An Educated Move Off-Grid: Page 4 of 4

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

Embracing Off-Grid Living

Our system is well-balanced, and our family is well-matched to it. I ran the generator only a handful of times last winter, and only when the batteries were in the 70% state of charge (SOC) range. On the weekdays, we typically use between 2 and 3 kWh. On weekend days, our use climbs to 4 or 5 kWh. However, since last winter was our first winter with the system, we were very conservative with our usage.  But none of us feel like we have had to make huge sacrifices to keep our usage low. We currently have a spring-fed cistern that we use for our water supply. We may need to drill a well, which will require a different pump and more electricity. We are and will be using more energy as our comfort level with living off-grid increases. My thinking now is, use it or lose it—”it” being the solar energy available.

Did we give up any modern conveniences? Yes and no, according to how you define modern conveniences. We “gave up” everybody having a TV in each of their bedrooms. We gave up having multiple cable boxes, DVRs, and a large surround-sound system. We gave up having a huge chest freezer filled with who knows what and a large side-by-side refrigerator. We gave up having every light in the house on all the time. We gave up having all of our electrical devices plugged in and ready to go. 

We currently have two energy-efficient TVs—we added a 24-inch LED TV that uses 60 W. We made the decision to use an over-the-air antenna and not get a dish, so we “gave up” 200+ channels. All of the appliances with phantom loads—TVs, gaming console, computer, and printers—are plugged into power strips that are turned off when not in use. We let the kids have limited use of the gaming console and TV (most of the time they limit themselves). We have family TV time in the evenings—when we decide to watch TV. We brought in a fiber-optic phone line to the house, since there was no cell or Internet service. The modem is powered all the time. All of our lights are energy-efficient and only one or two are on at a time most nights. Overcoming our bad energy practices has actually been a little easier than I thought it would be. We all work together to conserve electricity, which is really astonishing to me, since conservation was not even in our vocabulary a year ago.

Going off-grid has taught me many things. First was the importance of tracking the energy usage of all of your electrical appliances—clocks, chargers, everything—it all adds up. Do not depend on the sticker that gives the amperage on the back of an appliance—they are not accurate enough. Second, every dollar spent on conservation will save you more than that on the cost of your PV system. Energy efficiency in your lifestyle and appliances is a must. If you hire an installer, check references and go see at least one of their installations. Ask questions.

If you look at changing to off-grid living strictly as a financial problem, it may or may not pencil out, since the cost of electricity from the grid is usually cheaper than from an off-grid system. In our case, the costs of bringing in the grid and installing an off-grid system were about the same if considered over 10 years. It may even have been cheaper if we had gone the grid route. But being on our own and telling the electric utility to take a hike…well, that is priceless!

As we moved into our first spring off-grid, the system was really coming into its own. We have embraced living off the grid. I think our family and friends thought we were crazy to buy a home with no electricity or plumbing. But now all we hear is how lucky we are and how beautiful it is out here. We love it and would definitely do it all again.

Access

Born in Elmira, New York, Mark McDermott has worked at Corning for 28 years. He currently serves as a development engineer there, working on optical fiber and photonic components.

Four Winds Renewable Energy • four-winds-energy.com • System design & installation

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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