Why Renewable Energy Isn’t For Everyone | In Fact Almost No One!

August 13, 2015 · 2 comments

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light bulbIn the developed world we have become accustomed to having unlimited electricity.

We turn on a light switch and a light turns on.

We leave the light on for two weeks straight and the light stays on for two weeks straight.

Even if we do leave a light bulb running for two weeks it affects our power bill very little in most places (although there are areas where electricity is expensive).

battery bankHowever in an off grid home leaving one light bulb on for two weeks straight would likely be enough to discharge your battery bank completely.

Living off the grid either takes much sacrifice (as we limit our power consumption) or a lot of money to build a massive solar, wind or water power system. You, your spouse, and your children will need to become disciplined with your energy consumption.

Depending on the size of your solar power system, you will need to live within the limits of that system. If you are not careful, your batteries will become deeply discharged, the batteries will sustain damage and eventually the power will go out.

Although it sounds romantic and fun to be away from the power grid it can be a challenge. If you live in a warm climate you will need to operate some type of air conditioning. If you live in a cold climate you will need to operate some type of heating system.

Simply going to your local hardware store and purchasing a standard air conditioner or a standard heating system will not be possible. These off-the-shelf components all have standby losses or phantom loads.

Learn more about phantom loads and how to get rid of them.

Every appliance you decide to put in your off grid home will need to be considered carefully. You will only have the power that you make. There will be no extra like you are used to on the power grid. Here are some tips on purchasing energy efficient refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, dishwashers, tankless water heaters, heating systems and water filters.

When you purchase any new appliance you will need to check the energy requirements while it is in operation (peak power usage) and while it is in standby mode such as a remote control television. A typical television uses power all day long as it needs to be ready when you push the on button on the remote control. Click here for ideas to get rid of the standby losses. It is all the little loads that add up and drain your batteries.

wifi routerFor example you may have a WiFi router that uses 23 watts. If that router is on 24 hours per day, it will consume 552 watt hours per day or .552 kWh. You can purchase a cheap power bar timer or a timer that mounts in a standard electrical box to make your router come on at your chosen time in the morning and off at your chosen time in the evening. Some folks even program the router to turn off while they are at work. There are lots of options. On an aside note, there is research being done that suggests WiFi signals are harmful to the human body so the less your router is on the better.

hair dryersSomething like a new hairdryer may consume 1200 watts. However if you only operate the hairdryer for 10 minutes per day you will only be consuming 200 watt hours  or .200 kWh which really isn’t that much.

Most of us would assume a hair dryer is not practical in an off grid home and something as small as a router would be fine, but the opposite is true. The small loads that are on for long periods of time seem to be the power hogs.

Now let’s talk about heat loads…

Anything that makes heat is considered a heating load and heating loads are not practical to operate with renewable energy.

Electric baseboard heaters, electric space heaters, electric kitchen ranges, electric dryers, and electric hot water heater’s are out of the question. It is simply too expensive to operate these items using renewable energy.

harris hydroThe exception to this rule is if your home is powered by a water turbine. As water turbines usually produce power 24 hours per day and some can produce large amounts of power, some electric heating loads may be possible.

I have seen small water turbines like the unit on the right hand side produce up to 1 kilowatt or 24 kWhs per day.

That is a huge amount of power!

But for the rest of us we need to heat our homes, heat our water, dry our clothes, and cook with something other than electricity.

Many off grid homes are heated with something as simple as it wood stove. And many who have a wood stove will also cook with it in the heating months.

polarisOther off the grid homes are heated using either propane or natural gas which still brings us back to using fossil fuels whether we want it or not. Check out our favorite heating system here.

It uses a Polaris water heater / boiler that is 96% efficient and provides all of our heating plus our domestic hot water.

For the record, I have even seen off the grid homes that heat their entire house using solar hot water collectors (20 or more) and a massive storage tank (1200-1600 gallons) for the hot water in the basement. Then they run coil’s of copper pipe in the massive tank for things like domestic hot water, home heating, and I have even seen a few homes with hot tubs. This is not very common as the cost can be far more than the average homesteader could afford. The other problem with heating your home with solar hot water is the fact that the sun shines very little when you need the heat the most.

As the price of solar modules continue to drop there may be a time when we can use solar for home heating and hot water. It still is quite expensive but it can be done.

Air conditioning is usually not as hard to do with solar as there is usually lots of sun when you need the air conditioning the most. Our home is 1200 square feet and we keep it cool with one 5000 BTU unit in the bottom floor and one 8000 BTU unit on the top floor. As we have sized our solar system to operate in the short days of winter, we have plenty of excess electricity in the summer that we dump into air conditioning.

If you decide you would like to live the dream and break free from your power company be prepared to make a few sacrifices and get the right information from folks who have done it before you.

Do not make your decisions based on information (or buy a system) from a salesman who has never used/installed a solar module or lived off the grid. You will be setting yourself up for disappointment.

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Levi September 10, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Love the website! I can’t believe I haven’t found it before now, I’ve been spending the last 2 days checking it out. Can you go into more detail on running an air conditioner as a dump? I’ve read your dump website but didn’t see any details about running an air conditioner. Is this a standard window unit run through an inverter? Thanks for any more info!

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Jody Graham September 11, 2015 at 7:08 pm

Hi Levi,

Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it. We really don’t have any controls setup to use our air conditioners as a dump load. We simply turn them on manually on sunny days as we know we will have many extra kilowatt hours on sunny days in the summer. We actually have two A/C units. One in the downstairs window and one in the upstairs window. While we don’t usually recommend inductive loads (anything but a resistor/heater) as dump loads they can work in certain applications.

A dump load’s primary function is to turn on in an attempt to prevent the batteries from overcharging. Usually dump loads are setup on the DC side of the system so that in case of an inverter malfunction the dump load will still work. However if you want to run A/C as a dump load you will need to run it with the inverter. Simply put the air conditioner on an AC (alternating current) relay (about 60 amp that is triggered or turned on and off with 12 volts DC) (either standard or solid state) and control the relay by a voltage controlled switch or relay driver that is pre-installed in most high end inverters and charge controllers. When the battery voltage reaches a certain point, the voltage controlled switch or relay driver will turn the relay on starting your air conditioning unit. Check out dump loads for more info. If you have any questions please do not hesitate…Jody

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