and nights to escape the heat that built up during the day.
The porches also kept the summer sun from shining directly into windows. Window awnings were also popular to block out the sun’s rays.
Passive cooling by convection was also an important consideration in home building. By opening up and allowing trapped heat to escape from an attic much cooler air would be pulled in from side ventilation.
This is one of the reasons old fashioned cupolas were so popular on homes and barns.
Homes in the deep South were also constructed with a breezeway between the main living side and the kitchen and other heat generating activity spaces.
The homes were constructed so that the Southern prevailing winds would pull through the breezeway and prevent the heat producing areas of the home, such as the kitchen area from radiating into the living side.
In modern times we now have the advantage of energy efficient insulation that provides a barrier between a hot attic and the living quarters.
12 volt fans are also made and used by the Amish as well as air compressor powered fans. Air power is an entirely different topic but you can read more about it in my hubs on air power or Google air power fans and appliances.
Water might not be considered off grid, but without a well pump or gravity fed system running water will become a real issue.
12 volt water well pumps are available, but will cost close to $2000 and will require almost a separate solar system for them to operate. The old fashioned hand pumps are an alternative source.
You will want to have a good hand pump, not some cheap imported one that was built for ornamental use.
Heller Aller hand water pumps have been USA made since the 1800s and are just as dependable as they were made back then.
Many of the Amish communities still use the Heller Aller hand pumps. Heller Aller also makes force pumps in both the pitcher and long handle well pump.
A force pump will pump water up into a holding tank for gravity feed operation that could be used to fill toilets and provide running water to sinks.
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