Twenty years ago, when my wife, Lorraine, and I decided to move off the grid, our motivation was simple. Lorraine wanted to move closer to her family, preferably to a piece of land large enough to offer some privacy and plenty of room to support her “addiction” to animals. A lot at the back of her family’s farm fit the bill (and the wallet). There was only one downside: It would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to connect the property to the nearest electric lines. The solution was obvious: Don’t connect to the grid and instead plan to run our house entirely with renewable energy. We put our plan into action, and have been enjoying off the grid living ever since. Here’s how we run our rural Ontario home using an absolute minimum of fossil fuel energy.
An Efficient, Off-Grid Home
We built our home to look like a traditional country farmhouse from the early 1900s, and added some passive solar features to reduce the heating and cooling load. For example, the large roof overhang on the front porch shades the house from direct sunlight in the summertime while allowing the low-angle winter sun to warm the house. We also made the home as energy efficient as possible. We insulated primarily with blown-in cellulose, manufactured from recycled paper products. For areas that were difficult to insulate in this manner, we used spray foam (urethane) insulation, which has the added benefit of forming its own vapor barrier. Other energy-efficient features of our home include solar-powered vent fans, radiant-barrier insulation, vapor and wind barriers, and careful joint sealing.
Our domestic water system is “off the grid,” too, and we’ve made it as efficient and eco-friendly as possible. We have a standard drilled well with a deep-well submersible pump and a large water-pressure accumulator tank to minimize pump cycling. Our fixtures are all low-flow or ultra-low flow, which keeps our water consumption well below half the Canadian national average of 91 gallons per person per day. Our septic tank has an effluent filter, and a leaching bed that allows our wastewater to percolate through the earth and right back into the water table. To keep the water clean, we have always used natural and phosphate-free cleaners.
Solar and Wind Power
Our electrical-generating equipment originally consisted of a photovoltaic (PV) sun-tracking array with a peak electrical rating of 1.2 kilowatts. This array is composed of 16 individual PV panels rated 75 watts each. We also installed a Bergey 1.5 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100-foot guyed lattice tower.
Rounding out the electrical-generating mix is a 10 kilowatt diesel generator, which we run on between 30 and 100 percent biodiesel, depending on the ambient temperature. We would prefer to use 100 percent biodiesel all the time, but we have to add some diesel to the fuel mix. Biodiesel doesn’t work well in extreme cold, and in our location, winter temperatures can be as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit