Most of us in most places hardly ever give a moment’s thought to electricity. At least not most of the time. We don’t wonder how many pounds of coal has to be fed into the glowing maw of a distant power plant to bake a pizza in an electric oven, or how many grams of enriched uranium has to decay radioactively each year in order to keep poultry and pomegranates cold and fresh in a deluxe refrigerator. Why should we? It’s not like anyone is going to give up pizza night or run to unplug the refrigerator upon learning the answers. Electricity is a fact of life. It flows through the overhead lines like water rushing down a streambed. Occasional blackouts notwithstanding, there’s no end to it; no matter how much you use, there is always more to be had. All you have to do is pay the bill each month and the magic juice keeps on flowing, steadily and copiously.
Contrast this with someone who, like me, lives a comfortable distance from the nearest power line and therefore does not participate directly in the culture of coal and U-235. For us, electricity is more a precious elixir than a common commodity; a wondrous energy that has to be teased each day from glowing sunbeams and playful breezes. The price of electricity in dollars is meaningless to us. It’s the cost in watts that matters, since the watt is the basic unit of currency in the daily economics of energy production, allocation and conservation.
Am I making off-grid living seem austere and onerous, like banishment to a time between the Dark Ages and the Industrial Revolution, where life is toil, all activity ceases at sunset, and wastefulness is a mortal sin? I don’t mean to; off-grid living is nothing of the sort. But it does require a little thought to keep everything running smoothly.
Basically, there are two types of loads (AKA electricity-sucking devices) in any house: those that can be unplugged without dire consequences, and those that can’t. Examples of the latter include heating system pumps and fans, well pumps, and refrigerators and freezers. The combined wattage consumed by these things sets a rock-bottom lower limit on the size of your solar and wind system.
Then there are the extras—all the goodies that make life comfortable, and leisure a truly leisurely experience: TVs and stereos, dishwashers, clothes washers, electric lights…you get the picture. These are all things you can do without in a real pinch; you can always read a book by lantern light in dirty clothes after you’ve hand-washed the dishes, for instance. You shouldn’t have to, however, unless your wind turbine is iced over, your solar array has been inoperative since the commencement of a 5-day blizzard, and your backup generator is in the shop. But really, if your luck is running that thin, a paucity of stored watts is probably the least of your worries.
As an enterprising off-grid homesteader, then, you have two jobs: first, you must be a successful watt farmer, daily reaping a crop of kilowatt hours from your solar array and wind turbine. But you are also a vigilant watt banker, saving your precious kilowatt hours within a hard-working bank of batteries, while judiciously ferrying needed watts to worthy purposes.
Fortunately, both jobs are really quite simple, once you get the hang of it. The farming part almost never requires human intervention, and the banking part is far easier than you’d think. It’s simply a matter of being in sync with your system.
Let me give you a real-life example. LaVonne and I live in a 1,600-square-foot log home above a basement and heated garage. Besides the solar and wind components and hydronic heating equipment, our compulsory loads include a ravenous 240-volt well pump; a small freezer; a not-so-small Kenmore refrigerator; and a couple of clocks and a satellite cable box that we could unplug but never do. And on most days, rain or shine, there are a pair of computers and printers running, since they’re responsible for putting food on our table. Additionally, we have a 26-inch flat-screen LCD TV, DVD player, VCR, and a whole-house stereo system; an elliptical trainer; a clothes iron and a pair of sewing machines; a hair dryer; a dishwasher; a clothes washer and propane-fired clothes dryer; and a toaster, microwave and coffee maker. And, as all self-reliant mountain dwellers, a multitude of power tools.
Sounds positively normal, doesn’t it?
The difference is, our solar array and wind turbine only provide us with 5 to 6 kilowatt hours per day, averaged out over the year. This is less than half of the average power consumption for an American home the size of ours, yet on 19 days out of 20 we produce more power than we consume. How do we do it? It’s not so much one or two big adjustments, as it is the sum of dozens of small ones. For starters, all our light bulbs are compact fluorescents that use one-fifth the power of standard bulbs. That alone saves us at least one kWh per day. Also, the computers, TV, and video and stereo equipment are on power strips that are religiously turned off after use to avoid unneeded power consumption. We don’t illuminate unoccupied rooms, or waste a single drop of water. LaVonne never washes clothes on cloudy days, and wouldn’t think of using the microwave to defrost a turkey, though she does employ it to heat a cup of tea every morning, rain or shine. And when we decided to add an electric refrigerator to our harem of appliances, we bought the most efficient off-the-shelf model available, as determined by the EnergyStar.gov Web site.
The list goes on; most of our conservation techniques have become such habit we’re not even aware of them anymore. Conserving energy has simply become a way of life that seldom requires conscious effort. And that makes off-the-grid living every bit as easy as being tethered to the electrical grid—most of the time, anyway. Of course, when dark clouds blanket the sky for days at a time and the wind turbine sits idle in the heavy, placid air, we start to curtail our electrical consumption. Sometimes we even fire up the backup generator for an hour or two, just so the batteries don’t feel neglected.
Is it worth the trouble to live off the grid? Well, on the plus side, there’s not a single power pole on our property. We haven’t written a check to the power company or experienced a power blackout since we ventured off the grid in early 1999. And since that time we’ve offset the burning of over 50,000 pounds of coal in our behalf.
Yeah; it’s worth it.
Rex Ewing is the author of several books, including Got Sun? Go Solar, Power With Nature, and Crafting Log Homes Solar Style.