Off The Grid Living Part Two: Power

By Matt Valzania

In another post I discussed the basics of how to supply your off the grid home with water, whether it was from the ground with a well or by harvesting rainfall. In this post I am tackling that other essential lifeblood in today’s technological world, electricity. Without it, our cell phones, laptops, and appliances are rendered as useless as their landfill impact.

Off The Grid Power

Image Credit: Malte Schmidt

Many people looking to buy vacant land on LandCentral ask if the power company will service a particular property. Of course in most cases the local power company will provide a hookup to anyone willing to pay for it, however often times the cost for this service becomes quickly prohibitive as a lengthy hookup can easily cost $10,000 or more depending how far you are from the closest serviceable power line. And that is just the setup charge; once hooked up you’ll still get a monthly bill for your power usage. Thankfully your local power company will give you a cost estimate upon your request to help determine how much it will cost to hook up to the power grid factoring in things like installing your home’s power line overhead or underground.

The other option is to create your own electricity which is possible through a few methods but most widely used are wind or solar power generation, or a combination of both. In recent years the solar market has grown with the increase in demand and therefore prices for solar panels have come down quite a bit making it now more affordable than ever. On top of that, state incentives and rebates can add up to big savings when it comes tax time. If you can attach to the power grid, and your solar and/or wind power generation system is efficient enough, you can feed electricity back onto the grid and actually make money from it. That’s a win-win situation in my book.

Let the Sun Shine In

Probably the most common method of off the grid power generation for a home is via solar panels, also known as photovoltaic cells mounted on or near your home. Of course the sunnier the location the better but even on cloudy days solar panels can still reap the rewards of the suns UV rays. If you look at an area like Coconino County, Arizona that has on average almost 270 days of predominant sunshine, you can see that solar power generation is a great way to supply your home.

Image Credit: inhabitat

A solar power system requires a few components for it to be usable within your home. Of course the main component is the solar cell array. This arrangement is most efficient when it has a clear southern exposure. When designing your home, keep things like this in mind and you’ll be able to plan a roof design that will allow most, if not all, of your home’s roof to be covered in solar panels giving you strong power generation all day long. A few companies are even making roofing tiles that act as both your home’s roofing and as solar panels. There are many different types of panels, of which are explained in detail on the Energy Informative blog. If you prefer not to mount them on your home, they can easily be installed on mounts near your home giving you the opportunity to install them at the perfect angle to gain maximum benefit from the sun along with not being limited to the square footage of your roof.

For a quick and fairly comprehensive estimate of how well solar will work for you, check out this Solar Estimator. For accurate results, have your power bill in hand to lookup your current power usage. Keep in mind that to fully live off the grid, certain changes in lifestyle will become essential so your off the grid power consumption will most likely come down from what it is currently.

Win With Wind

Image Credit: Toby Kellner

Another great source of power generation is via a wind turbine. These scaled down versions of the large ones being constructed all over the country are becoming more efficient and more viable as an option for off the grid power. In most cases it is cost prohibitive to setup a wind turbine large enough to power your home by itself so unless your property is in an ideal location for consistent wind power, you may still need a solar panel setup to work in conjunction with the turbine. The advantage of utilizing both systems is that many find that they generate power at different times in the day; for example the solar panels collect during the day helping to minimize battery level drop while the wind turbine generates overnight bringing your batteries back up to full charge. To see if your area is suitable for wind power, the U.S. Department of Energy has an up to date average wind speed map that provides general wind speed info.

One quick way to determine if your area is suitable for wind power generation is to see what’s going on around your home. If you happen to be in an area that power companies are erecting large turbines like in Elko, Nevada, then more than likely you will be able to reap the benefits of wind as well. Once you’ve decided to move forward with wind power, check out this great guide from the U.S. Department of Energy on small wind electric systems for more detailed information on setting up your home for wind power.

So I’ve Made the Power, Now What?

The solar panels and wind turbines get wired into a system of controllers, batteries and inverters. If you plan on solely using solar and/or wind power generation, instead of being tied to the local power grid, then a robust bank of batteries will be necessary. These batteries are what your home’s outlets will pull from when used. Battery technology is ever changing and continually getting better and more efficient. Today some of the best batteries for use in a residential solar setup are AGM batteries, or absorbed glass mat batteries. They provide great longevity, require no maintenance, and can be used indoors with no venting needed. Of course these are more expensive than your typical deep cycle lead-acid batteries but for your power storage, you’ll want batteries you can count on.

Image Credit: Leonics

Up to this point the power that’s being generated is DC, or direct current. DC is the same kind of electricity you’ll find in your car or any other battery powered device. Unfortunately homes and the things you plug into them are setup for AC, or alternating current. To make this switch an inverter takes the DC power from the batteries, switches it over to AC and feeds all of your home’s outlets and appliances. Some things like pumps in your plumbing system or even lighting can run off DC (if they’re designed as such) and its actually recommended you do so as they will draw less power running on DC rather than running the electricity through the inverter and then to the load.

Living Comfortably

Even if you have an efficient power generation system, things like conventional heating and air conditioning pose huge draws on your power stores. That’s where proper home design comes into play. Utilizing a passive solar design will allow your home to heat and cool itself with little assistance needed from an HVAC system, aside from maybe a woodstove for those extra cold nights. Passive solar home designs utilize proper home orientation on your property maximizing air flow through your home with cross ventilating windows, building in large overhangs to block the high summer sun from entering while letting the low winter sun shine through warming the interior and many more integrated design features. Below is an image depicting some of these passive solar principles.

Image Credit: Tankonyvtar has great information on passive solar home design worth a read if you plan on off the grid living or even if you would just like to cut down on your energy consumption in your next “on the grid” home.

It’s a Lifestyle

As mentioned in my Living Off the Grid – Water article, living off the grid can be extremely rewarding. You’ll be reminded just how rewarding every month when you would have normally received that dreadful power bill. Of course being able to do this requires diligence in power conservation along with implementing as many power efficiencies as possible. Installing compact florescent or LED light bulbs, energy efficient appliances and proper home design can all lead to minimizing your energy consumption which in turn allows you to minimize the size of the power generation system you will need, saving you up-front costs when setting up your system.

So You Have Water and Power, What Else Is There?

When planning an off the grid home, water and power are essential systems within the home to carry on daily life in this modern world however there is one last system that needs to be examined. Check out my post on Living Off the Grid – Waste for information on septic systems and alternative waste management solutions for your off the grid home.

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