How Living Off the Grid Works

 

“The grid” is a name commonly used for the electrical power that is supplied from a power utility company. A typical house is connected to the power grid and municipal water supply, as well as possibly a telecommunication line. Going off the grid means to forgo these utilities and generate or gather your own requirements.

Some home owners opt to be partially off the grid by generating their own electricity for their homes, whilst still relying on municipal water supply and sewage. Others choose to live off-grid completely by drilling boreholes or digging wells or cisterns to collect water on top of generating their own electricity, and handling of waste can be accomplished by means of a septic tank and French drain (local bylaws may or may not allow this option though).

In order to go off the grid and not to rely on electricity from a power utility company, you would need to use the energy from the sun and/or wind to provide the majority of your electrical power requirement.

For solar power, you would require photovoltaic (PV) solar cell (commonly in the shape of flat panels or tiles) fitted to the roof or near the house to be powered. These devices generate electrical current when exposed to rays from the sun. Photons in the sunlight are absorbed by the semiconductor construction of the solar panel causing electrons to be dislodged from their atoms in the process. Due to the structure of the materials making up the solar cell, the electrons can only flow in a single direction. When several solar cells are connected in an array, the flow of electrons gives enough direct electrical current (DC) to be usable. This electrical energy is stored in chemical batteries for later use, and these battery packs are frequently placed out of the way in motorhomes or outbuildings.

For application in homes the direct current (DC) from the batteries need to be converted to alternating current (AC) by means of an electrical inverter.

It is generally a wise investment to have a backup generator alongside the solar electrical system, for when weather conditions don’t allow for sufficient sunlight to reach solar devices for long enough periods of time. These generators are powered by petrol, diesel or liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and should only be used when necessary to supplement electrical supply. Integration with the solar system could be made to an automatic fall over if battery levels drop to low levels.

With enough solar generating capacity you should be able to operate most of your electric appliances, however not always all at the same time. For example if you’re using a hair dryer it might be best to avoid using the microwave at that time. Appliances that have high electricity consumption such as washing machines and tumble dryers should be operated at when your electrical power requirements are minimal. Wherever possible, always select the device with the most energy efficient design (look for the European Union energy label stating the efficiency of the device, A+++ being most efficient in energy consumption). When changing lighting, opt for energy saving designs such as fluorescent or light emitting diode (LED) units.

With electricity saving on the forefront of your mind when off the grid, converting some high energy consumption devices to another energy source such as LPG gas is an attractive option. Heaters, fridges, freezers, geysers, stoves and ovens are all available in models powered by LP Gas. Converting to these options might have a cost outlay to start with, however running costs and upkeep are minimal on these devices, resulting in significant savings in the longer run. When used in conjunction with a solar electrical supply setup. The reduction of load on you solar setup can either decrease the capacity requirement for the solar installation (thus lower the cost) or enable longer running times from battery power (due to the lower consumption).

Gas supply to your devices from tanks (available in different sizes) via pipes and regulators (commonly called bullnose regulators), are refilled as and when needed by gas suppliers. Frequently hardware shops and fuel stations are able to assist in this regard. Gas consumption is dependent on the device and the level of use for the device in question, and the average consumption is usually stated by the manufacturer in weight (of gas) per period of time. It is recommended to have a spare gas tank for the occasions when refilling is not immediately possible.

Gas fridges and freezers can secure food reserves with less food spoilage caused by interruptions in electrical supply (on and off grid).

Heaters powered by gas offer direct heat in a wide area, unlike other heaters that only offer small areas via indirect methods. Keeping your house well insulated will also prevent heat from escaping during winter, thus the need to run gas heaters for long hours or at maximum heat would be decreased significantly, resulting in savings from lower gas consumption.

Gas stoves and ovens have faster cooking times compared to electrical alternatives, as there is immediate heat from the flame with no waiting for the cooker to heat up first, whilst pots and pans also heat evenly and quickly as a result. With the flame off the heat is also immediately removed, thus you would not have to remove your food immediately to avoid it overcooking or burning.

Standard electrical geysers by default run all the time and are known for having high electricity consumption as a result. Installing a gas water heater eliminates this problem not only because of the unit using gas to heat water, but by the fact the water heater only heats water on demand, being in a minimal gas use standby when not required. When a hot water tap is opened inside your home, cold water flows into the water heater where it is detected by sensor which ignites the gas burner to heat the water to pre-set temperature. The hot water exits the gas water heater and travels directly to the tap or appliance and not to a storage tank (where energy would be lost). When the hot water tap is turned off, the heater switches off and returns to standby.

 

What you need to go off grid:

Solar Panels

Your levels of electrical consumption and the geographical location you are at affect the type and quantity of solar panels required. With each solar panel only producing small amounts of energy, most solar electric systems consist of several solar panels that are interconnected to supply sufficient current for the requirements.

Solar Panel Mounts (Racks) and Solar Trackers

Solar panel mounts are important to provide proper directional orientation of the solar panels and provide the stability needed to protect the solar panels from inclement weather. Solar panels can be mounted onto your roof, the ground, or on poles.

A solar tracker is a device to orientate a solar panel towards the sun. It increases morning and afternoon exposure, maximizing efficiency from your solar panels throughout the day. Resulting in higher levels of electricity production.

Power Inverter

A DC power inverter converts the direct current (DC) power from your solar panels or batteries into alternating current (AC) power for you to be able use in you home.  Some power inverters include a solar charge controller.

Deep Cycle Batteries

A battery bank is a group of batteries wired together (also called as a string of batteries).

This is a key component for storing the energy you collect from your renewable energy system or backup generator to use when generating less power than you are consuming.

When you’re off-grid and without batteries, you are only able to use the power you generate at the time you produce it. Therefor you will not have power when the sun is not shining on your solar panels.

Renewable energy systems will require batteries designed for frequent, deep cycling. Car batteries and even certain types of deep cycle batteries are not appropriate in renewable energy systems.

Solar Charge Controller

Deep cycle battery based renewable energy systems need to have a charge controller that manages the charging of the battery bank.  It is important to have your charge controller programmed with the correct set points for your particular battery setup to prevent the risk of damage from inconsistent charging or overcharging.

Battery Monitor

A battery monitor provides important information to manage and protect your battery bank.

Decent battery monitors are relatively inexpensive and provides information such as accumulated amp hours, and the charge status of your battery bank, amongst other information usable for trouble shooting.

The battery monitor should be placed in your home where it can be easily seen. It also needs to be properly programmed according to your system capabilities and requirements. The programming is only required upon installation of the battery monitor.

Automatic Back-up Generator

It is important for you to have a back-up power supply as it compensates for seasonal changes and weather patterns that generally affects the power that is produced by your renewable energy system. Generators can be controlled automatically by the Solar system or by a manual switch.