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Independent Power - Living Off the Grid for 17 Years, and Loving it!

When we first purchased our home here in the country, we were shocked at the cost of getting power to our home. However, since I had the technical background and we both liked the idea of eliminating a monthly utility bill we decided to build a solar/wind power system. We wanted to use both a large wind turbine and solar panels to provide power, and have a generator for emergency or backup power in the case of equipment failure or uncooperative weather..

What we have ended up with is a power system that has been far more reliable than the public utility. We've also learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in the process. So I'm going to outline some important information for those who like the idea as we do. There are important things we've learned from this process that could save you money and make the experience a lot more pleasant.

The cost of Solar Panels (PV) has dropped dramatically. When we built our first system it cost $5/watt for panels and the price has dropped to about $2/watt or less in quantity. This is huge, and means that solar power is now cheaper than ever before!

Costs and Benefits

The first concerns that you should have when you start planning to live off the grid are reliability and costs. These concerns are valid, there is no question that power must be reliable and sufficient to meet your needs. I have some tips on figuring out the size of your system in another article (How Big a Power System).

It has amazed me how many times the power has gone out for our neighbors, sometimes for many hours, and we had no idea. We have to be careful with our neighbors not to appear to be bragging about our circumstances. But the fact remains that when we have complete dependence on others for a critical need like electricity we expose ourselves to significant risks. Whenever we can take control of a critical area in our lives we are better off. That's just common sense.

This last week the power went out for our neighbors from about 1:30AM to about 12:30 the next afternoon. Power was out for about 11 hours, and many homes had frozen pipes, flooding, and other issues related to severe below-zero cold weather. Most people forget that furnaces don't run without electricity.. As you watch the news there are times when hundreds of thousands are without power. Outages normally occur under adverse conditions, precisely when you need it most. So when you evaluate the cost of power remember to consider what power is worth when you can't get it!!

Be sure to read about what other's have done. This is a road that many people are on, and there's a lot of great information available to help you gain a feel for these issues.

If you are planning to use a wind turbine, be very sure that you have sufficient wind in your area. If you do, then you will want to get a large system, typically 3KW or larger. This is because the wind turbine will normally (on average) produce a fraction of it's rated power a few hours a day. This can be a lot of power, or not as much as you think it should. The power you can get from the wind is directly related to the swept area of the blades, and wind speed. A 250 watt solar panel will provide about 250 watts in full sun per hour. Wind turbine ratings are much different. I have an article here on this site that covers basic wind turbine principles.

We could have cut our costs by using more energy efficient appliances, using propane more, and using less power in general. However, my thinking is that I wanted to live a 'normal' life, and I'm more excited about the increased reliability of my power more than eliminating monthly costs entirely. We set a minimum goal for power that we could live with in an emergency, and now we're focused on other home improvement issues. After we've met those goals we'll refocus on our power and push for complete independence.

The secret in doing things like this is to take a step at a time. There's an old saying that goes "By the inch it's cinch, but by the yard it's hard". My sentiments exactly. First make sure the emergency is covered and then grow from there. Don't try to do too much at a time, when you do that you make the growth process stressful and you often feel like a failure when you're objectively making great progress..

How much you spend is under your control, but it makes sense to buy quality. Trying to shorten that path to your goal by buying sub-standard equipment won't work out well, believe me. You can save substantially and still get quality equipment. You have to have quality equipment to make everything work reliably.

Not Everyone Can Do This

If you live in an apartment or similar situation you might not be able to do much except prepare properly for cold, have a 72 hour emergency kit, a battery operated radio, a good flashlight, and make sure you have at least one phone that doesn't rely on AC power to operate so you can call for help. Renewable energy installations require some space, home ownership, and cooperative building and zone ordinances.

Diy solar is a rewarding hobby. There's something magical about cellecting power from the sun. I really like what we've done here. However, in order to build and maintain a system there is a small but important amount of time that needs to be set aside for monthly water checks on the batteries, etc. Doing it yourself will also save you a lot of money installing your equipment.

However, if your not handy with do-it-yourself projects you should consider getting help. Setting up a system is mostly just a matter of following directions, but some good people are just not technically savvy enough to attempt these things without a mentor, physical help, or training. Most people who sell the equipment are more than willing to walk you through the process, and are available to service your system if you're not up to doing it yourself.

But If You Can..

The probability of an outage is high, but the longer the outage the less likely it becomes. A generator that run your home for a few hours would make a huge difference in power reliability. Long outages might be less common, but are devastating when they occur.

We live in the country and want to remain here, but after our experiences if we need to move into town for health reasons we will add a generator back-up system right away. Homeowners have many good generator options. For a reasonable cost a generator, that can provide emergency power for a long period, can be added to your home. These systems vary widely in price, so shopping around is very important.

Getting Started

After you have a generator, the next step is to buy a high quality batteries and a high quality inverter/charger to supply power without running the generator, until the batteries are low. This makes the generator last much longer, reduces power costs and sets the stage for adding solar electric panels or a wind machine to supplement