Bill and Lorraine Live Off the Grid (And Without Propane)


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Categories: Building Methods

Our Ontario home is powered by sun, wind and wood, and consumes almost zero fossil fuels.

Bill and Lorraine Kemp have been living off the grid for 20 years. They power their home with electricity from solar and wind electric systems, heat with wood, and use solar and wood-fired water heating.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Lorraine, and I decided to move off the grid, our motivation was simple. Lorraine wanted to move closer to her family, preferably to a piece of land large enough to offer some privacy and plenty of room to support her “addiction” to animals. A lot at the back of her family’s farm fit the bill (and the wallet). There was only one downside: It would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to connect the property to the nearest electric lines. The solution was obvious: Don’t connect to the grid and instead plan to run our house entirely with renewable energy. We put our plan into action, and have been enjoying off the grid living ever since. Here’s how we run our rural Ontario home using an absolute minimum of fossil fuel energy.

An Efficient, Off-Grid Home

We built our home to look like a traditional country farmhouse from the early 1900s, and added some passive solar features to reduce the heating and cooling load. For example, the large roof overhang on the front porch shades the house from direct sunlight in the summertime while allowing the low-angle winter sun to warm the house. We also made the home as energy efficient as possible. We insulated primarily with blown-in cellulose, manufactured from recycled paper products. For areas that were difficult to insulate in this manner, we used spray foam (urethane) insulation, which has the added benefit of forming its own vapor barrier. Other energy-efficient features of our home include solar-powered vent fans, radiant-barrier insulation, vapor and wind barriers, and careful joint sealing.

Our domestic water system is “off the grid,” too, and we’ve made it as efficient and eco-friendly as possible. We have a standard drilled well with a deep-well submersible pump and a large water-pressure accumulator tank to minimize pump cycling. Our fixtures are all low-flow or ultra-low flow, which keeps our water consumption well below half the Canadian national average of 91 gallons per person per day. Our septic tank has an effluent filter, and a leaching bed that allows our wastewater to percolate through the earth and right back into the water table. To keep the water clean, we have always used natural and phosphate-free cleaners.

Solar and Wind Power

Our electrical-generating equipment originally consisted of a photovoltaic (PV) sun-tracking array with a peak electrical rating of 1.2 kilowatts. This array is composed of 16 individual PV panels rated 75 watts each. We also installed a Bergey 1.5 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100-foot guyed lattice tower.

Rounding out the electrical-generating mix is a 10 kilowatt diesel generator, which we run on between 30 and 100 percent biodiesel, depending on the ambient temperature. We would prefer to use 100 percent biodiesel all the time, but we have to add some diesel to the fuel mix. Biodiesel doesn’t work well in extreme cold, and in our location, winter temperatures can be as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

The PV panels provide approximately 85 percent of our total annual electricity requirements, while the wind turbine provides 10 percent and the backup generator provides the remaining 5 percent or less. The electricity feeds into a battery bank with a gross capacity of approximately 3,500 amp-hours. Low-voltage power from the batteries feeds into an inverter bank with a total output capacity of 6 kilowatts, which in turn supplies household electrical needs.

Getting to Zero Carbon

My experience has led me to conclude that many people do not live “off grid,” they live “on propane.” Anyone who considers living off the grid quickly becomes aware that large, heat-producing appliances such as stoves, clothes dryers and water heaters use a lot of electricity! In most cases, people choose to run these appliances with propane or other fuel sources because it’s cheaper than installing a solar or wind system large enough to power these energy hogs.

A quick review of most off-grid homes shows that 90 percent or more of the total energy budget is used for heating, hot water and cooking. That is, a typical off-grid home relies on renewable energy for less than 10 percent of its total energy needs. Although propane is a relatively clean burning fuel, it is nevertheless a non-renewable resource that releases carbon dioxide when it is burned. Always up for a challenge, Lorraine and I were determined to reduce our propane consumption to zero.

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