Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How We Live Off The Grid

Energy: Solar Power, Who says you can't have a great system on a shoe string budget?

We have been living off the grid for almost 6 years and began with very little money. We started out with one battery, from our Ford Explorer and a small 750 watt inverter from Home Depot (for about $80 at the time). This worked fine for lights and watching TV. The battery came in at night, and went back into the vehicle during the day. We then worked up to 2 batteries.

For 3 years we did not have a normal refrigerator. We got an small frig that was not working (for free) and put ice in it and used it as a giant cooler. Friends and neighbors would freeze milk jugs of water for us and bring some over every time they visited.. In the winter we made ice outside. (We now have a propane refrigerator, but would like to change that)

Our water pump is a 12volt RV pump (our well is just a dug 16' deep one, so this little pump works out for us). ($90 from an RV store). We also have a regular jet pump that we can run off our current inverter or generator.

For music we use a car stereo that is hooked up to it's own battery and connected to 2 small solar panels ($40 each). The stereo and battery are in a small cabinet and we have speakers wired all over the house (more on that another time).

Here is a run down of current our system. It is not by any means a professional job and would probably make a lot of the so called pros cringe, but it serves us well, with minimal maintenance. What we have discovered is that a lot of people tell us that we can't do it this way, when in actuality you can. So call us rebels or just nonconformists, in the end things work for us and they work well.

Our system is 12 volt. We have 3 12v 85 watt solar panels (they were around $500 each...we started with one, then the following year bought 2 more). These panels connect to a square D general duty safety switch; this is no more than a box with a lever on the outside so we can disconnect the solar panels from the system. Inside the box are two 30 amp cartridge type fuses. I connected the solar panels to the top terminals and from the bottom terminals I ran into the charge controller. Our charge controller is a Prostar 15 and it is made by Morning Star Corp ($125 when we got ours). In our case we cannot add any more solar panels because the charge controller only handles 15 amps and when the sun hits just right our panels actually put out 16 – 18 amps. Bear in mind this does not hurt the controller. We went with this size because it served our purpose and the price was right. When we purchase more panels we will also have to buy a larger charge controller, but these panels provide us with enough power now, so it is not an issue with us. From the charge controller I ran leads to the battery bank. Our battery bank consists of used car batteries. This is where the “professionals” cringe. We are able to get good, used car batteries from a car dealership as long as we have one to bring in for an exchange. This has worked out well for us, although we are testing batteries often to be sure we don't have a bad one bringing down our system. As they say....your battery bank is only as good as your weakest battery. If money were not an issue than things may have been done a little different, like all deep cycle batteries and not used ones, but the used ones we are recycling so maybe we would still go that route. The batteries are connected in parallel. The charge controller connects to the positive on the first battery and the negative on the last battery, this gives the bank a better charge. That's about it for the charging side of the system.

The power side of the system connects the batteries to the inverter opposite of the way the charge controller is connected, in other words: if the charge controller is connected to the positive on the first battery, the inverter is connected to the positive on the last battery. Our inverter is not hard wired, only because we have to connect to the generator, so I ran a cable from the circuit panel into a junction box and from that a 10 GA cable with a plug on it. This plugs into the inverter or generator outlet, which ever we need. This eliminates the need for a transfer switch $$$$$. When we need to use the generator we just unplug from the inverter and plug into the outlet we have hooked up for the generator. The inverter we have is the Xantrex 3000 pro watt inverter and is powerful enough to run what we need in the house (washer, vacuum, vita mix) and most of the power tools (we got the inverter second hand, hardly used, for $450). We just plan on doing certain things on sunny days (if laundry needs to be done and the sun is not shinning, either it waits, or we use the generator...usually it just waits!)

The last piece of the puzzle is of course our wind generator, which we have talked about in another post. We have finally gotten some wind, and it seems to be working well. We are hoping it will boost our power this winter when there is not as much sun light.

Living this lifestyle has been challenging. We use all compact florescent bulbs and even pay attention to the wattage of those. We always look to see how many watts or amps something uses before we buy it and have basically become much more aware of power consumption; lights go off when we leave a room. We don't use a toaster, microwave or anything else that creates a lot of heat (no electric coffee pot, we use a French press). With a larger system we wouldn't have to keep track of things as much as we do, but we also would have spent a LOT more money.

Charge Controller
Charge Controller

System Fuse Box/Shut Off
system fuse box/shut off
General View of Set Up
General View of Set Up