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While I was at Prepper Camp I was interviewed by an NPR station. They were determined to have me tell them that going off-grid would really make a big difference in the climate. They didn’t like it when I told them that it is not that simple. There are environmental costs to everything. The way things balance out, in the end, depends a lot on the choices people make and how they go about going off-grid.
I don’t think they ever aired it. Sorry, but they wanted me to make definitive statements about something that is not that simple so they could back up their own political agenda. I don’t like it when people try to do that regardless if I disagree or agree with them.
The plus side to this is that it got me thinking more about the changes in lifestyle that people must make if they want to cut the cord from the utility companies. The good thing about some of these things is that they don’t all cost a lot.
Even if you don’t plan on making the leap to going off-grid for quite some time, you can start making lifestyle changes that will make it easier when the time comes.
This will also allow you to get an idea of what it might be like at least a little bit before you spend a lot of time, money, and labor on going off-grid.
Some things that I am going to discuss such as changing your heating system, I mention because while it is definitely a larger expense, it may be something you have been considering already or you may find that you have to unexpectedly. If this is you and you dream of being off-grid one day, then making the right choice when it comes to your heating unit now, could save you more money later when you take the plunge into going off-grid.
Transitioning To Off-Grid: What You Can Do Now Based On Your Finances
Learn how to do without air conditioning now.
For some people, the deal breaker in going off-grid is air conditioning. It takes a lot of electricity and while you can buy a lot of solar panels, battery storage, and an inverter, that is going to make it financially unfeasible for most people.
There are things you can do to help with cooling but there is nothing that is going to take the place of air conditioning. I don’ t know of anyone that is off-grid that uses a standard air conditioner.
Matt and I have a few window air conditioning units that we rarely use. We mostly have them in case we have to host others that are not used to going without it and to keep upstairs bearable when it is extremely hot. Last summer we used a single-window unit for a month. It saves a lot of money to do without it. We work outside a lot. Even if I am writing, I do it on the patio in the summer.
You can start off by just turning your air conditioner to 75 instead of 70 or something like that. There is no rule saying you have to go off AC cold turkey.
Fact: Propane is heavily used by a lot of people that are off-grid. There are costs to this, including environmental ones.
Start hanging your clothes out to dry or purchase a propane clothes washer and dryer the next time you have to replace your dryer.
Something that a lot of off-grid people don’t always talk about is how much they actually rely on natural gas or propane for things. The alternative is to get used to using a clothesline for all your clothing. There are things that you can get to help out with drying clothes. I have a spin dryer I used to wring out the hand washing that I have to do. It works really well and runs on so little power that it is appropriate for an off-grid system.
Propane washers are the most commonly used by those that do not want to go the old fashioned route and do it by hand.
A compromise is to have a propane washer and hang clothes out to dry if you don’t want to rely on propane too much.
Consider your overall power consumption and find ways to cut back.
Power needs vary by the person and how much time there is actually someone at home using power. If there is no one in your house for 8-10 hours per day than you are probably using less than someone that is home most of the time. Computers and cell phones are more efficient than they used to be.
Computer Choices Matter
Laptops and tablets burn less power than desktops.
Some of the newer laptops and Chromebooks can be charged via USB. For those that have not heard of USB-C, it is the latest way of charging up laptops, iPhones, and tablets. It is revolutionary in a way because it means that at some point you probably won’t have to worry about having a ton of different chargers for various devices. No more having to wait for a laptop charger to arrive in the mail because yours quit working.
You can get 12V chargers for laptops on Amazon too.
Check your TV power consumption. You may be shocked.
Large computer monitors are a good solution for television needs. They cost a little more than Smart TVs but they are easier on your eyes and don’t spy as much.
While older flat-screen TVs may have a stunning picture and sound, you may be surprised how much power they are burning. Matt and I were given an older TV that worked great but it was a bit too big for our house. We used it anyway but discovered that it burned literally 10 times the power of a lot of modern televisions. In fact, it burned as much power as leaving on every single light in our home at once! This can really add up throughout a home, especially in those that have multiple screens.
Turn off things you are not using
Who isn’t guilty of leaving TVs, computers, speakers, and lights on? While these habits can cost you money when you are tied into the grid, they can cause some real trouble when you are off-grid. If you have power stored up in batteries and don’t get a lot of sun for a few days, leaving things on can deplete the power you have to get by on and that may leave you in the dark quite literally or drain your batteries enough that they are actually damaged.
Get a small power center and solar panel and start using them for some needs.
Small power centers are good to have for portable power storage during emergencies anyway but if you use them and a panel for some of your energy needs during regular times, this can help you get in the habit of balancing your power consumption out and just being more conscientious.
Read the experiences of others that have gone off-grid, especially those that did it without spending thousands of dollars and using professional contractors for everything.
People sometimes assume that going off-grid or getting set up to run at least part of their home on solar is going to cost them a fortune. Like anything home-related, hiring a firm to do it for you is going to cost a lot more. Also, keep in mind that a lot of those quotes are for people that want to go with solar power but make none of the lifestyle changes that I have talked about in this post.
Start out with a smaller solar array and wean yourself off the grid as you can afford it.
Matt and I have not talked about it with a lot of people but the way things are going, our plan is to at some point be completely off-grid. Smart meters and smart appliances are not things we are particularly happy about. Our power company recently made everyone get a smart meter or pay an additional $15 per month and a $150 fee per meter! If you have several electrical services on a place that is a lot of money. I don’t like the idea of appliances that can be turned on and off at the whim of the power company either.
We have solar lighting and some 12-volt outlets. This is what we could do when we were building the house. Now that we are a few years down the road, we are going to save the money up for some more panels and batteries until we reach the point where we feel comfortable having the service cut off. You don’t have to do everything at once, especially if you are doing the work yourself and not trying to get in a big company that wants to take care of the whole project in one go.
Propane is yet again the popular choice for going off-grid. An on-demand propane hot water heater is the easiest option. You can also use solar heat collection to help out. This can reduce how much your on-demand has to heat your water if you are trying to conserve propane.
Heating Your Home Off-Grid
Obviously wood heat is an option for heating your home off-grid. Natural gas and propane are your back up heat options. Installing a wood stove or furnace is a step towards going off-grid. Matt and I are in the position where we put in an electric furnace to use as back up heat when we are not using wood. To those that think they can just use a woods stove, I will say this. You need some type of backup beyond wood. There may be times when you feel bad, are sick, or need to be away from home and don’t want your pipes to burst.
If a home gets really cold it can take quite a while to get all that mass up to temperature again even if you have a really nice fire for many hours. Even if you just decide to have some kerosene back up heaters for just in case, have something.
Matt and I got tired of getting up multiple times each night to stoke a fire sometimes too. Working all day and then falling asleep and not waking up to stoke the fire results in an unpleasantly cold home in the mornings and that can make it harder to be motivated and get going.
So if you dream of going off-grid and the time comes for a new furnace or heat system in your home, consider going with a different method so that it is easier for you to transition later on. Matt and I are going to need to spend some money on a propane furnace for back up before we cut the cord from the power company.
Propane tanks and delivery are a definite cause for concern. A truck can’t make it up my road to fill a tank. That means we are going to have to use tanks in the 20 lb-100 lb range and have them filled in town and then roll them off the truck for use at our place.
Get your kids on board with it too. The sooner they learn to change their lifestyle, the better.
Suddenly throwing kids and teens into an off-grid situation can be problematic. If you have raised your kids with unlimited electricity you need to make sure to explain things to them well when going off-grid. If they don’t fully understand how things are going to work or the consequences of not being more aware of power consumption, don’t be surprised when conflicts arise.
Let’s consider the following: Your kid has a big powerful gaming computer they use during their recreation time. Now I think it would be an awful idea to just tell a kid during good times “hey guess what you got to give up your hobby”. Instead, figure out what it would cost to convert their computer to be more efficient on 12V power. Of course, if you are using a 110V inverter and have some extra power, it may not be that big of a deal.
Think about internet options now.
I live where regular internet service is not possible. Those that are really far out when they go off-grid may find it hard to adjust to different levels of internet service.
If part of your property can get service you may be able to relay a signal to other parts, including your home. Matt and I live on a mountain so sending signals can be tricky. Those that live in flatter areas may experience less trouble. Trees and other obstructions can make it harder for signals to get where they need to go.
Sattelite and radio internet is available in many areas but tends to have higher costs. Cell phones have made it a little easier to get internet because if you have 4G service, you can get some service that way but it is going to be costly.
What about other renewable energy like wind or hydro?
If you live in some areas you might be able to get some or even all of your power from wind or hydroelectric sources. For most people, this is not a realistic option. In some areas, you cannot even legally do hydroelectric because you don’t own the rights. Wind power can work for some but it requires nice steady and reliable wind. Here are a few links to Backdoor Survival posts that go into more detail on wind and hydro.
Our Decision To Transition To Off-Grid and Why We Chose To Be On The Grid In the First Place
I have had people assume that Matt and I live off-grid but we do not. I want to explain why we chose to be on the regular electric power grid but have now made the decision to transition to off-grid.
For those that are not aware of the backstory, we started out on our property in a tent and then lived in an older camper. There was no running water at first and there was no power. It cost less than $200 and a day’s work to get a temporary light pole put in so we had some electricity to use. At the time solar panels were more than double the cost they are now. We were both around 25 years old and had just moved back from Alaska after working there for a few years after college. We needed to get started fast and without spending much money.
When we finally got around to building the house, Matt planned in some 12-volt outlets and we decided to make all the wired in lights run on 12V. The bought two 230 watt solar panels and a Morningstar MPPT Charge Controller that we could use if we wanted to expand the system later. For us, solar was a supplement.
Now things have changed. The power companies have insisted that everyone have a smart meter or pay a lot of extra fees. The price of grid power goes up regularly and solar panels are less expensive.
Neither of us has any desire for smart appliances. Our TV is a 32″ computer monitor. Sure it cost more than a Smart TV but that is because the monitor doesn’t track things and sell information like a Smart TV.
I don’t like the idea of the power company being able to control my appliances and even my heat remotely. The Biggers household is not going to be a computer-controlled or utility company controlled house.
Our transition to off-grid is going to take some time. While it is not as expensive as it once would have been, it is still not cheap. Luckily we can do this a little at a time. Here is what we figured out we need. This is a rough list at the moment but it gives us something to go on.
- 4 Solar Panels capable of producing 7.5 amps each
- Purchase large inverter so we can continue to use some 110V power
- Purchase more deep cycle batteries for power storage
- Replace electric furnace with a propane furnace
- Replace hot water heater with a propane on-demand water heater
- Add propane washer and possibly dryer at a later time
At the moment we have laundry appliances at our other place. Having two sets at two houses that are close together for just three people’s laundry needs didn’t make sense in the past. The propane washer and dryer are probably going to be the last thing we purchase as we transition to off-grid.
We do know that it will be better to buy all the panels at once due to shipping costs and possible discounts for multiple purchases so that is what we will do at some point.
While it may take a few years for the system to pay for itself, it will be worth it to have more control over our utilities and not be subject to the increasing costs of grid-tied power.
What are your biggest challenges to going off-grid? Have you actually added up what it would cost?