Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Living off the grid

Speech for ETFO Women's Retreat, May 2011

I’ve always loved camping. My first overnight camp took place when I was 7. I had begged my parents to let me go to a YMCA horseback riding day camp, and to my surprise they agreed, likely because my dad was away every week for the month of July marking the old Grade 13 departmental exams in Toronto and there were two others younger than me at home. Anyway, the grand finale of the YMCA Cherry Hill Riding Camp involved an overnight in a tent in the woods on the last weekend. My dad brought me home a sleeping bag that he bought at Honest Ed’s for $14.00, plus one of those aluminum mess kits. When he showed up with me after dark to a big bonfire complete with roasted marshmallows and singing, the camp leaders looked at him like he was crazy. I am aware that I looked about 4 years old and they thought he was out of his mind to just drop me off. But I loved it all, even the burnt eggs and bacon the next morning.
Then, in the years before I started getting summer jobs, my parents took us four kids and our cat around Ontario and across Canada in a tiny tent trailer. And as an adult I continued car camping with my son, and even took two long backpacking trips in Lake Superior Provincial Park.

I thrive on everything about camping, stocking the food box and cooler, setting up, organizing the water and cooking, trying to anticipate all of our needs before we get way off the beaten track without something essential like cooking oil or a can opener. I like the way your time is filled with the little tasks that make everything run smoothly. Hey, I don’t even mind a clean outhouse.

However. When my husband Frank first started talking about building our house off the grid, powered by solar panels, I made one thing clear. This would not, I repeat absolutely would not, be some kind of hippie-ish rustic getaway. Camping is one thing, our house is… a house.
There would be a fridge.
There would be a kitchen stove.
There would be hot water out of a tap. Make that taps.
There would be regular lights and a TV and a computer. A stereo.
A fully functioning indoor bathroom.

And, truthfully, that’s exactly what we have. If you were to visit, and please feel free to do so, you would not notice any real differences between our place and any other small house. Here is a short list of accommodations that you might see. Sorry to use that term on the weekend, by the way.

No toaster. When you use electricity to create heat, as in a toaster, a hair dryer, kettle, baseboard heater, or slow cooker, it is a huge draw. You can certainly use those things in a solar powered house but you need deeper pockets than ours to buys lots of panels and batteries. So we use a griddle to make toast every morning. Not a problem. Low hippie factor.

Top loading fridge. The fridge opens like a chest freezer so that the cool air stays inside instead of pouring out into the room. It also has very thick walls with lots of insulation so it cycles infrequently, maybe once every hour for five minutes. Low hippie factor. Mind you, this is actually our second fridge and it’s designed to run off the 24 volts DC produced by our system. The first fridge had an elevated hippie factor because we actually bought a Kenmore freezer for $279 and swapped out the freezer controller for a fridge controller. Even with these low-budget, hand-made adaptations, it worked fine though.

Heating system. I’m sure this is similar to many of you in the room, but we heat with wood and use a propane wall furnace as backup in case we ever need to be away in the winter.

On-demand hot water heater that uses propane to heat the water. No energy is used to store water and keep it hot. Negligible hippie factor.

When we began to plan the house, the first thing we had to do was to write down every single thing we wanted to plug in, and inspect the labels on the backs of each item to see how many watts or amps it draws. If the label cites amps, you multiply that by 120 volts to know how many watts it uses, per hour.

You need to calculate the number of watts you will use because photovoltaic or PV solar panels are sold in watt-capacity, that is, how many watts per hour of sunlight they generate.

We listed all of our stuff, and then added in the water pump and fridge, our two biggest draws. (In later years we have also added a front loading washer and central vac.) Then we could do the math. How many 123 watt panels would we need – or could we afford – to run the house?

In our case, our complete system includes:
• eight 123 watt photovoltaic panels (984 watts per hour)
• eight deep cycle batteries
• a 2500 watt sine wave inverter; sine wave inverters generate clean power for running electronics. The inverter takes in the 24 volt power which is produced by the panels and stored in the batteries, and turns it into 120 volts AC, for use throughout the house – so everything runs the same as at your place.
• a solar charge controller that displays the amount of energy being produced from the sun at any given time, the incoming voltage, and also the level of power available in the batteries.

This last point is important. For every system there is a magic number below which you cannot deplete your batteries. The inverter is programmed to shut the entire house down if not enough power is available. So I guess another key part of our system is a small Honda generator that we plug in to charge the batteries when needed. On average, we use the generator every 2.6 days for one hour and 15 minutes during November through January. This is the first year since we moved in on March 20, 2005 that we have ever run the generator after February 1.

A key factor for people thinking about setting up a photovoltaic system is cost. Because we were building new, the cost of setting up the system was just folded into the overall huge amount of money we were already borrowing. So it didn’t really affect our financial situation directly. At today’s prices, our system would cost about $16,000, which is actually less than what we paid, because the price of the PV panels has come down.

Getting ready to move into the house was incredibly nerve-wracking. In addition to the concerns shared by everyone who is getting ready to move into a new home – finishing touches, décor, placing furniture, etc., we also had a critical moment late one afternoon as the electrician was getting ready to leave. He looked at us and said, “Well, who wants to turn it on?” Our house had no electricity until this time. We had no idea if things would work, from the lights to the water pump, and the inverter alone came with a 2-inch thick manual. We took a deep breath and told him to go ahead. Ta da! No problem. Meanwhile, I was glancing through the manual. Virtually every page dealt with a different aspect of the inverter set up. I looked up and asked the electrician about it. He said, picking up some tools and eying the door, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that. I just followed the instructions to wire everything properly.”

I looked at my brother-in-law, a genius of a designer and builder, and he just shook his head. My husband shrugged his shoulders. Well lucky for them I am just weird enough that I love reading computer manuals and this was all looking very similar. I got the electrician to put the toolbox down and take the time to help us set the default settings and parameters for the inverter. So I read and prompted, the electrician answered, and Frank pushed the buttons. After an hour or so we thought we were all set. The others went home and Frank and I looked around in satisfaction at our new house. We did need to make some adjustments the next day, but were able to navigate and re-set a few things. A happy ending.

When people hear we live off the grid, they nearly always ask us if are selling power back to Hydro One. We are not, for a couple of reasons. The main one is that the house is set back in the middle of 100 acres and for us to link up to the hydro lines out at the highway would cost almost as much as setting up our system in the first place. Also I must cite the aggravation factor. We are committed to living off the grid, and don’t see a huge benefit financially or otherwise to linking up to Hydro.

But I have brought along some basic information in case anyone here is considering it.
First – what you could earn from the sun. Hydro pays you $.57 a kilowatt for power generated by panels mounted on a rack on the ground, and $.80 for power generated by roof-mounted panels. They discovered that people with ground mounts could track the sun and make a lot of money, while the roof panels are stationary, and self-limiting in the amount of direct sunlight they get each day. Our own panels are on a mast on the ground and we do certainly turn them, especially on a day that is mostly cloudy and then gets a couple of hours of sun. So Hydro doesn’t actually want to pay people to the maximum that a PV system can generate.

Without getting too detailed, here are some numbers to illustrate how a grid tie system makes money.

First you buy the panels at a cost of $6-$7 a watt, so a 5000 watt system would cost about $32,500 for panels.
Then you purchase a grid tie inverter for that 5 kW system, at $4000.
Now the roof mounting system, $1000. Cables, charge controller etc. would be about another $1000. You also need to get a special meter from Hydro and you’d sign a detailed contract.
So you would invest a total of $38,500.

In Ontario, this 5 kW system would produce about 6250 kilowatt hours per year. Most Canadian homes use between 5000 and 13000 kWh per year.

As your system produces energy during the sunny part of the day, your house is drawing some even if you are not there. But whatever is not used will roll your hydro meter back. Then you come home and use some power each evening. At the end of the month you would see if you were in a net gain position. In a recent interview on CBC, homeowners in Toronto stated that with their modest system, they were making about $1700 a year. There are obviously many, many different setups that would produce more or less than this amount of money.

But for us, and hopefully for others, it is not just about money. Yes, you can invest a lot of money and purchase unlimited numbers of panels to power unlimited numbers of appliances. But hopefully at the point that you begin to list your possessions and size your system you would perhaps think about the big picture. Technology today can give us a virtually unimaginable array of conveniences, tools and toys. I certainly plead guilty to being seduced by the latter. But if you think about it, one big fancy fridge with all the bells and whistles uses as much electricity as our whole house.

Even with no hippie-ish touches to complicate my day to day existence, our off the grid house was economical to outfit and runs like a dream. I am happy to have had the chance to share it with you. Thank you very much.

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