When my wife and I moved to Montana, we found a comfortable home on several acres with a view of the mountains. There was only one hitch — the house was off the grid. Everyone in the subdivision generated their own electricity, including the bed and breakfast nearby.
That doesn’t mean it was primitive. The house had several different ways to produce electricity through alternative energy with the use of solar panels, a wind energy turbine, a battery bank and inverter, and a generator. It had a full range of amenities, including a washer and dryer, refrigerator, stove, satellite TV, propane furnace, heat pump, hot water, and even a dishwasher.
Since I’d operated a cogeneration power plant before coming to Montana, I wasn’t too concerned about generating my own electric power, so we bought the house.
In this article, I’ll walk you through what you need to know if you’re contemplating living in an off-the-grid house that generates its own electricity.
Getting Started Living Off the Grid
Making the transition to generating your own electricity can be challenging at first. But with some preparation and knowledge, it can also be a rewarding experience that provides cost-effective energy independence.
- Get a complete home renewable energy system walkthrough from the previous homeowner or builder. Understand how solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, inverters, and generators work together to produce a consistent electricity supply.
- Learn how to monitor power levels and operate the generator if needed. Know how to start, stop, and refuel the generator.
- Ask about any maintenance needed on the power system, request maintenance history records, and ask for previous maintenance costs.
- Have spare fuses, light bulbs, propane, gasoline, and other supplies to be replaced quickly.
- Be prepared for power outages. Have flashlights, battery-operated lamps, warm blankets, and ways to prepare food without electricity.
- Adjust your energy usage habits to be energy-saving — turn off lights when leaving a room, moderate thermostat temperature, and use power sparingly during low sunlight or low wind days.
With the proper preparations, moving into an off-grid home can be a reasonably smooth transition. Understanding the ins and outs of your unique energy systems is vital.
Life Off the Grid
The previous owner of my off-the-grid house showed me the critical facilities and gave me the necessary guidance on how to operate them. When we moved in, I made sure CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) were installed in every light socket, the thermostat was programmed to automatically lower the temperature at night, and the lights were turned off when anyone left a room. I thought I had everything under control.
On our third night in the house, we went to bed as usual to the faint sound of wind outside — a sound I was already beginning to enjoy because it generated most of our power. In the middle of the night, I awoke to hear and see nothing — no hum of the refrigerator, no furnace fan, and no digital clock display. We had no power generation.
I got up and went outside to check the power equipment. The wind energy had died during the night, and the small amount of power usage had drained the batteries. I started the gasoline generator, which began providing electrical energy to the house and recharging the batteries.
I had just learned the first lesson of wind turbines and solar power: no matter where you are, the sun will always set, and the wind will stop blowing.
Coping With Intermittent Power
Relying on solar energy and wind power means dealing with natural variability in energy production. But with planning and adaptability, an off-grid home can run smoothly. These tips can help you avoid the no-power situation I ended up in:
- Monitor battery levels regularly. Don’t let them drain completely, which can damage them.
- Know how long batteries can power critical loads like lights and refrigerators. Upgrade if more energy storage is needed.
- Run high-power appliances like dishwashers and electric heaters when wind or sunlight are providing sufficient energy. Avoid running them when power is low.
- Set up battery-powered LED lights and phone/laptop chargers to use during outages.
- Maintain a supply of propane, gasoline, or diesel to run backup generators when needed.
- Consider adding more solar panels or wind power if outages are frequent.
- Develop a mindset of conserving power and being energy-efficient. Turn off lights, moderate temperature, and unplug devices when not in use.
With careful monitoring and adaptability, intermittent solar energy and wind power generation can work well for an off-grid lifestyle. But backups like generators are vital for electricity generation during low-power events.
Expanding Your Off-Grid System
If your off-grid power system needs more capacity, there are ways to expand it:
- Add more solar panels, either fixed or on trackers to follow the sun. More solar panels will generate more charging current and more solar energy.
- Capitalize on wind energy by installing a larger wind turbine suited to your average wind speeds. Choose quality brands that are rugged and reliable for your wind farm.
- Upgrade to a larger battery bank to store more electricity. Lead-acid batteries require more maintenance than lithium ones but are less costly.
- Get a larger generator that can run longer on a tank of fuel. Consider dual-fuel generators that can use propane or natural gas.
- If solar and wind are still insufficient, add a small-scale hydropower system if you have a flowing water source on your property with a consistent flow.
- For a significant capacity boost, consider subscribing to a community solar or wind project if there is one in your area.
With careful planning and staged upgrades over time, you can expand an off-grid power system to meet your household’s electricity needs. The key is balancing clean energy generation sources and battery storage.
Alternative Energy Cost
Since then, I’ve learned the second lesson of renewable energy: While the energy may be free, it still costs more than electricity from a utility company. This may not be obvious, so let me explain. The following are the approximate prices for the equipment we have now, materials only – installation is extra:
|Wind generator w/50 ft tower
|Batteries (1 day reserve)
If you assume that we receive eight hours of sun and eight hours of wind per day (a generous assumption), we would produce 487 kW-hours of electric energy per month from renewable sources. This is almost half the 920 kW-hours per month that was used by the average American home in 2006.
Assuming the equipment has a 20-year lifespan, it will produce 116,880 kW-hours of energy during that time, and my prorated cost for the equipment will be $0.23 per kW-hour. That’s more than twice the average cost of the same amount of energy from the local utility company.
On days when there’s not enough renewable energy, we recharge the batteries using a gasoline generator, which produces approximately 3.5 kW-hours of electric power for each gallon of fuel burned. This translates to an efficiency of approximately 10%, with a fuel cost of about $1.00 per kW-hour given the current price for gasoline in 2008. Compare this to a coal-fired power plant that has an energy efficiency near 40%.
That means that the carbon footprint of my generator is more than three times as large as a coal-fired power plant for the same amount of electric energy produced. If my generator burned propane, its carbon footprint would be slightly smaller because the proportion of carbon in the fuel is smaller. If it burned diesel, the footprint would probably be smaller still, because the efficiency of a diesel generator can approach that of a utility power plant.
Related: Can Solar Generators Power A House?
So, Is Living Off-Grid Right For You?
Living off the grid provides freedom from reliance on utilities, reduces your carbon footprint, gives you control over your own electricity supply, and reduces your electricity bills. But it requires technical knowledge and lifestyle adjustments. Before taking the leap, consider your DIY ability to maintain the system, energy needs and usage, costs, and whether your lifestyle can adapt to intermittent power availability. With the proper prep and system, living off-grid can be deeply rewarding. But weighing the pros and cons is essential based on your own situation.
FAQs About Living Off the Grid
What are the main advantages of living off the grid?
The main advantages are energy independence, reduced electricity bills, sustainability, and resilience in outages. An off-grid home relies on its own power generation without being tied to the electric grid.
What appliances can you run in an off-grid home?
Standard appliances like refrigerators, stoves, washers, TVs, computers, and lights can run off the grid. The system just needs to be adequately sized to handle the electric loads. High-power appliances may need to be used only when renewable energy is available.
Is living off the grid cheaper than being on the grid?
Living off the grid eliminates energy bills, making it cheaper for the homeowner over time. However, the upfront cost of solar panels, batteries, and other needed equipment is high. And generators as backups use fuel. Overall costs depend on many factors.
Can an off-grid home still have internet access?
Yes, off-grid homes can use satellite internet services. Some rural internet providers also offer wireless internet that works off the grid. Cellular data plans on phones or routers provide internet access.
How much knowledge and maintenance is required for an off-grid power system?
It requires learning your system’s basics and regular maintenance like checking batteries and cleaning solar panels. However, once set up correctly, systems can run largely automatically. Many homeowners handle it themselves, but professionals can assist if you desire.