Off Grid electricity is NOT free.

Out with the old… The T-105’s are being retired.

I believe I am guilty of promoting free energy on the off grid homestead, and during the summer months it appears that way.  However, during the winter months cloudy skies make solar energy creation improbable, and it’s the battery bank that keeps the home’s electricity going from day to day.  When the fog and inversion continues throughout the week, a 5 gallon jug of fuel is added to the generator. The generator is fired up to produce the home’s power and to fill the battery bank for a few more days.

Winter is the time of the year when an off grid home realizes they are not living “free”.  Perhaps a nice sunny equatorial home would provide the energy the home needs and less reliance on a large battery bank.  But even then, a home close to the equator has a constant 12 hours day and night. In which the daylight begins at 6 and ends at 6 in the evening.  If only we lived on the equator… but I really like the 4 seasons, so that’s out for now.

If you are thinking about going off grid, depending on where you live and what your winter is like as far as darkness and climate, you will want to size your battery bank accordingly.  Our new bank, if we conserve, can get us about 4 days, without direct sunlight.  We have added so many new systems that require more power and we added to our family another person, so power usage has naturally increased.  More lights are on, our fridge runs more often, and the phantom load of the Internet and the propane tankless water heater begin to add up over a few hours.  If I remember, like I just did, I shut them off.

As seen in the video,  I crunched the numbers and our new battery bank (basic electric bill) is estimated at $25.00 a month over a 10 year period.  That’s not bad, but that doesn’t include the generator maintenance or the fuel for it.  A 5 gallon jug is required to charge the battery bank from 50% back up to 100% and to equalize them.  Without equalizing, it’s about 4 gallons of fuel needed.  I am keeping tabs on our generator usage this year with the new bank and tractor generator; it will be nice to be able to prepare a constant monthly budget by spreading the winter expenditures year round.

Off grid electricity is NOT free!

If my wife and I lived on the grid in this area and had solar panels that covered our electrical usage, the power company would still charge us a $25.00 minimum monthly hook up fee.  That doesn’t seem fair, but with many people trying to save money with increasing electrical bills the power companies do not want people wiggling out from their profit margins, plus someone has to pay for all those linemen who repair the down wires after a devastating storm.  Either way off grid or on, you will have to pay someone for your electricity.  As electricity bills increase, so does the price of batteries. The T-105’s I first bought were $155 each in 2011; this year they are $180 a piece.

If you are thinking about supplementing your on grid home or building an off grid power system, now is the time to start because prices are always going up.

Why a Tractor Shed?

Sometime this summer I had an idea that changed my perspective on the type of back up generator we needed.    See the past post from whence we came.  When we were first in the planning and designing stage of our off grid home, we realized the sun could be blocked for days even weeks during the winter months.  We also realize our battery bank could easily float us power wise for 5 days.  A few years back we had 1 full sunny day in the month of January and 2 partial sunny days out of the 31 day month.  It was a rough winter and our generator was relied on heavily through that month.

Unfortunately, last year the pull rope broke on our generator and after trying to find a part that not only fit it, but also worked more than once proved impossible.  I debated throwing more money at this well used 6.8 kW generator, but decided I wanted something more powerful.  I believe now that I was drawing or expecting too much current from this generator to charge the house, run the well pump, and all the other various appliance we turned on while the genie was running.   We needed something with a little more electrical kick.

The original vision, but we could never justify the expense, was a diesel generator.  A nice USA made Perkins diesel generator is priced between $6,500 and $8,000.  I didn’t have that extra cash flow, but to purchase a new RIGID costs about a $1,000.00, which I would not purchase now because of the starter recoil assembly fail.  We decided to use what we already had, our Kioti 35 hp diesel engine and PTO (Power Take-Off) which turns a shaft connected to a generator.  This generator would be about twice what the RIDGID would cost and 1/4 of what a Perkins would be.

Once I post about the shed construction, I’ll show a demonstration video of how this type of generator works.

Laundry, moving through life’s cycles

How do we do a simple task like laundry? Is there a bucket and washboard involved? No, we are off grid, not in the 1800s. We purposely bought an older electric Kenmore washing machine with no computer, just plain old knobs and dials. At first that was not our intention, we went shopping for a brand-new model, but the energy saving models all seem to have computers and these machines generally use power whether they are on or not. Why waste electricity when not using an appliance? We also read many reviews and learned the newer appliances are not made to last. Krista and I both remember our parents had the same machines not for just a few years, but for decades. We shopped around and found a gentlemen whose business was to restore old discarded washing machines. We decided to purchase an older model that was rebuilt, has no computer, and can wash huge loads of laundry when putting laundry day off for that next sunny day in the winter. The energy efficiency isn’t the greatest, but we find the 1200 watt per hour expense acceptable.

On a side note, we also take the gray water from the laundry and separate it from the black water of the toilet.  The gray water from washing our clothes is diverted to a cistern that we can use to water our garden.  Hooking up a series of filters, a pump, and sprinkler system is another project to be completed in early summer.

Parts and tools I used to build our indoor clothesline.

Parts and tools I used to build our indoor clothesline.

Now drying is a different situation. The picture shows all the parts I purchased at our local Co-op and the tools required to build our clothes dryer. From the picture, you probably guessed we built a clothes line. I used a plastic coated 1/8 inch cable. This cable can hold some serious weight without stretching or breaking. It may be overkill, but if I am going to build something, it will be right the first time and built to last. The clothes line is also built with a turn buckle to adjust the line’s tension and for easy removal, so guests don’t have to wonder why there is a cable stretched across the room.

An up close picture of our clothes line turn buckle system.  I got the idea from the safety lines on our sailboat.

An up close picture of our clothes line turn buckle system. I got the idea from the safety lines on our sailboat.

This was also a personal request from Krista. However, once I put it up, Krista hasn’t taken it down. The two ends of the clothes line are connected to eye-screws attached to the wall studs on opposite sides of the room. I built two clothes lines, one across the open hallway and the other in the battery/laundry room. This is for fall and winter clothes drying. During the spring and summer, we use an outdoor clothes line. Our drying time on the clothes in the house is about 8-10 hours. Drying time outside on a sunny day is about 3 hours.

Hang drying clothes indoors on a clothes line I built.  It was so, easy.

Hang drying clothes indoors on a clothes line I built. It was so, easy.

Yes, hang drying clothes takes longer, but we have also realized some weird and beneficial side effects. Since we started hang drying, my clothes have been growing not shrinking. My t-shirts that have always shrunk are actually about an inch longer than the day I bought them. My pants are not getting holes in the knees as fast. My shirts are retaining their colors and not fading. My sweaters are not shrinking either, but now I wish they would. If you want your clothes to last longer, hang drying is the way to go. Plus, the electricity I save is between 3,500 to 5,000 watts a load.

On a side note, we don’t buy laundry detergent anymore. Krista makes her own laundry soap for about 1/10th the price found in the stores. She will be posting her recipe soon.

Electricity, making the choice to be off grid.

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).

It's no wonder insurance costs are continually on the rise.

It’s no wonder insurance costs are continually on the rise!

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!

Solar panels set at a steep pitch for winter sun, and to shed snow.  The square board to the left of the ladder is where we hand the regulation dart board in the summer months.

Solar panels set at a steep pitch for winter sun, and to shed snow. The square board to the left of the ladder is where we hang the regulation dart board in the summer months.

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.

How to brew that cup of coffee in the morning.

To brew our morning tea or coffee, we use our Le Creuset ceramic French press. We just toss in the loose leaf herbal tea blend of chamomile, peppermint, lavender, and some raspberry leaf, or our favorite coffee from the local coffee roaster, Evans Brothers’ Timber blend. Add boiling hot water, let steep for 4 minutes and serve.

Using our ceramic French press, we enjoy a delicious cup of hot coffee from the wood cook stove.

Using our ceramic French press, we enjoy a delicious cup of hot coffee from the wood cook stove.

Making coffee like this actually saves electricity because we use the wood cook stove in the winter. During the summer months we use our Krups drip coffee maker with an insulated kraft.

The one thing we look for in appliances is the lack of digital displays or microcomputers. Appliances with these features use electricity when they are not being used. During a low sun production day, this could lead to having to use a generator more often than necessary to feed these digital displays. In the off grid world, these digital displays are called “phantom” loads and use electricity 24/7. In any home, you want to eliminate your phantom loads to save money. I wonder, what is America’s obsession with digital clock displays. The coffee maker, toaster oven, the stove, the mixer, seriously how many clocks does a kitchen need?

We found that buying certain “dumb” appliances we are eliminating “smart” phantom loads that are dumb and not so smart. Confusing, I know. We have a wind up clock on our bookshelf that lasts 8 days. We use a cell phone, on airplane mode, for my wife’s alarm clock and my alarm clock is a battery short wave radio with an alarm clock feature. The AA batteries lasted me over a year and a half, and the shortwave is good for major storm updates. Our washing machine is older, so no computer there, just knobs. We use a 6 strip to cut the phantom loads from our DVD and TV. We have eliminated every phantom load in the house. We even power off the invertor at night, which also has a phantom load. During the spring and summer months, we have so much extra electricity, we don’t pay attention to conserving power as much. However, it’s all about energy conservation during the shortest days of the year.