Archive for September 2010

Living Off-Grid (part 2)

September 7, 2010

Living off-grid is an awesome way to reduce your impact on the environment – if somewhat “challenging” (to put it mildly!). Our property is located in “county islands” in the Coconino National Forest, and there are no services at all – no powerlines, no water, no phone, and no road maintenance!

First, a primer on renewable energy (RE) systems. Renewable energy is any energy that is derived from resources that aren’t going to run out or regenerate themselves relatively quickly. Coal and oil are non-renewable resources: once it’s gone, it’s gone. Renewable energy sources includes solar, wind, hydro-power, and geothermal. In Arizona, solar is the most popular, with our 300+ days a year of sunshine. In some areas (like my place), wind power is also feasible, but generally, Arizona is not the best wind state.

For a complete RE system, you need a way to generate the electricity (in our case, solar or photovoltaic (PV) panels which collect the sun’s energy), a battery bank (special deep-cycle batteries are required) for storage of the electricity, a charge controller to protect your batteries from overcharging, and (unless you run all DC appliances) an inverter, which turns the DC electricity stored in the batteries to AC for use by standard household appliances. The solar challenge is that on cloudy or rainy days, you don’t get much energy. So that’s what the batteries are for – storage – and the bigger your battery bank, the better. Other components may include a backup generator for when you need extra power, or a Wind Generator for creating energy from the wind on those windy days. There are also ways to feed excess power back into the utility grid but this is something I don’t have much experience with, as we don’t have powerlines at all at our home.

Our home had four 80-watt solar panels, four deep-cycle “L16” batteries, and an aging inverter. When we moved into our solar-powered home on Christmas Day, it was snowing, which meant there wasn’t much sun. We knew that in order to live this lifestyle, we would have to learn to conserve energy – a lot of it. The first things we did were to install compact fluorescent lightbulbs in all rooms, and to put all our electronic equipment on power strips. I’ve been telling people for years to put all computer & entertainment equipment on power strips to save energy! I didn’t realize until moving into a home where I produce all my own power just how important that advice was. We kept gadgets with digital clocks unplugged except when we needed them. “Are you done with the lights in that room?” was the most often asked question in our house.

We had to run the backup generator a lot those first few months. Gradually we realized that even when it was sunny, our battery bank was not getting a full charge. We were “testing” the system to find out just what we could do with it. It turned out that making coffee, being on the computer, running a load of laundry, and having a couple of lamps on, all at the same time, just didn’t work. We felt like we were really spoiled when we could do all that! We lost power due to overloading the system countless times.

That’s when we realized the batteries were very old and not functioning to capacity. Out came the Visa card, and in went eight new deep-cycle (golf-cart type, which are very popular due to their relative low cost) batteries. About the same time, we also purchased two new 130-watt solar panels, which would allow us to take better advantage of the sun’s energy.

Several months later, I was browsing on Craig’s List and found a fellow who was connecting his house to the grid and decided to get rid of his solar equipment. It turned out that his solar panels were the same as the ones we had bought, and the price was right. So up went three more panels.

We had been in the house almost a year when the inverter blew out over Thanksgiving. Four days without any electricity! We only had oil lamps and candles for light, and no other “luxuries.” For the most part, we went to bed when it got dark, and got up only after the sun came up. We started to think about what it was like in the “old days” before electricity was wide-spread. As soon as the local solar supply store opened up after the long holiday weekend, out came Visa card and in went a new inverter.

Currently, our home is powered by five 130-watt solar panels, 8 deep-cycle batteries, and a 2000 watt inverter. Our system is still a little small for what we do with it (we have an AC electric refrigerator – most off-gridders go for a propane or DC fridge). We have to run the backup generator to vacuum or run the clothes dryer, but we hope to add a small wind turbine to our system within a couple of years to boost the system.

We also have a “mini-system” set up for pumping water. Two of the original solar panels, one of the original batteries, and a small inverter are dedicated to the water pump. Did I mention we haul our own water? There are a lot of stories associated with that too, so next time I’ll write about water challenges.

Living Off-Grid (part 1)

September 4, 2010

With everyone jumping on the eco-bandwagon these days, people ask me why I’m qualified to be a local Green Irene Eco-Consultant and an expert in this field. I tell them that living lightly on Earth is not just a job or business for me. Living sustainably is truly my passion, and my life.

I majored in Environmental Studies in college, and have worked for several environmental companies – most recently Southwest Windpower, a major manufacturer of small wind turbines (residential sized and smaller). The home I bought 3 years ago just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, is entirely off-grid (solar power). My family (consisting of my husband, 3 dogs, 3 cats, and me) lives by the sun and hope to soon add a wind generator to supplement our system during the winter when the days are shorter. We cook outside most of the time, using our solar oven whenever possible.

This is the solar oven we use to cook on in the summer.

Buying a Solar Home

Life in Flagstaff, AZ isn’t easy. Wages are low, jobs are scarce, and products and services (particularly housing) are overpriced. When my husband and I moved to Flagstaff four years ago, we felt lucky to find an apartment complex that would accept us with our two cats and one large dog. After a year of being badly cramped and crowded, our dog, Houdini, couldn’t take it any more… he is the one who convinced us to look for a house. An actual house. With a yard.

The house search was challenging. We looked at a dozen homes, and the only ones even remotely close to what we could afford were complete dumps. One night I was online doing yet another home search and by chance I checked the “other area” box instead of just in-Flagstaff areas. We were excited to see that the one home that came up that we hadn’t already seen, was off-grid. No power lines, all solar power, more than an acre of land. I immediately called up our realtor and asked her to get us an appointment to see this house.

It was perfect for us – with my education in Environmental Studies, I had always wanted to have solar power. This place had it already, and remarkably, was within our price range. There was even a kennel for Houdini and a spare room for the office! It was very clean with new white carpet in the living room and bedrooms. There were neighbors, but not so close everyone knows everyone else’s business. These private properties were completely surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, very secluded and quiet, yet only 5 miles to the grocery store and gas station. It wasn’t that large, and it was a manufactured home, but we decided that was okay. The power system was old and outdated, with only four 80-watt solar panels, four deep cycle batteries, and an old inverter. We had no clue what we were getting ourselves into, but the dream of living off-grid convinced us we could handle anything.

Just when we were getting ready to make an offer on the house, the seller dropped the price by $30,000, making it a more comfortable buy for us. We made our offer a bit lower than originally planned, and were thrilled when we were told that the seller had accepted.

Closing was difficult as the seller was out of state and traveling. Getting the paperwork back and forth was a nightmare. We finally got to move in on Christmas Day, 2006. This was also the day it started snowing. It snowed. And snowed. And snowed….. Our first taste of living a secluded life on an unmaintained, 4-wheel drive Forest Service Road.

Road

There's a road here somewhere!

Keeping that new white carpet clean and white while we moved in … well, that was another challenge. What were they thinking when they put in WHITE carpet? We actually began to wonder why we started our house search so late in the year, but realized we would not have gotten the deal we got if we had started in the spring or summer. We survived our first challenge – the road – next came learning how to live off-grid! Stay tuned to learn how two folks relatively new to renewable energy survived our first year in our home!

(Part 2 coming soon)