Solar Power Isn’t Just for Hippies Anymore
If going off the grid conjures images of barefoot midwives in mumus living on tofu and bean sprouts in some Appalachian hollow… think again. Off-grid living has evolved in the 21st century.
Nowadays it’s entirely possible to live in a modern, comfortable house with modern conveniences and to do so only with the help of your own solar power, water supply, and sewage treatment.
I should know—I’m doing it.
Here in Belize, my husband and I are fulfilling a dream of his—to build our own self-sustaining house right on the placid Belize River.
Living off the grid requires three basic components: power/electricity supply, water supply, and waste (sewage) treatment. While the use of solar power is increasingly widespread in the United States, going completely off the grid is not possible in many urban locations. One woman in Florida was threatened with eviction from her own home for refusing to use municipal power and water. She had been doing just fine with solar power and rainwater until then.
In Belize, however, it’s not only possible to live off the grid, but it’s a great option. This little Central American country is subject to not-infrequent power outages… even without a hurricane to contend with. So having a backup power supply is just good sense.
Belize buys much of its electricity from neighboring Mexico. If that grid fails, who do you suppose is most likely to be cut off first? I’d reckon it’d be Belize.
Otherwise, water is plentiful, sewage treatment is doable, and the government of Belize has no investment in making you their hostage customer, as occurs in the United States.
The most expensive and complicated of the off-grid living setup is electricity. The most popular method is solar power provided by those silver and gray boxes you see popping up on roofs everywhere. There is a sizeable up-front investment to take advantage of what will end up being free power, but prices have dropped considerably with growing popularity and improved technology.
Solar panels on the roof of our San Francisco Bay Area house cost US$36,000 in 2006 (after state subsidies). We have a recent quote for solar power complete with batteries for our house in Belize (where things are generally much more expensive due to import duties) for US$21,000.
A major factor in determining price is the batteries you choose. Batteries are essential unless you want to get up and go to sleep with the chickens. Batteries are what enable you to store the extra power you’ve produced during the day for use at night or any time the sun isn’t shining strongly enough to meet your power requirements.
The system we bought in San Francisco did not include batteries at all—we sold extra power to PG&E, drew from the grid during non-producing hours, and were billed once a year for the difference—about US$1,000. The US$21,000 quote for the system in Belize does include batteries, showing that prices have come down even more dramatically than it might appear from my apples-and-oranges (without and with batteries) price comparison.
Batteries that can power solar systems range from the weakest (and not-recommended) marine batteries to forklift batteries. As you might expect, marine batteries are used on boats primarily, while forklift batteries are so-called because it takes a forklift to move them. They consist of 8 or more compartments, each weighing 200 pounds.
The much-touted Tesla batteries, for example, are not quite ready for prime time, according to Rich Deeds, a solar power expert who’s installed and supervised many systems in Belize. The lithium battery holds great promise, but it has not yet been developed to the point where it’s an economical and efficient choice.
The more battery power you require, the more expensive your system will be. You can be as power hungry as you like—just know it will increase your initial price, as well as the cost and frequency with which batteries have to be replaced.
We have neighbors who have separate, large Sub-Zero fridge and freezers, two dishwashers, three air-conditioning units, and a large-screen TV. Their system cost about US$65,000, and they have to monitor it daily. If enough power hasn’t been produced by the sun during the day to make up for what they’ve used that day, they have a choice of using the backup generator or doing without air conditioning that night.
Like your computer or phone battery, your solar batteries only have so many charges to them, and if you drain them completely, their life expectancy is much shorter than it would be using just part of the charge before recharging. In other words, if you use 20% of their juice and recharge, they’ll last much longer than if you use 50% or more before recharging.
There is a point of diminishing returns in this equation, however. If you used your batteries much less in order to extend their life, eventually their age and the heat (we are in tropical Belize, after all) would diminish their capacity anyway. Batteries that last three to four years cost about half as much as batteries that last five to six years—so it’s probably a better bet to buy the cheaper ones… but I leave that trade-off to you.
Fortunately, batteries do not fail all at once. Modest electricity users may be able to last for years without noticing the reduced capacity of their batteries. The replacement cost for batteries for the US$21,000 system mentioned above would be about US$4,000 for the three-to-six-year type.
Unlike our neighbors, we have no air conditioning in the off-the-grid house we’re currently renting. We have just one modest fridge, no dishwasher, and I never have to think about the power. We live solely on the power generated during the day, and what’s saved is enough for us to get through the night. Our generator recently came on for the first time at 10 p.m. one evening after a day of nearly continuous thundershowers. Otherwise, we only hear it at noon on Mondays when it runs for a few minutes just to keep everything lubricated and in working order.
The backup generator runs on propane, which also provides gas to the stove, water heater, and clothes dryer. Yes, clothes would dry instantly in Belize’s sunny heat, but I prefer the soft fluffy feel of clothes from the dryer. I’m also not prepared to give up the dishwasher in my new house or air conditioning in the office where I spend my days, nor would I want to live without one in the bedroom for the hottest nights. That’s all included in the US$21,000 quote.
North Americans are used to having all kinds of energy-draining gadgets left on day and night—various battery chargers, back-up hard drives, video game consoles, and other items that emit blue or red lights day and night. My husband threatened me before we moved here that I would have to turn all of those off when we went solar, but, fortunately, that has not been necessary.
Taking the climate into account when designing the house can have a drastic effect on the power required, and likewise on the cost of the solar power system. The house we are building was designed to maximize the usual direction of breezes. It follows a design from Panama that uses high ceilings and roof vents to pull the hot air up and out of the house.
We haven’t moved in yet, so I can’t say how well this works. One thing we have already learned is not to believe anyone about which direction the wind comes from. Everyone told us our prevailing winds are from the east. They are from the east… but the northeast. We would have rotated the house we’re building 45 degrees from where it sits if we’d known that.
We also have a six-foot overhang that surrounds the entire house that serves two purposes. It allows us to leave the windows open even during tropical storms without danger of flooding, and it prevents direct sunlight hitting the sides of the house.
One power-saving device I would not recommend is an on-demand water heater. It sounds so good and green: Why heat water any time other than when you use it? Energy savings are minimal, and the possibility of the unit failing to provide the hot water required is great. The pilot light for a regular water heater doesn’t use up much gas in the first place, and the on-demand systems are subject to all kinds of malfunctions.
The on-demand water heater in the house we’re renting came with a three-month warranty. After six months of use (not very satisfactory use, at that) it had to be pulled from the wall and returned to the store for a minor adjustment.
Dissatisfactory on-demand heaters don’t show up only in Belize. My husband David dealt with the disappointing performance of an on-demand water heater in a multi-million-dollar house in Marin County, where we used to live. The SUV-driving environmentalist had tried to do the green thing in choosing the on-demand heater, but was frustrated when he never had the hot water required for his shower. In both of these cases, the on-demand water heater was placed so far from the location where the hot water would be used (the shower) as to be ineffective.
Solar power and batteries are the biggest challenges of this lifestyle. Compared with those things, the rest of off-grid living is much simpler.
Many people in the United States, especially those in rural areas, are familiar with septic tanks; they’re not high-tech. Again, like solar, you have the up-front cost, but, if you’re sensible and manage to persuade your guests not to put tampons or disposable diapers down the toilet, a septic system can work effectively for a very long time with minimal, if any, maintenance.
An upgrade to the traditional septic system involves the use of aerobic bacteria and a small pump, akin to the oxygen pump in a fish tank. The aerobic bacteria digest the sludge of the septic system more thoroughly than occurs in traditional septic systems, and the pump gives those bacteria the oxygen they require. A disk of those good bacteria—a small dry disk like a mini-Frisbee—needs to be added to the tank once a year. A company called Piranha pioneered this system, and generic knock-off versions may be available or created at potentially lower cost.
Having lived 10 years with a septic system in Oregon, I can say that, with sensible use, a traditional septic system can go for a very long time with no maintenance whatsoever, let alone the pumping that some believe is a requirement. (A little awareness is all it takes.)
Water can come from a well or a cistern. While not the most attractive of outdoor features, cisterns are also low-maintenance (it does pay to check the filter in case of mold) and can be put on the roof, on the ground beside the house, or sunk underground. Well water is also an option, and, again, maintenance is low unless the pump fails.
It’s as simple as that. Electricity? Check. Water? Check. Septic? Check. You have freedom from perpetually rising rates and the lack of reliability of municipal resources (where they exist).
It does take a bit more research and awareness to live off the grid than to simply flip a switch, but, once the systems are set up, it’s nearly as easy—and incredibly liberating, as well.