After more than three decades of off-grid living, I had the opportunity to live on-grid for a time, caretaking a client’s estate. I learned some lessons that may be useful to readers—both on-grid and off.
My off-grid reality and psychology on my family’s homestead included:
- Limited energy
- Limited funds
- Generator dependence and/or avoidance
- Prohibited or discouraged loads
This led to a lifestyle of serious energy awareness, and included load shifting—wood for space heating and propane for the generator, as well as for some cooking and water heating. It meant daily observation of energy conditions, and adjusting energy use accordingly. At my off-grid homestead, laundry gets done when it’s sunny or windy, or when we’re willing to fire up “the noise”—my name for the propane generator.
Fat & Sassy On-Grid
The caretaker cabin/guest house was originally the water tower house for the estate, built in 1947. The retrofit rebuilt it from the ground up. I learned a lot by first overseeing the transformation and then living in the cabin. Key lessons included:
Space heating. I missed my simple wood heater, including the possibility of getting really warm, and the ability to cook and heat water with wood. I also missed being able to easily dry and warm shoes and other clothing. The modern wood heater in the cabin was fussy and didn’t hold a fire well. On the upside, the indoor/outdoor woodbox was an amazing innovation that made wood heat cleaner and more convenient than it’s ever been on my homestead. I’m already planning this upgrade at my off-grid home.
The cabin has a minisplit heat pump, the most efficient and cost-effective conventional (but renewable, if it’s powered by RE-made electricity) way to heat and cool a home. Living with it was convenient and effective. The home had no clothes dryer, and the indoor wooden drying rack and outdoor lines felt like my off-grid lifestyle.
Water heating. The main house has 35 kW of PV modules, a solar pool heating system, and a solar domestic water heater. These systems were installed per the owner’s “get fossil fuels off my property” request, but the cabin’s less-than-perfect solar access led me to recommend a conventional electric tank water heater be installed there. After measuring the water heater’s energy use, I regretted not specifying a solar water heating system. For the nine months that I measured, the cabin’s total electricity usage was an average of 17.6 kWh per day, and 9.7 kWh of that was the conventional tank water heater!
Appliance choices. The cabin uses almost all LED lighting, except for tube fluorescents in two closets. The results were encouraging—quality, efficient lighting, without too much design head-scratching or oddball product searching.
The cabin’s other appliances performed well; none were a major energy draw. I rarely used the dishwasher—my personal preference.
On-Grid Loads? My off-grid perspective gave me some assumptions about what were and were not “big” loads, and I learned some lessons. On the homestead, I’d always used a non-electric popcorn popper on the wood or propane stove. The on-grid cabin had an electric blower-style popcorn popper. While it’s not an insignificant instantaneous draw, it turns out that a batch of popcorn only uses 50 to 60 watt-hours. Learning this on-grid, I now indulge this energy usage back at my off-grid homestead at times. Similarly, the new and sophisticated Blendtec blender seemed like it would be a big load off-grid, but making a green smoothie in it is very similar in energy use to making a batch of popcorn. And even using an electric tea kettle is not prohibitive—only 60 to 70 watt-hours were used to heat a half-full pot.
The big on-grid loads I used in the cabin that are out of the question at my off-grid homestead are:
- Minisplit heat pump for space heating
- Tank water heater
- Electric range/oven
- Bathroom resistance space heater
In addition, I pay much more attention to phantom loads and general conservation—that is, I turn things off when they’re not in use—while living off-grid.
My primary take-homes from my time on-grid were:
- Energy awareness (and before that, literacy) is a key step. Most folks on-grid would not be aware of or analyze their energy footprint.
- Energy efficiency requires more motivation when you’re on-grid.
- Measuring energy usage brings some surprises about what can actually be done off-grid.
- Some loads are indeed off-grid deal-breakers.
- Experiencing my first utility outage in 30 years was a new experience. I was able to charge my phone and laptop with the main house’s battery backup system. My off-grid experience prepared me well for using wood for heating and cooking, and with patience for a variable energy supply.
What can you learn from my unusual throwback to being on-grid? Don’t take your energy use for granted. Do the measurements and analysis. Try to imagine how you would need to live off-grid, and apply the lessons learned to your current energy lifestyle, whatever it might be. Consider how conventional energy is produced and the environmental impacts of your energy decisions. I’m happy to be back making and managing my own home energy, but also grateful for the perspective of a time connected to the utility.