It’s been a full year since I moved out of my apartment and into my tiny house, with that came the shift to living off grid. Many of you have read my tiny house solar posts which talks about all the nitty gritty details of my solar panel system, if not, check it out because I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on it. Now that I’ve done this for a while it’s become very clear what I got wrong and what others non-off-griders (grid muggles?) about off grid living. I can now spot a grid muggle a mile away when they start talking about living off the grid. Here are some of the misconceptions you learn about when you go off grid.
Harbor Freight solar kits is all I need!
I hear this all the time from folks, “I’m going to get one of those Harbor Freight solar kits to power my house”. These kits are great, if you only need 45 watts, which really is only good for changing a laptop (30 watts) and cell phone (5 watts), maybe some power drill batteries; all of these things are insanely lower power consumption. If you need to run much more, these system will leave you very disappointed, cold, hungry, and in the dark.
Clothes washing is easy… right?
Time and time again people geek out over various contraptions for washing your clothes. I’ve seen them all, the plunger looking things, fancy peddle powered spinning ball gyros, and hand crank counter top tumblers. The truth is hand washing clothes isn’t terribly difficult; sure a normal washer is easier, but barring that, I’ve found a tub or large sink really works great. You can always spot the people who’ve never actually done it because they talk about washing clothes while true off gridders talk about drying clothes.
Drying clothes in an off grid setting in a tiny house is a royal pain. It’s fine if the weather is nice out, but if it’s really humid, or freezing cold, or worse, raining, you can forget about having dry clothes. What it really means is for about half the year you get dry clothes, the rest of the year you’ll have mostly dry clothes that you’ll give up and put on because everything is still damp and you need to leave the house.
Drying racks are great if you have just a few things to dry because you can rig something in your shower. But when you’re talking about a full load, it means you have to setup your drying rack inside your tiny house, which takes up most of your living space, then you need to let it dry in a day or two. This typically translates into perpetually having your drying rack out, which makes the tiny house much less livable.
The ideal option would be to have a small outbuilding where you could setup a clothes line and have a wood stove in the corner. You could also do what I do, head to a laundry mat or pay a laundry service. After doing laundry by hand for 3 months while living in Croatia, I’ve since transitioned to doing my laundry in a normal washer and dryer. Here in Charlotte I can have my laundry washed, dried and folded for $2.50 a lb, which as someone who loathes folding clothes, is so worth it.
Roof top mounted solar panels
The weird thing about solar is mounting on the panels on the roof is one the worst places you could put them. By their nature roofs are hot, which heat decreases the efficiency of solar panels. They are high up, so they are hard to get to in order to maintain, brush off snow and clean grime that builds up over time. Finally, on a tiny house the space you have to deal with is very small, because tiny houses have tiny roofs.
If you’re going to be traveling a lot with your tiny house, roof top is very practical, but you’re going to be hard pressed to do any sort of heating or cooling with that few panels. The best option is ground mount if you can swing it. You can access it easily to clean off snow and grime, you can easily inspect it and fix things for maintenance.
Not having backups… for everything
When you are your own power source, there is no power company to call when things go wrong. In most cases that’s a good thing because you often find yourself at their mercy and if you’re in a remote location, at the bottom of the priority list.
It also means that if something goes wrong, say the morning you have an important meeting to get to, you still need to make breakfast, take a shower, and do what you need to do. To this end I have backups for each of my main systems:
- Cooking: Grill and A Gas One Cooktop
- Shower: This Eco Temp Tankless Shower
- Heating: Mr. Buddy heaters
- Cooling: my backup battery powered fan
- Water: 4 gallons of water stored under my sink and small bottles for drinking
- Food: If your power is out, so is your fridge, so I keep several shelf stable snacks
- Light: Head lamps and a battery powered lantern and cell battery charger
Thinking you can live off grid with no propane
I hate the fact that I need to use propane, but its an absolute necessity. Of course if you have $50,000 to spend on your solar system, you wouldn’t need propane, but most folks don’t. Even my system, which is around $20,000, couldn’t come close to powering a hot water heater or stove/oven. The one exception to this might be if you have a really good hydro power turbine, then maybe, but that’s dependent on you having flowing water and a large drop, very difficult to find when buying land.
The one thing with all of this is how appreciative and grateful I have become for fossil fuels, they are a true miracle. They don’t come without their consequences, but the fact that I can pay $2.50 for a liquid, put it into my car and it takes me 50 miles in less than an hour… have you ever had to walk 50 miles? I have gone on multi night backpacking trips over 50 miles, fossil fuels are a true small miracle.
You could potentially get away with no propane if you did wood heat and had a water heater exchange on it, but honestly the idea of waking up 2 hours before I need to leave every day to make a fire, heat water to shower and cook on, isn’t in the cards. Even if I had the time to do that, I wouldn’t, I don’t want to spend me entire life chopping wood and stoking a fire, life is way too short.
A wood stove is the dream
This is something that many off gridders have in their cabins, but I personally can’t get into. When I grew up, I had a wood stove, everyone did when I lived in NH in the 80’s. I distinctly remember going over to my friend Jimmy’s house and his mother telling us we needed to go chop some wood so we had enough for the night. Chopping wood, stacking wood, moving wood, building up the fire in the morning: it was just a part of life.
The part that no one talks about how much work it all is. Here’s what every day would be like:
You wake up to a pretty cold house every morning in the winter, dash out of bed to rekindle the fire and put a few logs on the fire. About an hour later, you can finally take a shower without freezing. But oh wait, you forgot to fully close the stove and some smoke came back into the house, your work clothes smell like a camp fire. You head off to work and then come home to a cool home, time to add more wood, but wait you’re out of wood inside. So you get dressed again to go into the snow, you head to your wood pile and start stacking wood into a wheel barrel. While you’re loading up, you pull a log to find a snake making it’s move to bite your hand. You take care of the snake and keep stacking. Wheel the wood to the door and start carrying it in. You finally get wood stacked and fire roaring, to turn around and see a trail of destruction where you tracked in mud and dirt from the wood. You spend the next 15 minutes cleaning the floors.
Compare that to me: I walk it, press one button and in three minutes my house is super comfy. I kick off my shoes, grab a drink and start reading a good book.
Solar tracking is really important
This is another one that I can spot a solar newbie a mile away. They talk about a pole mounted tracking system, which allows your panels to follow the sun. But here’s the dirty little secret: You add one more panel to your system and you’ll make more power and save a lot of money!
Typically solar trackers improve solar gain by about 15-20%, so if your system were to generate 1 KW fixed, it now might do 1.2 KW. But here’s where it all falls apart. A solar tracker usually is at least $1000 extra dollars in equipment and you need to pour a large concrete footing for a couple hundred bucks. Let’s call it $1500 for the whole thing if you do it all yourself. But if we were to just use a fixed system and buy one or two more panels ($250 a pop) we could increase our system to 1.5 KW in a day. So for 33% less money I can get around 30% more power AND have no moving parts to break.
DC appliances and propane fridges are worth the money
It is absolutely true that DC is much more efficient and inverting DC to AC takes up some power, but it’s not the only thing to consider. There is a major myth that is perpetuated from information that was once true, but is now no longer. The problem is that there are a lot of websites out there with old information. With recent advances in inverter technology and lower costs for panels, the gap has dramatically decreased. While it is inefficient to change from DC to AC, you can make up the difference completely by the addition of one or two solar panels.
When you weigh the cost of specialty made DC appliances, for example a Sun Danzer Fridge for $1100, against going regular AC fridge, mine was $130, plus an extra panel, mine are $290 each, the math is simple. I can add one more panel and save hundreds.
The other part of the story is that a lot of electricians are hesitant to work on DC systems, many won’t. In addition to that, the market for DC appliances is small; this means less options for a higher price tag. Going AC give you lots of options, easily sourced electricians and all at a lower price.
My recommendation is to go full AC power and then just add a panel or two to your array.
Those are my thoughts on common misconceptions about going off grid
- What things have you thought about when going off grid?
- What surprised you about this list?