When we found our off-grid compound, I assumed that I’d have to give up just about every power-consuming modern luxury. We went through our kitchen cabinets and tested each appliance with a kill-a-watt electricity usage monitor and put just about everything in the moving sale pile. We assumed our off-grid system wouldn’t be able to support 1000 watts for a dehydrator or 1200 watts for grandma’s antique waffle iron.
At the last minute, we packed them anyway and figured we could always get rid of them later.
The reality of living off the grid turned out to be quite a bit different than we expected. Instead of the chronic electricity shortage we expected, more often than not we had far more electricity than we could use. We moved in October and each morning by 11 am our batteries were fully charged. The rest of the day’s production and peak production levels throughout the afternoon were just going to waste.
Not only were we able to use high electricity usage appliances, we actually felt like we had to use them to consume all the excess “free” electricity our system was producing. We bought a countertop electric oven and a countertop induction burner to save on oven and burner propane and make use of our free electricity.
We experimented with an electric chainsaw for our wood cutting, hoping to be able to turn the extra sun energy in the summer into cordwood. In the end, we found that electric chainsaws are built for people who cut up 1 tree a year, not homesteaders who are trying to put up 8 to 10 cords of wood. Back to the trusty gas saw.
We make all of our income living off the grid without desk jobs (here’s how) but we don’t make much. Living off the grid is surprisingly affordable, and we’re living on well below the median income for an American household. It’s enough to get by, and enough to stay happy, all while enjoying our time in paradise.
Still, without a lot of extra money laying around, we have you use up every last bit of “free” we can get, and this house gives us a lot of free electricity. Here’s how we use it…
1. Unlimited Free Hot Water
Traditional solar hot water doesn’t use photovoltaic panels. They’re stand-alone systems where the water actually runs through it and is heated by the sun. They can be hit or miss on cloudy days or in northern climates.
Our system is a bit different. Our water heater is a standard household electric water heater, and it functions as our solar dump tank. Once the batteries are full, the charge controllers are programmed to dump excess solar production into our electric water heater.
For cloudy days and during the winter months, we have a loop of our radiant floor heat system run through the water heater so that we can make wood-fired hot water. Our external boiler runs on anything we can harvest here from our land, including pine and hemlock that can’t be burned in a traditional wood stove.
There’s a remote thermometer that runs from the electric water heater in the basement up to the first floor, and during midsummer, I’ve seen that tank hit 160 degrees. Honestly, that’s dangerously hot and we’ve had to be careful turning on the tap. Some days, we have “mandatory” bath time just to draw down our hot water supply.
2. Whirlpool Bath Tub
If you’re going to have to take mandatory baths to use up your oversupply of hot water, you might as well do it in style. My husband and I can comfortably sit side by side in our whirlpool bathtub, and our feet don’t even reach the far end.
I love baths, and after our tub, I’m ruined for any other normal suburban bathtub. Sure, we can’t run the jets at night or midwinter, but that’s not exactly a tragedy…
This is our one totally gratuitous extravagance. Does a house really need one? Of course not. But you’re only going to install a bathtub once.
A whirlpool tub is only $300 to $400 more expensive than a normal tub (if you bargain hunt) and you’ll be soaking your tush in that thing for decades, powered by free electricity.
It’s worth it. After a long day hand splitting wood or digging in the garden, you’ll thank me. Seriously.
3. Radiant Floor Heat & Super Insulation
In our last home, we never felt warm. Our heat worked perfectly fine, but the floors were always cold. You could feel the cold seeping into your bones, even through rugs and socks.
Places where rugs were impractical, like the kitchen, were especially bad. Who wants to feel cold in the kitchen? It dampens the spirits.
Radiant floor heat has really improved our quality of life, and it’s all run using off-grid power and DC electric straight from our batteries.
Since keeping the inverter running full time can be taxing on your power resources in the winter, having DC electric pumps that circulate the fluid from our external boiler means that our house and floors are toasty warm no matter the weather. It often hits -30 here, and in January it’s not uncommon to go a whole week where highs never come above zero.
Around here, good heat is essential for both health and morale in the wintertime. I’ve never been warmer than since we moved off-grid. It just goes to show you, if your house is built right and well insulated, you might actually be warmer in the long run, even if you’re off the grid in the sticks.
4. Dehumidifier or Air Conditioner
To me, nothing says gratuitous and wasteful electricity usage like an air conditioner. I never had one living in town, it just seems so wasteful in the long run. Using so much electricity to stay cool, and contributing to the bigger problem of climate change, in the long run, to allow for just temporary comfort.
Unlike suburban living, where peak usage can cause brown-outs on hot summer days, we actually have the most electricity to spare on those brutally hot mid-summer days.
Sure, we turn them off at night, but being able to take the edge off during a mid-day siesta before going back outside to enjoy the garden once things cool down is a welcome break. Off-grid, I don’t have one shred of guilt about it.
We’d never had a dishwasher before moving off-grid. Normally in our house, after dinner each night the dishes are done before bed, but off-grid, the evening isn’t exactly the best time of day to run the water pump. Now dishes are loaded into the dishwasher, and it’s kicked on mid-day the following day.
While a dishwasher seems like a bit of an extravagance, it actually helps us use our electricity during peak production without having to give up daylight outdoor working hours. Midday we’d rather be out cutting wood or working in the garden, not stuck inside catching up on dishes. This way, we’re out working and our house is busy putting our free electricity to good use.
6. High-Speed Internet
Since we both make our full-time living off-grid, remote work online is essential to making ends meet. We assumed we’d be commuting to some form of co-working space, but there are actually a surprising number of options for high-speed internet even for rural off-grid homes.
Satellite internet is generally pretty dependable if you’re not completely closed in by trees. Others we know use cell signal internet that plugs directly into an adapter on their computer.
In our case, we have a tall tower for our wind turbine that extends above the treeline. That same tower serves as our antenna for radio internet. Most times when power and internet are out in town from ice storms or bad weather, we never even know it.
7. Fully Stocked Summer Kitchen Powered by Free Electricity
In the summertime, most people don’t cook for fear of heating up their house and making it unbearable. What if you could take all that outdoors, keeping it cool inside? Sure, you could set up a rickety camping setup with a small propane burner, but what if you actually want to cook real food?
Since we have so much surplus electricity in the summertime, it made sense to invest in electric appliances that we operate in an outdoor summer kitchen. We run a small electric oven and an induction burner for much of our cooking. We’re also really fond of our instant pot, which we can load up the night before and program to run during peak production the next day.
Who would have thought an instant pot would be practical off the grid? It actually makes managing our electricity much simpler because we can cook electrically using a timed cycle that utilizes peak production and allows us to prep ahead so we don’t waste daylight cooped up inside cooking.
For half the year we cook with free energy and don’t heat up the house. The other half of the year, we either cook indoors on a propane stove, or during the really cold months we cook on our wood stove. That means we use hardly any propane, and the vast majority of our cooking is done with free energy, either solar or wood powered.
Often enough, just for fun, we go camping about 100 feet from the house and bake in our dutch oven. Now that’s some truly “off-grid cooking” no electricity required.
We do that by choice and for fun, not because we have to. Much of the year we’re kicking on our solar-powered instant pot.
8. Attached Greenhouse
I love our greenhouse. Solar energy is a magical thing, and even in February when it’s 30 below outside we can sip coffee in our PJ’s toasty warm at over 90 degrees on sunny days.
It’s set up to vent into the house during the winter, providing ample free heat. We actually don’t run the heat for weeks at a time mid-winter sometimes, even in our northern climate.
It also makes it simple to grow herbs, cooking greens and veggie starts any time of the year. The ability to grow food at any time of the year saves us money, but it also enables us to grow crops we otherwise wouldn’t.
Rosemary is cold sensitive and can’t survive Vermont winters, but our plant is huge and gets bigger each year. Other crops like ginger, figs and lemons also grow well in our greenhouse in the winter and are then put out in pots for the summer.
9. Passive Solar Heating & Cooling
It makes sense that an attached greenhouse would be great for passive solar heating in the wintertime, but doesn’t it get really hot in the summertime? Nope.
The very top of our greenhouse is our solar panels. As the sun angle changes and the sun gets higher in the sky in the summertime, our greenhouse solar panels shade the whole side of the house. Opening the doors and top vent means that the house stays shaded and cool, and the greenhouse itself stays the ambient outdoor temperature.
As a result, our attached greenhouse and solar panel setup provides for both passive heating AND cooling year-round.
10. Access to Nature
I hear all the time about urban food deserts, where people simply cannot access clean healthy food. In that scenario, they definitely don’t have access to even the most basic nature experiences. Nature is outside our doorstep, and with it ample space to grow our own food and acres of woods where we can forage.
Deer visits are a daily occurrence, and a flock of 20+ turkeys overwinters outside our back door and sustains themselves on nuts and crab apples that we leave intentionally to support “our” turkeys.
This is why we’re here. Sure, a hot tub is nice. But this, waking up literally to the birds singing (or occasionally to an overzealous woodpecker…) is why we’re here.
This is where we want our kids to grow up. This is where we want them to come home to. Living in and breathing in fresh air.