Winter is here and with it, the cold. So far we’ve had some nights down in the low 30’s, maybe even freezing. Last year I did a post about my first winter, read it here. Since I do live off grid, there are quite a few consideration and steps I take to get ready. So today I thought I’d share some of those here today.
The biggest consideration I make is the fact that days will be getting shorter and in the winter, you tend to have a bit more overcast skies. This means one thing: less solar gain for my panels. Now in the design of my system, which I talked about my tiny house solar setup here, I calculated everything based on the winter months when solar exposure is the least. This means in the summer, my system is making way more power than I can use, but in the winter, a low producing day will actually be enough to do everything I need to do.
With this in mind I make my preparations.
The first thing I did was get out both of my generators and check them out. I have two generators for two very specific functions: a small super efficient and quite one to run for real time power and a larger one that just dumps a ton of power out at 240V to refill my batteries quickly. I make sure that things look good, I start them up, and I change the oil even if it doesn’t need it. While doing this I discovered that my larger generator for whatever reason was only putting out 120V out of my 240V outlet, which is a real problem because my inverter requires 240V to trigger its power shunt to charge the batteries.
Luckily it was still under warranty and I checked this now, not when I really needed it, and was able to get it to the shop to get fixed for free. With the two generators squared away and in good working order, it was time to move onto the consumables that go with them.
Consumables For Generators:
I first checked my stock of spark plugs, oil and fuel stabilizer. As a rule I try to keep these things on hand so I can ward off “Murphy” AKA Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Sometimes spark plugs just get too gummed up and it can be easier to replace it with a new one than clean it off; at $1.58 each I usually just swap for a new one.
The oil I just keep on hand in case there is a leak or I would need to drain it for some reason. I prefer to use a higher grade of synthetic oil which my generators can use for longer run time. I also keep a fuel, gloves, catch basin and paper towels to change when I need to. Finally I have a large bottle of Stabil which is a fuel stabilizer that allows you to maintain the quality of gas for a longer time; I make sure it’s the type for ethanol because gas with ethanol mixed in goes bad faster. Ideally I’d seek out non ethanol gas, but it’s increasingly hard to find and it’s not offered near my house reliably.
The last consumable I stock up on is this product I found called “Gas Off Cleaning Wipes.” Initially I thought this was a silly product, but I tried one and was completely sold. It always seems that I had to fill up my generators right before I would go to bed and no matter how careful I was, my hands always get a little gas on them.
These little wipes remove that gas smell, which isn’t normally a big deal. I noticed that the odor was very strong because when I sleep, I curl my arm up so my hand is near my face. These wipes remove the gas smell and for a few buck, I now keep a pack handy.
Gasoline and Propane:
Going into the winter I always start with all my tanks full. I currently have six 5-gallon tanks, four 2.5-gallon tanks, and 6 propane tanks. I never need this much at one time of course, but I find its easier to load it all up and do it all at once.
For gas, if I have any remaining gas in the tanks, I put it in my car. This allows me to only have gas that is at most a few months old. With empty tanks, I put Stabil in each tank, then fill them up. I am on the hunt for gas pour nozzles without the EPA spill free spouts because they are a royal pain and I usually end up spilling because of the nozzle being so awkward to use. I then store the gas out of sight, but still in a well ventilated space away from my house.
Propane is a reality of living off the grid. While I had really wanted to get away from fossil fuels all together, heating water on electric is a huge power suck. Also, I love grilling out, but don’t always have time to get some charcoal going. Right now I run about 3 months on a single 20lb bottle of propane for my water heating. I also use a 20lb bottle for cooking (grilling and stove top) every 3-4 months. So I always keep 2 tanks hooked up and 4 in reserve. I’m thinking about buying two more because I find it easier to fill up a bunch at once than a lot of little trips. One tip is getting refills is much cheaper and you get more propane for your dollars at a refill station.
With living off the grid, you always need to plan to have a backup plan, and a back up to that back up. One is none, two is one. For this case my main concerns are my ability to heat, my ability to cook, and my ability to get water.
With this in mine I went out and stocked up on 1lb propane bottles for my back up heater. The heater is a Mr. Buddy heater that costs about $35 and is pretty straight forward to use and pretty portable. I’ve used it in the past and it’s worked well, so it’s a great back up source of heat if I need it. They do sell an adapter for a big propane tank, but I find the 1lb tanks convenient in the rare instances that I do need it.
For water I always keep a few gallons on hand for drinking, cleaning and cooking. In a pinch I can heat some of it on the stove and do a sponge bath if the hot water heater would go down. The heating of the water can be done on my portable stove top which runs on butane cartridges. All of this is just handy to have ready to go if I ever were to need it, but it isn’t for the everyday; anything to help keep Murphy away.
Keeping Your Solar Panels Clean:
With the fall and the winter, it’s like mother nature is out to get you sometimes, and coming up with ways to cover your panels happens a good bit. Whenever you solar panels get covered, even partially, your power production can start dropping. With fall it’s leaves, in winter it’s snow. It’s also a good time to clean the panels of dust and grime.
Food and Home Provisions:
Since I’ve been doing so much preparation for nesting I also took the chance to clean out my house and then stock up stuff for the house. I got extra tissues, paper towels, trash bags, soaps, shampoo, and other stuff like that. I also started building out my pantry a little bit more by picking up general cooking ingredients, soups, snacks, and warm drink options.
Heating A Tiny House:
Things have changed a good bit with the installation of of my solar and mini split system. I am happy to report that the mini split has been able to cool and heat my house very effectively, to the point that I was able to keep my house at 64 degrees on a 98 degree day easily and with the cold nights dipping down to freezing I was able to keep my place very toasty.
The beauty of the mini split is that I have a lot of control over the temperature, including the ability to set a range so it heats when it gets too cold and cools when it gets too hot automatically. I can set schedules, have it motion activated, and all is done with just a simple press of the button. Compared to wood heat, this is a much more superior way because often wood heat get too hot and many times you find yourself waking up in the morning to a cold stove. Since it’s solar, I don’t have much guilt about setting it to my ideal preferences and no chopping wood. I feel like the tiny house mini split evangelist here, but I love this thing.
So all in all I have just been trying to get a lot of last minute things done so I can head into winter with everything in place, the house cleaned and well stocked. Between it getting cold outside and holiday parties, seeing friends and other things filling up this busy time of year, I’m glad to get ahead of things. Living off the grid certainly does come with it’s own set of considerations, but I’ve found it to be a very comfortable life and some simple preparation makes it pretty easy to do too.