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.