LIVING OFF THE POWER GRID
Cutter and I lived off the grid using a generator and batteries from December 1999 through the middle of May 2000. For almost 6 months the generator and batteries were our only source of power. The following is an account of:
Our Power Generation System
NOTE - WW: Fuel is now about 5x the cost it was when this article was written, so keep that in mind!
We used the attached Watt Usage Chart to determine how many watts we needed to run everything in our 2000 square foot doublewide. We have an electric water heater, electric dryer, 70 amp battery charger, 4 ton air conditioner, and a well with a 1 horse power motor. These items are the biggest users of electricity at our home. These items alone use 12,700 watts.
If you take all our other electrical items (2 refrigerators, 1 freezer, coffee maker, microwave, TV, VCR, lights, central air system [for heating and cooling], ceiling fans, radio) we can run all of them together and they do not exceed 5000 watts.
If we had everything running at the same time we would be using approximately 18,000 watts. However, since we knew that we would not be using the air conditioner in the winter (3,000 watts) we knew that 15,000 watts was our maximum. Even then, we would rarely be running everything at the same time.
After figuring out our watt usage we decided to use a 15KW diesel generator (attached is a sheet comparing Gasoline, Propane, and Diesel Powered Generators - hands down the Diesel is the most cost effective and reliable). We also got a 5,000 watt 120-volt inverter from Sportsman's Guide. To power the inverter we got seventeen 200-amp deep cycle batteries from Carquest (these have a 5-year warranty).
We purchased (30) 55-gallon plastic drums from a local drum recovery company and filled them up with off-road diesel back when the prices were in the 70-cent range. This gave us approximately 495 days of running the generator at 10 hours a day. We covered the drums with a tarp and used a hand pump to transfer the fuel from the drums to the generator.
How We Hooked It All Up
For legal and safety purposes we used a 200-amp Transfer Switch. This is a box that we mounted outside our back door. It has 3 sets of connections inside of it. The middle connection runs to the fuse box in the house. The bottom connection ran to the generator, and the top connection ran to the inverter.
When the lever is pushed down it feeds electricity from the generator to the house, when the lever is pushed up it feeds electricity from the inverter to the house.
The installation of a transfer switch should be done by a licensed electrician. If a fire were to occur and the insurance company was able to show it was due to faulty wiring they would not pay if you did it yourself. Neither of us is licensed, and I am not giving any type of instruction on wiring (read, "legal disclaimer"). It was very easy for us to do the wiring ourselves using a voltmeter and much caution. The charts at the hardware store where we purchased the wire showed what gauge wire to use for the 15,000 watts we would be using based on the length of the wire etc.
We set the generator about 10 yards to the side of the home and ran the wire from it to the transfer switch. We used a plug at the generator so that we could unplug it if we had to move the generator. The generator was mounted on a small trailer for easy moving.
We did not enclose the generator at all and when the doors and windows were closed in the house you could not hear the generator.
We set the batteries in a row under the house, hooking them up in a series + to + and - to- along the row. From the end battery we ran wire up through the floor of the house to the inverter. Then ran another set of wires from the inverter out to the transfer switch. This was all hard wired.
Also under the house was the battery charger.
What Worked And What Didn't
During the day we would run the generator and it powered the house and the battery charger with no problems. We would run the generator between 8-12 hours a day and then run off the batteries the balance of the time.
When running off of the batteries we experienced a few things:
What We Would Do Differently
Get a larger battery charger. This was poor planning on our part. We could comfortably run the generator only 8 hours a day, sometime less, but had to run it longer just to get the batteries charged.
There are 3 reasons that we went on the grid.
What I am looking at getting done in the next couple of months is the following:
This adds up to $155 a month for unlimited power 10 hours a day and sufficient power the other 14 hours a day. Depending on where you live and how many in your household this may or may not represent a savings. It does give an idea on how much it would cost to live off the grid.
(If your electric needs are not as great you can get by with a smaller generator reducing your daily generator cost from $1.50 to as low as 60 cents.)
NOTE: We could live much more frugally, thus cutting quite a bit of the daily expense in running off the grid. These are the cost we incurred living pretty much as if we were still on the grid.
Another item to note: we use a wood burning stove to heat the home during the winter, however, there were times that we turned on the natural gas heater and the generator or batteries powered it fine.