40 Days Off Grid
By Jack Fernard
It’s been a little over six weeks since my family and I moved into our new off-grid home and I can honestly say that going from unlimited electricity to generating our own hasn’t been as painless as I expected.
The were several factors that surprised me. Some of these things I should have foreseen and some I’ll just write up as the learning curve. Here’s a short list of what was learned.
Having the ability to take a hot shower in the morning is truly a blessing. If you don’t believe me, trying taking lukewarm showers for a week. I don’t care how much of a treehugger you want to be, taking a cold shower in December in Michigan is pretty much a crime against nature (at least my nature). I don’t even want to think about what life was like before people had hot water to bath in. A propane powered hot water heater was an option, one that might seem obvious for a off-grid home. But I wanted to get away from fossil fuels and ‘walk the walk’ when it came to living sustainably. For this reason an electric heat-pump water heater was installed.
Heat-pump water heaters are great! They use only a fraction of the electricity an all electric water heater would — 550 watts as compared to 8500 watts — the trade off being how long it takes to heat a full tank. In a normal 70 deg. environment, my water heater will generate about 8 gallons of hot water an hour. Unfortunately, my water heater isn’t in a 70 deg. environment. Half the time it’s not even 60 deg. Consequently, it can run a lot! So why not put a pellet or wood stove in the basement close to where the water heater is located? Apparently the floor trusses in my home are going the wrong direction. (Surprise# 1)
Lesson learned — I should have spoken with a stove expert much sooner in the build process. It came as a shock to everyone, including the general contractor, to learn that a pellet stove could not go in the basement.
Having grown up on cutting, stacking and splitting wood, I was deliriously excited to learn that wood could be delivered in 40lb bags. And wow does my pellet stove work! I fill the hopper, set the temperature and that little stove does all the rest. I have no problem staying warm … when it’s running. Unfortunately, the little stove takes a fair amount of electricity — between 390 to 520 watts. This might not sound like a lot considering the average microwave oven takes 1000 watts, but then you don’t run your microwave 24 hours a day.
I hadn’t anticipated the stove using so much electricity. Consequently, I can’t run it all night. This is great for sleeping, but horrible for getting out of bed in the mornings. (Surprise #2)
Lesson learned — I should have gotten real world performance numbers from people other than the stove salesman.
There’s a saying here in Michigan. It’s, “Say goodbye to the sun in the fall because you won’t see it again until spring.” I did not realize how true that really was until I needed the sun to power my house. For the entire month of December we had a total of 2 days with clear skies — 2 out of 31! Consequently, we’ve been burning through generous amounts of propane as our whole house generator runs to compensate. (Surprise #3)
Lesson learned — expect the unexpected. The solar power system that we have works great when there’s sun. Evidence for this came last week when we had three days in a row with limited clouds. Even with the days being short, we generated enough energy to completely power the house; including three loads of laundry and running the dishwasher. In short, it was just like being connected to the grid (only without the monthly bill).
All in all, the first 40 days of living off-grid weren’t as fun as I had hoped. I wish I could say that I’m living the dream, but at the moment, it’s been a stressful pain in the butt! That being said, I have no plans on ever going back … EVER! I like being independent. I’ll take the headaches of being a homesteader over the convenience of total reliance anytime. Throw in the knowledge that I’m helping the environment and it’s hard to paint this experience as anything less than a good thing.
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