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From David in Israel: Off Grid Alternatives to Utility-Supplied Electricity

One of the most troubling things I see when speaking to people about going off grid is how badly they want to keep all of their electrical appliances and just spend many thousands of dollars on a battery bank more appropriate for a U-boat and solar cells or generators to keep them topped off. Having had a minor role in a micro-satellite system design proposal one thing you learn when confronted by limited power supply is to either economize or do without.

The appliances you own for on grid use are not efficient. They are built to be inexpensive or if you are better off durable, even the fancy electrical appliances out of Europe with the Energy Star are in reality a big waste of power once you are paying by the off grid watt for solar panels and battery banks. There is no reason a normal family shouldn’t consider an off grid option for their home. Even in a national emergency and societal breakdown it is very rare for supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline, kerosene, and LP [1] gas to be unavailable for long periods at some price.

Dryer – Enemy number one especially in a large family, a solar clothes dryer is under $5 at nearly every hardware store, ask for a clothesline. Folding indoor drying racks are very popular in Israel. Even in winter indoor drying can be assisted by using a fan, it will also keep the air humidified. After trying the above and finding you just can’t make it there are LP gas heated clothes dryers, but these still need mains power for the drum motor.

Oven/Stovetop – There is no reason to use electrical power for cooking. Excellent caterer grade ovens and stoves are available at most appliance stores which run totally on gas. Some may use an electrical ignition or thermostat but nearly all can be retrofitted either with a piezoelectric (no battery needed) spark starter or can just be lit with a match avoiding the danger of the old style pilot light since they now are equipped with a thermal safety. Most people find they actually prefer gas once they are used to it as it is a more even heat. We have had good success using MSR camping kerosene burners when the gas to our home was unavailable for a few weeks.

Hot Water – Nearly any off grid home will benefit from the addition of a solar collector in addition to a well-insulated gas water heater. Think about turning down the thermostat or using a secondary gas instant heating system and low flow shower heads to stretch your hot water supply.

Heating – Most stores and contractors can provide a wide variety of wood, pellet, gas, kerosene, or oil-fueled stoves and furnaces and space heaters. Insulation is key to keeping your alternative heat system from breaking your bank account.

Power Tools – Some older large shop tools can be powered by a PTO [2] shaft or belt system. The possibilities from a gas motor, to steam, to hydro and beyond are limited only by your imagination.

Water pressure – In many areas there is not enough wind for a windmill to keep a water tower full so an electrical or gas pump might work better once all factors are evaluated. If your retreat is located below the summit of the hill it would probably be much easier to install a pool or cistern on the summit to provide pressure for firefighting operations even if your pump is destroyed, for every foot of elevation .433 pounds of water pressure is required for filling your tower or cistern and this pressure is returned when water is used in your home or property. Anyone living in a wilderness area should have in addition to a gravity fed water system of at least 1,500 gallons and a 300 gpm [3] capacity, and at least one portable reservoir. There are portable swimming pools that are the same as US Forest Service uses for firefighting, and a gas powered portable pump for emergency firefighting. Descending water can be run reverse through some pumps generating electricity making it a very effective and inexpensive way to store electrical power once your battery banks are full.

Refrigeration – Most readers if their inventory their refrigerator will find mostly leftovers or things which actually will last until consumption without refrigeration. There are high quality kerosene and LP gas powered absorption refrigerators, some with secondary mains power optional, available from a few suppliers even in the US.

For those with the skills required to build and test a system which can withstand 250 psi [4] anhydrous ammonia, copying the old Crosley Icy-Ball chest refrigerator-freezer [5] is a thrifty option. Since anti-drug manufacturing laws make obtaining anhydrous ammonia difficult, an icy-ball can be built with drains on the absorptive water side to self distill ammonia from cleaning solution. A warning: Ammonia is a dangerous respiratory irritant and any homemade system should be used with caution and kept and recharged outside in case of leakage. One DIY [6] design includes a shutoff valve to keep the ammonia from reabsorbing until the valve is opened allowing it to be stored in a charged condition.

Before refrigeration people would buy eggs and milk fresh in the city or if they could have chickens and a cow or goat would produce their own. A chicken is easily consumed by even a small family once cooked, in less than a day.

A water evaporation cooler cabinet is another very cheap option for keeping food.

Lighting – Gas mantle lighting once found in most urban homes is not difficult to implement using either camping lamps and piped gas or better yet certified indoor lamps. While in college I worked in a gun and camping shop which sold a reverse fitting for refilling disposable Coleman LP gas cartridges from the older non-tip over shutoff bulk tanks making camp lights highly practical for hanging. It must be remembered that gas lighting presents an increased fire hazard so precautions including avoiding clutter and considering the floor and wall surface must be taken into account. Battery powered florescent and LED [7] lights and LED nightlights are also useful for reading and small tinkering. Metal halide lighting is much more power friendly than incandescent if large areas require illumination for security purposes.

Communications – Your radio communications system should have a redundant battery bank and power supply should your services be required in an emergency. It should be remembered the operating rule of just as much power as required and the usage of low power consumption modes like CW [8]. Tube systems are notoriously wasteful of power and tubes have limited life so these should be kept as backup systems in most cases. Only power up satellite Internet systems after you have typed up all the e-mails and set them up to send immediately after going online. There are offline viewers which will call up all the web sites you normally visit and grab them all for later viewing.

Television sets, satellite receivers, and large stereo systems are wasteful of electrical power if left on. A small notebook computer for occasional movies and an MP3 [9] player for music will save many valuable watts. Unplug or employ a disconnect switch [or power strip with switch] on all electronics unless they are in use. This will protect them from power surges in addition to eliminating sleep-state power draw. [Also know as a “phantom load.”]

Telephone – If your retreat can obtain telephone service a secondary redundant system connecting you to selected neighbors can be set up in some areas by ordering an old style alarm or bell line to one central home, this is usually cheaper than a line with actual telephone service, and should work in most telephone systems even if the central office with its redundant power goes offline but the wires are still intact. The Telephone company will either splice the wire pairs at the neighborhood box or at the closest central office, officially only for alarm systems, it is possible to set up anything from long run Ethernet or simple voice lines with an old style “everybody rings” party line. This will not save off grid watts but is a good way to add redundancy to your retreat.

Safety – Install at least two combo carbon monoxide sensing smoke alarms in your home in addition to a smoke alarm in every occupied room. In these alarms, install long life lithium batteries and check on the first of the month and every time you change to or from daylight savings. DO NOT use rechargeable batteries for your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms!

Due to the higher fire risk using flame-based alternatives to electricity I even more strongly recommend installation of fire sprinklers in all rooms, flame hoods over all cooking surfaces with automatic sprinklers that have a manual activation, and at least two standpipe and hose cabinets with 100 gpm gravity flow minimum per standpipe, ABC [10]-rated fire extinguisher, gloves, goggles, and Nomex face shroud. Install outdoor standpipes and stocked hose locker for wildfires, a charged mobile phone for 911 (BTW, you need not have an active calling plan to use a cell phone to call 911 in the USA) and if you have to retreat from interior firefighting. Most importantly have an evacuation and rendezvous family accounting plan and volunteer with the local volunteer fire department, learn when the fire is just too big to fight by yourself.

With an engineering eye it is often possible to reduce your home or retreat electrical requirements to an inexpensive few hundred watts once alternatives are considered. Shalom, – David in Israel