Wednesday, 26 September 2012

10 Steps to Off Grid Living…Today


My name is Warren, I am known as “Offgridman” on the Internet. My story is about surviving without commercial electricity, natural gas or any of the on-grid services.

In 1997 I was told I had 6 months to live. They were wrong. I did not have cancer. I did have six months of stressful worrying waiting for it to not be located. In the end it was discovered I had thyroid failure and  that I only needed a little pill a day to lead a normal life again.
In early 1998 I decided I was not going to drive myself crazy worrying any more. So I began building my retreat cabin in the woods. No power, water, electrical service or piped gas was available. Having read many years ago about a wonderful invention called a solar cell, I had dreamed of being energy independent. I made this my mission.

I studied all manner of alternative power systems available that would be effective and available in my geographical area. I decided that I would best be served by using solar panels to capture the sun’s energy. Not that I was biased—it really was the best decision.

I decided on using lead acid batteries for storing the bulk of my power in chemical form as the most cost effective solution available to me at the time. Inverters convert this stored chemical / DC power to a more typical 110 volt AC power for the cabin. The cabin is wired like a normal home with the exception of 12-volt circuits for lights, vent hood and instrumentation systems that monitor the generator, battery bank, and water tank levels.

A diesel generator was needed to power the air conditioning and water well, so I scrounged the parts and built my own. I know building a generator sounds difficult but it was really one of the easier projects. We have 500 gallons of stored diesel fuel. I have learned to make bio-diesel, but have not begun doing so yet due to time constraints.

The inverter can power the AC water well pump in a pinch, but I normally use the generator for this task.
For potable water, I drilled my own water well. It took three days to accomplish but was well worth the effort (pun intended). The water well has served us for 13 years now and I expect that it will last at least my lifetime.  I could have used rain water capture, but the storage requirements (number of tanks needed) convinced me to take the easy way out.

I intend to drill another water well that is larger than the 2″ well I have now.  I can use low voltage pumps that can be lowered down into the well and used to pump water to the holding tanks. This will eliminate the need to run a generator to obtain ground water from the well.

The water is currently being pumped from the ground with a conventional jet water pump when the generator is running and is stored in a 550-gallon holding tank or goes directly to the cabin water fixture. Clever plumbing makes this happen without intervention. When the generator is not running then 12 volt RV style  DC pumps (2ea)  pump the water and send it to the cabin water fixtures we can tell no difference in the water flow or pressure  between the 110 volt pump or the 12 volt pumps.  Regular well pump switches control the DC pumps and are set at a pressure just below the 110 volt pump, thereby creating an automatic switchover between the two different pumps base on pressure.

For toilet and waste drain water sanitation I designed and built my own sanitary sewer system with septic tanks (2). So far it has worked well since christening so to speak.

I constructed Bayou camps cabin with a kitchen area with a double sink and a propane RV type refrigerator, bedroom, den area, open deck area, and a full bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, sink and toilet and a generator shack.

We are now on our second set of batteries. The first set survived over seven years.   We use ten each, 6- volt golf cart batteries. If we move to the cabin as a residence, I would double this number of batteries. I liked the Trojan brand batteries we had the first time best, but the Crown brand we have now are OK. I just feel they use more water and require more frequent checking than the Trojan brand did. Time will tell if they last as long or maybe even longer. I am short on time so the higher required maintenance of the Crown batteries is not something I like.

The last time I replaced them I paid about $1000 for them. This is cheap if you figure we have never had a power bill.

Bayou camps solar array is a jumble of different sized panels wired to 12 volts  (required since they are mis-matched panels) and total about three thousands watts. The array is mounted on the top of the generator battery bank shack. The roof was orientated and constructed with this purpose in mind.

The quality of the inverter is important for reliability. You can use modified sine wave inverters, but I would buy at least a 3000 watt inverter. 5000 watts would be better.

At Bayou camp we have a 200 watt sine wave inverter, a 600 watt sine wave inverter, a 800 watt modified sine wave inverter, and a 3000 watt modified sine wave inverter.

We also have two generators, a 5000 watt, 12 hp diesel, and a 16 hp gasoline 6500 watt generator. We use a series of manual switches and can select by throwing switches, whether we get power from the generator or  Inverter A (3000 watts modified sine wave) or  Inverter B (600 watts sine wave). The switches are set up so it is not possible to cross-connect any of the power sources. In other words , you cannot turn on the generator and the inverter at the same time and short something out.  Switch “A” selects Generator OR Inverter, and then switch “B” selects 600 watt or 3000 watt inverter. It’s pretty simple really.

The water pumps are powered from the house battery bank and get power from a homemade 12-volt fuse panel. We mounted a marine-type push pull switch on this panel  to operate as a disconnect for the DC water pumps.

This fuse panel also supplies  low-voltage power to motion lights, interior low-voltage cabin lights, the RV refrigerators control system (not for cooling propane does that), and a 12-volt cigarette lighter plug in the cabin we use for charging cell phones.

The experiment has been a huge success with many learning experiences. We have never been without electricity or water in the cabin. We have ceiling fans, lights, television, and radio—just like a normal home. 

With the exception of some strange monitoring gadgets on the wall, the home is wired  and works like any normal home.  I have a few more projects to complete the cabin (we call it Bayou camp). I want to get around to installing my solar hot water system. Presently we use propane to heat water since it is still available to us. I would like to eliminate this entirely. I plan on using a combination of solar hot water panels and wood burning hot water heater back up.

For air conditioning I plan on experimenting with designs. I have using two different methods

* 1. Building a parabolic solar collector to heat molten salt to provide the energy to operate the air conditioner.

* 2. Building a Mentos wonder wheel heat engine to obtain mechanical energy to power the air conditioner.

For heat we have been using propane cozy heaters, but we plan on improving this in the future. Wood is available and would be our first choice in a disaster. We have a wood heater but have not installed it yet.

Presently we use propane for refrigeration. If a molten salt system is used it could provide energy to operate the refrigerator. If we do not use molten salt then I will enlarge the photovoltaic system (solar panels) capacity and use a high efficiency refrigerator when the present system fails.

What have we learned?

Remember we are located in the deep south so heating is not the issue here—having  air conditioning is.

* 1. You can easily and affordably get enough power from photovoltaic (solar) panels for your clothes washing or running a basic gas dryer (not electric drying… best to use the sun anyway), refrigeration, entertainment, area lighting, microwaves, hand tools.

* 2. You can use solar cooking, wood cooking, gas or propane or some combination of these for cooking forget using a electric stove.

* 3. Area heat is best served by using wood, coal or waste oil heaters, solar hot water, phase change salts, or a combination.

* 4. Hot water readily is available from 75% of the USA using the sun. I would recommend having a wood or propane gas burning water heater for back up.

In our case we will have two water heaters in normal service, one using waste heat from the generator and one that is fueled by propane always working. The wood burning water heater is an option I don’t think we will ever need, but it is not difficult to build and nice insurance.

* 5. A cluster of mis-matched solar panels is fully capable of providing power for decades of reliable power for you and your family. Start collecting them now.

* 6. Buy a large charge controller and a large sine or modified sine wave inverter the first time if you can! I would advocate waiting and saving a little while if need be. I rushed and purchased several smaller charge controllers and inverters until I settled on a 3000 watt inverter as the minimum size we could use when the cabin had a lot of guests.

* 7. Be prepared to be the electrical power cop. Leaving something on and draining your battery bank can cost you $$$ in damaged batteries. Consider a low voltage disconnect to prevent this from occurring. I use a low voltage alarm that sounds at adjustable values. It’s cheap insurance. I have a low voltage disconnect I purchased, but I have yet to install it.

* 8. A normal life can be had with only slight modifications of your living habits. My wife can have her television all night long, and wash clothes when she desires.

* 9. Do not buy large panels as they are difficult to remove when hurricanes strike. Buy 50-watt panels and mount them no more than two to a mount so you can remove four bolts and lower them SAFELY to the ground.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

Now if I can find the time and funding to solve the air conditioning  problem, I can get rid of the petroleum based fuels and be off the grid forever. We have AC but use fossil fuels to get it.

* 10. Hydrogen is possible from your solar array. You can make a homemade hydrolyzer to get it. Check it out on YouTube.

On a lighter note…After the last major hurricane, I walked outside to see my wife packing up the car right away. I asked her where we were going and she said, “Aren’t we going to the camp where there is air condition and power?”  I smiled and just said yep, load the dogs.

We have had great success with being off the grid and have full confidence that anyone with the desire to be independent can do as well or better than we have done. The resources you need to learn about being off the grid are free and available to you on the Internet. With a little time and some sweat equity you too can be an offgrid man or offgrid woman.


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