An Educated Move Off-Grid

Beginner

Inside this Article

Off-grid PV system
A high-tech off-grid system now provides electricity for the twentieth-century farmhouse.
Twentieth-century farmhouse
This twentieth-century farmhouse was originally built by an Amish family; it was formerly electricity- and plumbing-free.
Usage of energy-efficient appliances
Energy-efficient appliances play a critical role in reducing the electrical loads in an off-grid system.
Batteries for energy storage
Two 48 V strings of Trojan L-16-RE batteries provide energy storage for the McDermott home.
OutBack inverter and two MidNite Solar charge controllers
The balance-of-system components include an OutBack inverter and two MidNite Solar charge controllers.
Generac EcoGen 6 kW propane generator
The Generac EcoGen 6 kW propane generator is designed and warranted for off-grid use with an RE system.
Pole-mounted solar-electric arrays.
Much of the 21-foot lengths of the mounting poles are encased in concrete to handle the wind loads on the large arrays.
PV module mounting
Mounting the PV modules.
Olde English Babydoll lamb.
The McDermotts’ off-grid life also includes this Olde English Babydoll lamb.
Teresa inspects her beehives
Teresa inspects her beehives and checks for honey. Notice the solar-powered electric fence used to keep out pesky black bears.
Off-grid family
Off-grid family Mark and Teresa McDermott with their son Dylan and daughter Laura.
Off-grid PV system
Twentieth-century farmhouse
Usage of energy-efficient appliances
Batteries for energy storage
OutBack inverter and two MidNite Solar charge controllers
Generac EcoGen 6 kW propane generator
Pole-mounted solar-electric arrays.
PV module mounting
Olde English Babydoll lamb.
Teresa inspects her beehives
Off-grid family

My wife Teresa and I had talked for some time about moving to the country, and in late 2011 we started getting serious about it. But we were not going to move to just “anywhere” in the country. I wanted some land where I could hunt and practice with my firearms, since I am an avid hunter and enjoy competing in local shooting matches. Teresa was interested in raising farm animals and keeping honeybees—and not having a neighbor right next door. We used the Internet to search for properties and contacted a real estate agent to assist us.

After months of searching, a couple of things became apparent. The first was that locals here in the southern tier of New York, near the Pennsylvania border, believe there is natural gas under their land and wanted top dollar—or would not give up their mineral rights. The second thing was that it was going to take a bit of luck to find a property where everything we wanted would meet what we could afford.

Prime Property?

When our home came up on the radar, we knew it had what we were looking for and it was a great deal, but it was a little farther away from work than we wanted. On the 60-acre property was a six-bedroom home with a large separate workshop/store, two big barns, a cabin in the woods, and a sizable pond. An additional 100 acres were also available. We had looked at properties with less land and smaller houses with no outbuildings that were double this property’s asking price. The description in the real estate listing was a little vague and seemed too good to be true.

After talking to the agent, it became immediately clear why the property was priced so low. The house belonged to and was built by an Amish family—there was no electricity in the house and no indoor plumbing. We made arrangements to see the place, located in rural Steuben County, southern New York, during one of the only snowstorms in the winter of 2011. Perched atop a hill, the house and property sit in a windy area, near several wind farms.

Away From the Rat Race

We met the family and toured the house and some of the property. The home was beautiful and the land was exactly what we were looking for, but there were no modern conveniences. Instead, there was a hand pump for water, an outhouse, and no central heat. There was a Hitzer gravity-fed coal heater and a wood-burning cookstove. When we left that day, we were pretty sure that it wasn’t the place for us, although we were completely intrigued by the Amish lifestyle.

But the more we talked and thought about it, the more the idea of getting away from the “rat race” appealed to us. Our kids had been spending most of their time watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the ‘Net. Teresa and I were no better, with a lot of our free time being wasted in front of the computer or TV. So we talked to the kids and, surprisingly, they were all for it.

I could write another article about the hurdles we encountered getting financing and insurance on a home with no electricity, no plumbing, and no central heat, but the important part is that we decided to buy this home and land. We put in a purchase offer with a couple of contingencies in case we ran into problems and needed an out. The seed for living off-grid was planted.

Going to RE School

We wanted to have electricity, and I learned a lot from online searching. The first advice I got (from many sources) was “Don’t do it—If you can, connect to the grid!” The per-kilowatt-hour cost of utility-provided electricity is often much lower than the per kWh cost of making your own off-grid electricity and the payback is very long—so I looked into extending the grid to our house. But our experience with the utility was not encouraging, and the cost and red tape were beyond our means and patience. The grid ended 0.5 mile in either direction from our home. On the southern side, we would need to obtain permission from one neighbor and we would need to remove (or have removed) all of the trees that were within 30 feet of the road. The estimate from the electric company was $50,000 to $75,000 for setting the poles and lines. Coming in from the north, there were two neighbors who we would need to get permission from, but most of the land coming from that side was open field. The electric company estimated the cost to be $35,000 to $45,000 to run the lines and poles there. We actually considered this option but unfortunately (or fortunately) neither of the neighbors was willing to grant us permission. And both cost estimates were minimums and we were warned that it could be much more. So I was relieved when we finally made the decision to keep the home off-grid.

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Comments (6)

America Install Solar's picture

Congratulations McDermontt's making your home off-grid!

It's odd how most('grid-tied') people try to justify not going Off-grid, like saying "the Packback is very long"!
so the Q. for grid dependent users is...When are you going to 'pay-off' your utility bill?

A. Never

Ian Woofenden's picture

The McDermotts are off-grid because line extension cost was in the $35,000 to $45,000 range. If the utility line is on site and interconnection policies are reasonable, using renewable energy ON-grid makes more sense, because you can use or get credited for all production. Off-grid systems must be designed to have a surplus, and therefore are fundamentally less efficient than grid-connected systems. The payback may or may not be longer for off-grid systems, depending on the cost of line extension.

I think sometimes people say "I want to go off-grid" when they really mean, "I want to power my home with renewable energy". Sensible renewable energy design will most often use the existing utility grid if it's practical. Unless line extension costs or interconnection bureaucracy or costs are high, a grid-tied renewable energy system usually makes the most sense.

Ian Woofenden, Home Power senior editor

America Install Solar's picture

Good sunny day Ian! (hopefully there, if not soon) With most of what you said, I concur.
That's why I promote use of 'biModal' PV systems (On-grid+stand alone operation), customers get the Best of both worlds...hopefully, as you said, if not a interconnection mess!
With a hybrid type PV system costing less (vs. cost a Grid-Tied Only sys. few years ago) installing a Bimodal is the best & makes the most sense, esp. when the grid fails...like 'victums' of hurricane Sandy with 'grid-dependent' PV systems, looking at their arrays but have NO power from their solar investment!!
For those with a stand-alone (i.e. 'off-grid' PV+ some type of back-up power) energy system, they will never have the headache of a 'Sandy Storm' (unless their array and 'back-up power' flies or dies!) or dealing with all the net-metering misinformation, and unfair (by most utilities) 'credit' as a lower than grid retail rate 'paid' for PV owner's true value of their solar investment, which should be equal for kWh delivered.
note: Minnesota has just declared the 'value of solar' sent to the utility grid at over 14 cents/kWh hour!
see:
http://www.ilsr.org/wp-content/uplo...

Stay cool,
It's Time for Solar!

Ian Woofenden's picture

From my perspective, it all depends on the goals of the system owner.

My experience is that when most people find out the increased cost and responsibility of battery based systems, they opt for batteryless grid-tie. But again, it depends on their motivations. If they are concerned about the end of the world or grid instability, certainly battery-based systems will fill their needs better. But most people in the U.S. live where utility outages are rare and short, and paying for, maintaining, and charging batteries for 364+ days per year to plan for a brief possible outage doesn't make sense to a lot of people.

I _try_ to keep my personal viewpoints and conclusions (I've lived off grid for 30+ years by choice) mostly to myself, and present options to readers and clients while trying to discover and help them achieve their own goals.

And then to throw a bit of a curve into the batteryless-with-no-backup vs. more-expensive-battery-based-grid-tie decision, we now have the limited-backup-when-the-sun's-out option, as profiled in HP159:

http://www.homepower.com/articles/s...

It remains to be seen how this limited product will play out in the real world of people's goals and expectations.

Ian Woofenden, Home Power senior editor

Kolapo Olakonu's picture

Hello Mark,
this is awesome, i'm all excited about off grid living and look forward to it. the "inside this article" links however does not contain the cost table mentioned within the main article. Can we see that also?
Thank you
Kolapo Olakonu
Phoenix AZ

Michael Welch's picture

Hi Kolapo. Off-grid living has a lot of benefits, but also more expensive PV systems. Unfortunately, there is not a cost table with this article to illustrate that, and the reference should have been removed during the editorial process. Please accept our apologies.
Michael -- Home Power

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