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  1. #1

    Living off-the-grid primer

    In my intro thread JUSTIFIED asked about sharing my experience in moving off grid. It's kind of hard to distill it all down into a concise post because there are so many variables to consider.

    Thinking about this, I think the place to start is asking yourself "Why?". There are many reasons folks live off grid. Some because they pick a property that grid power isn't an option. Some want to eliminate utility costs. Some don't trust the grid for being a stable source. Some want a simpler life. And of course, there are combinations of all of those.

    I wanted to live as far away from people as I could. That was one of my considerations in the property I chose. Electric power is too far away to be an economic option and with public land between me and it, there are constraints in the logistics of running the line. The other reason was economic. Utility prices, along with most everything else, only increase with time. I know I want electricity for the rest of my life, so buying it at a set price makes financial sense.

    One difficulty I see people face is looking to live an on grid lifestyle off grid. It is possible and I know people that do. That went against my financial goals and the truth is, the grid is the cheapest way to live an on grid lifestyle. It's not even close. The way I priced my system was to take what I was paying in utilities in the city per month and multiply over 20 years. I chose 20 years because that is the longest one can design a system for before having to replace major parts because they've deteriorated to a point they need to be changed. My number was $48k. ($200/mo*12*20). I didn't go out and just spend the money. Which was both right and wrong.

    I put together my system piece meal. That is both good and bad. It is good because it gave me a chance to really get my hands on this stuff and figure out what it is I really needed/wanted. It is bad because there was waste with trial by error. I've been able to recoup some of that waste. Some of it was avoidable and some of it isn't.

    The biggest change from an on grid lifestyle to off grid lifestyle is a change in thinking. On grid, you just plug things in. Off grid it is important to use the best source to produce the same result. So instead of taking a current utility bill or usage to figure out what it takes to be off grid, a better route is to figure out what runs on various sources of energy and to go from there. For example, refrigeration is best done with electricity. I've tried various ways and electricity is the best. Not only electricity, but AC electricity. There are DC units, but it works out to be cheaper to make the electricity than purchase DC appliances. Heat on the other hand is best done with fire. Be it wood, propane, pellets, etc. Fire makes heat and does it more efficiently than any other source. Because grid electricity is so cheap, modern gird homes use it for everything. Whereas an off grid home needs to concern itself more with choosing the right tool for the job.

    One of the best gains off grid are the use of time as a resource. Modern lifestyle is very much driven around instant gratification. Take a typical well setup on grid. The well pump not only pumps the water, but pressurizes the system. It needs to move mass quantities of water quickly. This takes a large energy source. A good off grid well option is to have a DC pump that moves the water slowly during the course of the day out of the ground and to a cistern. If the cistern can be placed high enough to give pressure to the house, that's ideal, but if not a small DC pump can so the work. It takes longer to fill, but with a large cistern there is no perceivable difference. The end goal of running water is met either way.

    One other mistake was building an on grid style house in an off grid situation. It's a continuous issue and to the point I'm looking to rebuild. My house is typical wood frame construction like you see all over. I've come to find out that style of housing is only efficient when plugged in to the grid. There is a very good reason the Mexicans built houses with adobe. There are old ways, like adobe, or modern ways like ICF. Both achieve the same goal of making a sustainable living area that is inherently efficient in the environment instead of building something and then trying to make it work in the environment.

    That train of thought is how I've directed things over the past few years. Looking back to the early 1900's and earlier to when electricity did not exist. The way people lived then was very efficient with their environment. They got the most out of the land they had with the technology available. In some cases the old way is still the best way, but I really like indoor plumbing, so the old way isn't always best. The track I've taken is to not try and replace the old ways with modern technology, but rather to improve on those ways. Still build the chicken coop the way grandad had, but use the DeWalt power tools as opposed to a hand saw to build it. Do use a wood stove, but there are modern designs that are very efficient. Using plastic cisterns versus wood, metal or stone. Modern percolator or french press versus an electric coffee maker. So on and so forth.

    In the end there is a lot to be said for researching, but at some point it requires jumping in head first. There is no one 'right way'. Traveling around I've seen as many unique off grid homes as I've met people. There is a lot of personal preference and environmental considerations. Some people just couldn't live without a microwave. I don't want one myself, but they consider it a necessity for their quality of life. That's what it boils down to in the end. Finding a good balance of efficient, sustainable, self reliance and a good quality of life. Once the wants and needs are figured out, then it's just a matter of figuring out the best way to get there.

    The engineer side of me is a stickler for efficient systems. The hillbilly side of me enjoys living in the dirt. So for me, efficiently living in the dirt is high quality of life. There are some hard facts because physics is physics, but there are a lot of ways to reach the same ends. It all depends on what the goal is.

    Sorry for being so long winded. I don't get out all that much and my girlfriend is sick of listening to me go on and on about this stuff.

  2. #2
    Excellent! 5 stars! Well done.

    13 years of producing our own power makes me agree with most all of what you wrote.

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    "Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed..."

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by Lowdown3 View Post
    Excellent! 5 stars! Well done.

    13 years of producing our own power makes me agree with most all of what you wrote.
    Yes it is! +1

    Thanks so much.

    Jimmy
    Try not to be someone's PITA, life will treat you better.

  4. #4
    Brass Site Supporter 8/2011
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    Agreed, this is a great post! Thank you for taking the time to write it up.

    SC
    "Do not fear, for I am with you;
    Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
    I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
    Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:10

  5. #5
    i want ot live far from others also including kin ha ha
    I am my own audience

  6. #6
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    Thanks for taking the time to put your experience on paper. As one in the process of going off-grid on a modest budget, any advice is appreciated.
    "It wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark"

  7. #7
    Great post! I know you regret stick building over adobe but may I ask what R factor insulation you used?

    I'm looking into building a house in the future and have been reasearching insulation levels.

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  8. #8
    @SeldomSeenSlim - Long Winded - not at all.

    Would love to hear more detail about your choices. We are trying to put many different sources into play. We love Heated water and lights at night, A/C is also pretty nice. We are trying to use heat exchangers as much as possible. Mother earth tends to be the great moderator.
    She provides a nice cool ground about five feet down for the summer and a warming effect in the winter. The Sun does a great job of heating the water and air in the winter. We enjoy the wood fire even more when he decides to take a day or two off.

    Our Grand (or great grand) Parents lived and flourished in a Non Grid world, we should just take a look back and tweak the gathered knowledge of the ages!!

    @SCinPNW - I love the sig.!!
    Last edited by BioG8r; 04-08-2012 at 02:01 PM.
    Do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do!

  9. #9
    Brass Site Supporter 2013 Thank you!
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    Very informative post. I love reading about people's experiences. It's a good thing IMO that you built your power system yourself so you know what's going on with it. Too many people just have it installed and then when a problem arises they are lost. I have a friend like that. Has a 10kw system but no idea how it really works so when there is a problem he calls me.

    While I am on grid my system is completely off grid. One exercise I really enjoy is when DW goes out of town I will turn off the mains and run strictly off grid. It sure makes you think and plan when you do things like cook and use electricity. While it is completely possible to burn electricity at night and run the batteries down it is not very wise.

    How big is your system? What size is your battery bank? Any pics possible?
    My blog:
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  10. #10
    tkari makes a good point about building yourself versus having a system installed. In my opinion to live an on-grid lifestyle one would want to have the system installed for them. There is a lot to consider and it would be a large investment. Smaller systems are pretty easy these days, but big systems are still best handled by a professional. It's one of those things where if someone is reading this trying to figure out how to build a system, then they probably don't have the expertise necessary to build a large system. I'll go through what I've done and toss in some opinions for a small off-grid lifestyle system.

    There are tons of "solar worksheet" references out on the web. This one is pretty good, though there are plenty of others. When looking around at a calculator look for one that runs on the week level instead of the daily level. I think it's easier to calculate for items like a laundry machine that don't get used every day. All of these worksheets will at some point lead you to amp hours a day. The ah/day is the number to use to figure out how much electricity you need to generate and how large the battery bank needs to be to support it. I poured over these worksheets and formulas before moving off-grid. I'm not going to say they're wrong, because math is math, but I also don't think they necessarily reflect reality.

    If you're filling out the worksheet for the first time, you'll likely end up with a big list of appliances and loads. Then when you go to price out how much it costs to power all of that, and you recover from the shock of it all, you'll trim that list. It is important to know the how and why things work the way they do, but knowing how something works doesn't mean it is affordable. In my mind it is better to come at the problem based on budget instead of load. This is a lot easier to break down.

    First thing that is a definite need in all off-grid systems is mechanical power. I did this the wrong way to start and this is an area I think there is a lot of bad information out in the world. Off-grid living does not equate to experience with power outages due to weather. The power is out and never coming back on. There is nothing temporary about it. Portable generators are just that. Portable. They are meant to provide a small, cheap mobile electricity source. They are not designed to be used for long term use. For long term backup, some form of liquid cooled stationary or trailer mounted genset is the tool for the job. That is what those units are designed for. When budgeting there should be budget for a large stationary backup genset, that can also be used to power a workshop, and one or two portable gensets. With care taken a large backup genset will last a lifetime. With the same care a portable genset will last about 1000 hours. On this side one can expect to shell out somewhere between $3k-$6k depending on their choices. Personally, through hard learned experience, I went with an 8kw Isuzu diesel genset for main backup and I run Champion portable gensets. Yes, Champion. The cheap things you can buy at any auto parts store. I've had Briggs&Straton, Honda, and Genrac portables. The problem is that shelling out $1k-2k every year or two on a new portable genset just eats money. It isn't sustainable. Whereas investing in the large backup that won't need replaced for many years for my main power source means I only need cheap portables to haul around and abuse. For $300 they're disposable and for the money those little things last just about as long as the others.

    The next big budget item is a powercenter. This is the inverter, charge controller, breakers, etc. The hub of the system that will control everything. This is a key piece of gear because it will determine how efficient the system is controlled and if something goes wrong with it then nothing really works. It used to be this was just a big pile of parts. Now the companies have made it extremely simple by selling prewired kits. Outback and Xantrex are the two big brands. Both are very good (Outback was started by folks from Xantrex). I've owned gear from both. I personally prefer Outback. I think they're technology is better and that they have really hit the mark on making this accessible for non-professionals.

    A single inverter powercenter from either company will run somewhere in the $4k-$5k realm. This is about as cheap as you can get for a setup that will be a long term investment. You certainly don't need it, but in my opinion it is worth the money by far compared to an adhoc setup. I have the older FlexWare by Outback. The newer PowerOne setup is the FlexWare taken to it's logical step of being all hooked up prior to shipping. I installed one at a friend's and was highly impressed. We had it out of the box and up and working in a weekend.

    I say single inverter because the vast majority of off-grid homesteading type folks end up with a single inverter system. One 3500w inverter can provide 30amps of 120vac power. On a $20-40k budget, 30amps is right about where it ends up and really that's just about all one needs. If a camper/RV can run on 30amps with all the stuff those have, so can a house. They are essentially rolling houses nowadays. A house will likely have more square footage, but can easily run on the same energy footprint. Any 220vac loads can be handled with the generator. 220vac is typically just plain bad off the grid. There isn't a cheap way to make it and it should be avoided wherever possible.

    The next thing I think should be considered is batteries. Batteries are the pain in any system. Every battery starts to consume itself the day it is made. They also tend to cause the most problems in a system. In my opinion there are really only two batteries that are reasonable for a 20 year system. AGM and traction batteries. Here's why.

    AGM are good at one thing and one thing only. They can sit at float (just over 100%) for an extended period of time with no ill effects. This is why they are used for backup on telecom hubs, power plants and the like. They are sealed so they require no maintenance or equalisation. They just kind of sit there and wait for the time when the power required is more than the power being generated. What they can't do is cycle. AGM batteries are only supposed to be taken to 20% depth of depletion. Meaning a 100 amp hour battery can only provide 20 amp hours. So the percentage of usable amp hours is very low. For solar and wind these batteries aren't very good. They are however great on a hydro setup where input is continuous. I started with AGM batteries. Cost me quite a bit of money. If you want to see a depressed person, find someone that just realized they killed a few grand worth of batteries. It wasn't the battery's fault. I was not using them for what they were designed to do.

    Traction batteries, unlike AGM, are designed to cycle. And not just cycle, but cycle very deep and really be abused. These are the batteries used in forklifts and other commercial/industrial applications. They are meant to be charged to full over 8hrs, drained 80% over 8 hours and have that cycle repeated over and over and over. This is the deepest depth of discharge available. So compared to other battery styles you get the most out of the total rating of the battery. The other pluses to these are that they are commercial so they cost is much less than "solar" batteries. They also have commercial style support with hardware and service. It does more for less money. So what's the catch you ask? The catch is that they are heavy. In the 500-2000lb range depending on the size. Really, that's it. If you've ever moved L16 batteries you know those aren't exactly light either. These however require machinery to move, but they are designed to do that.

    I purchased my traction battery from http://giantbatteryco.com/ and I will recommend them to anyone that will listen. Service was more than one could ask for. FREE shipping in the lower 48. Even out here in the boonies. The battery I purchased cost $2800 roughly. To get the same amount of amp hours in L16 sized batteries it would have been closer to $6k. The other big benefit is that there is all of the gear to maintain the battery. The folks that typically use these batteries are large shipping warehouses and places where time is money. They can't have batteries out of service and they typically have a lot of them. So they need equipment to quickly and easily keep their batteries charged and ready to work. It isn't maintenance free like the AGM, but it is as automated as possible. Once a month, typically the first weekend of the month, I equalize the batteries which consists of starting the genset, switching a breaker on for the dedicated charging and letting that run for 8 hours. That's it. Water level checking and filling is automatic. It is set up like an industrail charging station, with the difference being that it never gets moved to install in a forklift. In this configuration the battery should last 20+ years.

    In the areas of batteries, most folks think of golf cart and L16 batteries. Absolutely nothing wrong with them, but they do present problems. First they have a lifespan of about 5 years. Secondly they are set 6 volt cells. When putting together batteries it is best to find the battery size that will have the fewest amount of batteries. The more cells in a battery array means the more potential for problems and with the way batteries work 1 100 amp hour cell is greater than 100 1 amp hour cells. There is a loss between cells and between batteries. All batteries are made from 2 volt cells. When you see 4,6,12,24 volts on a battery that is just made up of multiple 2 volt cells. The lower the voltage the bigger those cells can be in the same size and hence the large the amp hours. These batteries have a 50% depth of depletion. More than AGM, but not as much as traction batteries.

    There are no cheap good batteries, but AGM and traction are the best bang for the buck depending on the power source.

    At this point with the genset, powercenter and batteries, this is a viable off-grid setup. Charge the batteries off the genset and when it's not running the battery power runs through the inverter and powers the house on a 30amp 120vac line. Anything 220vac gets powered directly from the genset and anything DC from the battery. Total cost for this is somewhere in the $10-15k realm. Or the cost of a used pickup truck. Not too bad. Of course right now it requires burning some form of dead dinosaur to fuel the genset and that isn't sustainable at all unless you have a pocket full of dinosaurs and are willing to wait a few million years. But it is a good foundation and the last thing left is to eliminate the need to run the genset. The rest stays the same. For that you need the wind, solar, hydro power and now that the main parts are handled, whatever you have left in your bank account is what you have available to spend on it.

    Which to choose? That all depends on what is available. In the end it is my opinion that all systems should have a primary source and a secondary source. Mine improved a lot when I added wind power and in my field trips around looking at other folks' stuff, those that had a mix tended to be better off. Every little bit helps. I live in the desert mountains with 300+ days of sun a year. Solar is a no brainer. It's not always windy here, but when it blows really hard it tends to be cloudy. So a small wind turbine picks up the slack on days that aren't great for solar. It doesn't provide a ton of power, but it was low cost and is just enough wind power to keep the genset quiet on those days.

    This is also the area with the most incalculable variables. Mother nature is anything but constant. She's fair, but she does as she pleases. One hill, wash, slope can change how wind, sun, water effects a piece of property and how it does it one day isn't the same as the next day. At best we can make good guesses with modern science, but by time one got done trying to calculate it all, it will have changed. Whereas it's pretty easy to add gear until you just don't run that genset much any more. Trial and error. The particular canyon you are building in might have great wind potential uncommon to the area. Or maybe you have access to a small stream others do not. There are so many variables to play with in this area whereas the previous items are known cost for a known output.

    This is working backwards a bit. It is in the mindset of using what is available, be it money, time or energy. Instead of just listing stuff and figuring out a dollar figure, take the dollar figure and figure out the best use of that money. If I had to do it over again, this is the line of thought I would take. Buy high quality durable goods that have a known value and then add alternative power sources as necessary based on what the environment provides.

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