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Living Off The Grid!

Debunking The lies About Renewable Energy
And Presenting The Facts

Page Last Updated March 8, 2017

Since 2000

We are all creatures of some level of comfort. Some more than others. After all, pain and discomfort are not desirable in our daily life (except for a small number of folks who claim to like it). As a society we have gotten fond of our air conditioning, refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, computers and many other gadgets that did not exist 100 years ago. Comfort. The key to modern civilization.

As long as the price of our comfort does not exceed our ability to afford it.

Enter renewable energy. Environmentalists and politicians tout renewable engery as the savoir of the planet. But who asked Earth if it needed saving? Not the owners of companies that feed at the renewable energy public tax-trough. Like little piggies they bury their collective faces in the subsidized tax-credits and the government loans, squealing for pleasure all the time.

Bur the reality of renewable energy is a lot different that the press wants you to believe.

Since 2000

We moved to Colorado in the fall of 2000. Our builder, NorthStar Homes, is no longer in business and we had a lot to do with that company and its general contractor being long gone. You can read about the details of our quest to put them out of business, click here. .We finally moved into our manufactured home in early 2001. We strongly suggest you NEVER buy a manufactured home. A stick-built, custom-built, is no mor expensive and just as fast.

We have had a lot of experience with solar and wind energy as the only available source of power. While there will be some renewable energy promoters who will not agree with what we are saying, they are trying to sell you a product while we are relating what has actually happened. The facts of life, not FantasyLand.

The term "disposable income" is often tossed about. Our "disposable income" got quickly disposed trying to install sufficient affordable "renewable" power to live off the grid. While renewable energy is a fine idea, it is not yet even close to being economically feasible. All the wasted government subsidies will not alter that. Do you want to go broke quickly? Invest in a renewable energy company.

Why Solar Power?

The nearest power line to us is some ten miles away. Power lines usually piggyback telephone lines as well so a landline is not an option either. That leaves us with unreliable cell coverage and a microwave telephone. Television is by satellite through Dish.

When we inquired, we were told a powerline would run over $40,000 a mile to install. What? But, consider that there are about twenty telephone poles to a mile. Since they do not grow wild, the telephone poles have to delivered to a location, and in our case, about 200 of them. Holes have to be drilled in the ground for the telephone poles. That requires special equipment and a crew. Then, another crew has to lift each telephone pole into the hole and secure it. In weak soil additional guy wires have to be used to steady these poles. Next. the electrical wire has to be strung. More special equipment, labor and expensive copper wire. Figure that at least two lines will be strung to allow for expansion plus a telephone wire. We probably would have had to pay for just the first line. Then testing and finally power. If we had h ad the a half a million dollars to pay for power over the ten miles to the house we might have picked somewhere else to live.

The only plus would have been anyone who wanted to tap into the power line in the first five years would have to pay a royalty fee. If there were enough people living out here to make that profitable the power company would have installed the power lines years ago.


Basic Solar Setup

Living on solar is not the same as mounting a few panels on the roof for a solar boost. When a company advertises that they will install solar panels on your roof for free electricity, beware. There are a lot of strings attached. And remember, they are trying to sell you an idea so they can make money.

Things have changed some since our original power system was installed in 2000. The original system was a 24-volt setup and today 48-volts is the standard for solar. We upgraded to a 48-volt system in 2014. Solar panels are now more efficient and somewhat less expensive, but not a whole lot. Batteries have also improved some and generators are becoming more efficient.

Living fifteen miles past the middle of nowhere, you have two options: try to live somewhat comfortably or rough it by trying to live on a generator alone. Pick one: Twenty-first Century or Nineteenth Century lifestyle. We choose comfort. But it came at a hefty price tag over a period of years.

Basic Equipment
  • Solar Panels - we have four large panels (2017)
  • Storage Batteries - heavy duty deep-cycle lead-acid batteris (we have twenty-four 2-volt batteries)
  • Solar Boosts - devices that increase solar input by 25 to 35% (we have two)
  • Inverter - changes DC voltage from batteries to AC for home use
  • Wind Tower (optional) - we have one 65-feet high lightning attracting wind tower
  • Lightning Arrestor (optional) - but they are effective
  • Back-up Generator - a must because wind and sun are not reliable sources of power
  • In-house Voltage Monitoring Devices - Because you have to know your system strength at all times

Anyone who tells you that renewal energy is free and simple to use is lying to you. Politicians are professional liars. Promoting general use of solar and wind energy is a populist theme designed to get them votes. When a solar contractor lies about renewable power being cheap and easy, they just want your money. Solar and wind are good - but expensive and not effectively reliable. And you will never recoup the setup and maintenance costs. Never.

For beginners, the batteries and other solar equipment need to be housed near the solar arrays. Solar arrays generate DC power (direct current), which loses strength rapidly the longer the distance from the source to the storage (the batteries). The shed is usually similar to a garden shed, say about 10 by 12 feet, with a reinforced floor to insure the additional weight will be supported. And it needs good ventilation. Electrical equipment generates heat, batteries need to be vented and a back-up generator needs venting as well.

Solar Panels

While the price of solar panels is going down, and solar panel efficiency is going up, the panels are not inexpensive. Solar panels do not generate power at night and provide much less power on cloudy or overcast days. Prolonged adverse weather, like days of rain, etc., will leave you having to rely on a generator backup to charge the batteries. Depending upon the weather, solar panels have to be replaced every twenty to twenty-five years. They are not forever.

We have four arrays of six panels each. These usually provide us with enough power to keep the batteries charged. Where we are, in Central Colorado, at 9300 feet, it is estimated we get over 300 days of sun a year. It is the other 65 days we worry about. Reliable sunshine is really necessary for solar to be effective. And enough panels. Solar panels are positioned facing to the southern sky for maximum exposure.

Depending on where you live, a building permit may be required for the solar panels. An electrical permit will be required in most communities before the power can be hooked to the dwelling. Even if roof-mounted, the panels will have to have a secure base because of wind. Roof-mounted panels in a high wind area like ours are not a good idea. Panels are not a good idea in areas where there is large hail, like the Denver area. So, there is the added cost of construction of a secure base, the cost of labor, supporting electrical boxes, etc..

Storage Batteries

Solar panels do not generate power at night. Unless you are planning to use oil lamps for light, go to bed very early every night, and go without a refrigerator, flush toilets, TV, etc., you will need to store the daytime power from the solar panels for later use. And we are not talking about a few car-sized batteries. A 48-volt power system requires 24 deep-cycle lead acid batteries at an estimated cost of over $350 each, or at least $7,000 for storage batteries. These deep-cycle batteries usually have to be replaced every 7 to 10 years. Sometimes they will last a little longer. You do not want battery failure in the middle of the winter. All of them have to be replaced at the same time to maintain system balance or regulat maintenance is a must. In the South Park, winter temperatures can get to -30 (minus 30 F) or colder. Deep-cycle batteries begin to lose strength below 32 degrees.

Battery maintenance becomes a critical skill. Unlike modern car batteries that are maintenance-free, deep-cycle batteries should be checked every two weeks to insure the electrolyte level is not too low. The periodic addition of distilled water is necessary to keep the batteries at optimum operating performance. This means trudging out to the solar shed even in the winter. Sometimes very cold winters. After the first year or so, if one of the batteries goes bad, all of the batteries will probably have to be replaced to keep a balanced system. Proper maintenance is very important.

Controllers

Solar controllers boost the power coming from the arrays into the batteries and help regulate the system One controller handles two arrays and are worth the added expense as they boost the input to the batteries by some 25 to 35%. But, they are additional electrical equipment that can fail or be damaged. We have two of them for the four arrays.

It was a malfunction of a solar controller that caused our first solar contractor to walk-off in a snit after he declared what we had seen simply could not happen. But it had happened. A controller had a diode go bad. A subsequent solar contractor repaired the problem. We suggest you do not get emotionally attached to a solar contractor. While many are knowledgeable, they do not know everything. And where we are located it is a long drive for a routine maintenance call. Solar contractors seem to take more vacations than President Obama did.

Inverters

Now that you have saved all of that free solar power in your batteries, how do you use it during the day or at night? Your batteries are 12-volt batteries attached in rows of four each in order to give you a 48-volt power system Your 48-volt power system is also DC (direct current) and modern appliances use AC (alternating current). None of your appliances in your house use 48 volts DC but rather they use 110-120 volts AC. That is why you need an inverter. Like a transformer, it converts the battery input of 48 volts DC to 110-120 volts AC to accommodate your home electrical system.

Inverters also protect the electrical system by turning off the power if the batteries get too low or if the batteries are dangerously over-charging. Inverters can also convert the power to 220 volts AC for equipment that needs the heavier voltage. Like controllers, inverters are necessary, but a lot more expensive. State-of-the-art quality inverters run into the thousands of dollars. But, they are worth it once you have tried to use any of the inexpensive models. Get the best electrical produsts. In the long run they are worth the investment.

Wind Generator

After we had been here a few years we decided to try adding a wind generator. This was while we still had the single starter solar array. Our reasoning was that it seemed that whenever we had bad weather, thus no sun for the array, we always had wind. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

We now have a wind generator that sits on top of a 65-feet high metal pole. We fondly call it our "Lightning Rod". It seems that Florida, Texas and Colorado have something in common: they are the lightning strike capitals of the US. Not only does lightning fuse the wind generator, it has a bad habit of beating the electrical beakers to the inverter. Expensive to replace all around. More than once we have had lightning strikes on the pole or nearby.

But, after we had a 70-feet high lightning arrestor installed, we have had no lightning strikes for years. Knock wood. The lightning arrestor operates on a simple electrical rule. Electricity flows from positive to negative. The lightning arrestor , a 70-feet tall pole near the wind generator, takes the electrical positive charge from the air and transfers it into the ground. Roaming thunderstorms having a high electrical charge in the clouds are seeking a negative ground charge with which to join. If the ground has a positive charge, the lightning looks for another target. It works. And in the long run is cheaper than having to replace inverters and controllers after a lightning strike.

Generator Backup

As we have noted, the sun does not shine at night and when overcast, does not generate enough power through the cloud cover. The wind generator only provides power when the wind is over 5 MPH. When the wind is strong enough, which is iffy, it is often sunny that somewhat defeats the additional power source idea.

What is the alternative? Having a heavy-duty propane generator backup. We suggest heavy-duty because the generator may run for hours at a time recharging the batteries. Many people on solar prefer to have the propane generator on automatic start-mode with the inverter. That causes the inverter to automatically start the generator when the power reserve in the batteries falls below a certain level. The generator will then run until the batteries are fully charged. Sometimes that takes hours at about one gallon of propane per hour. The auto-start will recharge the batteries at night or when you are not home.

Without an automatic generator backup, the inverter will shut-down the electrical system when the batteries get too low. Unlike being on the grid, being on solar/wind requires attention to detail and some unexpected inconveniences.

In-house Voltage Monitoring Devices

An in-house must is a volt meter that tells you the strength of your battery bank. You will look at this volt meter first thing every morning, almost hourly during the day, the last this before going to bed, and often several times during the night. A strong battery charge is like have enough water when crossing the desert. When it gets low you tend to get really worried.

You will find yourself buying products that have lower energy usage numbers although what you really want is the fancier model. No porch light (unless it is solar) and LED flashlights all over the house. Delayed coffee gratification in the morning if the batteries are border-line too low - you wait for the sun to hit the arrays. Appliances with phantom-loads are plugged-in using power strips so they can be turned off easily at bedtime.

This is not a joke. These things become rote after a few months and longer. Those who crave the comforts of unlimited electrical power ignore the realities of living off the grid. And they tend to buy into the spaceous claims of how great renewable energy is without asking the obvious questions. If solar energy is so good, then why doesn't the government mandate all homes be retrofitted to solar and wind immediately? It is a con job. That's why.


Electrical Power Drains

Living off the grid has a number of unexpected power drain issues. Having inexpensive and reliable electrical power tends to make one a bit spoiled. Commonplace usage off the grid has to be watched closely. Heat, water, washer-dryer and refrigerator are examples of a different life style.

Heating
People routinely think of a furnace using propane as the heat source. In the winter, and we get really cold winters, that furnace will suck power out of the batteries because it will seem to be running all night. Since there are no underground pipes for gas, the propane has to be periodically delivered by truck into a large tank. We replaced the furnace with a coal-burning stove that does a much better job of heating and paid for itself after a few years.

Water
While building a home high on a hillside gives a great view, well water has to be pumped to the surface. A 220 volt AC pump will drain batteries very quickly. The deeper the well the greater the power required to lift the water into a holding tank. Cooking, bathing and flush toilets will have the pump coming on many times a day and draining the batteries.

Refrigerator
A low energy refrigeration unit is worth the time to find. Standard equipment in a new home is often designed for living on the grid, not off the grid. The Whirlpool refrigerator that came with the house was a piece of crap. We replaced it with a Sears model that used a lot less electricity.

Washer-Dryer
Washing machines do not draw a lot of power but the dryers sure do. Dryers use 220 volts AC, which is not battery-friendly. One minute on heat to get lint off and another five minutes on cold air fluffing and then hang the clothes up to dry. Usually inside the house because of the wind.

Phantom Loads
All sorts of small electrical loads lurk in the house. Some electrical loads are not noticed or ignored because they are so small. These electrical loads add up. And slowly drain the batteries. That digital clock on the coffee maker or microwave is an example. Phantom electrical loads, loads you do not see or notice, add up and become expensive. Our porch light is a motion-activated solar-powered security light.

Monitoring Energy Usage

We have a digital voltmeter in the kitchen that tells us the battery charge status. We look at that meter constantly. Living off the grid makes one paranoid about the power level. And the meter makes an excellent night light in the kitchen.

Living off the grid makes you more conscious about leaving appliances on and how much power something actually uses. Living off the grid is not for wimps. You wash clothes only on sunny days and you use the microwave sparingly and before the sun sets. Air conditioning - forget it. Draws way too much power. So does the clothes dryer if not watched closely.

 

 

 

 

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