Let me preface this post with this: I’m going to be completely candid here, giving exact costs and estimates of costs. I realize I am opening myself up to criticism from people who may have an alternate opinion of how money should be spent. I am choosing to be so transparent because I hope this information will be helpful to others who are considering some of these same options. I also hope that you will be respectful if you disagree with our choices. We are doing what we feel is best for our family.
In my recent post where I shared that we just bought a solar kit to go off grid, I alluded to the fact that the system won’t be large enough to power all of the appliances we currently have the luxury of using. Almost everything will need a non-electric alternative.
When we started down this road, we quickly realized that our modern style home is NOT very practical for off grid conversion. If we could start from scratch, no doubt our home would be built in a more efficient manner. Nevertheless, we’ll just have to do the best we can with what we have.
Unless you have a fortune to buy a massive solar array, if you’re considering going off grid you’d better plan on replacing the bulk of your electric appliances with non-electric alternatives. Even energy efficient appliances use a lot of power in comparison with what a moderate solar powered system can provide. Every little thing adds up in a big way.
Appliances We Won’t Use
Due to requiring too much energy to work, there are several things we’re not going to use once we disconnect from the grid…
- Our upright fridge
- The washing machine
- The dishwasher
- The hot water heater
- Our current well pump
- The heat pump
- The air conditioner
- The range (stove and oven)
- The toaster oven
- The crockpot
- The bread machine
- The coffee maker
- The wheat grinder
- Our current vacuum
- Power tools
Daunting? Um, yes.
That’s a whole lot of really important stuff that we won’t be using.
But then I think of all of the people around the world who would never dream of having any one of these appliances, let alone any electricity at all. And I realize how cushy my life has always been. If they can do it, there’s no reason we can’t too, and still live a healthy, comfortable lifestyle.
As you might imagine, all of these appliances pull way too many watts for our system to sustain. Each one alone could drain our batteries if we weren’t careful.
It’s a significant list. We’ll just have to replace these items with something more efficient. Some of these appliances have easy manual alternatives, and some will take a bit more thought and effort to replace.
So what will we run on solar?
There are a few things we plan on running off the system, either because they are a priority, there isn’t a non-electric option, or they pull such a low amount of energy they’re worth keeping.
- Chest Freezer
- Chest Fridge (more on that to come)
- LCD tv
- DVD player/VHS player
- Computers (desktop and laptop), router, modem
- Small appliances
- Flushing toilets (they actually don’t require power)
- Cell phone charger
- Ceiling fans (on low)
As you can see, we still have some crucial elements to square away. Running water. Hot water. A way to cook our food. A way to cool our home. Etc.
We have a lot to figure out before we pull the plug, so it may be a while before we’re ready. I definitely don’t want to get in over my head, and have regrets.
Here are some of the things I’ve been studying, and some alternatives we are considering for our home…
Have you ever looked at how much energy you use to cook your food? I think you’d be surprised to learn what you pay every month just to prepare your meals.
As I’ve gone from appliance to appliance calculating how much electricity each requires, I’ve been shocked at the cost of cooking. Which got me thinking… do I really need to cook so much?
If you’ve followed any of my Pinterest activity over the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen that I’ve been pinning “raw foods” and “no bake” recipes. Turns out there are a ton of really delicious looking meals out there that don’t require any cooking at all. Even pies and no-bake cookies.
Really, during the summertime who wants to eat a hot, heavy meal anyways? I’m thinking I’ll focus on trying to make more raw foods through the hot summer months, when I wouldn’t want to be slaving over a stove anyways. Plus, raw foods are so good for your body.
Of course, there will be times when I want to cook. And bake. We do love bread.
Since almost all of my cooking appliances pull a huge amount of power, I’ll need to put a non-electric alternative in place.
We could go with propane, but we really don’t want to depend on any type of fuel other than wood and sunlight if we can help it. The purpose of getting off grid is to reduce the amount of money we spend, and to be free from depending on outside sources to provide for our basic needs. Wood and sunlight are free. And we have a lot of both around us. (Wind and water are also amazing resources for generating power which we hope to tap in the future.)
Fortunately, there are a lot of options for cooking off grid.
- Wood cook stove- I am planning on this being a main source of cooking our food. I considered pulling out our electric range, tearing out cabinets, and making room for the cook stove in our kitchen, but I don’t think I’m ready for all of that yet. I’m leaning heavily toward building a screened in porch off my back door to put the wood cook stove out there. This will keep me close to the house and kids while I’m cooking, will shelter me when cooking in rain, will provide shade when cooking during the summer, and will keep the heat outdoors during the hot months. A screened porch could easily cost a small fortune to build, but we’ll be using scrap materials we’ve been collecting over time.
- Outdoor kitchen- For a while we were pretty set on building a completely separate outdoor kitchen. Something out in the yard, away from the house. But I really didn’t like the idea of being in a separate structure from the kids as I cooked. And making them sit in the kitchen with me while I cooked in bad weather wasn’t a very practical option. This might be a good option in other situations.
- Cooking over an open flame- This of course is a great alternative during warm, pleasant weather. I’ve been building a new, natural stone fire pit in the front yard for just this purpose. We’ve actually enjoyed several delicious meals cooked over hot coals by the fire. I’m looking forward to more of that this summer.
- EcoZoom Stove– Another really great option for non-electric cooking, using much less wood than a campfire or wood stove would require. I expect to get a lot of use out of my EcoZoom.
- Wood Stove- The wood stove in our living room which we use to heat our home with will probably be my top choice for cooking during cold winter months, since the burners on top will constantly be hot anyways.
- Solar oven– You can read all about my first experiences cooking in our Sun Oven here.
Of course, there are several other really good options for non-electric cooking. But these are the main ones I’m leaning toward.
I realize all of this might sound very romantic. It will be fun… but definitely more work and more time as well. Cooking will not be fast and convenient, but will have to be thought out ahead of time and well planned for.
Using a Kill-O-Watt meter, we determined that our upright, side-by-side fridge draws more energy than we’d like to sustain. About 2.25 kWh a day.
Our large (I have no idea how many cu ft. it is) chest freezer takes about 1 kWh a day to run. This will be the bulk of our power consumption. We’ve decided that it’s counterproductive to have the freezer in the hottest room in the house (the kitchen), so we’ll be moving it to the laundry room or the bathroom on the north side of the house where it’ll be much, much cooler. Hopefully this move will help keep the freezer from running as much, and will save energy. We really depend on the freezer for the bulk of our meat storage, so it wasn’t something we were ready to part with.
We also found a great deal on a used 6.8 cu. ft chest freezer which we’ll be converting to a fridge. It will use only a fraction of the power our current upright uses. As a freezer we’ve noted that it uses .68 kWh a day. Once we’ve converted it to a fridge, that number will be much less.
The reason a converted chest freezer works so great as a fridge is that when the door opens, the cold air sinks down into the bottom instead of escaping as it does with an upright model. Plus, the walls of the unit are more insulated since it was meant for a freezer, so it holds the cold in longer.
I’m actually wondering if it would be viable to make ice in the freezer to keep the fridge cold during the summer, and unplugging the fridge altogether during those months. Unplugging the fridge would free up energy for me to use elsewhere. It would act more like a cooler (if we can keep it stocked with ice). Then in the wintertime, maybe we can unplug the freezer and move it outdoors on my envisioned screened porch, since it’ll likely stay frozen out there during the cold months. That would help a lot since sunlight will be at its weakest during the winter, and the freezer will be our biggest energy hog.
A root cellar would be nice to have. Maybe one day.
I know many people around the world would call running water from the tap a luxury… but I’ve gotta have it. I’m not trying to make my life any more complicated than it needs to be.
Unfortunately, the submersible well pump we’re currently using to bring water to our house requires entirely too much energy. We will not produce enough power to run the well pump. Which means no running water. Actually, it means no water from the well, period.
This is a major priority.
We have a few options for getting running water to the house, but all are pretty pricey. Here’s what we’ve considered, and what we finally settled on…
A Solar Sumbersible Well Pump– These “low load” pumps are made to work well with AC or DC currents, and use much less power than a traditional submersible pump. There are options for shallow and deep wells, which come in various price ranges.
After talking to a solar professional, we were told that the Grundfos 6SQF-2 is the only solar submersible pump that would pump enough water from 200 feet deep into a pressure tank. We considered a less expensive Shurflo, but we were told that we wouldn’t get more than a trickle of water with it, since we’d be pumping from such a depth.
Also, pumping into a pressure tank as opposed to a non-pressurized holding tank requires more power. The pressure tank is what supplies running water to our faucets in the house, so that’s where I need the water to go. There is the option of pumping into a holding tank, and then using a smaller pump to move the water from there to the pressurized tank, but then we’d be talking about two pumps (one from the well, and one from the tank) and that’s just more money and more components to manage.
The Grunfos pump that was recommended to us, along with the required controller that goes with it, was quoted at $2380 (plus more if we needed a new pressure switch ($40)). Then we’d need a separate 200 watt solar panel and battery for the setup, and we’re looking at over three grand.
Pros: You can get as much running water as you want, effortlessly. It would be no different than what we have now (just more components to get the water to the house).
Cons: The system depends wholly on sunlight, and fully functioning parts. If anything fails, we will not be able to access our water. More maintenance. More expensive than a hand pump. Possibility of lightening damage.
In the end, we decided a solar well pump is more than we could afford. Plus, I really don’t like the idea that it couldn’t guarantee that we would have water.
A Hand Pump– Since the Simple Pump is the only pump that I know of that can give you pressurized water in your house, that’s the one we’re considering.
Initially we were hoping to get a Simple Pump with the Solar Kit. This option would enable us to run our well on solar power, while still maintaining the option of a backup hand pump. Unfortunately the setup would cost more than we can afford, over $5600. This would have been the ideal choice, if we had the money. (There is always the option to upgrade down the road.)
*NOTE: Quotes for a Simple Pump are very customized, depending on many variables. What I was quoted may be very different than what you would be quoted, so don’t go off of my numbers here.
The base price for the hand-operated Simple Pump was quoted at $1576. This is for a well that is 305 ft. deep, with a static water level of 60 feet. The current submersible pump is at 260 ft. deep with a recovery rate of 5 gpm. (For those of you who might be comparing my system with yours.)
It’s still a lot of money, but it’s the least expensive option to get running water in the house.
We’re also considering adding another larger pressure tank to our well so that we won’t have to pump as often.
Pros: Pressurized water to the house pretty much guaranteed. Less expensive, and less components to depend on. Option to upgrade to solar.
Cons: Requires manual pumping, which would be no fun in bad weather. When we drain the pressure tank, we’ll have to pump more water into it to get running water in the house again.
Looks like the hand pump is the way we’re going to go.
*With either option we will have to hire a plumber to help install the pump, since our submersible goes through the well cap.
Rain Barrels– Although these won’t supply us with running water, we will be installing more rain barrels for the bulk of our washing water and irrigation. I’ll go into more detail on these as we get them installed.
Once we get our running water in place, we’ll still need a means of heating our water. Our current hot water heater would require more energy than we can sustain with a 1000 watt solar system.
Tankless Propane Heater– not really an option since we don’t want to rely on propane. So let’s get that out of the way.
Solar Hot Water Heater– You can buy solar hot water panels and mount them to the roof of your house, but I think we can do better for the money it would cost to buy them.
Building your own solar hot water heater is a better option. There are many ways you can do this (look online). We are planning on installing black water barrels in the greenhouse to heat the water during the warm months.
- Build Your Own Passive Solar Water Heater (Mother Earth News)
We’ll be using these passive hot water collectors with an outdoor shower/tub setup for the sunny months.
Pros: Food grade plastic barrels can be found very inexpensively. We found some locally for $15. Easy source of free hot water.
Cons: Won’t work well during cold months. Seasonal hot water. Will only be available outdoors.
Water Stove– Several years ago we actually bought a used water stove (or outdoor boiler) with the intentions of hooking it up to heat our home and our domestic hot water. We ended up paying nothing for the stove once we sold the solar hot water panels that came with it. Unfortunately, we plopped it down right on top of our septic lines. Plus, it would have cost several thousand dollars to have installed in our home, something we didn’t expect. So, we ended up selling the water stove.
Water stoves are great because they heat your home and water with wood. They do require electricity to pump that water into your home and through the radiator coils, but I’m sure they can be adapted to solar power.
Water stoves are quite an investment. Something we can’t afford to properly install at this time.
Pros: Heat your home and water with one source.
Cons: Expensive upfront cost. Extensive installation. Requires some power to operate.
Wood Fired Hot Water– During the winter months, when our wood stove is hot, we’ll be able to use that heat to also create a source of hot water.
Sure, you can always boil water in a pot on the stove. But there are ways to pipe the hot water into a tank as well. This way you can supply your tap with hot water. You’ll need to wrap a copper pipe around your stovepipe, and connect it to your water lines and/or a holding tank. It’s more complicated than I can explain, but here are some resourced I’ve found to be helpful:
- Heating Water With a Wood Stove (Without Blowing Anything Up)
- Use Your Wood Stove as a Water Heater
- Hot Water For Free- From The Wood Cook Stove
- Wood Fired Hot Tub
Pros: Makes use of an already burning stove in winter time. Installation less complicated than a water stove.
Cons: Not very practical during hot months. Some risk involved when piped into a tank. Must have some plumbing knowledge.
We did consider a homemade “chofu” style wood fired tub in an outdoor bathhouse, but it would be cold going to and from in the winter months, especially for the kids. Too bad we can’t put one in our master bathroom!! I’d totally do it.
There’s this option, too:
So basically our plan is to use solar hot water heating during the warm weather months, and wood heated water during the cold months. We just have to figure out the best option for getting that wood heated hot water to our faucets, if possible. I really don’t want to give up hot showers during the winter, although we might end up without another option for a while. We still have research to do.
I’ve covered a few basics so far, but there’s still a lot more to go over. We’ll continue exploring non-electric alternatives in Part Two of this post…