In an effort to become more sustainable, a number of people have moved off the grid. While off-grid living falls under a large umbrella, the basic definition is a lifestyle where the home is not connected to public utilities. The movement offers benefits such as a low carbon footprint, lowered expenses and sustainable energy generation. But how does one go about making their home off-grid?
What are off-grid houses?
Unlike grid-tie houses, off-grid houses do not use public utilities. While some people opt to utilize some public infrastructure like water and telecommunication services, the most common tenet for off-grid living is producing your own electricity. This means that only the power produced on-site is available, usually from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind or geothermal power. Additionally, since the main difference between an off-grid and grid-tie house is the power source, electrical wiring is typically the same.
While it is possible to go off-grid within a city, it is often easier in more rural areas. This is because of bureaucratic hurdles and formalities, but there is also less space to produce your own power. Most of the time, off-grid homes in cities rely entirely on solar power from photovoltaic roof panels. While this is still useful, it can be difficult to meet the home’s energy needs from roof panels alone, particularly during the winter months and/or rainy season, depending on the climate and geography. However, in rural locations, these challenges are less prevalent because of little bureaucracy and more access to space.
How are off-grid houses different from homesteads?
While off-grid houses do require some level of self-sufficiency, they are not entirely self-sufficient like homesteads. Homesteading can involve growing your own food for consumption, possibly raising livestock and even making your own clothes, besides being entirely off-grid. Conversely, off-grid households will often rely on external food sources and supplies, even though they produce their own electrical power.
Switching from a grid-tie home to an off-grid home
The most important consideration when switching from an on-grid to an off-grid system is that you should be able to produce enough energy to meet your daily needs and have a backup in case. Depending on where you live, there may be several additional requirements or formalities from the power company and/or municipality that need to be undertaken as well.
Generating your own electricity
There are several ways to produce your own power. The old-fashioned way to do this was to use a propane, diesel or natural gas generator. Unfortunately, these are better suited for short-term backup power. They are also more expensive than relying on the grid and produce proportionately more pollution and greenhouse gases (GHGs) than large-scale electrical power supply systems. Nowadays, off-grid homes typically utilize clean, renewable energy sources for electricity.
Some examples of clean energy for off-grid homes include wind power, geothermal, fuel cells, micro-hydro and solar power. Wind power is clean but only works well in certain geographies and wind conditions. On small scales, it can also be quite expensive. Geothermal power only works well in certain geographies, such as near volcanoes or hot springs. They are also best suited for producing heat, rather than power production.
Utilizing fuel cells is a newer technology that converts natural gas or other fuels into electricity. Nevertheless, they produce high quantities of GHGs, just like generators. They are also more expensive than relying on the grid for energy.
Micro-hydropower is a small-scale version of hydropower. If the site is hilly and has access to running water, setting up a micro-hydropower system is an excellent long-term solution to generate electricity. Though it has high initial costs to set up, it is a very efficient and long-lasting solution for energy production.
Solar power for off-grid homes
Solar power is the most commonly used renewable energy source for buildings. In fact, 80% of American homes do utilize solar power in some form, with over 1,000,000 rooftop panels in place. It is inexpensive to set up, efficient and scalable which is versatile and cheaper than relying on energy from the grid. Over the last 40 years, the price has dropped by 300 times and is predicted to continue dropping in the near future.
However, there are some downsides to using solar power for off-grid homes. Solar does not work at night and requires batteries or a connection to the grid to continue utilizing power in the evenings. Additionally, solar panels do not work as efficiently in places that are too hot, dusty, or cloudy.
Sometimes, depending on the geographical location, solar panels may generate more power than needed. This can be sold to power companies to be put onto the grid, but rates may vary by region. Another option to utilize this power is by using batteries to save this power. This is useful for nighttime and/or shorter winter days that will require extra solar power to meet daily loads.
To conserve electricity, off-grid houses make use of energy-efficient appliances or manual alternatives. This may include systems like electric water heaters, dishwashers, ovens and HVAC systems. Utilizing manual or low-energy alternatives ensures that the electricity you generate is used appropriately, which saves on costs and maximizes efficiency.
Always have a backup
Unfortunately, there are times when you will require backup energy. This is particularly important during stretches of bad weather that may hinder the amount of renewable energy you generate. In fact, rain, snow and cloudy weather can drop the efficiency of solar power production down to 10%. In lengthy periods of harsh weather, even backup batteries will drain, so other forms of backup power are necessary.
While the grid can be used as a backup, only using it a few times a year may not sit well with electrical companies. They are likely to charge hefty fees or may not allow it at all. So far, Hawaii is the only state that has the option to use the grid as a backup system at a reasonable cost. Slowly other states are expected to follow through.
For now, backup generators are the optimal choice for off-grid living, even though they are not very sustainable. Though using a generator is not ideal for those that only want to use clean energy, the environmental impacts are still less than utilizing fossil fuel-based power throughout the year.
Are you ready?
Though it may initially be challenging to go off-grid, this choice does come with several benefits. If well-planned, it is a cost-effective, sustainable way of living, that benefits the environment and your pockets.
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