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Very few people think about alternative sources of energy until electricity and oil prices begin to go through the roof. And in Canada this has only been happening during the past few years, or since the world price of oil topped $50 US. In 2005 the price of fuel oil sent homeowners scrambling to learn about various other sources of heat for relief from the cold Canadian winter. And it was around this time that we began to hear the term living off the grid more frequently.
When we speak of living off the grid it is used to describe a power system in a home where the total electrical needs of a household are generated by gadgets on the property instead of being provided by power lines. It used to be that only hermits and green nerds looked for ways to live comfortably without utility poles and oil tanks. Many people would hear about these types and snicker at the thought of a windmill on your property, or having your lawn dug up for a geothermal heat pump.
Years ago rural homesteads got electricity through by gasoline or diesel generators, but they had very few electrical devices: radio, refrigerator and lights. The cooking was done on a wood or coal stove and this also provided the hot water and home heat. (The term kitchen party originated because, in the winter, this was the warmest part of the home.) They key to their comfort was deciding what they needed to be powered and what they could do without.
For anyone thinking of living off the grid there are a few items to be considered:
The reason many people have not rushed to get their own power sources is that the start-up costs can be immense. Wind turbines, batteries, power converters and solar panels are expensive so the first key in going this route is to get educated on the ins-and-outs of alternative power installation. Many community colleges offer night courses, and now building supply stores are getting in on the act so there is no shortage of expertise. You will learn the difference between solar energy types — passive and active — as well as the right number of storage batteries you will need to run your needs. Become an expert, and soon you will installing your own system and saving thousands of dollars.
Most builders never think outside the box - their own boxes. And those that do have problems selling energy-efficient homes because, in most cases, they don't look like the McMansions or the Pressboard Palaces people have been encouraged to buy. If you one of these, or an older home, spend around $150 to get your home inspected for energy leaks and then follow the recommendations. This could include insulating bare-concrete basement walls or upgrading windows. Sometimes all it takes is some good caulking techniques.
Appliances that generate heat also use great amounts of power. This includes ovens and toasters which can use as much as 1500 watts to make a couple of pieces of toast. If this is what you require then count on spending almost $20,000 for solar panels and batteries, or to build a windmill generation system. Most people who live off the grid also dry their clothes in the wind or in a greenhouse dryer so that the sun's heat is magnified. These are considerations for living without power lines.
Not only will the sun's heat dry clothes it can also heat a home. In our northern climate most of the extremely-cold areas in winter also have a lot of direct sun. Yellowknife and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in January and February are very cold. However, this is the season where the sun is low in the sky and so shines directly into any windows facing the south. Using the greenhouse effect and triple-paned windows with low-emissive coatings and heavy argon gas between the panes can keep a room very warm. Not only that the effect will trap the heat so that the room will stay heated after the sun has gone down. If the room has tile floors this heating effect will last longer, and this means a longer period when the furnace is off.
During the past few years compact fluorescent lights (CFL) have largely replaced the old incandescent bulbs. However, CFL's will soon be placed by a more cost-effective and power-miser type of light that comes from LED's, or light- emitting diodes. The knock against CFL's is that they contain a poisonous mercury gas that causes disposal problems.
Another way to get the information you need to make informed decisions is to join a group of people who are already in the process of off-grid living. Many of these groups are found online or through stores that sell alternative energy devices. Following these people can save countless dollars and save time.
In Canada many power utility companies will buy your excess power and either give you money or a credit on your account. This may be an easier way to start because it negates the need for storage batteries as the excess electricity is bought by the power company. Even for die-hard people who want to leave the grid completely this is a great platform from which to jump off.
For more information on alternative sources of power consult our Contractors Directory or simply post you project online at TrustedPros.ca and one will contact you.
Read our follow-up article 7 More Tips for Living off the Grid in Canada