Energy efficiency is vital to the success of any off-the-grid homesteading project. When you try to make a go of it without the phony sense of dependability offered by your local utility company, power resources become so precious that every bit of energy you waste undermines your chances of ultimate success.
But as you built and designed your own customized lifestyle, organized around the wise and efficient use of time, money, and resources, did you really think of everything? Or is it possible you missed – and maybe are still missing – some golden opportunities to cut down on the amount of energy you use that would not have required you to make even the slightest sacrifice in your overall quality of living?
Before you embark on your voyage to grid-free self-sufficiency and independence, or before you proceed any further (if your ship has already left the dock), you need to get your house in order, both figuratively and literally. If your off-the-grid dreams are to come true, energy efficiency is an absolute must, and if there are ways that you can save even more energy than you already have been the time to make some changes is now.
So what have you missed? What mistakes have you been making that have been causing you to squander invaluable and irreplaceable power resources? Whether they are few or many, they are all a problem, and in order to help you investigate and evaluate your energy use patterns more deeply we are about to discuss seven common mistakes that people often make that will inevitably sabotage their attempts to achieve perfect energy efficiency.
Mistake #1: Not using the best available options when insulating your home.
Batts and rolls are fine and dandy, and better than nothing to be sure. But if you really want to get every nook, cranny, crevice, corner, and crack covered and plugged to keep the good air in and the bad air out, blown-in cellulose insulation is probably the most sensible way to go. You may also want to take a look at spray foam insulation, which can accomplish the same thing and is a bit more flexible in the way it can be used (spray foam is perfect, for example, if you want to use your attic space and need insulation for the underside of your roof). Spray foam is more expensive than blown-in insulation, however, and with blown-in you always have DIY options while spray foam should only be installed by a licensed professional. Another advantage of blown-in is that it can be placed over and around existing insulation in many cases, making it the perfect choice for home renovation projects.
Of course, if you are constructing a new home and can afford them, structural insulated panels (SIPs) are always the best way to go. The upfront investment will be significant, but in the long run, no other insulating choice will deliver the same super-airtight results.
Mistake #2: Passing up your home energy audit.
Have you really taken a close look around your house to make sure you are saving energy in every way you possibly can? Maybe yes and maybe no – but even if you have, it might be a wise decision to contract a professional home energy auditor who will come to your home and inspect everything with the same care and intricate attention to detail that Sherlock Holmes uses to inspect a crime scene.
And if you are using excess energy because you have overlooked opportunities to save it, that in itself is a crime, so it could very well be worth the investment ($300-$500) to hire someone to perform your home energy audit who has actually been trained to do the job. A professional energy auditor will perform a blower door test and use specialized equipment such as a thermographic scanner to discover any areas where air may be leaking in or out, while also giving you numerous tips on how you can reduce your consumption of electricity without making a huge dent in your budget. (In other words they aren’t going to tell you to go out and buy a new energy-efficient refrigerator or stove and then charge you for that advice.)
Local government energy offices can help you find qualified home energy auditors in your area, and the Residential Energy Services Network offers a public directory that contains contact information for certified energy raters and auditors all across the USA.
Mistake #3: Spending your hard-earned dollars on new energy-efficient windows to replace the old ones.
Okay, if you have already done this, there isn’t much you can do about it now. But unless your windows are in a state of advanced disrepair and simply have to be changed before they crumble into shards, in most cases state-of-the art energy-efficient windows are not going to save you enough money to make the investment worthwhile. Air leaks through windows are a relatively small source of energy loss, and even the highest quality windows are not going to add much more than R-2 or R-3 to the overall insulation profile of your home’s thermal envelope. If you have not already done so, you certainly will want to tighten your windows up with caulking and weather stripping, and outdoor shutters, awnings, or shade trees can help to eliminate unwanted solar gain during the hot weather season. But spending $1,000 or more – most likely more – on a set of shiny new windows for the sunward sides of your home would be an extravagant and excessively costly way to improve the energy-efficiency profile of your domicile.
Now if you are in the process of constructing your home, that is a different story entirely. Energy-efficient windows with double-pane insulated glass are a great selection for new residential building projects, and if your dream home in the country has not yet been completed, you would be making a serious blunder if you chose not to include them.
Mistake #4: Using your car or truck WAY too often.
Weren’t expecting that one, were you?
Granted, keeping your car in the garage more frequently has nothing to do with home energy-efficiency, but if reducing resource use while saving money is what floats your boat and brings you off-the-grid bliss, then why should your driving habits be treated as if they are somehow sacred and unassailable? After all gasoline=energy, and if you are using more of it than you should be, that is a form of waste and it is something that should be addressed.
Lack of exercise is one of the main reasons, along with unhealthy diet, that obesity is reaching epidemic levels. Fortunately, walking and bicycling are both wonderful forms of exercise, and they are also clearly underappreciated and underutilized as forms of transportation. Even if you live in the country, you can still get around quite a bit using the power of your legs and feet, and if you are truly committed to self-sufficiency and independence, it is clearly in your best interests to stay as physically active and vital and fit as you possibly can.
But whether you need the exercise or not – and most off-the-gridders are pretty fit in comparison to the average American, it is true – the possibility (or is it inevitability?) of peak oil and the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the fuel supply is another excellent reason why you should to avoid over-reliance on the automobile. If you have to take long trips or haul large objects, you may have no choice but to continue relying on your car or truck, but if you are driving everywhere out of sheer habit no matter the circumstances, you might want to consider altering your behavior now, voluntarily, so if fuel shortages do indeed hit, you won’t be caught unprepared.
Mistake #5: Not paying attention to the details.
Ever heard that old saying about the devil being in the details? Well, its true; and in this instance, that connection is especially important since we happen to know for a fact that the devil hates energy-efficiency; it goes against everything he stands for and believes in.
Details in energy-efficiency matter a lot, and the chances are you are not paying as close attention to them as you should be. Do you:
- Turn the lights off whenever you leave a room?
- Plug your electric appliances and devices into power strips that can be conveniently switched off to prevent phantom power loss?
- Keep your thermostat turned down while you sleep or when no one is at home?
- Open and close your refrigerator as quickly as possible when you need to take something out?
- Use only CFLs or LED bulbs instead of incandescents?
- Hang your wets clothes outside on a line during warmer months instead of using your dryer?
- Keep the temperature of your water heater set at no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit?
- Unplug your freezer in winter and keep things in an outdoor container to take advantage of the free cold?
- Use candles for light whenever it is practical?
- Avoid using screen savers on your computer, which are just another type of energy-draining software?
In truth, the list of questions similar to this that we could be asking you could go on and on. But ultimately it will be up to you to figure out for yourself where you have been wasting energy without realizing it.
If you are wondering whether it is really worth the effort to make a whole bunch of small changes in your energy consumption habits, rest assured that small amounts of needless waste will add up over time and perhaps jack up your level of electricity use by as much as 5-10% over the course of a year.
Which just goes to prove that the devil is indeed in the details.
Mistake #6: Failing to adopt sensible landscaping procedures.
The amount of sun and wind that reaches the walls and windows of your home can be impacted dramatically by the landscaping decisions you make – assuming, of course, that you have actually made landscaping choices. Unfortunately far too many people ignore the exterior areas around their homes and never bother to:
- Plant deciduous trees near southwest and southeast corners to control shading patterns by season; or
- Plant trees or shrubs or bushes in appropriate arrangements to funnel prevailing winds as desired; or
- Trim the branches of any trees that might shade solar panels on the roof during certain times of the day; or
- Sow grass seed to grow lush lawns that help moderate ground level temperatures.
All of these actions can improve your home energy-efficiency by reducing your need for artificial cooling in summer or heating in winter. Good landscaping practices can also enhance the appearance of your homestead, just as surely as they can help you regulate your use of energy.
If you haven’t been proactive with your landscaping you have probably been missing out on an excellent opportunity to improve your home’s overall affordability quotient. It may be possible to reduce your heating- and cooling-related energy demands by as much as 30% if you follow sensible landscaping procedures, and that is not a number that any aspiring or practicing off-the-gridder can afford to sneeze at.
Mistake #7: Not using your basement as a living space.
When you go down into your basement on a warm day, what does it feel like there? It is much cooler than your upstairs spaces, right? This is because basements are located beneath the surface of the earth, which is an amazingly good natural insulator. And yet despite the perpetually mild temperatures that predominate in basements, many people use them exclusively for storage and never even consider converting them into living spaces. That is a crying shame, because basements that have been turned into actual rooms can be wonderfully comfortable in summer and equally fine in winter with the addition of just a little bit of heat (the surrounding earth will prevent basements from getting super-cold when the mercury plunges outdoors).
It is easy to create cozy, comfy, secure, and attractive basement layouts that include bedrooms, study areas, libraries, game rooms, workshops, multi-media entertainment centers; basically anything you can dedicate a room to in a home could be moved down into a cleaned up and remodeled basement, where comfortable conditions will prevail with relatively minimal investments of energy. In the summer in particular, basement living spaces are likely to be highly popular with the members of your family, and obviously the more time you all spend in your basement the less energy you will have to consume upstairs running multiple fans and/or an air conditioners in order to keep yourselves cool.
However, it is much harder to waterproof a basement after the fact, so if you do consider this option, before you begin nailing paneling to the walls, have a professional come out and evaluate your basement for water seepage that can ruin any upgrades you make.