Ever wonder what it takes to live off the grid? Here are some common questions for living off-grid:
1. What exactly does living off-grid mean? What do you need to live off the grid?
Historically living off-grid meant being your own utility company for electric, water, heat, and/or cooling. Historically it meant you were too far from utilities so you had to provide your own. Living Off Grid, Really!? can be as simple or similar as going camping or having a power failure. We kick into survival mode and figure out how to live with less. Typically off-grid homes used 40% of the energy of an on-grid home but that is changing due to the lower cost of solar.
However, there is a new breed of people “living off the grid” within the city. I am broadening the definition to mean taking control of all aspects of your life from food to transportation.
2. How do solar panels work and are they as efficient as people say?
Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize in 1922 from explaining the photovoltaic effect in 1905 and I doubt I can do as good of a job. Basically, they convert light (photons from the Sun) to electricity (electrons which are electrical current). In other words, high-tech, space-age magic. When the solar module (panel) makes the electricity (which is DC) it is stored in batteries (on off the grid systems), and converted to AC (regular house current) to be able to run regular AC appliances.
The efficiency of a photovoltaic system is the measurement of how much of the available solar energy a solar cell converts into electrical energy. Most typical silicon solar cells have a maximum efficiency of around 15 percent. Even a solar system with only 15 percent efficiency can power the average home in a cost-effective way. Do you drive a car? Cars convert thermal energy from burning gasoline into forward motion at an efficiency around 15 to 25 percent (and this on a finite resource). Should we wait for better?
3. How much does it cost?
What do you want to run? I need to know your daily energy usage to design a system to provide your power. A web-enabled tablet, an LED light and a cell phone can be powered off of a portable power system for as little as $150. I have wired a small cabin in Garden of the Gods for under $3000, a small house near Benton for around $20,000 or a larger business in Alto Pass for over $50,000.
4. Will I be able to cool my home in the summer and heat in the winter?
Cool yes as there is plenty of sun in the summer. Heat with electric, no as there isn’t much sun in the winter. However, even a gas furnace or wood furnace could need air circulation and controls and those we can power with solar. My recommendation is a multi-fuel (gas, solar thermal, wood) fired outdoor furnace.
5. How much room will the solar panels take?
Each typical solar module is 39 inches wide and 66 inches tall. How many you need is determined by your lifestyle’s energy needs. It is important to have a sunny location to put the solar modules facing south that is unshaded ideally from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. which is during peak sun hours. A roof-mounted system is the cheapest (don’t have to build a structure) but not always the best. A ground-mounted system will always produce more as it can be mounted exactly in the right direction and at the right angle. The solar modules will also operate more efficiently the cooler they are and a ground mount has natural cooling with airflow around it.