Going off-grid before we went off-grid

Before we moved to our off-grid home, long before, we had begun purchasing the things we would need to live off-grid. This meant solar panels, inverters, charge controllers, lots of wire and much of the other things we would need. Buying these things before we were ready to move meant we could bargain hunt, we could find deals on used items (Craigslist is your friend!) and none of this hit us too hard in the pocketbook.

Little did I know that we would be forced to put our off-grid goodies to the test before we moved off-grid. This was August in the DFW area of north central Texas, hot and humid. We lived in a small (but paid for), old mobile home, these are essentially hot boxes if you have no shade. We had 2 large air conditioners that ran most of the time just to keep the temps bearable inside the place. We had a problem with an electric bill and the bill was paid late, the electric company, being the nice, polite, understanding company they are, chose to turn our electricity off on a Friday, which meant it would be Monday at the earliest before it could or would be turned back on again. That meant spending the rest of Friday, Saturday, Sunday and part of Monday with no power, no way to keep our food cold, no way to cool the house in 100+F temps with 80-90% humidity during the day, we wouldn’t even be able to run a fan.

I was at work when I got the phone call that the house might be dark when I came home but not to worry. BTW, the electric company had received our payment but hadn’t processed it yet… so I finished working and drove home, I expected to come home to a dark place, but to my surprise, there were more lights on than I had ever seen in the house! PB was waiting for me with the biggest grin on his face. We not only had lights, the refrigerator was running, the fish tank was bubbling, my computer was on including the internet, and we had an air conditioner running in the bedroom.

PB had most everything we needed to run all of these things off the grid, the main thing we didn’t have were deep cycle batteries. We hadn’t bought them yet because it’s not good to let them sit idle, so we had planned on buying those just before we moved to our off-grid property. PB went to a local battery store and purchased 2 Trojan 125 amp hour deep cycle batteries, they were already charged up and ready to go. Next he went out and purchased the smallest window unit air conditioner he could find, that was installed in the bedroom, the rest of the house could stay hot. He also purchased a small gasoline powered generator.

We slept in comfort that night and the following nights, I had all the internet I wanted, the food in the fridge stayed cold and the fish in the tank stayed happy.

Monday afternoon, when the electric tech showed up to turn our power back on, I’m sure he expected to find us in distress, hot and miserable, begging them to turn us back on, instead he arrived to find us sitting in comfort, with lights, fans and the air conditioner running. The first thing he did was check to make sure WE hadn’t turned the power back on ourselves. Next he asked us to turn off everything we had powered on, he wouldn’t turn the power back on if anything was plugged up, I suppose that’s a precaution for his protection. He turned us back on and life continued for us.

We half joked about letting the power company go and living the final few months there on our own power, and we certainly could have. I have to tell you it was liberating knowing we COULD survive just fine without the electric company’s power. Knowing what I know now about living on solar power, I would have told the electric company where they could, uhhh, insert their bills…

The point of this story? It’s two fold, first if you are planning on moving or going off-grid, begin buying up the individual components you will need BEFORE you go off-grid, this way you can bargain hunt, you can look for used items to come up on Craigslist and such. You will be able to build up what you will need without a major hit to your pocketbook all at once.

Second, even if you aren’t planning on moving or going off-grid, this scenario or something similar could happen to you, there could be a power outage for any reason, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a small system on hand to give you lights, keep your fridge running, run a small air conditioner if it’s hot, run fans, charge your phones, run your computer and internet? I promise you that if there is a problem with the local power system, you might not be able to go out and buy all the things you need to survive right then, everyone else will be trying to do the same thing, wouldn’t it be great just to be able to stay home, hook up your power and live in comfort until the power comes back on?

Start now putting together a small system to be prepared for any power outages, what you spend now will quickly become priceless in the event you need it. Even if you can only keep one room going, plan on having enough of a system to keep your refrigerator, a few lights, maybe a fan, a small system can run a small window unit air conditioner, you can close off the rest of the house and keep one room cool, a bedroom is a good choice. If you are careful a small system can keep you going for as long as you need it. Here is a short list of things to buy, you can always add to this:

  • solar panels
  • charge controller
  • inverter
  • wire to hook everything together
  • extension cords, heavy duty ones, I like the ones with multiple outlets and a power switch built in
  • deep cycle batteries (12 volt), you can keep these topped off with a battery minder/trickle charger
  • generator, gasoline, diesel, you can even get these in natural gas powered
  • air conditioner, get the smallest window unit you can find so it will not be a major drain on your small system
  • fans
  • lights

This is a very short list, you could certainly add to this. The more batteries you have, the longer you can run your system without having to charge the batteries back up. If it’s winter, you obviously don’t have to worry about keeping cool, but there are ways of keeping warm that don’t require electricity, hopefully you are not in an all electric house, if you are, then you will definitely need a backup source of heat that doesn’t require electricity, you can use a wood burning stove, or a propane powered heater, again you might end up shutting off most of the house, don’t heat rooms you aren’t using.

Be sure to test your system before you need it, you should be able to hook everything together when you need it without having to figure it out, learn it, test it, troubleshoot it BEFORE you need it, then put everything away until the day (or night) comes that you need to set it up. Be sure your batteries are kept in top notch shape and will be fully charged when you need them, you can put them on a trickle charger, if they are the wet type, be sure to check the water levels on a regular basis, add distilled water if they need it, and keep these in a garage or in a well ventilated place.

Have a plan in place, know the things you must keep powered, like your refrigerator, if you have a fish tank, figure out how many extra lights you will need, if you have lamps you can plug those in to your external power, but you will not be able to use lights mounted in the ceiling that are turned on by a light switch on the wall. Figure out how many and how long of extension cords you will need, the extension cords that have multiple outlets on them and a power switch, I refer to them as power bricks, these are indispensable, you can turn off the power at the switch to things you aren’t using right then, there are many electric items that have what is called phantom loads even when the item is not on but still plugged up to live power.

Don’t try to power everything in your home off of this small system, whole house systems are EXPENSIVE! You are just trying to get through for a temporary amount of time, just power what is absolutely necessary, lights, fridge, phones, fans, a small air conditioner, fish tank… then if your system is big enough, you can power your computer and internet, TV, radio and such. Also, be safe, don’t have a rats nest of cords all hooked up together, be cautious of long runs of power cords, be aware of how much juice you are pulling from your inverter, these are rated for X amount of juice running at the same time, if you are trying to pull too much power, it will complain LOUDLY and will shut off the power if you don’t do something about it. Also be aware of surges when electric items first come on, for instance your refrigerator, when it first comes on, it pulls a lot more power to start, then once it starts it settles down to a lower power usage, so leave a little headroom for these items to be able to power on.

Don’t try to use high electrical usage items on this small system, things like blow dryers, curling irons, clothes irons, electric heaters, electric stoves/cooktops/ovens, unless you have a huge amount of money to spend to get a backup system big enough to handle these large loads, you will just cause yourself grief trying to run them. Anything that purposely generates heat uses a LOT of power you will just not be able to use them until your main power is turned back on.

Certain items will not like running on a modified sine wave inverter, these are the more inexpensive inverters, anything with a digital computer chip or digital timer will not run properly, things like digital microwaves, digital clocks, laser printers, some other printers… if you feel you must run something that does not like modified sine wave inverters, then you will need to spend a few more $$$s and get a pure sine wave inverter, it will cost more money and quite frankly I can’t imagine anyone NEEDING to have one of these for an emergency situation, but that’s your call to make.

You can use solar panels to keep your batteries charged, you can also use a generator but these are noisy and must be fueled by something (gasoline, diesel, propane or natural gas). Using solar panels, you will need to hook up a charge controller between the solar panels and the batteries, this keeps your batteries from being overcharged.

Again, I stress, putting your system together and testing it out for real, BEFORE you NEED to do so, you should be fully comfortable with how everything works and how it needs to be put together for your particular situation. You don’t want to be figuring this out with a flashlight in an emergency situation, and you don’t want to find out you are short an extension cord or a few other items when you really need them. You can even mark things and write down what goes to what, create a list and a map of the things you will need to hook up. Test your system once or twice a year, do a dry run to make sure everything still works, you can also figure out at this point if your system needs to grow.

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2 Responses

  1. I had a very similar experience to this a few weeks ago, but in reverse. My wife and I are moving onto our boat and it has enough battery power and propane for us to live off-grid for three to four days.

    On this particularly night there was a power outage. The marina we live in is surrounded by hundreds of expensive homes. We were the only ones with lights on, surrounded by McMasions that are mostly heated with electricity.

    We turned the heat up, turned every light on, and uncorked a bottle of wine. It felt really good.

    1. Thanks Chris, I’ve been in that situation too, where we live now the electric grid is iffy at best, it’s not uncommon for the power to go out (for short periods of time) on a weekly basis… a few years back, there was a massive fire nearby, it burned utility poles in 3 counties. Our neighborhood was without power for nearly a week, we were the only one that had lights on every night… we even hooked our power up to our neighbor to keep his fridge running.

      I see lots of discussion on the internet about ROI, return on investment, having to do with making your home off-grid, they are worried about how long it takes to break even and start making their money back… I have to tell you, and I know you understand this, when EVERYONE around you is in the dark because the power is off, your lights and electricity generating setup becomes priceless.


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