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Life off the grid takes planning

Matthew Charles and Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado

One of our neighbors’ homes in Sweetwater is completely solar powered, even though the grid passes by right in front of the house.

According to my neighbor, there’s no reason anyone needs the grid for electricity, other than that it’s still a relatively cheap power supply. Of course, with cheap comes dirty – conventional power here is 50 percent coal-fired. He summed up his decision to go off-grid years ago, before “green” was cool, with a shrug and said only, “Why bother with the utility when I can make my own power?” Why indeed? There must still be something to say for western self sufficiency.

Off-grid living today doesn’t require the life of a camper or refugee. With a well-designed system and a bit of awareness on the part of the homeowner there’s generally plenty of power to go around. A liberal supply of compact fluorescent lighting is always standard in off-grid homes, since they use over 70 percent less power than old-fashioned incandescent lighting. “Phantom loads” ” appliances than never really shut off, like most TV’s, DVD players and stereos that are always plugged into power strips should be shut off or put on switched wall outlets since just a few of these appliances can quickly drain off-grid batteries even when they’re not being used.



Unlike “grid-tied” or “grid-tied with battery back-up” homeowners, true off-grid solar home dwellers need to be aware of how much power their solar panels can actually deliver daily. They must try not to overuse their stored battery power so the sun can recharge their batteries more often than the backup generator (which is always a staple in off-grid solar installations since it occasionally stays cloudy longer than the battery bank likes).

If your off-grid home uses 10 kilowatt hours of electricity per day and seven of those kilowatts are used in the evening or overnight, the solar panels simply have to be able to provide for that night-time battery load so they can fully recharge every day.



For example, a small two-kilowatt photovoltaic system easily provides 10 kilowatt hours during a short but sunny winter day, since in this area you can count on at least 5 “peak sun” hours when the sun is out all day. But the resulting 300 kilowatt hours a month is only one-third the amount of electricity an “average” American home consumes. To maximize available power, off-grid homeowners cook with gas and some still use RV-type appliances, like refrigerators that chill food using propane, although today’s EnergyStar-rated appliances perform well in solar powered locations, especially given the ever-escalating cost of propane.

With increases in efficiency when compared to costs, many off-grid homes install much larger solar arrays these days. A five kilowatt system can produce more than 1,000 kilowatt hours per month on average, enough to power the “average” American lifestyle quite easily. You’ll still have to cook (and probably heat) with gas, so add a solar hot water system and you’ll be able to take long, luxurious showers and help heat your home.

The nicest thing about living off-grid is probably the fact that you’re responsible for your lifestyle. If you want to waste power, it’s no problem. You’ll just have more time to listen to your generator and spend more money paying to run it, or you’ll have to install more solar panels to make up the difference. And while nothing’s free ” solar technology costs money like anything else ” a typical off-grid mountain home can be located in places most homes can’t, with glorious views that make the expense worthwhile, since the sun shines everywhere, not just where the power company ran its lines.



Even if power lines run past your house, your power doesn’t depend on some mysterious regional and national infrastructure that you don’t control. Best of all, you’re not producing tons and tons of greenhouse gasses or pollution.

If you’re grid-tied now and would like more autonomy, you can install solar today ” with or without a battery backup ” and cut your electricity costs immediately. If you add a battery bank to your solar system you’ll eliminate the effects of grid power failures and the all-too-common frozen pipes and wintertime flooding so many mountain homeowners have had to cope with.

Mattthew Charles and Bill Sepmeier is chief technical officer and Matthew Charles is the sales and marketing director of Grid Feeders Inc. in Eagle-Vail. To learn more call 688-4347.


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