Toast, Pancakes and Waffles: Planning Wisely for Off-Grid Living

Categories: Energy

Improve Efficiency

Efficiency is always the first step in reducing consumption. Efficiency expert Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calls this “negawatts”—energy not consumed is energy that does not need to be produced. A good guideline is that for every dollar spent on upgrading efficiency, about $3 to $5 can be saved on PV system costs. Here are some good ways to start reducing waste through greater efficiency:

Lighting. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) use one-third the energy of incandescent bulbs to generate the same amount of usable light. Modern CFLs have eliminated the flicker and harsh colors reminiscent of fluorescent lighting of years past, and will fit in most lamps. 

LED technology also has rapidly advanced in recent years, and “bulbs” are now available, generally through online sources, to fit most lighting needs. LEDs typically use approximately 5% to 15% of the energy of an equivalent incandescent bulb, but are significantly more expensive than CFLs.

Consider task lighting rather than area lighting—focus light where it is needed, rather than lighting an entire room. Use multiple lights in different locations, switched separately. Being off-grid doesn’t limit you to boring lighting. Plan your lighting to meet building code and functional needs with maximum efficiency. Then add decorative lighting wherever you wish—just control it separately, and use it with discretion and only when you have the energy reserves to afford it.

Refrigeration. A refrigerator is one of the biggest electrical loads in an efficient home and is often the single largest daily user of electricity in an off-grid home. Older conventional refrigerators consume two to five times as much electricity as the most energy-efficient new models.

Mainstream brands—like Amana, Maytag, and Kenmore—have become quite efficient in recent years and are affordable. However, the specific model must be carefully chosen, using Energy Star guidelines (see Access). The most efficient full-size modern units only use a bit more than 1 kWh per day, which will be reported on the yellow Energy Star tag—for instance, “This model uses 392 kWh/year.”

Super-efficient refrigerators that sip even less energy are available, such as the Sun Frost or SunDanzer brands. But their designs are not quite as convenient as modern mainstream fridges, and they can be more expensive. However, in some cases, the difference in price can make up for the extra PV modules needed to power a mainstream fridge.

If you want a full-size freezer, plan to locate it in an unheated outbuilding or portal, shaded from direct sun and preferably placed in a relatively cool space. In a cold climate, a freezer located outdoors will use very little electricity in the winter. Again, choose the most efficient modern model available. Chest freezers use less electricity than upright models because they do not lose as much cool air when the door is opened. Also consider past approaches to keeping food: Home-canned preserves and vegetables can be a satisfying means of storing food without a freezer.

Clothes Washing. Front-loading clothes washers use far less electricity, water, and water-heating energy than conventional top loaders, and there are now many efficient models to choose from. But make sure to buy one from a store with a forgiving return policy: Some modern sine wave inverters are not compatible with high-efficiency, electronically controlled washers.

Computer. A laptop uses less energy than a desktop model, as it’s designed to run on stored battery power. But desktop models with LCD monitors are getting more efficient all the time. An inkjet printer uses less energy than a laser printer. Plug peripherals into plug strips so you can easily turn them off when they’re not in use.

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