Off-grid living

One of the things I enjoy about off-grid living is having to work with what God gives us by way of weather. As an example, since we make all our own electricity, I wanted to not use any to move water. Thus, we installed two wells (actually cisterns to collect spring water) a few years back that are higher than the house so that the water would flow by gravity to the house. When we installed the water supplies, I had no idea of the elevation difference between them and the house, but I hoped that there would be enough pressure to make the water flow where we wanted it. To my surprise, our highest well produces about 107 psi – more than enough. The second well, which I had to connect to the house during the drought this summer, produces about 60 psi. Using a GPS to measure elevations, it appears the the upper well is about 250 feet higher than the house, and the lower well is about 120 feet higher than the house. But what difference does that make when the wells run dry? Thus the installation of a third cistern this summer.

This new well is located about 1300 feet from the house, and produces about 45 psi – certainly enough to give us water throughout the house, even in the attic where the hot water tank is located (more on that later). However, the boys are not happy using this well, since “there is no pressure” when showering.

So why did we go this route for our water supply? It cost about $2500 to install the new cistern, and took me at least 40 to 60 hours to dig the hole, install the cement dry well, lay out the pipe, trench, and bury everything. Was it worth it? I could have hired someone to drill a well close to the house and installed a typical water system, and had no more concerns about water or water quality (surface water supplies are not always pristine).

Consider the amount of electricity that I would have had to generate to use that water. We probably use a couple of hundred gallons a day. Assuming that we could use a small submersible pump that only draws six amps continuous (up to 36 amps on startup!) at 230 volts with a large tank, we are still going to use a significant amount of electricity. If I lived in Arizona, this might be feasible, as I would likely make enough power during the day to allow me to run this pump. But, alas, I live in Vermont, where we don’t get six hours of sun on average each day. So gravity fed water works for me, and with the three sources, I think I should be set, even when we get another drought (I had plenty of water in the new well even during the worst part of the drought).

If you are planning for going off grid, you may want to consider how you will keep water flowing into your house. This seems to be a major issue for people when they lose power. Having a backup plan for maintaining your water supply when the power goes out can make the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major headache.

Rain, rain, go away…

It’s been hard to make electricity with all the cloudy and rainy weather we have been having. But it hasn’t been too much of a problem since our charge controller broke on Friday. But if it were working, just how much power can be made under cloudy conditions? Well, the new solar panels (UniSolar PVL-124) on the roof, we should be able to make at least a few amps during the day, unless it is severely overcast. The UniSolar modules are flexible laminates, and are supposed to be better at scavenging power under sub-optimal conditions. These modules are typically applied to standing-seam metal roofs, so options for using these modules are limited. But if you have a standing-seam metal roof that faces south, these may be just right for you, and may help you make power, even when it is raining.

Planning for a solar energy system

If you are thinking about installing a solar electric (PV) or solar hot water (SHW) system in your home, there are a few things you should consider in planning your system. One of the most frequent questions I get is “What size system do I need to offset my electric bill?” While I can give you an estimate of the size of the system, you should be considering what your overall goal is for renewable energy. Do you want to be free of paying the electric company, or do you just want to lower you electric bill? Are you looking for a reliable back-up system to carry you through power outages? Are you looking to save on your fuel bill for heating domestic water? Or do you just want to “do something” about climate change? All of these are reasonable objectives, but what you do to meet these goals will vary from household to household.

Because most people get a monthly electric bill, it is fairly easy to determine what size PV system is needed to offset the costs. A typical household uses around $100 per month of electricity, or around 500 kilowatts (kW). To generate this amount of electricity would require an eight kW system, due to inefficiencies, cloudy days, etc. At a cost of approximately $5 per watt, this system would cost about $40,000. When faced with this number, most people say “Well, maybe I don’t want to make all my own electricity.” When we design a system, we can build in expandability to allow adding more capacity in the future, so that, eventually, people can get to energy independence, but do it in affordable stages.

When asked how much hot water people use, most have no idea. Vendors of solar hot water equipment have developed systems that will meet the needs of a family of four, or six, or more people, usually by upgrading the storage tank size and adding collectors. We ask people if they have unusual hot water needs (e.g., babies in diapers, teenagers, day cares), and size the system accordingly. But looking ahead to potential future uses of the system will allow planning for, and installing, a system that will provide years of free hot water.

So, what are you planning for your house?

Nuclear energy in Vermont

With all the recent talk about shutting down Vermont Yankee, one has to wonder where we will get our electricity if and when it goes offline. No matter what your opinion about Vermont Yankee, you should be thinking about your electricity, both availability and cost. There is a big push now from utility companies for “distributed energy,” where the electricity is produced at or near the point of use. There is a reason for this. It costs them a lot of money to upgrade their distribution lines to meet the growing demand for power, so the more they can reduce the demand, the longer they can wait to upgrade their systems.

With that in mind, you may find yourself paying a LOT more for power, or having limits on your usage placed on you when it may not be convenient for you. You should consider installing a clean, renewable energy source to help meet your needs and reduce your costs, such as a photovoltaic (PV) system. A properly designed and installed system will enable you to produce your own electricity, plus make some extra to send back into the electric grid for others to use. In doing this, you will shave your electric bill, and have power to use when you need it.

Give us a call (802-875-3654) or send an email to see how we can help.

A great weekend for solar energy

It’s a beautiful weekend in southern Vermont. The trees are showing their colors, and the sun is out in full force. Our PV system is making lots of power, and we are getting some hot water out of our solar hot water system. So what could be better? We have found that living in tune with nature helps us be more aware of how much energy we use. How can you save on your energy bill?


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