Off-Grid Living

What It Means, Our Philosophy and Our Approach

By Thomas Levy

My family lives in a home that is off the grid. Technically, this means that our home is not hooked up to the electrical utility lines that feed electricity to a typical building. We generate our own electricity on site in various ways, instead of buying it from the local electricity utility, which in turn acquires its energy from various sources (in our province of Ontario, that is mostly nuclear, hydroelectric and coal). We have no power lines connecting us to this “grid”.

Many people don’t fully understand what “off the grid” means, and often just mentioning this brings up ill-conceived perceptions that in some cases are simply untrue and based not on reality, but on myth. The purpose of this write-up is to present what living off the grid means to us, the philosophy behind why we did what we did and, for those that are really keen, the nuts and bolts of the whole system, or our approach.

What It Means

So … we live off the grid. But what does this actually mean? You may be surprised to learn that this actually means very little to us — perhaps you were expecting more?

To respond to some of the misconceptions out there: We didn’t build our home with our own hands. Our home is not a strawbale home, adobe, cordwood, earth shelter or any other form of unconventional home. And yes, it did cost us more than $10 a square foot. We live in a normally constructed building with a foundation poured from concrete, walls built from 2 x 4s and insulated with fibreglass insulation bats.

We don’t live in the dark, light kerosene lanterns or beeswax candles at night, hunt for our own food or make our own clothing. We are a normal family, with full-time jobs, kids in daycare and a mortgage for the next several decades. We worry about money, our kids’ future, and our retirement funds. We are not hippies – that perception bugs us a little. This is a different time, and to think of all those in our society who have strong convictions towards the preservation of the environment as hippies is, frankly, insulting.

Living off the grid does mean that energy is gold — the energy that powers our home, that is. Because of this, we are intimately aware of the weather and the energy it may bring, or the energy that we will need to store. We want to know what the weather was today, and what it will be tomorrow. If there will be a long stretch of sun, we may be more prone to do some laundry today. If we think there will be two or three days of cloudy periods, we may wait a day or two to do some laundry or turn on the dishwasher. At the end of the day, living off the grid means counting electrons that are coming in, counting electrons going out, and counting those that available to us.

Philosophy

We are two individuals who care deeply for our environment, respect the things we take from it, and are mindful about the things we put back. We are conscious of our footprint on this earth, and for that reason we decided to build our home in the manner that we did. We truly hope that we can impart these same sensitivities to our children. That is not to say we are perfect — far from it. We have never strived to be perfect, but we have strived to do the best we can within the confines of life, money and society as a whole. There is certainly more that we can do, but the purpose of this essay is not to explore what more we can do, but rather to describe what we have done.

The philosophy is really this simple: We did what we did because we believe in what we did. We believe that individuals should take responsibility for their own footprint, and should stop relying on government and industry to help them find solutions. There is nothing fancy about how we achieved an off-grid lifestyle. We used standard construction, used standard energy accounting, such as turning off lights and removing as many “phantom loads” as we could, and we installed a standard power system. The rest is attitude.

Approach

Living off the grid requires adherence to the following three principles. If you do not follow these, it will be too expensive to pay for an energy system to deliver the electricity you will need to allow your home to function. You must therefore do the following:

  1. Conserve energy
  2. Conserve energy
  3. Conserve energy

Building a home to be as energy-efficient as possible (or at least as energy-efficient as your finances will allow) is the most critical factor in going off the grid. In terms of actual energy consumption, a standard home uses, on average, 20 to 40 kWh of electricity per day. Our home consumes on average 3 to 5 kWh per day, which represents a reduction of 75 to 93% of a standard home’s energy usage. I have heard that for every kWh of energy you can save through energy conservation, you would otherwise have to spend $10 dollars to produce the same kWh using renewable energy. There is obviously some wiggle room in this — for example, whether your renewable energy is produced from wind or solar. Regardless of the actual number, the point is, it is much easier and cheaper to conserve electricity than it is to produce it.

Once you have done these three things, you are nearly ready to live off the grid. The fourth thing one must do to live off the grid is to be aware of energy. This includes energy needs (not wants), the “energy budget”, and of course, when energy is available (e.g., windy or sunny days). Accounting for daily or weekly energy cycles is important to ensure that your system functions properly without too much strain.

Regardless of the type of energy system, it must be sized correctly. A system that is too large will be underutilized and will inherently be wasteful since part of it will go unused. A system that is too small will be strained and its lifespan will be significantly shortened, also resulting in wasted money. A system should be designed to suit existing lifestyles — an off-grid energy system can always be scaled up based on a family’s changing needs. As the family grows, so can the system itself.

Our own system is comprised of three main things:

  1. The house and related electrical loads
  2. The heating and cooling system
  3. The renewable energy system

The house is designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. We situated the house so its long axis runs east and west, and our primary living areas are on the southern end of the home. Our windows are triple-glazed, with double low-e coating and two argon-filled spaces. We extended the roof overhang to block summer sunlight, and we insulated the roof to R-60, wrapped the house with a “stucco-type” system providing R-15 on the exterior walls, and insulated interior walls to R-20. We also insulated the entire first floor to a value of R-20, and bermed the house (created an embankment) on the east and west sides on the first level. We used light colours for finishing the exterior walls and roof so we can reflect sunlight in the winter summer. Within the house, we have only fluorescent lights, and we manage our electrical loads by using switches that allow us to power things down when not in use (e.g. computers, microwave, TV, etc.). Oh yes — we also don’t have a doorbell waiting to be pressed. We prefer the conventional “knock on the door” approach!

Heating the home comes next. There are three main elements:

  1. The house itself, which absorbs heat during the day through proper glazing and location, and proper insulation to reduce the loss of heat at night.
  2. Wood stoves upstairs and downstairs.
  3. A “Clean Air” furnace provides backup heat on a thermostat-controlled switch. The furnace takes hot water from our hot water tank (propane-fired, direct vent) and runs the heated water past a water-to-air heat exchanger. The furnace is also equipped with a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) and electronically commutated motor (ECM) to maximize efficiency.

And finally, the renewable system. The best recommendation I have is that you use a reputable installer. Just because a company sells this stuff does not mean they know what they are doing. We used a master electrician who specializes in these installations. Our system consists of the following:

  • Eight 165-Watt Sharp Solar Modules
  • Outback Power Board
    - 3.5 kW Inverter
    - 120/240 V regulator for the generator
    - MX60 MPPT Charge Controller
    - Mate and Controls
  • 12 x 2V Surrette Battery bank, wired for 24 Volts (~2400 amp-hour storage at 20 hours)
  • 7.5 kW diesel generator with “auto start”

5 Responses to “Off-Grid Living”

  1. Terry Newcombe Says:

    Thank you, Thomas, for writing that detailed but succinct explanation of your philosophy and system. I was only puzzled by one line: “We used light colours for finishing the exterior walls and roof so we can reflect sunlight in the winter.” Do you mean “summer”, to prevent overheating? I hear that this is more common than dark colours in order to improve heat absorption in the winter, but I’m not sure why it’s better (maybe summer cooling is more expensive than winter heating?). I’ve been reading about passive solar heating and I understand that concrete floors or tiles receiving the south winter sun work best when dark coloured to maximize solar gain.
    Thanks again,
    Terry.

  2. Thomas Says:

    Terry -

    Good catch! That is a typo, and winter should be changed to Summer. It is easier to heat a house off the grid than it is to cool a house – why? Air Conditioning vs. Woodstove….an air conditioner consumes 30A on 220 V power, a wood stove consumes no energy. Design your house for cooling, and not heating. Fortunately designing for cooling will ensure an efficient home to heat as well, so it all works out!

    Cheers –
    Tom

  3. Cathy Patterson Says:

    Thank you for this post, it was really interesting to read. I love to read and write about this kind of living.

  4. Mauro Pacitto Says:

    Hello Tom,

    I saw the Living Lightly movie tonight and was impressed with what you have done. I am an architectural designer and try to encourage clients to add some energy saving features to their homes. I was wondering, when you designed your house for passive solar gain, if you found any useful formulas or simulation programs. Stuff like % of windows, vs area and thermal mass calculations.

    Great work,

    Thanks,

    Mauro Pacitto

  5. Tom Levy Says:

    Mauro –

    The selling feature, off grid or not, is that it is easier to conserve energy than it is to make energy. There are a myriad of programs out there that will enable you to examine performance improvements of energy efficiency measures, determining cost-benefit ratio of energy efficiency measures etc. Several come to mind: RETScreen and HOT 2000 are common programs. There is also “HOMER” from NREL, which is a great program, but focuses more on renewable energy production.

    Most standard HVAC firms should be able to analyze heating and cooling loads. Typically all you really need to know are U values for windows, square footage of glazing vs. floor area, and wall/roof insulation values. Typically this information is then used to size HVAC equipment. If you want to talk more, go to my facebook page and add me as a friend, then we can chat via email (or contact David and get my contact details from him). FYI – I will be on “Connect with Mark Kelley” tonight, somewhere b/w seven and nine at night, EST. Cheers! Tom

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