Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lessons from solar: taking responsibility

We’ve been off the grid for a few days now. Everything is going quite well. As we’re becoming more acquainted with the ability of our system to provide our electric needs, we’re being very conservative in our usage, and we’re enjoying it. All of us keep an eye on the battery monitor which we usually have displaying the current amp hour rate (net gain or loss), watching to see what each item we turn on uses. Sometimes, one of the children will look at it and say, “Hey, someone has a light on” based on the number displayed.

The challenges associated with being off the grid are exciting and we are embracing them. It requires us to take responsibility for our power consumption, and we find ourselves paying more attention to the weather, whether cloudy or sunshine. This is a good thing and teaches some valuable lessons.

When connected to the utility grid, I believe most people don’t think much about the power they use and don’t equate that with the amount of coal required to generate it (as Anne said last night, most people don’t think about how much of a mountain it takes to support their power needs each day). The power is always there in practically infinite supply, and it really doesn’t cost much. Besides, we don’t see and realize the amount of electricity we use when we flip on light switch, open the hot water tap, boil water on the stove, or vacuum the carpet.

If people were aware of the rate at which their appliances consume electricity, would it lead to more conservation? If you turn on the stove burner and see that it is consuming the equivalent power of 24 100-watt light bulbs, would it make a difference? If you saw that your vacuum cleaner is sucking in power at the rate of 1.4 kilowatt hours, would that matter? A regular refrigerator uses about 2 kilowatt hours a day, every day. How much does a TV left on all day consume? What about a computer? In general, we don’t know and don’t think about it.

When our electricity is derived from the sun via a limited amount of solar panels and components that are not 100% efficient, we pay a whole lot more attention to what we’re using and what we’re gaining. Our inverter consumes 12 watts an hour and is displayed as 0.5 amps on our battery monitor. This is on 24 hours a day. A 12 watt CFL light bulb also uses 0.5 amps. When the refrigerator runs, the usage jumps up to about 7 or 8 amps and settles back to about 5 amps. We watch these things and know what they mean because we are connected to our electricity source and know that we must conserve.

The local lineman for the electric company was interested in our solar setup. I told him the first three things to do when going off the grid were conserve, conserve, conserve. I explained that our goal was to use, on average, 1.5 kilowatt hours per day, an amount that many families use in an hour. He commented that he couldn’t get his kids to conserve, because they have to have their TVs and games and stuff. I guess, they would feel deprived and would resent taking responsibility for the usage (another way to think about conservation). We don’t feel deprived; we are motivated to generate and use what we need, not mindlessly consume. It’s a challenge that we welcome and are excited about.

So far, we’re doing really well. As I said, we’re enjoying the challenge and opportunity to be off the grid. It fits with what we want to do and with our outlook on life and moral commitments (homesteading is a moral commitment, but that’s a topic for another time). Wouldn’t the world be better if fewer people were disconnected from their consumption (whether electricity or in other areas)? That doesn’t necessarily mean being off the grid, just taking responsibility for their usage in more meaningful ways than just paying a monthly bill.



Hey Darryl! I just seen your updated photos on the cedar creek blog, very nice!

Question - if you were to leave your homestead for an extended period of time, what kind of maintenance or care if any is required for an off grid system?



Wade, I hope to have a lot more photos and updates on the Cedar Ridge blog soon! I have a lot I want to get done on the house.

How long is an extended period of time? For us, that would probably only be two weeks. In that time, the system should be fine. We could probably leave for a month and it would be fine (the cows would complain, though). Our charge controller would take care of keeping the batteries topped off, and the only usage would result from our refrigerator if we left it on -- a small enough load that the batteries would stay near full even if overcast. We could probably leave a light on, too, if we really wanted to -- so far the panels have generated enough power even on overcast days to provide enough power for fridge and a CFL.

So, there really wouldn't be any special maintenance or care required. Checking the batteries and caring for them is an occasional thing that wouldn't be interrupted by our being gone.

Sheryl at Providence Acres Farm

Another good post! Society has become so complacent! Most folks, especially in the city, go about their daily lives with no thought to where their luxuries come from or what would happen to them if they were suddenly gone.

Its a lazy and non-productive mindset. What would happen to these people if they suddenly found themselves without these things? Could they survive?


People generally do not learn to appreciate where their luxuries and even their necessities, come from. How many think that food comes from a grocery store? There is a mindset of dependence, too. I see it revealed in statements like, "The government needs to do something." This sort of learned dependence serves the needs of some by dis-empowering the masses. I'm afraid that if the supplies of luxuries and/or necessities to people were interrupted, it would get ugly very fast.

We don't have to do without luxuries necessarily. But, it does seem important that we recognize them for what they are and work to arrange our lives so that we would be able to survive (and thrive) if we no longer had them.


I have to laugh at your family gathered around the monitor. We spend a large amount of time in front of the trimetric watching and monitoring. It's our new form of entertainment :)

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