So you found that piece of heaven and are laying down your homestead and you need to rationalize how you are going to power it. Let me see if I can help you through this predicament. Get your calculators ready because it’s all about the numbers for me.
Know What You Need
Before you figure out wish way to go, I think you should first figure out how much you need to get by. I would start with a challenge to yourself to spend one month living the way you would off the grid and measure your consumption. Let’s start with what you need to measure. A Kilowatt Hours (kWh) is the most common way to calculate this. It is the number of hours that you could run at 1,000 watts. So for instance, if I have 5 kWh, I can pull 1,000 watts for 5 hours. A Kilowatt is approximately 3.6 joules of energy when we are using it in equations where joules are concerned.
I can figure out how many KWH I need in a month by looking at last month’s electricity bill. For instance, my house uses about 800 kWh/Month. In order to obtain those kWh, I will need to generate them, store them, and consume them and that is three parts that I cover in more detail in my blog on Building A Solar Infrastructure. Now what we need to do is reduce the reliance that I have on this number to keep the cost down. If for some reason the cost is not an issue, then please skip to the part about picking different options.
How To Cut Back
Here is a list of what I would start with to reduce your energy consumption:
- Lighting – Move to all LED lighting. LED lights consume 10% of the watts as compared to incandescent bulbs. This is because of the inefficiency of the incandescent bulb which converts only 10-20% of the wats to lumens which are the measurement of light. LED bulbs are going to give you the same lumens for 1/10 the energy. Said another way, you can have 10 LED bulbs running off your battery bank for the cost of what it would have taken you to run just one incandescent. Use mobile lighting like solar-powered lanterns when you are in one space and don’t leave lights on.
- Temperature Regulation – Let’s start with air conditioning since this article in response to a question from Joe in Florida. In areas like Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, temperature regulation is more than a comfort issue it is actually safety concern. First I would consider alternative forms of heating and cooling like Geothermal if you can afford the upfront costs. If not, you are going to need to account for the draw in Amps and the consumption in watts that will be taken to run this to a reasonable temperature. For heat, consider wood-burning fireplaces or even propane heating.
- Refrigeration/Freezing – for places like where I live in the Great Lakes, we get natural refrigeration more of the year than we usually want it. But if you are in Florida, you need to reduce the number of items you are keeping in your refrigerator and consider Freeze-dried products over Frozen.
- Hot Water – Assuming you don’t have a natural hot spring at your disposal, I have spent some of the most comfortable baths of my day in wood-fired baths and showers. They take time and planning (and wood) but they will heat as hot as any. The only issue is that with the heat on the boiler through wood fire, you have some additional wear and tear that you need to account for and you never have the hot water when you want. You also are going to need a lot of wood and Florida is not commonly known for its hardwood forests like other parts of the United States. If that doesn’t work I am back to Propane or natural gas. Here in Ohio and Pennslyvania, if you dig down you will get natural gas. But if you are in Florida, then Propane might be the answer you were looking for.
- Clothes Washing and Drying – well you can go as old school like the old washing board but that will take a toll on your jeans real fast. There are turn of the century washing machines still out there that you crank that consume no power as well. I am guessing you probably want to run at least a cold water washing machine and for that, you are going to need to hook up the power. I think if you are in Florida you can opt to line dry your clothes which will save you on the propane for the dryer. If you are here in Ohio, then again I would look at a natural Gas well, and during the winter you may wish to just freeze your jeans which for many brands is the actual best way to kill the bacteria in them and make them smell fresh again.
- Cooking – Well I would go with the time trusted tradition of the potbelly stove here, but for many of you, you will still want the modern trappings and so again I would lean on gas as a source of energy. If not, then you are going to need more renewable power for this homestead.
- Dishwasher – it does amaze me how many homesteaders want to still power this machine, and if you do then go right ahead but now you need hot water and power for it so it is going to cost you. For me, I am fine doing them by hand.
What Are My Options For Energy?
Probably the more reliable of the battle here today, wind can run all night and even for weeks or months without stopping. The wind is also the more efficient of the two turning more energy directly into power than solar. It, unfortunately, will likely require you to install an 80′ turbine in the back yard and although id does run at night when there is wind, it does not run when the wind stops. It also doesn’t run when the wind is too breezy or when the temperatures get too cold. Despite it being more efficient, it is super hard to scale and depending on where you are it may only produce a tenth of the energy you may need.
Solar is highly inefficient still today transforming up to 20% of its consumed energy to power, but it is highly scalable and not moving. Solar’s other big hit that it takes is its carbon footprint, however, modern advances in science say that the time to overcome its carbon footprint is no longer 20 years and is now down closer to 2. Because there are no moving parts there is very little that can break and they run completely silent.
What I would recommend
I would first, of course, consider consuming as little as possible. Order books instead of movies, they are better anyway. Get a french press instead of a coffee maker (you can’t beat the taste!).
Secondly, consider how long you are going to be there. It will take you about 15 years of using solar or wind to recoup the $20,000-$30,000 costs you are sinking into it on the front end. Then again, you may be willing to pay that just to live your free life. If recouping the cost is important, my back of the napkin math tells me that you need to be there for about 15 years to break even.
Lastly, invest in geothermal and natural gas if you can. If you’re in it for the long haul, the bite the bullet and see if there is gas as well as the ability to have geothermal. If you can’t get natural gas, consider propane. I know that makes you dependent on a delivery truck, but at least you are depending on free enterprise and not the government which assures you that it will usually be there despite what is going on.
Consider Solar Thermal for your hot water. Think about it as a bunch of mirrors stealing heat from the sun and redirecting it to your water. Using the right materials can even have it retain enough heat for the morning shower most the year in Florida.
Bonus, the answer you have been waiting for… you probably want to consider both. Having the power of the wind when the days are stormy and cloudy will keep the batteries charging. Solar is very scalable if you decide that you need more and the cost continues to come down. Either way, invest in great batteries and I would consider avoiding the 12v in favor of 24 or better. no matter what you do, I would create 2 series of batteries as opposed to one. That way if one is down you have the back up until you get it replaced. And with wind and sun, you should be able to stay out of trouble.
If you have tried this or any other methods and want to add on, please do! I will be planning a trip to a house that has both and will take you along with me for the ride so stay tuned.