Determining Off Grid Power Needs

When we started planning our off grid solar system for our home, we began planning what electrical appliances we wanted and weighing that against what we could afford.  The following video are our non-negotiables.  We determined what we wanted for our home and planned the size or our solar system and battery bank accordingly.

How do we survive Living off grid?… Quite easily, really. Our list of electrical appliances we use on the homestead.

My wife and I literally sat down and determined what were essential for our lives and what could go.  Unfortunately, some items had to go because the electricity demands would be too great for an off grid system. The number one would be electrical heat.  We could not afford to use electrical heaters within our home.  A space heater uses around 1500 Watts of power per hour.  Not an option.

Another appliance we rapidly kicked to the curb was the clothes dryer.  The clothes dryer on average takes around 3500 Watts a load.  Our battery bank only 675 amp hours at 24 Volts =16,200 Watts of stored power yet to use the power all the way to zero will rapidly murder the battery bank. So, I only really have about 11,340 Watts of usable power. Three and half loads of laundry and our battery bank would done until the next sunny day.  We hang dry all our clothes on either the outside line or indoor lines I built.  Anyone who would like to make a dent in their electricity bill could begin by hang drying their clothes, easy-peasy.

The other appliance we said an automatic no to was the dishwasher because it not only took electricity, but also water.  In the future, we probably could renegotiate this one depending on the water and power usage, but we will wait for something more efficient.

My wife and I love to cook and eat at home, but we knew right away that an electric oven and range would never work.  They take too much electricity.  Our friends found a gas oven and stove top at a garage sale for $50.00 and during the warmer months of the year, we cook our food on the propane stove.  As I stated in the video, the electric oven is by far the largest use of electricity.  It uses almost 5,000 Watts per hour!  That is almost half of our stored power.

We also ditched the microwave, due to studies on how microwaves can hurt people over long periods of time.  We decided long before moving off grid to no longer microwave our food.

What has our life been like without these modern conveniences?  No clothes dryer, electric range, microwave, electric heaters, how do we survive?  Quite easily, really.

Why Live Off the Grid?

The two main reasons we began to consider living off the grid were the constant rise in the cost of electricity and the storms that seemed to knock out our service each year.

Living off grid didn’t start to become an option until we lived on the Oregon Coast and lived through the Great Coastal Gale of 2007.  Our home was fine, but we were left without utility service for about a week.  Our frustration mounted as we saw the rest or our town below us gain power only to be left without power and water for another day and a half because the municipality thought no one lived on our hill, as if we were all vacation homes.  So, why bother checking, just forgo delivering power.  Another full-time local on our hill set the town and utility company straight, but the experience left me a little distrustful of the people running things.  Even if we had a back up generator at the time, we still would not have fresh running water due to the pump station was beyond our legal grasp to supply power.

The real shift to getting us to consider living off the grid was the electric company’s constant rate increases.  It felt like we were being drained of what little money we had left at the end of the month.  With the rising cost of property taxes, water, insurance, gas prices, inflation in the grocery store, my wife and I saw what little savings we had at the end of the month rapidly disappearing.  We were one emergency crisis away from losing it all.  If the car died or a major house repair was needed, we would not be able to make our payments or we would have to ration the food.  This really got me thinking that we needed take back control of our expenditures on utilities.  We needed to find a way in which we could control our bills.  Going off grid seemed like a feasible solution to taking back financial control from these entities that taxed citizens into oblivion to justify their jobs.  Sorry, but it was a bitter pill to swallow to see everything we worked so hard for disappear because of rate increases during a recession.

When we bought our property in Idaho after selling our house on the coast, we knew we would be living off grid.  We had no desire to live on the grid anymore.  When control over our utilities were in our hands and our off grid system was installed, we only had one power outage.  It was quickly remedied in 15 minutes and life went on as usual.  However, we have seen several storms since we moved to North Idaho, and the area at large has lost power several times.  We would never have known it unless our neighbors called to tell us, the lights and stores are dark when we enter town, or when I go to work, the students I teach tell me about it.  I now access the utility company’s website in which I can see the outage map for the local electrical grid. When friends call on their cell phones during their outage, I give them a report of their situation all from the comfort of my well lit home while watching a movie.

What is the worst storm you have been in that knocked your power out?  Describe how you managed.

The Helpful Woodshed … know how many cords of wood all season.

Collecting firewood is a hard task to do each year.  It may be a sustainable source of heat, but it is not sustainable work for the human body.  When I built our woodshed, I designed it to easily keep track of how much wood we have stored, and how much we are using throughout the season.

After a few years of collecting and storing firewood, I wanted a woodshed that could easily state how many cords were left during the winter season.  Each of my rafters represents a cord of wood since the walls are exactly 8 ft wide and 8 ft high.  The rafters are 2 ft a part on center.  Since I cut 14-15 inch rounds, it takes about 1 and half stacks of firewood to make 1 cord.  We try to gather between 8 and 9 cords of firewood each year, but this includes the wood we did not burn from the previous season.  This year we burned about 7 cords of wood and had only a cord and a half left.  So, we gathered a little more than we burned last year and hope to possibly have a few cords to carry over into the next firewood gathering season.

We burn primarily birch, ponderosa pine, and lodgepole pine.  Each year we gather firewood, we are working to thin and make a healthier forest on our property.

Sometimes I do wonder if gathering firewood is sustainable.  As I grow older, I rely more heavily on tools to help me do the task.  Perhaps, if I used these tools earlier in life, my body would not be aching as bad as it does now.   As my wife and I think about what life will be like in our elderly years.  I could see us ordering a log truck of wood and bucking, splitting, and stacking ourselves for a while.  If it becomes too much of a hassle, I’ll make sure I finish the radiant floor heating, and we’ll use propane to warm the house in our retirement years.

Please feel free to share how you gather firewood for the winter season. I am always looking for easier ways to do it.

Saving Money on Your Electric Bill with DIY Plumbing.

Money… it seems to be the main driving force that built civilization. It also seems to be what people are most worried about.  The phrase “death by a thousand cuts,” describes many people’s financial burdens by over extending credit, which our society in America has made all too easy to do.  However, the phrase can work both ways.  We can destroy our debt by chipping away at it in small ways until eventually we have control again.  If you feel like your life is out of control, then making the move to gain control is the very act of being in control.

One simple way is to learn trade skills for yourself.  Over the years, I have bought both used and new books on plumbing and electrical skills.  If I saw a book that looked helpful, I would try to check it out in the local library first.  If it were a great resource, I would buy it used or new if I knew it would save me money in the end.  I taught myself how to change electrical fixtures and plumbing fixtures when updating an old house we once owned using the books I found. I also watch DIY programming like This Old House (watch an episode) and the birth of the DIY Network during the time.  Since then much has changed, but the DIY spirit hasn’t.

By saving money on doing your own home repairs, you can take that money and put it into buying a better system that will save you more money in the long run.  And, those extra savings can be freed up to go into paying off debt or to create a rainy day fund.

When looking at the  propane tankless hot water system, I installed.  I saved probably a little over $300.00.   If I was on the grid and had an electrical tankless system, I would be saving a lot more because my electric bill would drop between 27% -50% or more depending on my hot water use in the home (See EnergyStar’s White Paper: “Electric Tankless Water Heating: Competitive Assessment”).  If you could have 27% (on the low end) of your electric bill reduced every month, what kind of savings would that be?  What would that look like in 10 years?

Before you purchase your tankless electric water heater, I would highly recommend reading EnergyStar’s white paper on the subject.  For my home’s application a smaller unit works just fine since our homes water flow rate is between 2-3 gallons per minute.  This allows me to purchase a smaller unit for the home.  I also live in a home with a single bathroom and there isn’t much competition for hot water.  The reason I mention this is because if you have a home in which accommodates more people and has a higher hot water demand, you may need to purchase a larger tankless hot water unit.  The warning EnergyStar states is some of these units require a home to have over 200 amps of power supplied to the home. For newer homes this should not be an issue, but older homes may require an update to the electricity service supplied to the home.  Just be careful and be well informed before making any purchases.

In closing, what would you do if you could save between 27% -50% of your monthly electric bill?  Think about of turning that statement “death by a thousand cuts” to your advantage when it comes to saving money whether it is DIY projects or just cutting costs.


S’more Indoor

During the summer months, there is nothing like sitting outside surrounded by tiki torches with a fire in the center to roast all beef hot dogs for dinner and marshmallows for dessert.  As the hour gets later and the sun sets, the treetops are softly lit by the glow of the fire.  Our son is quietly put to bed, and my wife and I swing gently on the hammock counting each star or planet as it begins to first appear in the sky.

Enjoying the moment… Relaxing by a campfire by extending our home into our backyard.

It’s a wonderful feeling hearing the transition of the diurnal animal sounds being replaced by the nocturnal.  After a hard day’s work, the reward is to lay in a hammock and allow your muscles to relax.  The fire is blazing from all the scrap wood and branches from the day’s firewood gathering.  My wife and I swing slightly in the hammock with a blanket across our battle scared legs from hiking in the brush.  The temperature is dropping rapidly without the sun overhead.  Dusk is shifting into night.  The sky is so clear at times we can see the occasional shooting star, the big dipper, and even the Milky Way across the roof of our known night sky. The bats begin to dart about us overhead, taking the mosquitoes that attempt to plague us for their dinner.  My wife’s natural bug repellent a mixture of citronella, rosemary, and lavender keep the biting bugs at bay.  This is our outdoor family room in the summer as we expand from the confines of our home to wide-open spaces.

So, as seen in the video below, this discussion did happen. We are depressed that fire restrictions have put a damper on our outdoor family room this entire month of August.  The fire pit remains dark, the tiki torches are no longer flickering, and the glow of the fire has given way to the glow of a night television.  My wife has included into her candle line a candle called “Toasted Marshmallow”, which smells exactly like its namesake.  We realized others during the fire restrictions are probably feeling their summers cut short as well, so we wanted to share our humor and solution to having a s’more safely despite restrictions.  The smell of the candle and the marshmallow actually roasting over it was very appealing.  We used our favorite chocolate for the event, Endangered Species natural dark chocolate with espresso beans ground up and mixed in.  Delicious.

Have you ever? … Roasted a marshmallow over a toasted marshmallow candle?

We hope you enjoy our solution of bringing the outdoors indoors with a roasted s’more for dessert.  By having two candles, there was no waiting for one person or trying to rush for the other.  We decided to place the “Toasted Marshmallow” candle on sale on our online store, Pauper’s Candles Company; 2 candles for $20, so a couple or friends could enjoy the experience at their own pace.

Let us know how it turns out when you try it.

Tankless Water Heater Install & Northwest Fires are Affecting our Solar Panels

It seems this summer, that firewood and the tankless water heater were the majority of my progress.  The weeks have passed by rapidly.  Family has come to visit and days have been filled with which project to do next.

Having the tankless water heater working has been a blessing. After a long day working in the dust, I enjoy a hot shower to relax my pulled and exhausted muscles.  The dishes are easily done with hot water accessible from the sink. Our laundry is cleaner now that the stains and dirt can be rinsed in hot water.  Life has been relatively normal as it was during our on grid days.

In this Youtube video, I explain how the install went and what I had to do to compensate for the wall thimble installation. I also demonstrated the bypass I created and explain the overall system.  Next week, I will crunch the numbers and show how much the unit cost to install including all the parts I had to purchase.

Hazy Days… This morning’s sunrise over the birch trees on our property. I can almost look directly at the sun without hurting my eyes.

As far as life today goes, we are discovering the smoke from the fires in Washington, Oregon and Canada have descended into our area for the past two weeks. Our sun has turned red in the sky at sunset and our moon last night was a deep orange.  We have noticed our battery bank has not been receiving a full charge the past couple days.  Today, we chose not to water our garden or orchard in hopes of keeping from having to pull the generator out in the middle of summer.   Yesterday, when we awoke our battery bank was at 67% charged when it usually is at 94% charged in the mornings.  No clouds, just smoke causing the low charge rate.  Yesterday, I checked periodically the solar panels’ charge rate and it was at half the production it would be on a typical sunny, non smoky day.  The odd thing is we can see the sun.  The sky is not blue, but hazy, yet the panels are greatly affected by it.

If you are off grid and in the northwest region of the United States or nearby in Canada and have solar panels, how has the smoke affected your power generation?

Out with the Old; in with the New… (no more temporary hot water)

Each year it seems we upgrade our systems.  Much of what we setup to be as temporary finally gives way to more innovative devices that help modernize our home.  We have lived with the Ecotemp L5 propane tankless camping hot water heater for 5 years until it finally died this past May.  We managed to use our wood cook stove to heat water a little longer than expected this spring until we could find its replacement.  Once something “temporary”‘ goes out, the only logical thing to do is make the move to replace it with something more permanent and easier to use.

We decided our hot water system would receive an upgrade.  However, I do want to give some credit to our 5 year temporary fix, the Ecotemp L5.  When I purchased the unit, I did not expect it to last as long as it did.  I figured it would buy us some time until we could save for the house unit we originally hoped to install.  The small system had a lot of glitches we had to figure out; eventually, we learned its quirks and had the thing dialed.  Our overnight guests, however, got to experience the exponential learning curve and many would skip showers after their first experience.  Water pressure is key to maintaining steady water temperature.  Knowing the dials on the unit and adjusting them before hand was helpful, but when the pressure tank had to be refilled, we learned how to manage the fluctuation from the faucet easily.  Our son, who loves showers and bath time, became a pro with managing the water temperature.  Now, with the new larger unit installed, it’s like a regular every day shower on the grid with no knobs to fiddle with; it’s all temperature controlled at the unit.

This system was a great fix for our needs at the time.  It didn’t take a lot of plumbing to get it working and I was able to have it up and running within a few hours, which included a run to the store to purchase parts and the construction of the stand to hold it in place.

Our off grid home has evolved nicely these past 6 years, and we look forward to the new innovations to come.