The Off Grid Life
Sunday, December 20 2015. Assynt
I apologise in advance for the lack of pretty photographs in this blog entry, but there has been some interest in what it is like for us living off grid, so I decided to put down a few thoughts, and as photographs showing our system are few and far between, and unless you have a passion for photographs of batteries, then there isn't much to show.
When we bought our home in the late 1990's it was a bolt hole for us from what was a hectic life in the south of England. We would escape here at the drop of a hat from the overcrowded, stressful south, and enjoyed living in a very different way to our normal way of life, and that included being off grid. Our house was built approximately 160 years ago, when there was no domestic electricity, and for some reason our house was never connected to the grid when domestic electrification was introduced to the area. We don't know why - but when we bought it we had to decide whether or not to get connected to the grid. We did make general enquiries, but once we received the quote from the electric company (approximately £8000 in 1998), we decided to opt for an alternative power source. Stevan, my husband, had long been interested in alternative energy. For almost as long as I had known him he had read and collected articles on different energy sources and systems, and had a bulging folder full of articles and ideas cut out of magazines. We felt we could do quite a bit with the £8K that the electricity company was wanting to install mains power, and, after all, it was a "holiday house" - it wasn't as if we would be living in it all the time!
Our initial needs were simple - we needed electricity for lighting, and perhaps a radio or small television. That was all. We were happy to do without computers for short periods while on holiday here - oh how quickly that changed! (As Stevan's IT roles grew and developed we soon realised that we would have to have internet access while we were here, even when on holiday) We were even prepared to do without an electric 'fridge for short holidays.
Our first system was a small 400w wind turbine (if you want technical details, have a look at this blog entry of Stevan's), which ran a 12V system and gave us lighting and some entertainment (tv, radio). Our power system has evolved over the years and we now have a set up which Stevan has described in fairly lengthy detail here and here, so I won't repeat all he has said.
But what does living off grid mean on a day to day basis? We moved to Assynt permanently in 2008. One of my biggest concerns about moving was how I would have to "do without". Gone would be my automatic washing machine, my dishwasher, my Gaggia coffee maker (and those of you who know me well KNOW how I don't operate without a morning coffee), the electric water heating system, central heating, large fridge, freezer, electric cooker ...... and so the list went on and on. It is one thing doing without these luxuries (some would say "essentials") when you are holidaying, but actually living without them? I was pretty uncertain.
Cooking wasn't really an issue - we had an LPG gas cooker which, while characterful (shall we say?), did the job adequately. But regularly using my slow cooker was no longer an option. A slow cooker draws about 240W, and while this may not seem much, it is the length of time that a slow cooker has to be on that is the issue. Our battery bank (which stores the power generated by our turbine and solar panels) gives us about 300 amp hours before it needs to be replenished. We run a 24V system, so 240w divided by 24v = 10 amps. Which means if I run a slow cooker for 8 hours that uses approximately 80 amp hours which, when you remember our system only offers us 300 amp hours before more power is required (either by the sun, wind or generator), suddenly sounds like quite a lot. Especially when it is for something that can be considered a convenience rather than an essential. However, if we know there are bright sunny days forecast or, alternatively, stormy windy days, then I can use the slow cooker as we know there will be plenty of power coming into the batteries to top them up again.
The secret to adapting to an off grid way of life has been careful thought about how you do things, and seeking appliances and equipment that uses as few watts as possible. So instead of the fully automatic washing machine we found a small twin tub, designed for use in caravans. Yes it takes a lot longer to do the washing - you can't just pile it in and walk away, but the washing gets done. Of course ironing is out of the question (oh dear!!), so when buying clothes I always have an eye as to how an item will look un-ironed. Actually that isn't strictly true - we do have a small travel iron which we can use for short periods if we need to, but it is surprising how you manage to live without ironing. Likewise a vacuum cleaner - we can run it for short spurts, or if we have the generator running.
LED light bulbs have been a great boost to reducing our electrical needs. I think the most powerful bulb in the house only uses 7W. To give you an idea of the significance of LED's, running 15 lights now uses the same power as 1 light bulb did when we bought the house back in 1997.
We select our IT equipment very carefully, choosing laptops and tablets that require the bare minimum of power to keep them going. Stevan wrote an article some time back for Tectonic magazine which you can find here, covering how we run our IT systems off grid for those of you who want more information on this aspect of off grid living.
Refrigeration has been one of the most difficult aspects to get right. Initially we had a tiny caravan gas 'fridge, which basically held some milk, some butter, and a bit of meat for a meal. You couldn't store veg in it - it was too small. Maybe a small lettuce, but that was your lot. When you're on holiday you can make do with beans on toast if you've not got anything else, but when you're living and working in a place you need proper sustenance, and living on beans on toast isn't really an option. So after a lot of research, we found a fridge that draws about 85W. That is not constant as it cycles, but when we did some tests we found it used about 1Kwh per week. The joy of the 'fridge is that it also has a small freezer section, so while our waistlines probably didn't thank us, it did mean we could enjoy ice cream from time to time! On a more practical level, though, it also meant that a daily shop (and for some things, a weekly shop) was no longer necessary. Vegetables could be stored in the 'fridge, but more importantly we could bulk buy (on a small scale!) and meals could be frozen. However there is never any standing in front of the fridge with the door open wondering what will be for tea - that uses up too much power as it causes the 'fridge to cycle!
The biggest change though? Probably the change in mindset. One becomes far more aware of how and when you use the electricity available to you. And having a bright digital meter on the kitchen wall showing you the state of charge of the batteries really does keep you on your toes. So, unless there is a gale blowing, lights always get switched off when you leave a room, nothing gets left on charge overnight, we don't use any electrical gadgets which require over 200w, and, to a certain extent, life revolves around the weather conditions.
But before you start thinking we must be the greenest of green households, well, we're not. We have a solid fuel stove either end of our house, and in them we burn coal. One of the stoves also heats our water, so that stove runs all the year around. In the summer we try and burn wood, but sometimes the heat given off by wood simply isn't sufficient to warm a whole house without any central heating, so we revert to coal in the winter.
After a turbulent, stormy and worrying winter over the 2014/2015 winter period, we once again made enquiries with the electricity company regarding getting electricity put to the house. The turbine had been tied up for most of the winter, and we were relying on the petrol generator to top up the batteries. We were ready to throw in the towel. However, when the quote came in and we'd picked ourselves up off the floor where we had fallen in both laughter and shock, we once again decided we had better things to do with £20K (for that was what it would have cost), and invested in new solar panels and a new turbine - one which can withstand much stronger winds than our previous turbine. Here is Stevan sorting out the stays for the tower:
And looking back at what I've had to "do without"? Well, not much! We just do things differently now. Except, perhaps, ironing ......
Anyone coming into the house wouldn't necessarily know that we were off grid, unless they'd spied the turbine and panels. The battery bank is 24V but because of the inverter we have the internal system that is a 230V. Lights switch on and off as normal, and the TV operates as normal.
Oh, and while I don't have my Gaggia coffee maker any more, we have discovered the delight of the Bialetti stove top coffee maker. Always an up side.