Reluctant Rebels

Two Years Off-Grid: Home Power

Two Years Off-Grid
Part One: Home Power

We are fast approaching the end of our second full year of living unplugged from the electric grid (yeah for team solar!). It has been a phenomenal experience so far and, after a few initial tweaks, the house has performed better than expected. Our home is completely normal, being an 1,800-square-foot two-story with three bathrooms (yeah for flushing toilets!!!) and central air. In fact, the house is so "normal" that almost no one believes it is battery powered...that is until we show them the battery bank in the garage.

“How can a house this size be off-grid?” is a question we often hear.

The short answer: because technology has outpaced awareness. There are two major factors to this gap between preconceived notions and reality. The first is cost and the second is efficiency.

 

Grit-House-Pic_1

Cost:

Over the last 40 years the price of solar panels have come down... A LOT! Our home power system consists of a 7.8kW array with batteries and a backup generator. After rebates, the cost was $28,000 installed. To put this in perspective, the 7.8kW array alone would have had a purchase price of $598,026 in 1977. Sort of makes you wonder about the next 40 years.

“But how long will it take for the system to pay for itself?” we’re often asked.

“Depends,” is the only answer we can give.

In a worst case scenario, let’s assume that we’re only saving $1,000 a year. At $28,000 that would be 28 years. This is admittedly a long time. But, that’s 28 years we aren’t supporting another pipeline or another lobbyist. It’s 28 years of us living by our convictions and not adding to a system that seems to be so intent on wrecking this beautiful planet we live on.

So for us, the cost is totally worth it. But let’s say, for sake of numbers, that we trade one of our gas powered vehicles for an electric car. How much do you spend every month in gas? Suddenly, that 28 years to payoff gets much smaller.

Efficiency:

As I write this, our house load is showing 1.3 kW of demand. The outside environment is hot and humid with a projected heat index reaching close to 100 degrees. The upstairs mini-split is keeping things cheerily cool and the dehumidifier is set at 50 percent. There is a whole host of phantom loads that I can’t get rid of, including a fridge, but the main pull on power is the mini-split and the dehumidifier. I don’t know what kind of wattage it would have required to run central air and a dehumidifier for 1,800 square feet of living space 40 years ago, but I’ve got to think it would have been significantly more.

Between LED lighting and hyper-efficient appliances, engineers have made incredible accomplishments in energy reduction. (Honestly, I don’t think they get enough applause.) But thanks to their efforts, they have made it so that if you do your homework and know exactly what your load is — both at peak startup and run — you can really reduce your dependence.

I am convinced that as awareness comes inline with reality, more and more people will take advantage of home power systems. Current capability and cost are to the point that if you are building a new home right now and not planning on it powering itself, you are building yesterday’s home. Think of it as building a house without a garage — which is totally acceptable, but not always the best for resale.

For us, powering our own home and living unplugged has brought more than just reassurances against natural disasters or even a zombie apocalypse (lol). It has brought a new mindset; one of responsibility and caring. I would have never guessed when this adventure started that I would be tending chickens everyday or eyeing a dirt-covered rototiller and wondering if it’s really going to work on my cover crops come next spring. But the mindset that has come from this new "techy" reality of solar power has moved me as an individual closer to the character of my amazing, "make-it-on-your-own" grandparents than I would have ever thought possible.

Stumps Suck!

Jack Fernard“That tree has got to come out.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

I groan, rubbing my face in frustration as we’d had this conversation before.

“Do you want to buy a new septic tank?” I ask.

Now it’s her turn to growl.

“But it’s the nicest tree we have.”

And for the record, she’s right. It IS the nicest tree on the property, shading the yard and the house late in the afternoons — right when we need it most. But unfortunately, the builders had put the septic tank just 15 feet away from the base of the tree. And considering its 43-inch girth, I was betting the roots would find their way there.

“I don’t know about you, but I like toilets that flush,” I countered.

“You are soo totally in the doghouse.”

Realizing that was about as much as a concession as I was going to get, I nodded and waited for my opportunity.

Fast forward a few days and I’m standing on the porch waving goodbye as she’s off to the grocery store for a few hours.

“Time to cut a tree down.”

Being deathly afraid of chain saws, I grab my trusty ax and set to chopping. Progress was slow, with a couple of low branches being right where I wanted to cut. But nine blisters later, I heard that cracking sound I had been working toward all afternoon.

“Yes,” I shouted as it slowly started to fall. And then I saw where it was going.

“No, no, NO!!!”

The tree was clear in every direction but one...and that’s exactly where it went. I had managed to drop the tallest tree on the property directly on top of her favorite flower bed. Paul Bunyan couldn’t have lined it up better.

Just about then, I hear the sounds of tires rolling across our long gravel driveway.

“So much for the doghouse. A dog would have it good compared to what’s coming to me.”

Pulled-over

After the inevitable fallout, I thought it best to leave things be for a while. They say that time heals all wounds, but I’m guessing whoever said that was never married. Fall gave way to winter and soon snow blanketed the pulverized flower bed, hiding the trenches dug as weighted branches were pulled away. But as much as it snowed, it wasn’t enough to cover the stump; a standing testament to my fantastic failure.

It felt like every time she looked out the window and saw that jagged reminder, the temperature in the room jumped 5 degrees. Obviously, waiting for the stump to slowly rot away was not going to be an option.

I could have hired a stump grinder to come in. But then I’m too cheap; and I hate paying for things if I can do it myself! So I started researching and soon came to the conclusion that burning would be the quickest way to be rid of this bane to household peace.

Armed with a bag of charcoal and some lighter fluid, I started my fire and went inside, fully believing that my trouble would soon be over.

The charcoal burned great, right down to fine gray ash. The stump did not. Point of fact, it didn’t burn at all.

Not to be discouraged, I bought a second bag of charcoal, this time adding a healthy dose of kindling to the endeavor. Wood would burn for sure this time!

And the kindling did...but not the stump! Smokey the Bear would have been impressed. Burning was clearly not an option.

Winter gave way to spring and with it came a new idea. “I’m going to dig that thing out,” I announced.

She looked at me perplexed. “You know we could just hire a stump grinder.”

“That’s too much money.” (Now THERE’S an argument we’re familiar with.) “I’ll just dig it up,” I countered.

This idea must of amused her as she just shook her head and went about her business.

So off I go, armed with my trusty shovel and ax.

For the record, hiring a stump grinder would have been worth every penny. Digging this stump out turned out to be the mother of all projects! I would dig, clearing away the dirt and then chop my way through a layer of roots...only to turn around and do it all over again. For three weekends I did this. When I finally got about waist deep, I stuck a garden hose in and let it run for awhile, getting things all soft and mucky. Only then was my truck able to budge it. Back and forth I tugged, digging more trenches in the yard, before it finally leaned over.

“Yeah!” I told her. “Did you see that? I told you I’d get that thing loose.”

“Good job,” she complimented. “So how are you going to get it out of the hole?”

Talk about raining on my parade.

The weight of a stump that size with all of those roots is pretty substantial. Anything short of a chain and a tractor was going to be a challenge. And seeing that I have neither of those, some thought was going to be required.

While pondering this dilemma, I came across an article about hugel gardening. “What if I just bury it?”

For those who are not familiar with hugelkultur, this involves burying logs in such a way as to form small mounds and then planting vegetables on top. The idea is that the wood absorbs the spring rain then slowly releases it throughout the summer, requiring less watering for the vegetables. Also, as the wood decays, the logs collapse, moving the soil and aerating things in the process. It’s a great concept for the low maintenance gardener.

Another two weekends of digging and I was good to go. I pulled that troublesome stump back over, threw in some scrap wood that needed disposing and covered everything up.

Almost-done

Finally, after all of the drama and hard work, it was finished. The septic tank was safe, the flower bed was put back together, and that eyesore of a stump was finally gone. Would I recommend this process? Not unless you have a tractor. And even then, I’d probably urge caution. The root structure of a sizable tree can be surprising and knocking the stump loose is no small feat. But whatever you do, don’t even think about cutting a tree down and leaving a jagged stump standing in the yard. Take it from me...stumps suck!!