Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Off-Grid Survival

There are days when I long for the soothing hum of power pulsing from the power lines directly into a transformer and into our house.  I long to flush the toilet just once, without having to plunge it.  I want to wash the laundry without starting the generator.  I want to listen to the gentle sound of the rain drumming on our metal roof without having to block out the constant buzz of a generator running at 3600rpm's.  I want to flip a switch without having to give a single thought to where that power is coming from and how to keep it coming.  I want a little dependence on someone other than us!

But then, I come to my senses.  In reality, I am thankful for the way that we live.  I am, after all, a survivalist at heart.  Had we never jumped off a cliff and gone non-electric, we never would have known how to truly survive if and when the grid went down.  Although it has been challenging, and more often than not, character building, I would not exchange our off-grid experiences for the world.  Our 11 years of off-grid living has taught us a thing or two.  Hopefully, our experiences will be of some value to you as well.

Obviously, water is an essential element for any homestead.  In a perfect world, an off-grid homestead would have a water system that relied solely on a gravity-fed spring.  When I was growing up, our property had an entire hill-side that bubbled with the sweetest water imaginable.  My mom and dad chose what to them looked like a likely spot and started digging.  They dug a hole about 4 feet x 4 feet square and 6 feet deep.  They lined the hole with cedar boards (to keep the dirt from sloughing back into the hole) and filled it with drain rock.  Then, they dug ditches, laid pipe and put a submersible pump in the spring and called it good.  They did have grid power, so electricity was not a problem, but they were incredibly fortunate to have such a wonderful water source.  That spring served our family (never running out of water) for over 20 years and required virtually no maintenance.  Another benefit of our spring was the fact that because of the size of the hole, the water was easily accessible, even if the power went out, and, had the grid ever gone permanently down, the spring was uphill from our house, making a gravity fed water system highly likely.

Unfortunately, Sir Knight and I don't have the option of a gravity fed spring system.  Our well is deep (435 feet) and our pump requires 220 volts to run.  We have run on two systems, neither of which is optimal for an extended grid-down situation.  For most of the years that we have been off-grid, we have had to run our generator in order to pump water from our well into a pressure tank.  The pressure tank holds about enough water to flush the toilet 3 times and fill the sink for dishes once or twice.  If we conserve (ie. not flushing the toilet very often) we can make our pressure tank of water last all day.  Doing laundry requires the generator to be on so that it can run the well pump.  When we run a large generator (10kw) we can easily run the well pump and also charge our batteries (at about 70amps), however, when we are running a smaller generator (5kw) we can only run the well pump or charge batteries - not do both simultaneously.  The other method we have used for pumping water (which is much more to my liking, not to mention much more tenable) is wiring both of our large inverters 180° out of phase so that they create 220 volts and run our well pump right off the batteries.  I love this option because we are not wasting gas running the generator and we can flush the toilet every time we use it!!!  And, of course, it is completely tenable in a long-term off-grid scenario.

There are currently low voltage pumps that operate in deep wells that were not available when we put our system in.  They run on either AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current).  They are expensive, but definitely worth investigating.  Another viable option, if your topography supports it, is a buried cistern, uphill, that you can pump into by either a generator or solar pump, creating your own gravity fed water system.  This is the best option for those of us without naturally occurring gravity fed water.

When we first moved into our shouse, we were lucky enough to have found and old Servel propane refrigerator at a yard sale and scooped it up.  It was a 1950's model, and really pretty small, but after using a cooler filled with ice, it was enormous.  I loved the propane refrigerator.  It was silent, used very little propane and kept things very cold.  We used our Servel long before we had any electricity at all and proved to be incredibly reliable.  The "freezer" was tiny (it held about 6 ice cube trays) and wasn't capable of keeping ice cream frozen, but it did make ice and that was enough for us.  Being as old as it was, it did ice up considerable requiring thawing rather frequently, but, having refrigeration was well worth the effort.

After using our Servel for about 5 years, the burner began blowing out, forcing us to relight the fridge.  Finally, we were no longer able to keep the burner going, so we contacted a propane appliance repair center to replace the burner.  Our request was met with panic on the part of the repair man.  Apparently, this particular fridge was prone to wearing out after nearly 60 years in service and a few of them had killed some folks with CO2 poisoning.  Servel would not sell the parts required to fix the refrigerator.  The best fridge we ever had now went into the scrap pile.

After our Servel, we found a used Sunfrost, 19cf refrigerator/freezer.  It was an older model and looked like it was built in somebodies garage.  It was, however, built specifically for off-grid use, so we gave it a try.  Our refrigerator is AC rather than DC, which would have been much preferable for our off-grid system.  It is the largest user in our entire house, cycling off and on with unending regularity.  Because of the design, the refrigerator portion of the fridge was right on the floor and the freezer was at eye level.  Sir Knight built a stand to raise the fridge, so that the refrigerator portion was easier to get to, which made the fridge much more user friendly.  The freezer does not freeze particularly well, but it too makes ice, and does keep food exceptionally cold, so it serves its purpose.

If we had it to do over again, Sir Knight would build a refrigerator out of a 24 volt DC Nova Kool refrigerator kit.  He would build it using a highly insulated refrigerator body and even go so far as to cut holes in the back of the refrigerator (facing an outside wall), covering the holes with hardware cloth and make a sliding door that could be opened in the winter when the weather was cold, effectively cooling the refrigerator with outside air, possibly even using muffin fans on a thermostat.

Realizing the amount of power, either battery power or propane, required to keep refrigeration up and running, the most viable grid-down cooling option is an old fashioned root cellar.   Properly constructed, a root cellar easily keeps perishable foods at an appropriately cool temperature year round with a minimum of effort or maintenance.  Root cellars require no electricity, no battery bank and no propane.  They are truly an off-grid marvel.

Our family is not the definitive authority on wind power, however we do have experience with wind turbines.  Our very first source of alternative energy (other than a generator) was a wind turbine.  Living in a very windy location, we were positive that wind was the perfect alternative energy source.  We bought an Air X wind turbine, built a tower, hoisted it into place and fastened 4 guy wires to secure the tower.  We dug a trench, pulled the wires through and hooked them into our charge controller.  We were so excited when we flipped the breaker, we ran to the kitchen to watch the Tri-metric (meter), expecting to see massive amounts of power coursing through our controller into our battery bank.  Nothing!  To be fair, there really wasn't much of a breeze, so our disappointment was tempered by the realization that there wasn't enough wind to make power - just yet anyway.  Later that evening, the wind kicked up and we knew we must be raking in the power, yet the Tri-metric only registered 17 amps.  Not bad, we thought - it was better than nothing.  Just then, the wind really began beating the shouse.  Outside, a noise, something akin to a wounded, screaming animal, began emanating from the wind turbine.  It got louder and louder until we thought the turbine might fly off the tower and rip through our house!  In reality, the turbine was secure and the noise we were hearing were the brakes coming on on the wind turbine due to the high wind.  What we came to learn was that although we had a lot of wind, it wasn't the right kind of wind.  Either we had a gentle breeze, producing no power or we had Gail force winds causing the turbine to put on the brakes, also producing no power.  At the very most, in exactly the right conditions, we would produce 20 to 25 amps of power, resulting in little more than a trickle charge to our batteries.

After using our wind turbine for about 2 years, we had an electrical storm and the composite blades built up an excess of static electricity and fried our inverter. Literally.  I mean we had flames and everything!  After spending a whole lot of money to buy a new inverter, we were more than a little leery of connecting the wind turbine back up to our system.  That turned out not to be an issue.  One day during a particularly breezy spell, I looked out the window just in time to see the tower begin to lean to port.  Running outside, the kids and I arrived just in time to catch the tower and gently lower it to the ground.  The guy wires had broken under the stress of the high winds and the weight of the tower and turbine.  We laid the wind turbine to rest, never again to flutter in the breeze.

Our experience with wind power is not unique.  Our local power company put up a testing facility near the airport (a very windy area).  They installed a 2500 watt wind turbine and also put up a 2500 watt solar array in order to determine what alternative energy source was the most reliable.  Completely confident in the fact that the turbine would noticeably outpace the solar array, they were stunned when the numbers were crunched and the results indicated that the solar system made more energy by far!  They, too, found that although they had a lot of wind, they didn't have the right kind of wind.  It was either too windy or not windy enough.  And they also noticed that the turbine required regular maintenance and repair (adding to the cost and reducing the efficiency) while the solar array required none.

We can say with certainty, that for us, wind turbines are not an effective alternative energy option.

We love our solar panels.  They are the only part of our off-grid system that never require maintenance and work no matter what (well, as long as it is bright outside, that is).  Solar panels require a system, complete with batteries, a charge controller and power inverters to work to their full potential.  The solar panels are wired into a charge controller.  The charge controller control the amount of current that goes into the batteries so that the batteries do not overcharge.  The inverter changes the power that comes out of the batteries from DC (direct current) to 120 volt AC (alternating current), which is normal household electricity, thus allowing you to use household appliances, computers, televisions and lights.  Alternative energy systems utilizing a battery bank have limitations.  They are great for using lights, small appliances, computers and televisions.  They cannot power anything with resistive heating, such as electric stoves, electric hot water tanks or electric furnace systems.  Solar systems can be very effective in the long term for household lighting and other small electrical users.  But, as with any mechanic system, things will wear out and things will fail.

In the 11 years that we have been off the grid, we have had two inverters fail.  The first inverter we bought used, so we can hardly count that one.  The second inverter failed after about 10 years of use, which we have since learned, is about the life expectancy of a power inverter.  Batteries are another weak link.  They require care and maintenance.  They must be watered, kept from freezing and even have their acid adjusted from time to time.  You have to run them low and then charge them up or they will develop a "memory" resulting in the loss of a significant amount of storage capacity.  Charge controllers and power inverters both have electronic components that can fail.

I believe that solar is the best, long-term grid down option, however, it is not infallible.  You have to know how your system works and how to keep it running.  You have to maintain it and, realistically, you have to prepare for it to fail.

Although we have a great solar system, we also have back-up plans.  We have a number of kerosene lamps and a stock of kerosene.  We have wind-up radios and rechargeable batteries (which can be recharged with just the solar panels, bypassing the inverters) and we have books (just in case there are no movies and no computer access).

All in all, there are many ways to plan for survival.  Have a back-up plan for your back-up plan.  We have tried a number of things and have found what works best for us.  You may want to explore what options are available to you and make plans accordingly.  There are all kinds of off-grid, you just need to find the one that is most viable to you.


  1. Thanks Enola for sharing your real world experience.

    Recently our refrigerator failed. We bought a replacement based on many factors, but low power consumption was not one of them. None the less the Samsung RF267AE 26 cu ft refrigerator turned out to draw very little power. This is a big frig with bottom mounted pull out drawer for the chest style freezer, and water and ice through the door.

    First thing we noticed was it was very quiet next to our old frig. The Energy Guide sticker claimed it would cost $55 per year to run with an annual power usage of 519 kWh. Converted to Watts that is 60 W of power on average. Way to much power for our little solar electric system, but within the range that a larger system could handle. Measuring the actual power draw I got about 120 watts while the compressor is running, so half that on average is believable.

    How much power does your Sunfrost use? It would be interesting to compare that to the new Samsung.

    1. Sir Knight ran the numbers on the Sunfrost usage and the numbers weren't promising. The Sunfrost's energy usage is slightly worse than the Samsung, however the cost is significantly more. According to their website, the numbers look like this:

      At 70°F (ambient temp.) the Sunfrost 19cu uses .77kwh a day that equals 281 kwh annually.

      At 90°F (ambient temp.) the Sunfrost uses 1.02 kwh a day which equals 372 kwh annually.

      While that looks good on paper, Consumer Reports testified to the fact that the numbers are false. They concluded that while those are correct numbers, Sunfrost tested their refrigerators and freezers at significantly higher temperatures than industry standard, completely skewing the numbers.

      We have not been impressed!

  2. Every wind turbine I've seen here has been brought down by a storm. What sort of storage life does kerosene have? I thought it deteriorated after about a year. Some friends of mine have a 12 volt/120volt/gas refrigerator salvaged from a junked RV. It uses heat to move the refrigerant around(no compressor, totally quiet. Years ago(mid 1980s), I saw a kerosene fridge from the 1920s or 1930s-the owner claimed it used two gallons a month(no freezer).Both are small by modern standards.
    I've seen Honda generators at flea markets and festivals that make very little noise-mine sounds like the end of the world(12 HP/7500W).
    An uncle of mine modified a fridge to be a "nature fridge" like the one you mention for his garage,again, a salvaged 12 volt RV fridge(you should find out if there's a RV junkyard near you). He kept his beer cold with it(that's all it was used for). A thermostat for the fans is necessary(and a flapper to close off in warm weather)! If it's below zero out,that's too cold..Total cost? Nothing but his time.
    Two jobs ago, the place I worked at had a late 1930s fire/burglar alarm system that had nickel-iron batteries that were 50 years old at the time,yet were still good. They don't have the capacity of lead-acid batteries, but last longer(similar charge rate, I think). You can still get them, but they ain't cheap.

  3. getting personal experience reports on power systems and appliances is really great for comparison purposes in fulfilling our needs..we are still on the grid and probably will remain there for a long time to come..however, over the last twenty years or so we have been really working at cutting energy needs where we can and conserving what we can....we have found that we can get by pretty well without electricity and have learned as well that what electricity we do use is well used and not wasted.

  4. Why don't you increase your water capacity? When I lived off grid I had 300 gallons of pressure water [ most of which I didn't use] and only ran the generator once a day to pump water and charge the batteries and run the vacume cleaner. Less than one hour.

  5. Don't forget if you are lucky enough to have a gravity spring you can build a spring house to keep things cold (well, cool). Fellow I know up in the NC mountains grew up using a spring house back in the 1940's. He lives at the same house now, it was his grand dad's. He showed me where the old spring house was but it is long gone. The spring is still there. That was just last summer


  6. How much shelf life does your gas generator have? I mean do you have a couple
    of 100 gallon gas storage tanks?? If an EMP would really hit, that means the
    local gas stations in any given area would be out. What kind of back up do you
    have if that really happens?? Or will your solar panels work.
    Thank you.

    1. I fear that in the case of an EMP, people are going to be drying/dehydrating with the sun, using root cellars if they have them for cold food storage, and using smoke houses to preserve meat unless they have extra power supplies stored in faraday cages. Even gas generators have electronic components that may be fried in case of EMP.

      Preparing for every catastrophe is almost impossible. Preparing is still necessary, however. If you have a year or more worth of food, you have that long to figure out how to obtain and store more. I don't know if I am capable of canning over an open fire or not. Maybe I should practice that. Now I need a stand for my canner that I can raise and lower! Thanks for making me think that through.


    2. We have a solar system that runs our 120V "stuff" on sunny days. Priority goes to the well, refrigerator (Samsung 28.5 cu ft and positioned on a north wall away from sunshine and far from heat), and the two freezers in the north corner of the basement. I can often run the very full dishwasher every other day, in the early morning and then run the washing machine a load or two. We use space heaters to save our firewood, when the sun has charged our battery bank and the panels are still kicking out juice. I have to watch the monitor closely and switch us to grid in the mid afternoon. If we were in a grid down situation, there would be no dishwasher or space heaters.

      So far this morning, I am running the well, refrigerators, freezer, the coffee pot (brew and then shut off), and 3 space heaters. If it clouds up, I have to immediately take action. To say that solar energy has to be managed is an understatement. We have a TV but we never run it on the solar, we would only watch a movie if we had grid power (we don't have any piped in shows, don't believe in it, so the Tv doesn't get turned on during the day anyway). I will do a load of laundry when the batteries are fully charged (first priority!) and the house is a little warmer and I turn off the space heaters. We do school work when we have sunlight. During the summer we can run our house and cabin (with an extra refrigerator) on our solar system, 24/7, as long as we don't have protracted cloudiness, but that is because we are not usually in our house using energy, we are outside working. Of course, we don't have the energy sucking electronics many households use to entertain their young ones. We don't leave much plugged in, but instead plug items in as they are used and then unplug them when not in use. We don't allow children to "shop" in the refrigerator, it is only opened if something is needed and then it is immediately shut. We are very strict about this policy.

      People often comment that we are lucky to be able to run our house when the grid goes down. I have to educate them that I don't "run my house", that we sit in the dark like they do, using our lights only when needed, that we heat with firewood just like they do. We do have water, though. The publics perception is that our 24 panels provide us with unlimited electricity and our life doesn't change when the power goes out. They are right, we are energy misers ALL the time, more so than they are. For Christmas and birthdays, we give each other LED bulbs and warm clothing! Our neighbor often asks if we've been away, as she never sees lights on in our house. She's right, very little lighting is used, even when we are on the grid, it is used only in areas we are in, and when we walk out of the room, lights are turned off. It's automatic for us.

      In case of EMP, we may or may not have any power. We know that. The surge controls built into these components won't have recovered before the second phase of the EMP occurs. That's what fries electronics.
      In the meantime, we do what we can, learn as much as we can, modify our usage and try to get the most out of the system we have for as long as we can. We will probably never recoup our investment, but we used our fiat currency in a way we think was best at the time, as we really did not want pixels on a screen.


    3. How is the wind in your area?

      Will it/can it power a windmill?

      IF SO - you may want to seriously consider changing your well over to a windmill. (there are things you can add that will pump when there is no wind. Like the oil pumps in West Texas)

      One of my Aunts inherited the family ranch home when her parents died.
      It had several wind mills.

      One was set up to pump directly into an elevated metal water tank. (Bottom of tank was about 2 feet higher than inside ceiling of home.) They had running hot/cold water (small electric booster pump provided pressure for washer and shower).

      Another pumped into a 18'diameter 6' tall concrete tank. Temp coming out of the ground was in the high 50's. Made for a bracing swim. My uncle "salvaged" 4 truck radiators, mounted them inline with each other. He then enclosed them with one end open to the home.
      The output from this well flowed into the bottom of the home side radiator, out the top into the bottom of the next,etc until finally out of the final radiator into the cement tank. He then hooked an evaporative cooler (swamp fan) squirrel cage up to blow thru the radiators. The temp of the outside air 100+ in the summer. The temp of the air going into the house - upper 60's to lower 70's.
      He bubba engineered a very effective A/C system.

      I learned lots every time I stayed with my cousin out there.


  7. You know I sure hope that it really doesn't happen. And I might be living in
    a dream world. We are not prepared at all. And I would be dead about 4 years
    ago if it had happen then.
    I have to have several surgerys since 2008. One was a gall bladder. I had
    catratery surgury a year and half ago.All of this was made possible because
    right now we are on the grid and have all the wonderful tools to be in and out
    of each one in four hours. And this year I just have had an impacted wisdom
    tooth pulled. Again mayed possible with all being on the grid.
    How are we going to cope long term without the power??

  8. Hi Enola!

    Thanks for another thought provoking and informative post. I really enjoy your writing and have shared it with my 17 yr old daughter. Keep up the great work!
    As an observation on refrigeration... there are brewers out there who keep their kegs of beer in converted chest freezers. They use external temperature controllers which turn the compressor on and off. Being a chest, the cold doesn't spill out every time the door is opened. The controllers cost around 50.00 and I think the power consumption would be acceptable for most off grid systems, but look into it for yourself...

    Thanks again for sharing your lives with us!