Wednesday, March 7, 2012
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.