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10 Steps to Off Grid Living…Today

My name is Warren, I am known as “Offgridman” on the Internet. My story is about surviving without commercial electricity, natural gas or any of the on-grid services.

In 1997 I was told I had 6 months to live. They were wrong. I did not have cancer. I did have six months of stressful worrying waiting for it to not be located. In the end it was discovered I had thyroid failure and  that I only needed a little pill a day to lead a normal life again.

In early 1998 I decided I was not going to drive myself crazy worrying any more. So I began building my retreat cabin in the woods. No power, water, electrical service or piped gas was available. Having read many years ago about a wonderful invention called a solar cell, I had dreamed of being energy independent. I made this my mission.

I studied all manner of alternative power systems available that would be effective and available in my geographical area. I decided that I would best be served by using solar panels to capture the sun’s energy. Not that I was biased—it really was the best decision.

I decided on using lead acid batteries for storing the bulk of my power in chemical form as the most cost effective solution available to me at the time. Inverters convert this stored chemical / DC power to a more typical 110 volt AC power for the cabin. The cabin is wired like a normal home with the exception of 12-volt circuits for lights, vent hood and instrumentation systems that monitor the generator, battery bank, and water tank levels.

A diesel generator was needed to power the air conditioning and water well, so I scrounged the parts and built my own. I know building a generator sounds difficult but it was really one of the easier projects. We have 500 gallons of stored diesel fuel. I have learned to make bio-diesel, but have not begun doing so yet due to time constraints.

The inverter can power the AC water well pump in a pinch, but I normally use the generator for this task.

For potable water, I drilled my own water well. It took three days to accomplish but was well worth the effort (pun intended). The water well has served us for 13 years now and I expect that it will last at least my lifetime.  I could have used rain water capture, but the storage requirements (number of tanks needed) convinced me to take the easy way out.

I intend to drill another water well that is larger than the 2″ well I have now.  I can use low voltage pumps that can be lowered down into the well and used to pump water to the holding tanks. This will eliminate the need to run a generator to obtain ground water from the well.

The water is currently being pumped from the ground with a conventional jet water pump when the generator is running and is stored in a 550-gallon holding tank or goes directly to the cabin water fixture. Clever plumbing makes this happen without intervention. When the generator is not running then 12 volt RV style  DC pumps (2ea)  pump the water and send it to the cabin water fixtures we can tell no difference in the water flow or pressure  between the 110 volt pump or the 12 volt pumps.  Regular well pump switches control the DC pumps and are set at a pressure just below the 110 volt pump, thereby creating an automatic switchover between the two different pumps base on pressure.

For toilet and waste drain water sanitation I designed and built my own sanitary sewer system with septic tanks (2). So far it has worked well since christening so to speak.

I constructed Bayou camps cabin with a kitchen area with a double sink and a propane RV type refrigerator, bedroom, den area, open deck area, and a full bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, sink and toilet and a generator shack.

We are now on our second set of batteries. The first set survived over seven years.   We use ten each, 6- volt golf cart batteries. If we move to the cabin as a residence, I would double this number of batteries. I liked the Trojan brand batteries we had the first time best, but the Crown brand we have now are OK. I just feel they use more water and require more frequent checking than the Trojan brand did. Time will tell if they last as long or maybe even longer. I am short on time so the higher required maintenance of the Crown batteries is not something I like.

The last time I replaced them I paid about $1000 for them. This is cheap if you figure we have never had a power bill.

Bayou camps solar array is a jumble of different sized panels wired to 12 volts  (required since they are mis-matched panels) and total about three thousands watts. The array is mounted on the top of the generator battery bank shack. The roof was orientated and constructed with this purpose in mind.

The quality of the inverter is important for reliability. You can use modified sine wave inverters, but I would buy at least a 3000 watt inverter. 5000 watts would be better.

At Bayou camp we have a 200 watt sine wave inverter, a 600 watt sine wave inverter, a 800 watt modified sine wave inverter, and a 3000 watt modified sine wave inverter.

We also have two generators, a 5000 watt, 12 hp diesel, and a 16 hp gasoline 6500 watt generator. We use a series of manual switches and can select by throwing switches, whether we get power from the generator or  Inverter A (3000 watts modified sine wave) or  Inverter B (600 watts sine wave). The switches are set up so it is not possible to cross-connect any of the power sources. In other words , you cannot turn on the generator and the inverter at the same time and short something out.  Switch “A” selects Generator OR Inverter, and then switch “B” selects 600 watt or 3000 watt inverter. It’s pretty simple really.

The water pumps are powered from the house battery bank and get power from a homemade 12-volt fuse panel. We mounted a marine-type push pull switch on this panel  to operate as a disconnect for the DC water pumps.

This fuse panel also supplies  low-voltage power to motion lights, interior low-voltage cabin lights, the RV refrigerators control system (not for cooling propane does that), and a 12-volt cigarette lighter plug in the cabin we use for charging cell phones.

The experiment has been a huge success with many learning experiences. We have never been without electricity or water in the cabin. We have ceiling fans, lights, television, and radio—just like a normal home. With the exception of some strange monitoring gadgets on the wall, the home is wired  and works like any normal home.  I have a few more projects to complete the cabin (we call it Bayou camp). I want to get around to installing my solar hot water system. Presently we use propane to heat water since it is still available to us. I would like to eliminate this entirely. I plan on using a combination of solar hot water panels and wood burning hot water heater back up.

For air conditioning I plan on experimenting with designs. I have using two different methods

1. Building a parabolic solar collector to heat molten salt to provide the energy to operate the air conditioner.

2. Building a Mentos wonder wheel heat engine to obtain mechanical energy to power the air conditioner.

For heat we have been using propane cozy heaters, but we plan on improving this in the future. Wood is available and would be our first choice in a disaster. We have a wood heater but have not installed it yet.

Presently we use propane for refrigeration. If a molten salt system is used it could provide energy to operate the refrigerator. If we do not use molten salt then I will enlarge the photovoltaic system (solar panels) capacity and use a high efficiency refrigerator when the present system fails.

What have we learned?

Remember we are located in the deep south so heating is not the issue here—having  air conditioning is.

1. You can easily and affordably get enough power from photovoltaic (solar) panels for your clothes washing or running a basic gas dryer (not electric drying… best to use the sun anyway), refrigeration, entertainment, area lighting, microwaves, hand tools.

2. You can use solar cooking, wood cooking, gas or propane or some combination of these for cooking forget using a electric stove.

3. Area heat is best served by using wood, coal or waste oil heaters, solar hot water, phase change salts, or a combination.

4. Hot water readily is available from 75% of the USA using the sun. I would recommend having a wood or propane gas burning water heater for back up.

In our case we will have two water heaters in normal service, one using waste heat from the generator and one that is fueled by propane always working. The wood burning water heater is an option I don’t think we will ever need, but it is not difficult to build and nice insurance.

5. A cluster of mis-matched solar panels is fully capable of providing power for decades of reliable power for you and your family. Start collecting them now.

6. Buy a large charge controller and a large sine or modified sine wave inverter the first time if you can! I would advocate waiting and saving a little while if need be. I rushed and purchased several smaller charge controllers and inverters until I settled on a 3000 watt inverter as the minimum size we could use when the cabin had a lot of guests.

7. Be prepared to be the electrical power cop. Leaving something on and draining your battery bank can cost you $$$ in damaged batteries. Consider a low voltage disconnect to prevent this from occurring. I use a low voltage alarm that sounds at adjustable values. It’s cheap insurance. I have a low voltage disconnect I purchased, but I have yet to install it.

8. A normal life can be had with only slight modifications of your living habits. My wife can have her television all night long, and wash clothes when she desires.

9. Do not buy large panels as they are difficult to remove when hurricanes strike. Buy 50-watt panels and mount them no more than two to a mount so you can remove four bolts and lower them SAFELY to the ground.  Don’t ask me how I know this.

Now if I can find the time and funding to solve the air conditioning  problem, I can get rid of the petroleum based fuels and be off the grid forever. We have AC but use fossil fuels to get it.

10. Hydrogen is possible from your solar array. You can make a homemade hydrolyzer to get it. Check it out on YouTube.

On a lighter note…After the last major hurricane, I walked outside to see my wife packing up the car right away. I asked her where we were going and she said, “Aren’t we going to the camp where there is air condition and power?”  I smiled and just said yep, load the dogs.

We have had great success with being off the grid and have full confidence that anyone with the desire to be independent can do as well or better than we have done. The resources you need to learn about being off the grid are free and available to you on the Internet. With a little time and some sweat equity you too can be an offgrid man or offgrid woman.

Other articles in this issue:

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© 2008-2014 Off The Grid News

17 comments

  1. While interesting, I would say that was more like facts and observations rather than steps to be taken. Only number 5) Start collecting all size solar panels – was actually a step to working yourself off the grid.

  2. Check out some DC powered AC units. Should be able to solve your AC issue there. What about wind to top off the batteries at night?

  3. I have read many years ago that placing underground pipes (I think they were 12′) from 50′ into the house that it will maintain 65 degrees inside. Know anyone who’s done that? I’d like to know the particulars of this.

  4. As a fellow thyroid replacement user I see this as your Achilles heel. You have to keep this medication cool and I am not sure of the shelf life. One thing I know is if you are on it you sure don’t want to be without. From experience I can tell you, you will be sicker than you were to start with. Having your prescription delivered on a hot day by UPS or USPS can destroy it. I would be interested to know if you have a plan for your prescription as I see myself an early casualty in a ruckus unless I keep a pet pig and we share a thyroid:)

    • Bgallette, my wife has to use the drug synthroid , which is probably what you have also. I have a years supply of most everything I can think of but only 1 extra scrip of synthroid. Do you or anyone else have any ideas as to shelf life of this drug? Any ideas on how to substitue (if at all) homeopathically? My current plan is to get a years supply and rotate each month but after then what? looks like we’re screwed after that. Your thoughts ?
      Thanks

      • I buy my synthroid in bulk. My doctor is aware that I order it from over seas under the name Eltroxin 100mg
        I like the drug company GlaxoSmithKline, Auckland, New Zealand. I order 1000 pills in a bottle. (under $200) I use them after they expire. My doctor just retired He was great very supportive of me using med.s from other countries.(He worked all over the world with NASA and in undeveloped countries.) I take labs every year and even if it is expired it still keeping my labs in the correct range. I don’t keep it in the fridegerator either.
        Hope this helps

        • emeesther,
          I do freeze most med’s & have since I can remember to keep them longer & I repacked them all in weeky doses with a flat dry pack in each one, {packs can be reused}. So I don’t have to keep the whole thing out. Squeeze out all excess air from the bags. The little bags can be bought at most stores in diff. sizes to fit your needs.

          I store them in small flat tackle boxes with the adjustable slides. A pharm. friend of mine tested some I have had 15+ yrs & said they were as fresh as the day I put them in. so there is an advantage to freezing med’s, it retards the chemical change in them. Moving them wasn’t a problem, dropped the tackle boxes in large baggies sealed with duck dape to insure against leakage dropped them in a cooler & ice worked fine for the trip.
          Ask your pharmacy what can’t be refrigerated most will tell you, some won’t because it cuts down on profits.
          Hope this helped .
          HAGD, God Bless

  5. off gridman. I too live off the grid, however, I use several c-60 charge controllers to control my solar and wind power. Also by using a trace (xantrax) 12-25 invertor, I can use my generator for back up anytime, without switching, as they have a power – through mode, that allows the power to go right to the primary source and any extra to go into the battery charger built right in. Two birds with one stone.

  6. Just a general comment- when constructing a home intended to use little to no power, it’s a good idea to research antebellum homes. For example, at Stone Mtn park in GA, there is an antebellum home in the park. In the corridor of this home is a breezeway. The point of the breezeway is to be a gathering place indoors when it’s hot. The house was constructed to take advantage of natural airflow, hence the name BREEZEway.

    construction of a home with regards to the direction it’s facing, where the sung will hit and where it will not is as important in home design as it is in layout of solar panels. It can make for comfort of lack of it.

    Our house was built in 1904 in rural GA. The original home had few rooms, but the rooms are large. The fireplace is central to the house and was opened on both sides with cooking and the kitchen on one side and the living area on the other. The house is directionally constructed in that the kitchen is on the north side and the living room is on the south side. The sun hits the house on the right side in the monring by 6-7am and is off the house by 6pm. This makes for a warm house in the winter, and treelines on the west side get the sun off the house in time for it to naturally cool down before bedtime. IT’s not perfect, but it’s clear thought was put into how and why to construct it in a particular way.

    Much of off the grid can be taken from the days before there was a grid to live on.

  7. Being truely off the grid is a dream that is currently unachievable. We can collect energy from the wind and sun but it requires batteries to store to the energy. This guy stores 500 gallons of diesel for his generator so he can run his heat and air unit, so how is this off the grid if you depend on grid made items to store your off the grid eneregy? These devices we call off the grid are at best a way to indure the inconveniences that mother nature throws at us in the from of natural disasters, but living this way indefinitely is not sustainable in it’s current form.

    The comments I’ve made are not intended to deflate our ballon of hope, but to keep us in touch with the reality that we have a way to go before we can truely achieve an off the grid life style.

  8. I would like to thank everyone for their comments and ideas, yet there are one or more possibilities that haven’t been examined, just examine the ideas and make your own or buy your own. These are just examples and with care and always with safety in mind you can do the same, and all of the following run from 12V DC-Solar/Battery and can be enhanced with a few electronic parts which make them better which can be found in old VCR’s etc..

    For Home Heating:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHdDA_XXSps
    For Cooking:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVw3VqOyVdU
    For Heating Water:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0laEk8FCvs&feature=related

    A little water, solar power or battery power, baking soda or vinegar or salt (needs cleaning more often), Ocean Water (salt water), stainless steel of some sort-old knives/coffee pots etc., a jar and connectors (wire, hose etc.) and your making Hydrogen.
    Just some examples, and there are many people that are doing much of the same.

    And yes there is an HHO Barbecue, and yet another Green Home Heater.
    http://www.thegreenhomeheater.com/
    HHO Barbecue:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qga1OOssYqk
    HHO Home made Stove:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/hhoball#p/a/u/1/XaO6xWTkL2Q

    Just to mention a few…. and to say that there a many ways to do the things that one is use to doing without spending thousands of dollars.

  9. Oh, I forgot to mention to those who have the Solar Yard Lights, don’t throw them away if you are changing them out, the little solar panels in the top can be removed and depending on what your want to do, you can wire them together and make a large solar panel 12/24/48 VDC. I currently have a large solar panel that is 24 VDC which makes a great charging device for any battery, all are attached in a large picture frame.
    I went with 24 VDC so I could have the volts and still some decent amps. You could stay at 12 VDC and have more amps then the one that I built, and amps are a big part of the power end, yet depending on the number of cells that are in the panel you could go with 24 VDC so that you have good voltage and still get some decent amps out of the panel.

  10. How are those Crown batteries holding up? I’m debating whether to purchase the Trojans or the Crowns for my own Solar install.

  11. Very Interesting. Thanks for the info.

  12. What is the cost of buying new batteries every 5-7 years? I’m trying to conceive of your ongoing maintenance costs for your house even though you are off the grid…

  13. We have a 360′ deep well that is dry, and can pump cold air out into the house for air conditioning if we need it. Should’nt need it though, as at 4800′ elev. any shade in the summer is ample cooling.
    I am toying with building a root cellar for refrigeration. I have dug a five ft. cubic hole in the ground and packed it with snow. I am betting I can keep some snow until August. ?? Ground temps are around 55 deg. Our snow goes away by early May + – . This year we still have 2′ – 4′ in mid April, so Aug. doesn’t seem out of reach.
    I’m using 6 volt batteries and 12 volt panel system for my water. Its been great for the last 3 yrs. I need some of your experience to go further though. Thanx for the info.

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