You may be wondering how feasible it is for a home that is currently hooked up to the power lines to go off the grid. In many ways, it’s probably easier than you think, but there are a few items we should look at more closely. In this article, I’ll walk you through the basics of what you need to know and what to look out for. And at the end, I’ll give you a great resource for further information.
Off Grid vs Grid Tie
First, we need to make sure we understand what exactly “off the grid” means. An off grid power system is completely independent and disconnected from the power company. An off grid home has no outside power source–only the power that is produced on-site is available. Because the sun is not always shining, an off grid solar system is going to need a large bank of batteries to store up extra power during the day that will be needed that night as well as for any cloudy days in the future. The vast majority of solar systems installed today are set up very differently. They are called “grid tie systems”. Basically, a grid tie system only has power available when the solar panels (or other power generator) are producing. During times when little to no power is being produced (i.e. night or cloudy days), your home is powered by the grid (power company) as usual. When the sun comes back out, your solar array produces power, spinning your power meter backwards and reducing your power bill. Effectively, the grid is your battery backup. Among other issues, the typical grid tie system does NOT provide you with any energy independence and will go down whenever there is a blackout from your local power company. With that understanding, we can now look at the original question on how to take an “on grid” home “off the grid”.
The Major Difference
The major difference between an on grid and off grid home lies in what the source of power is. In other words, the power source for the entire house enters the main breaker box and is distributed from there to each room and appliance. An on grid home has grid power from the power company entering the main breaker box, while an off grid home has independent power from your inverter entering the main breaker box. From the breaker box on throughout the rest of the house, everything stays pretty much the same–as far as wiring goes.
Wiring in the Home
There really isn’t much difference between the electrical wiring in a conventional home and an off grid home. If I were building from scratch and knew I was going off the grid, I might wire the light switches a little differently, where one switch controls 1 or 2 lights rather than 1 switch controlling 5 or 10 lights. This would give me flexibility to power lights where I need them, rather than lighting entire areas that are unused at the time. I might also hard wire switches that control certain receptacles near the computer, TV console (if you have one), Washer and dryer, and any other areas where there are likely to be appliances that pull phantom loads (if you are not familiar with phantom loads, we plan to look at that in an upcoming post, but for now just realize that any appliance that uses power all the time, even when it is off, is pulling a phantom load or phantom power and it is wise to disconnect them when they are not in use). Those two items would be nice, but are certainly not necessary. In a home that is already built, it is easy enough to use a power strip with an on-off switch to disconnect the appliances with phantom power. This is what most off gridders do.
120 vs 240
The power company provides most residential homes with two “legs” of 120 volt power, which adds up to 240 volts when combined. This is because a number of appliances used in conventional homes require massive amounts of power and are typically 240 volt appliances. This would apply for items like electric water heater, electric range/oven, electric clothes dryers, and electric forced air heating or A/C systems. The breaker box in your home serves an important function. As the 240 volts from the power company enters your breaker box, the two “legs” of 120 volts are combined together, adding up to 240 volts and feeding the large appliances, while at the same time they are split apart into individual 120 volt circuits for feeding the majority of your home which requires only 120 volts.
In years past, most off grid homes were strictly 120 volts only, because energy efficiency demanded eliminating the huge 240 volt appliances. So there really was not much need for 240 volts. But in recent years, as off grid component costs have fallen, systems have become larger, and some 240 volt appliances are now being successfully powered off the grid. Probably the most common example would be a 240 volt well pump. Even many of the smaller well pumps are 240 volts so that smaller and less expensive electrical wire may be used. In order to supply this demand, inverter manufacturers now make inverters capable of producing two “legs” of 120 volt power, which may be used individually for 120 volts or combined to add up to 240 volts. The Magnum MS-PAE series is a good example of this. As you can see, with an inverter like this, even your current breaker box would probably remain the same, with the only difference being where the input wires are coming from.
While the wiring of your home may not change much, there are several changes that will need to be made when converting an on grid home to an off grid home. You will want to remove the major electric heating appliances (electric water heater, electric range/oven, electric clothes dryer, and electric forced air heating or A/C system) and replace them with alternatives that use less power. This is easily done with propane in most cases (propane water heater, propane range/oven, propane clothes dryer). When it comes to heating your home, I highly recommend wood heat as the only truly independent option. And while air conditioning is possible off the grid, it does take careful planning and consideration that I do not have space to cover in this article. If your off grid budget is more flexible, you will not have to be quite as concerned about energy efficiency with the smaller appliances, but those with limited budgets will need to carefully plan and become as efficient as possible. It is very possible to become super efficient while maintaining a modern lifestyle, but that also is beyond the scope of this article.
Power Company Regulations
I have heard of at least one instance where a friend had recently move to the country and had power lines run to his homestead, then decided he wanted to go off the grid. He was told that the paperwork he had signed with the power company prohibited him from powering his home with an alternate source for a certain number of years. While he was understandably upset, it is not completely unreasonable for the power company to expect that you would use their service for long enough for them to recoup their expenses in running the power lines to your home. But be aware of this possibility and check into it, especially if your home was built in recent years.
A Word About Easements
You should be aware that when your home was first connected to the power company power lines, an easement was given for power company employees to access your property any time they need to for inspecting, making repairs, or reading the meter. And even though you are disconnecting from the power company, that legal easement most likely remains in effect. And based on what I have heard from legal minds, removing that easement could be rather difficult if not impossible. So if having an easement like that bothers you, it is probably best to start from scratch with a property that has never had utilities. I just wanted you to be aware of that.
Where To Go Off The Grid?
The other suggestion I would make relates more to the location of your home. While it is possible to go off the grid in town, I personally think that “off grid” is more suitable for rural locations. In town, not only are you much more likely to hit bureaucratic hurdles (i.e. red tape), but you have little space for solar other than on the roof (if your roof happens to face south); and if your backup power source during extreme cloudiness is a generator, you are likely to get complaints from neighbors. Those are just a few potential issues. And at the risk of being brutally blunt, I must ask–what is the point of becoming energy independent when you are in a location that is unsuitable for producing even your most basic necessities of life–water, heat, and food.
Being off the grid is wonderful! But what good is it going to do without the basic necessities? Now don’t take me wrong…I’m not trying to discourage you from going off the grid. I’m merely suggesting that you work on changing your location first before investing all the time, effort, and money into an off grid power system. Does that mean there is nothing you can do right now? Absolutely not! Right now, while you are still in town, is the perfect time to be getting all the training and exposure that you can so that when you take the plunge, you’ll be fully prepared to be successful. In addition, now is a great time to start collecting your power system components, perhaps taking advantage of sale prices. That’s kind of what I did. I took advantage of a super deal on some good quality solar panels long before I owned my own homestead. If I had waited until I needed them, I probably would have ended up paying top dollar, instead of the really good price that I paid. And how do you know what components to buy and how many of them to buy, without doing your homework now and getting your “ducks in a row”.
For Further Training
And that brings me to a great opportunity for you to learn more right now. Later this month, I’m going to release an entire series of free training videos to help you overcome the obstacles you may face in your quest to go off the grid. I think you will find this action packed series to be incredibly useful and point you in the right direction. There has never been a better time than now to go off the grid, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the email announcing this awesome video series. If you are not currently receiving emails from us, I recommend that you sign up right away so you can gain access to this free training series.