After 6 years on our off-grid homestead, we’ve learned a thing or two about managing our systems to make sure they’re as dependable as possible. My husband and I both earn our living off the grid, largely from remote work that requires dependable power. No power may mean a quiet day in the garden or by the wood stove, but it also usually means no income that day which can’t happen too often.
For about 9 months of the year, we have a power surplus. We’ve been able to run a surprising number of luxuries off-grid, when we initially expected that we’d always be strictly budgeting electricity. Still, our off-grid setup is a bit undersized to get us through the winter, and when it goes down we cant make a living.
A dependable off-grid system is essential to living sustainably out here, especially while we still have a mortgage on our homestead.
Invest in Direct Current Appliances & Lighting
Most home appliances cant run directly off battery power. That power has to be converted from direct current (DC) from the battery into alternating current (AC) like the power that comes through suburban electrical outlets. An inverter does that conversion for you and allows you to run standard appliances without a grid connection. The problem is, running an inverter uses up a lot of electricity.
You can save a substantial amount of power by turning off the inverter whenever it’s not needed, but that means that anything that’s continuously running needs to run off DC power. Things like lights and the refrigerator, that you’ll want on even when the suns not shining, are better off using DC power straight from the batteries.
DC appliances are relatively easy to come by, and they’re much more dependable than anything you’ll pick up at home depot. Our DC refrigerator is an RF16 from Sunfrost, and it’s run for the past 20 years without issue. Likewise, our two DC freezers are problem free and use almost no electricity. They’re both from….
DC lighting is a bit more complicated. If you’re going to run DC lighting you need to wire your house in DC, which means you’re committed. There was a point a few years back when the main DC lightbulb manufacturer decided to close up shop. It was literally someone in their garage in Montana supplying the whole country and they closed down.
There was a 2 year time period when we couldn’t get DC light bulbs except for shipped slow boat from China at significant cost. Luckily other manufacturers have popped up and they’re now once again easily available in the US. They even sell them in bulk packs on Amazon.
To be safe, consider installing light fixtures designed for a boat or RV. Those also run on DC power, and those bulbs are more common. We converted many of our fixtures over to run on small DC halogen bulbs that are used in boat and RV track lighting, called MR-16 bulbs.
Setup a Gravity Well
Our well-pump uses more electricity than anything else we run. We could run a full-sized electric oven for about the same amount of electricity. If there’s any way to setup a gravity well on your property, your whole system, especially your water supply, would be much more dependable. We stored drinking water, but sometimes in the winter, we’d run the generator just to be able to take a shower and do dishes.
We found a year round spring recently at the very back edge of our 30 acres. It’s about 600 feet from the house and through dense woods, but we’re hoping to be able to install a gravity well at some point in the future just for dependability. We haven’t yet looked into the costs, but I imagine it’ll be substantial.
If you have a water source that can passively supply your home, it’s worth it to set that up from the beginning to save on electricity in the long term.
Put Solar Panels Where You Can Reach Them
While there’s something to be said about using up free roof space with solar panels, they’re really hard to access. Most of the year that’s not a problem. but after a heavy snow, it can take weeks for them to melt off. We have friends with ground-based panels and they just dust them off with a broom no problem. Most of our production is at the top of a 2 story building with cathedral ceilings and there’s no practical way to clear those panels.
Some of our panels are on our attached greenhouse, and the warmth of the greenhouse melts those out quickly. We just dust the greenhouse roof off with a push broom and then any breaks of sun cause it to heat up and clear the panels. That’s a much more reliable place to install panels in cold climates.
Have More Than One Way to Generate Power
I’ll admit, we don’t get much wind here. It takes serious winter storms to turn our wind turbine, but when a noreaster is blowing through there’s no solar power to be had, so I’m glad we have a wind turbine as a backup.
Having two types of power generation, wind and solar, means that we have redundancy. If the sun’s not shining, the wind may be blowing. That’s happened more times than I can count and that wind turbine has allowed us to limp along until the sun returned.
Buy a Larger Battery Bank Than You Think You’ll Need
When we found our off-grid homestead, the battery bank was reaching the end of life. The batteries were 16 years old, which is much longer than they’re rated to last. We didn’t have any idea how much power storage we needed, so he suggested a really basic (and relatively cost-effective) battery bank.
We quickly found out that it wasn’t nearly enough. On sunny days in the summer, our batteries would be full before noon. And then in the winter, we were always scrambling and we logged way too many generator hours.
Try to size your battery bank to you generation ability. We have 12 solar panels with a total generation capacity of 3.6kW, plus a 1kW wind turbine. Our batteries store 20.5kWh of electricity, and honestly, I wish we’d doubled that to be able to effectively use all our generation in the summer and have a more dependable system in the winter. For more details on our system and what we’re running, check out our off-grid system specs.
Have a Backup Generator (and learn to maintain it)
So maybe having a generator goes without saying for most people, but I know several people trying to make it work off the grid without one. They’re more hardcore than I am, and they truly believe that burning any fossil fuels is unacceptable. I’m willing to use a bit of generator time to help us limp along, and acknowledge that we’re not perfect, but simply striving for a more sustainable existence.
The part that may be less obvious is learning to maintain it yourself. Generators only break down when you need them, and even if you have an emergency generator tech available in your area, they’ll be swamped during big storms and anytime most people use a generator.
A few years ago I was 7 months pregnant and my husband was out of town. We had an ice storm, and then it never went above -20 that week. Our panels were iced in, our outdoor boiler needed electricity to run, and I ran through all the wood in our basement for our basement wood stove. I couldn’t haul wood fast enough to keep the house warm.
Of course…the generator also broke down. I couldn’t figure out how to repair it, and the tech took 4 days to show up. I managed to keep the house a toasty 45 degrees, but that’s an experience I’m not excited to repeat.
Your generator will break down. It’s inevitable. You should know the basics of troubleshooting it, and ideally, know how to do substantial repairs if need be.
Keep Spare Parts on Hand
Sometimes all it takes is a blown fuse to shut you down. We managed to blow a fuse Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend mid-winter when we really needed the generator. Without a tiny little fuse, we couldn’t charge the batteries from the generator. Luckily we had a backup circuit that allowed us to run the whole house directly off the generator. It was installed so that the house could still function off the generator if the inverter went down, and it saved us in this case.
Take a look at your system, and figure out if there are any small parts that are inexpensive but critical to the functioning of your system.