For us the choice was purely economical and a desire to be self-sufficient. The choice to live off grid is not a desire of most people, and I am not trying to convert anyone to the idea. However, if you like to save money, which most of us do, many of our off grid tips will help you save on the electric bill without being off the grid. And, it’s also good for the environment. (I will explain some money saving tips in later posts).
About eight years ago, my wife and I were evaluating our finances. As a teacher due to budget cuts, the cost of living increases were shrinking or non existent while our cost of insurance, electricity/utilities, gasoline, and groceries were increasing. Something had to be done. If I wanted to remain a teacher, I needed to tighten the budget, but also take control of areas that were price gouging us, remember Enron? One night while watching the news and sensing the storm clouds of financial despair, a ray of hope was broadcasted about a community in Taos, New Mexico that was taking control of their utilities and living sustainably. They spoke of living in rammed earth tire houses, harvesting electricity from the sun, collecting rain water for their dinking water, and using gray water for their gardens in their green house type homes. This was the ray of hope I needed during an era of $4.00 per gallon of gasoline and a student loan of just above 9%. Through an even longer story, we eventually moved to Sandpoint, Idaho. We sacrificed the rammed earth tire house for now, but we decided to harvest our own electricity from the sun, repurpose an old well for our home, and eventually we’ll use our gray water for our orchard and garden. Below is the video that changed my perspective 8 years ago.
Currently, our house today is located about a quarter of a mile from the nearest electrical grid tie in. Most home owners would simply call the electric company and have them pull the electrical line to their home. We estimated it would have been around $20 dollars a foot. At a quarter of a mile or 1,320 feet x $20 per foot that equals approximately $26,400.00, and that was just to have electricity from the electrical company brought to our home. This upfront cost provided the justification we needed to pursue our off grid solar option. Our solar system cost us around $15,000 at Backwoods Solar, who serves customers nationwide, but it is locally operated and less then 10 miles from our home. With the savings from choosing the off grid option, we decided to buy more efficient electrical appliances to sustain our off grid electrical system. Plus, we would never have an electric bill again. Yes!
First, this is our solar array. It has been successfully powering the house for two years now. The panels are facing south and very slightly east to pick up the morning to late afternoon sun. This is the optimal position for the most solar gain in the northern hemisphere. As you can see the panels have a very steep pitch. This is the winter position or tilt most desired in the dark months since the sun is so low in the winter sky. Last year, I set the panels in this position which helps to also shed snow. I left them in the winter position for the full year. I made less power in the summer, but the loss was minimal. It was the difference of having the battery bank fully charged by 11:00 in the morning versus 9:00 in the morning. I can live with that to keep from climbing the ladder and adjusting the panels twice a year. I’m in my forties now, and I begin to think about things like back pain, or will this cause me back pain?
Despite the settings to achieve the most solar gain, the winter storms and cloudy weather prevent the panels from charging the house efficiently. The battery bank will keep the house functioning for about a week before the backup generator needs to be brought out to charge the battery bank to full. I will explain this system later. On a good note, we only used the backup generator seven times this past winter and only during the months of November, December, and January.
Last, in the picture, you will notice the deer family at the bottom left feeding by the panels. Northern Idaho has some amazing wildlife to gaze at from our front windows. Wildlife will be another series of posts after electricity.