solar panels
Low Impact / Off Grid Living

As a part of understanding the real costs of low impact living and things such as solar energy, I live on a mostly self contained 24 acre farm/ranch just above the hills of Los Gatos, CA.

I have 3 homes on this property which operate off-grid. The local electrical utility does come to the property but I had it disconnected some years ago. I felt I had to "cut the cord" to fully understand the difficulties of grid-free living.

My property is made up off:

Most of the year I run entirely solar. Overnight I run off the batteries. When there is no sun I use the Honda generator for backup power.

When I use water on the property I pump it from a hole in the ground. When I am done with it I put the water back into the ground via a septic tank and leech field.

I am located in Northen California in an area with 260 sunny days per year and 30 to 60 inches of rain per year.

The climate is officially western mediteranian. Meaning it is nearly always in the 50 to 90 degrees range during the day. And the humidity is mild. Technically, my area, because of all the rain, has a relatively high humidity, but you do not feel it. There are no oppressive high humidity feeling days, except during the very rare temperature inversion days, which occur once or twice every few years.

I do not heat or cool my home most of the year. When heating is necesary two of the houses are heated primarily via wood burning stoves fueled by oak and madrone from the property itself. This has historically been from windfall trees that I chop up myself. The smallest house uses propane for heating.

The water heater, clothes dryer, and cook tops use propane. Some people use line drying and others use the propane clothes dryer. All the houses have propane heating backup, but generally do not use it.

Life on the property, aside from the 24 acre gated end of road privacy, is much like any other housing you are familiar with.

We do try to avoid energy hog appliances. For example, we use 1100 watt microwaves and slightly smaller refridgerators. The refridgerators are 20, 18, and 14 cubic feet.

In addition to the households I have orchards, a vineyard, laying chickens, and bees. At times I have meat turkeys which I raise and slaughter myself.

My property hosts deer, racoons, mountain lions, bob cats, foxes, skunks, coyotes, barn owls, great horned owls, hawks, and many other creatures.

My orchards host apples, pluots, cherries, pomegranites, peaches, pears, persimmons, grapes, lemons, limes, and oranges. I also have several garden areas which host a variety of your typical garden fair.

I do plant additional madrone, redwood, and bay trees in addition to the ones that nature plants.

Life here is very normal. Power is always available with the electric start generator taking over automatically in the case of various sorts of failures.

I have to admit that it takes multiple redundancy to maintain an interuption free life. Like they say, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Having two wells allows one to fail (say via a bad pump) while continuing to use the other or rely on the stores in the tanks.

The electrical fails in various ways, but the double redundancy of two backup generators means we often go for years without a power outage.

The ideal power generator for my situation is not actually made. Generators with all the automation I would like tend to be rather inefficient at producing the backup power I need, but smaller more efficient generators are always manual start.

Putting power into the batteries and taking it out again entails a fairly sizeable efficiency loss. Thus it is very desirable to run power intensive appliances during the day when the Sun is out. This does require a choice to adjust one's lifestyle to minimize energy usage. Most family members prefer not to do this and so the generator is sometimes on for high energy use appliances they want to run later a night.

More batteries could offset the need to run the generator. Unfortunately, in bigger power systems, such as my battery system, you cannot mix and match batteries. The entire battery bank must be made up with batteries of a similar age and characteristics.

Adding an additional battery bank would entail a fair amount of complexity that I would prefer to avoid.

I do have wind and hydro also. But both are incredibly unreliable and much more difficult to maintain. I do not mean the water or the wind are a problem. The systems being more mechanical than the solar array they tend to have pretty endless failures. The failures are so constant that I have given up on hydro and wind even as experiments.

I do not have much wind, and only part time flowing creeks. If I had a more continuous source of flowing water I might be tempted to try a little harder with the hydro.

The best efficiency I have been able to manage with gas genereators is about 2 gallons of gas per day. With gasoline around $3 per gallon that comes to $180 per month for electricity if the sun does not shine at all.

I could save about 30% by using propane instead of gasoline. In my area propane for home energy purposes is not taxed, whereas gasoline is. The gas taxes are almost 30% of the cost of the gas.