Thanks to modern technology, powering your off-grid home is probably one of the easiest aspects of the lifestyle.
Being energy self-sufficient is actually far more achievable than, say, sourcing clean water from nature or being food self-sufficient.
The Power of the Sun
Solar panels have, technologically, come along way over the past decade alone. You can purchase a solar panel in many different forms, for different purposes. They work even when it is grey and overcast. Better still, with good care, a solar panel may last well over a decade before it needs replacing — and even then, they can be replaced usually by fixing the panels.
Depending on the situation, different solar panels are optimal. Personally, I find the mounted-roof solar panels to be the most convenient. They are free-standing models and can be orientated to follow the sun in the sky for maximum energy. Briefcase solar panels are also very convenient — you can open them up like flowers to soak in the sun.
A life living off-grid is — by my personal assumptions — a life in the slow lane. It is probably fair to say that the average person wishing to live a life untangled from the structures of society won’t miss a lot of the aspects of that society all that much. That to me translates into a lesser demand for energy. Two people, with some small inconvenient sacrifices, can live together with a single 100-watt solar panel wired into two 110-amp leisure panels.
But that does mean a life without TV, a microwave oven, a toaster or a coffee-maker. But you can watch TV on a laptop instead; cook food and boil water on a wood stove. Less of a sacrifice is swapping out any halogen lights for their much more efficient LED equivalents.
Solar power can and should be your primary way of delivering off-the-grid power. You will soon learn to adjust to the boundaries that such power delivers, such as keeping everything that is battery-operated charging during the day only.
Solar panels are a wonderful invention. The only drawback is that their batteries are quite expensive. But they could last over a decade too, and the technology will have progressed by then to hopefully drive the costs down a bit more.
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Gas Systems — A Summer and Winter Lifeline
Gas is a very important source of energy. It might not be as pure or as noble as solar power — indeed it might also be a form of cheating since, unless you have the skills and technology to drill a gas well yourself, then you are dependent on the structures of society for the repeated purchases of gas cylinders.
But gas plays an important function that solar power by itself cannot. Gas keeps us warm in the winter through the burning of propane, and in the summer gas-systems work to power refrigeration units which help to keep food cool and preserved.
A standard refillable gas system — without mentioning brands — should be enough to cater to your off-grid energy needs. Some brands are cheaper than others and substantially so, so take a look round to get the best deal. Two good-sized cylinders should last about three weeks, but it also helps to have a backup cylinder to connect to in times of need.
Expect a gas system to cost around £400 ($465 at the time of writing) a year, and to have to fill up about 10 cylinders a year. In severe winter weather, at sub-zero temperatures, you might have to resort to burning 34-litres of propane gas to get through just one week of the snow and ice.
A good solar power-gas combination should get you through most of the year. But there will come spells — blips in bad weather, or on the dark winter nights — where a backup generator might be needed to deliver energy where there are shortfalls. The emphasis on backup here is that generators are smelly, noisy, and loud. So, they are not ideal, but they can be a lifeline.
A typical off-grid enthusiast might be expected to get away with a 500-watt generator, but a 1,000-watt one is more likely. Again, without mentioning brands, choose wisely for those made by reputable companies. A back-up generator should cost no more than £1,000 and should last a long time.
Still got a car lying around? The chances are you need it for those monthly or bi-monthly trips for new gas cylinders. Well, car engines have alternators that can charge batteries. This makes the car engine a de-facto back-up generator, in the case that you do not have one.
This works well if your off-grid abode is a repurposed caravan, or even a motorhome. A car engine should only ever be used as a last resort, though. Don’t overdo it either, as you may kill the car battery.
Electrical Gadgets for Off-grid Living
Inverters are gadgets that transform direct current energy into ‘alternating’ currents. Inverters influence the input voltage and the output voltage. A 100-watt inverter should work for powering a laptop or a TV (presuming you have a TV) or tablet computer. If you can, aim to get 12-volt electrical sockets installed into the home, to further reduce electrical demand.
Power packs and Bluetooth speakers are also very useful for keeping things running and general entertainment. Remember to charge these up during the day to keep the batteries from draining.
Living independently of the main electrical grid is perfectly feasible and, actually, only demands a few modest changes and sacrifices that (in my opinion) aren’t too great. It can at times be expensive and inconvenient, but is certainly something that can be managed with a partner, and even alone.
In fact, energy self-sufficiency is one of the only true things that we can competently do independently of the grid.
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