Lessons From Off-Grid Living

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Wind Power for Off-Grid Living

When we moved here, a broken wind turbine on a 60-foot tower sat on the property. (Turbines are mechanical entities that operate in extremely unforgiving conditions and, therefore, have a tendency to break.) I ultimately replaced the unit with a 1-kilowatt Bergey wind turbine on a 100-foot tilt-up tower. That was a huge undertaking for me, but I couldn’t find a dealer willing to do the installation. The effort to install and maintain the turbine has proved worthwhile, however, because wind picks up the slack when solar conditions aren’t ideal.

Lesson: Diversify your energy sources. Renewable energy sources can complement each other. Before we erected our wind turbine, we ran our backup propane generator 12 to 15 times per year. By investing in a hybrid solar/wind system, we’ve reduced the frequency of our generator use to just five or six times each year, mostly during the dark days of fall and early winter, when there is neither enough sun nor wind to keep our batteries charged.

Lesson: Consider wind turbine siting. To get the most out of a wind turbine, try to locate it in an open area or near a body of water. Ideally, your wind turbine should be 300 feet from barns, silos and tree lines, and at least 30 feet taller than objects that may cause turbulence. Our tree line is about 60 feet tall, our tower is 100 feet high, and we are surrounded by a forest, so while we don’t have the ideal setting, our wind power output is satisfactory, especially during November and December (our cloudiest, windiest months).

Lesson: Plan for surprises and prepare for emergencies. We went to great lengths to carefully ground and protect our wind turbine and tower from lightning, but despite our efforts, a bolt struck them in the summer of 2013. The broken DC rectifier was relatively inexpensive to replace, but we did have to lower the tower, which was a stressful experience. The takeaway? You’ll be faced with emergencies, but a diversified mix of energy sources will create a more secure off-grid setup that can weather any crisis.

The Mathers supplement their wind and solar energy with sustainable wood heat. Cam cuts wood from their forests with an electric chainsaw, then splits the wood with an electric log splitter. / Photo by Cam and Michelle Mather

Sustainable Wood Heat

Conventional grid-tied homes using fossil fuels produce about 60 percent of their carbon emissions from heating. In contrast, we heat our home with a highly efficient Pacific Energy non-catalytic woodstove and cut all of our firewood on our land. Heating with wood from our well-managed woodlot is carbon-neutral, because new growth will recapture the amount of carbon released from the trees we cut.

Lesson: Choose electric tools and power them with renewable energy. I cut more than half of our firewood with a corded electric Yardworks chainsaw run on renewable energy. To further reduce our use of gasoline, I acquired an Oregon 40-volt, battery-powered chainsaw to cut trees in the bush. I then pull the logs back to the house, where I buck the lengths into firewood with my corded chainsaw. In my younger days, I split all of our wood with an axe, but last year I purchased a Yardworks 4-ton electric log splitter, and I continue to be amazed by what it can split, as many typical gas-powered models are 28-ton. Electric equipment is rugged: I used my electric Poulan chainsaw for a decade and only replaced it when a newer model had some features I wanted to try.

Multiple Methods to Heat Water

Five years ago, we added a solar hot water heater. I welded the system’s frame, which sits on the roof of our back porch, and I did the plumbing myself. Tapping the sun’s energy to heat water is much more efficient than using it to generate electricity. We have two tanks for hot water: a 60-gallon tank for the solar hot water heater and a 40-gallon tank for a diversion load from our solar electric system. During sunny periods when I know my batteries are fully charged, I can manually divert excess electricity to the heating element in the hot water tank by throwing a switch (which I turn off as the sun starts to go down). Six to eight hours of full sunlight will usually heat both tanks. Feeling how hot our water is after a sunny day is magical.

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