Sunny Skies and Off-Grid Living

It’s not for the faint of heart, but living off grid can be very satisfying.  All you need is the Sun (and the equipment, of course!).  Even with the diffused lighting of a cloudy day, solar panels will produce some energy.

solar panels web small

Having your energy produced by solar panels is environmentally friendly, renewable, sustainable, and by being off-grid, you don’t have the additional monthly “service availability charge” coming in from the electric company.  Besides, you’ll need that $25 per month when you have to replace your battery pack!  Battery replacement varies, but the average batteries will last 3 to 6 years in an off-grid situation.  To be off-grid, you have no electric lines running from your house to your utility company.  We will also touch on grid intertie and grid-interactive systems, but since we live off-grid, that’s the perspective we’ll share for this article.  Now, contrary to what you may have heard, solar is a very cost-effective way to reduce your energy costs and your carbon footprint.  Check out this blog at Earthtimes.org to learn the top 5 myths discouraging homeowners from getting solar panels.

To See the Forest for the Trees

We always knew we wanted to be powered by the sun, even after having enjoyed the pleasure of lanterns for a couple of years, but when we realized that we needed to allow 30,000 square feet of forest clearing (1000’ x 30’) to allow for the power lines (never mind that coal is the main driver for electricity in this state), that did it for us.  We didn’t want to use coal, and we didn’t want a view from our house of a cut-out swath of forest and electric poles and wires.  Destroying all those trees for our electric consumption seemed sad, considering that we moved to the forest because of the trees.  You do, however, have to have a clearing for your panels to receive sunlight, and we deal with this continually, living in the forest.

forest for the treesOur panels have a “window” of about 6 hours of sun per day, which is about as small a window as you would want.  It’s too hard to part with the trees!

It’s a Battery Life

The winter has the largest effect when being off-grid, due to increased cloud cover, shorter days, and colder temperatures influencing the battery pack.  So, the batteries react much the same as the batteries in your car; when the temperatures drop, they have less capacity to hold energy.  Battery storage in a warm spot is helpful.  Just remember, they do produce hydrogen gas when charging, which is explosive, so they need to be safely vented.  It has become a real household occupation to check the voltmeter inside the house to see our battery charge.  It lets us manage our battery bank; you really want to keep your batteries above 50% capacity for their health.  And speaking of health, you have to tend them gently every so often with a dose of distilled water in each of their little cells…Now, we know if we can watch that show, if we should turn off the frig for the evening to preserve power, if we need to use the generator, or if we should just chill out and use our DC lights to read a book. It all depends on us.

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battery bank wired in series

An interesting sidebar about solar in winter due to a chemical process involving how the silicon reacts to temperature, the coldest sunny day of the year will give you the highest voltages coming off your panels.  We have to design the system based on this, because you can damage your charge controller if it hasn’t been sized for this higher winter voltage.

Here in Missouri, you can have many days in a row without sunshine.  So, what do you do?  Some people try a hybrid system of solar with wind energy.  Wind energy is site-specific, and there isn’t that much wind on this eastern side of the state.  We mainly get it in the spring.  It can be a help, but it won’t give you everything you may need to fill in the gaps.  A wind system needs to have a tower where the bottom part of the blade is at a minimum of 30’ above the nearest obstruction, such as buildings or trees.  For us, this would mean having a wind turbine blade’s lowest point starting at 110′, since our trees are easily 80′ tall.  Another option is charging your battery pack with a generator, which is loud, polluting and somewhat expensive (depending on your circumstances and how much you have to use it), if it’s a gas generator.  A diesel generator that can run off of WVO (waste vegetable oil) would be the optimum choice.  Batteries will always need an equalization charge approximately every month, which can be done with a charge controller, but a generator is *almost* a necessity for an off-grid system.

E = Efficiency

The key to off-grid living is to use as little power as necessary year round.  Efficiency everywhere – lighting, appliances and usage – is essential.  When we go to bed, no appliances are on, except for the refrigerator, which cycles periodically.  No chargers are plugged in; all phantom loads are off, due to power strips.  Our normal-size Energy Star refrigerator (with small freezer on top) is our biggest load in the house; it uses an average of 1200 watts per day.  Probably everyone’s biggest energy consumer (besides heating and air conditioning or the Jacuzzi)  hmmm, maybe we’ll do another post about the pleasures of a hillbilly hot tub  is the hot water tank.  Starting out with a propane hot water tank seemed like the best option for us back in 1994, but when the tank broke last year, we had options!  In order to not rely on fossil fuels, we now heat our water with a wood-fired hot water system, soon to have a solar aspect to it for summer use, which we will cover in another blog post, along with photos.

Are you a Candidate for Off-Grid Living?  Compare the Options

Being off-grid makes sense for people who are off-the-beaten-path, Imageor if you already like your privacy and your view and don’t want the trees cut down.  Now if you want to go solar, but have access to or already are grid-tied, then a battery back-up system will give you security when the grid goes down. You can include your essential loads such as a refrigerator, well pump, some lights, and computer on a subpanel that will always be fed through the inverter via grid power or solar power.  Know that most standard grid-intertie inverters are required by law to shut down when there is power outage, so if you want to stay powered when the grid goes down, you will need a battery backup system.  If you aren’t concerned about losing the grid, then pure grid-tie is the least expensive route to go, allowing you to make your energy during the days, then use that energy throughout the month, basically off-setting your electric usage with solar.  In Missouri, we hope to go to a yearly net-metering plan, but right now it’s based on one month.  This means that at this time, we cannot use the excess energy from summertime to offset the darker months of winter.

Ultimately, you can power anything you want with solar, if your pockets are deeper than your desire to be more energy efficient.  It is much more cost-effective – and you’ll greatly reduce your carbon footprint – to become energy efficient, and then use solar to power your lifestyle.

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