15 Things we wish we had known before going off-grid
Drew Gilbert and Amy Floyd
When time allows, we hope to make a video tour of the system to explain the elements better. For now, we have done a small write-up as a starting place for anyone wanting to take this next step. We don’t feel comfortable fielding specific questions – best to talk to the experts. It would be a great idea though, to invite some installers to have community talks and information sessions. If you would like to organize that in your area, please do reach out and I’ll help where I can.
Site and Context
Our system is around 5.2KW and our home that is about 2,500’sq. (including a basement and a loft). The home is around thirty years old and needed a lot of work to be made comfortable when purchased. Drew has been working on improving efficiency through adding insulation and tightening up air leaks for ten years now.
We live in a very deep, treed valley. Although we have an East-West orientation on our roof-line, we have a very high steel roof with a steep pitch. Cleaning snow off of this roof is extremely dangerous. We are also not oriented towards true South. Due to these factors, we decided to put the panels on two walls of the house. This way the panels gain energy from morning to late afternoon and get extra light from the snow on the ground in the winter. I should also mention that we live in a rural area, for reasons you’ll see below it could be nice to chat with neighbours before moving ahead with an off-grid system if they live close by.
We removed the siding and lag bolted on the boards that the panels attach to. Working on staging is pretty intense and it was a lot of sweat equity. If you have carpentry skills and equipment, it is a doable job to tackle on your own. A cordless impact wrench was purchased just for this job (around $300), but it has paid itself off in spades after just a few months of odd jobs.
I’m not sure if there are other homes set up like this in N.B. I’ve yet to see one. As I drive around and look at rooves that have panel that are covered in snow I know that it was the right choice to put them on the wall. Admittedly, aesthetically this gives the house a spaceship feel. We don’t really care too much about that, but it’s a consideration for some. We painted the siding from light blue to dark gray to help the overall appearance and to give the façade a needed update. It was easy to paint the whole area as we moved the staging around for the panel work.
If we had a bigger or more open yard, we may have gone with a ground-mount system. As the house is covered completely with panels anything that we add to or system from here on will have to be a ground mounted array. As it is, we need the yard space for growing food. The system would have also probably been quite different on a new build. Someday we hope to build an earthship and trial all of this again, but through whole-systems design. It is a bit heart-breaking to see new homes getting built every day without renewables built-into the design. As of 2020 all new builds in California will be required to have solar panels.
If you have the option to add $30,000 to your mortgage and be energy independent, you will not regret it. Running power poles up a long driveway costs around $500/ pole in New Brunswick and if you include power bills from day one, the financial case is much better than adding a system later on.
This information certainly isn’t meant to be discouraging. We just wanted people to be able to make informed decisions. We feel very happy with all that we have accomplished and know that we are safe and ahead of the game. If you have any pointers on going grid-tied solar PV or in building small systems (for camps, RVs etc.) feel free to email your story.
1. Get more quotes. The whole set-up is expensive and so are some of the installers. Sit down and have a consultation with companies. It should be at least an hour. We didn’t really ask enough questions and ended up with lots of surprises. It could take one to two months (or more) to settle on the contractor you want.
2. Think twice about cutting corners. We saw tons of YouTube videos about people using golf-cart batteries and all kinds of MacGyvered systems. A good deal of those videos were done by preppers or minimalists who are powering small cabins. When you have an entire modern home (and the people that live in that home are used to being grid-tied) you will need a robust system. Think of the cost of replacing every item in your deep freeze when your system drops off and you are away from home.
3. Consider back-up heating sources. In previous years when we went away at Christmas time, we just set our base board heaters on at 10’C to keep the waterlines from freezing. Since we can’t use that much load anymore, we are unable to risk leaving the house for long. We have a very efficient forced air wood furnace, but without someone to keep it stoked we are out of luck. Solar hot water or a heat pump might be viable options or maybe we will just wait to travel when the weather is warmer.
4. You are not going to save money by going off-grid. If you are looking for a solid business case, stay connected to the grid and save the money on batteries. You will however be out of power just like everyone else when parts of the grid go down. Your investment is independence from the power outages. We also feel good knowing that we have a warm space and amenities to offer our neighbours in an emergency. It will likely take you 15-20 years to recoup your investment if you base your calculations on your old power bills.
5. Start going off-grid well before you actually disconnect. Change your appliances and cut your power usage before you design a system. Insulate and create as many efficiencies in your home as possible. One year before we went off-grid we switched our cooking range, dryer and hot water heater (on-demand) to propane. All appliances with a heating coil or large motor will be significant drains on your system. The hot water heater was very expensive (although at $15/ month in rent from NB the investment is paid for in about 15 years), the other appliances were great deals that came from Kijiji.
We have also switched our habits now and wash clothes only on sunny days, do the dishes in the daytime if possible, etc. It wasn’t as hard as we thought and we caught onto it after about a week. We are only two adults in the household. It might take a bit more coaching with kids, roommates, house guests, etc.
6. If you live on a lot with lots of trees you should have your solar installer do a consultation well before system installation to tell you which trees should go. We cut down several large hardwood trees and continue to cut the odd tree as we go. Being able to cut, split and use these for firewood was great for us. If you need to pay someone else for this, be sure to add it to the budget. We had to pay a professional to cut the big trees that were too close to the roof with a boom truck. It was $700 for them to drop the trees and cut them into 6’-8’ sections, we still had to cut the rest up, split it and move it. We went with a small, affordable company. Other quotes were up to $1,500 for the same job.
Amy has tiny temper tantrums each time there is talk of tree cutting. The mature pines on the property are strictly off-limits. Take some time to talk to your family about the aesthetic or emotional value of trees on the property before making your final decision. With permaculture in mind and taking a whole systems approach consider that shade trees only cut light significantly in the summer (when there is more solar-gain in general) and they also cool the yard, reduce flooding, store carbon, on and on... It’s hard to put a dollar-value on a tree (because that’s not how our market works), but in carbon storage alone, an 80 year-old Maple could have done over $12,000 of work for the planet. That is about half of the cost of going off-grid. Trees…Respect man!
7. It’s the equipment that is expensive, not the labour. Switching to propane was a roughly $5,000 investment outside of the quotes we received. Batteries were the highest cost (roughly 1/3 of total) with the inverter coming in second at a few thousand. We went with MJM Solar. As a small company with lots of sub-contractors it took a bit longer to get the work done, but we were okay with that because we knew that the contractor honest and local. He gave us guidance on how to put the rails up ourselves and wasn’t sour about losing a bit of income.
8. You will need a generator and many companies likely won’t quote that as part of the package. When lead acid batteries deplete/ drain their life-span is cut significantly. When our batteries hit around 45% of capacity the generator is turned on by an automated switch (in case we aren’t home at the time). We went with propane to run the generator as we already had tanks and gasoline is one of the first commodities to run out during extended power outages.
On a sunny winter week, we can go without ever running the generator as the batteries charge up in about 3 hours of full sun. If it’s a cloudy day we can almost maintain our batteries, but we must be very power conscious. When it is dark and stormy, we can go about two to three days before the generator needs to recharge the batteries. It can take an hour or so to charge the batteries with our 11KW generator. It is stupid loud, especially if it kicks on in the middle of the night. Best to check your charge and run it before bed (if needed), your neighbours will thank you.
9. If using propane, do research on tanks. We initially bought two 100lb tanks and planned to fill them ourselves to avoid rental and delivery fees that come with the 400lb tanks. What we learned after is that when the generator is running it creates such a substantial draw that the liquid propane will not vaporize into a gas fast enough. So, in the end we had to cave and rent the big tanks. We think we will be able to fill up once per year or less on that amount.
10. Research your batteries. The issue we have with batteries is mainly because we used lead/ acid batteries. There are better alternatives, they just come at a higher cost. Knowing what we know now, we could have done a better cost-benefit analysis how to design the whole system (with batteries in particular).
11. We had to pay much more than initial estimates, like by a hefty margin. We were able to access capital without too much trouble, but not everyone can. You would do well to pad your budget out by $5,000 - $7,000! The tree removal and propane systems were the biggest concerns. That was maybe $11,000. To be fair though, we were stubbornly determined to do this and never used a spread sheet once.
12. Plan for other power systems. We are going to add wind power as soon as we can figure out an affordable system. When the storms come and the sun isn’t shining but the wind usually picks up. The two-systems complement each other. Permaculture tells us that redundancy of essential systems is key. There may be issues with having a wind turbine in in urban areas, so check by-laws before you design.
13. Design a bigger system than you need. That should keep you from running a generator much and will also allow some flexibility for future energy needs; including, maybe selling your home at some point.
14. Start planning early, start everything early, it will take longer than you think. Our decision to move ahead on this project started in the fall of 2016. In the fall of 2017 we added propane and in the fall of 2018, we cut ties with the grid. Keep in mind that there is not just one person doing the work. Electricians, plumbers, welders and arborists may be needed in addition to the solar panel installer.
15. Do what you can to make the job go quickly as it will help your installers and it may save you money in the long run. We put up the mounting rails for our panels and saved about 30% on the labour for the install. We created the pads for the generator and the propane tanks. We learned (late in the process) that we would need a box to hold all of the batteries that would meet safety specs. Drew learned how to weld aluminum so that he could build the battery box and save huge fabrication costs from a welder. As is it was, the 8’ x 3’x 2’, hinged, air-tight box cost $600 for materials and fourteen hours to create. We don’t know what someone would have charged for that work, but think it would have been around $1,500 based on shop time, materials and sales tax. We were able to borrow the welder from a friend.
Amy and Drew