Living Off-Grid Doesn’t Mean Living Without, by Paul L. Armstrong

Paul ArmstrongI have participated in the American Solar Energy Society’s National Solar Tour (www.ases.org/solar-tour) basically since its inception, but a couple of years ago, I received what I consider the ultimate compliment. A wind generator salesman commented that I have “the most on-grid off-grid house” he had ever seen. The tour, which is usually held on the first Saturday of October every year, offers the public an opportunity to visit sites and learn about Alternative Energy systems in use at homes and businesses across the country. New England Solar Energy Association has their Green Buildings Tour coincide with this tour, as does many other regional organizations. These tours tout other environmentally sound methods of building, insulating, heating, and maintaining structures.

I don’t want people to think I do what I do because I felt a strong “back to the land” urge or “save the environment” thing, this isn’t the case. I went this route because it was the only economical way for me to live with electricity and enjoy what most people do in your daily lives. My wife and I wanted the American dream of property and a home. At the time, I owned two restaurants and recently started a construction company; my ex-wife was employed as a social worker, so we were doing this while leading very busy lives.

DSC00799We bought land in Palermo, Maine, on top of a hill (950 ft. elv.) with a view from Mount Washington, N.H. to Canada with the rest of the White Mountains in between. When I purchased this property electricity was over a half mile away and the local utility company wanted $365. a month before I even turned on a light bulb for five years to run wires and poles to me. Twenty three years ago that was equivalent to a mortgage in itself! I still needed a house and everything else on the land. Our 1962 Buddy mobile home was no match to the winter winds and weather.

We had previously lived off-grid for over a year with only a little gas generator in a pre-fab house we rented on the other side of town so we had an idea of what we were getting ourselves into. However, we lost that lease and bought the mobile home on rented land that did have electricity so we got spoiled again. We didn’t want to be renters forever so we looked at land for sale and ended up where I am now.

DSC00549The first year we owned the land, I spent hours clearing it and putting in the infrastructure for moving there including, oddly enough, the town required septic system even though we would have no water for another year or so. Hurricane Bob came through and had displaced an old camp building about 100 feet down the hill. We also watched what winter is like up there on the hill- windy, drifty, and cold. The following spring we were ready and brought the mobile home here. We purchased a used generator, many 12 volt appliances, and a few deep cell batteries. We decided on purchasing a propane refrigerator and space heater for convenience rather than using more electricity that we didn’t have. This was also before cell phones, so our telephone was put in on a tree in a weatherproof box three quarters of mile away where I paid our closest neighbor five dollars a month to run a cord so we would have an answering machine hooked to it.

We sold off some of the land to help finance a full basement foundation and cap it off with a flat rubber roof. We also had to extend our driveway and other minor details. The foundation was twice the size of the mobile home and a welcome expansion as we had five greyhounds living with us then (three were puppies). I finished the foundation like a one story home complete with kitchen and full bath and we moved into it. My construction company gave me access to reusable lumber and insulation from some demolition jobs, saving us some money.DSC00800

We had gotten a larger generator and found a deal on some Canadian Army surplus NiCad batteries. I had started my foray into renewable energy. We purchased a Trace inverter and then another so we could bus them together for 220 power to operate our new deep well and its pump. At this point we were using the generator to charge our battery system and knew we didn’t like the noise or the additional cost of fuel and oil, etc. so I started researching other power sources. Knowing that Mt. Washington has the highest recorded wind speed, the experience of Hurricane Bob, and the fact that the first winter our mobile home had been dislodged about six inches by the wind; I decided a wind generator would be our next purchase.

Back then, no reputable wind generator company would even consider selling someone a unit without the minimum of one year’s wind speeds records of your site. (They should still do that since I have seen too many people buy and install wind generators where they shouldn’t be.) I now had two years of records thanks to a Christmas present of a Davis weather monitor. I had put the ammeter on a pole 30 feet high that had been attached to the mobile home previously mainly out of curiosity but it proved very valuable for this endeavor.

I decided on a Hummingbird H900 wind generator. The H stood for high winds and the 900 for the watts it could produce at peak winds of 28 mph. I then got to the task designing a tower and getting it online. I copied others basic concepts for the tower that included a base arm to make lowering and raising it easier. I decided that 60 feet would tower the surrounding trees and eliminate the possibility of getting confluence from them. I scrounged as many parts as I could and bought the rest. The concrete piers were poured, the tower welded, wires run, wind generator mounted, and up she rose. How great it was to not have to run the gas generator every time now!

The house was next. I studied home construction from books and designed the house I live in today. I’ll add while I did have a construction company and knew many of the basics of home construction; I was far from confident of many of the aspects of building an entire house-plumbing, wiring, and such weren’t in my resume. I made the decision that the house would be wired like any other, no 12 or 24 volt system. I built the first floor and a few years later added the second as money was available. Again I used as much recycled lumber and materials as I could. I built the walls nine and a half inches thick incorporating a dead air space, using 2 X 2’s run laterally, into them to add to the R value (R= heat flow resistance) and also to make it simpler to run the wiring without breaching
into the main exterior walls of 2 X 6’s which may have conducted cold air into the house. I put hurricane corners (2 X 4’s at 45 degrees) in and a solid plywood rake wall upstairs to reduce shaking in high winds.

Sunset over the mountains after the flooding storms #1I decided I needed a home office. More power would be needed for that and the upward expansions. I added another 2 strings of the NiCad batteries, eventually getting rid of those and buying surplus batteries from the local nuke plant that was decommissioning. These added many more amp hours to my storage capacity. They weighed 375 pounds each, making moving them a challenge. With the using of more power, more power obviously needed to be generated so I got my first solar panels, 1000 watts worth, and later a larger wind generator (a 3000 watt model.)

So, over the 20+ years my home has evolved into what it is today. I do NOT count watts (all the time.) I have the comforts of a large screen TV, a home theater system, a 55 gallon aquarium, and everything else most on-grid homes probably have. I prefer to call my system a tri-bred system of the wind generator, the solar array, and a back up diesel generator.

I could explain some aspects of living “grid-tied”, where you actually sell some power back to the utility company but for me that is not a option since you have to make your power available to them and I’d be back to having to pay them for the right to pay them for the rest of my life. Maybe that will be my next article.

Living off-grid has been a learning experience and I’ll admit there were some hard times to deal with, but living off-grid doesn’t have to mean living without.