Research Your Family's Power Use
Many people complain about their electric bills and say they want to live off-the-grid. Then they will ask if they can buy one solar panel to run a refrigerator. Maybe that sounds funny to me and to other people who live with their own energy source, it really isn't though. It is a logical question if you do not know anything about living this way. If you really want to make this lifestyle change, then you must do research first and study all aspects of living off-the-grid.
After you have done your research, together with your spouse, study the habits of your family. If you have small children, it is easier. Older children sometimes are not able to cut down on the electrical gadgets and various appliances in use in your home presently. Talk to them about it and then see if it is possible for your family to live in an off-the-grid home. I know it doesn't seem whether your children are for or against it, should matter so much, but they could make your home miserable for the years they are there.
Refrigeration Is A Concern
The biggest energy hogs in any house, is the refrigerator, freezer, hot water heater and water pumps. It is a fact that you would not be able to power electric stoves, heaters, microwaves, toasters, hair dryers, etc.. That is unless your system could accommodate it and that would mean a larger system than what I am talking about here. There are specialty refrigerators that are able to be powered by a smaller system, one being the Sunfrost refrigerators. The Sundanzer is a refrigerator built special for off-the-grid homes and is often called solar refrigeration. It is really DC refrigeration.
By replacing your present refrigerator with a Sunfrost or other such refrigerator, you could lower your present energy bill by a bit. One word of warning here though. would you be willing to live with having to defrost the refrigerator yourself? That is one of the reasons why the energy draw on the refrigerator is so much, the automatic defrosting unit. It is worth looking into if you just want to lower your bills and not necessarily live off-the-grid.
If your heart is really set in moving off-the-grid, then maybe you'd like to check out one of the many gas refrigerators available today. Propane is used to power these and I must admit they are very nice. If the sound of the electric refrigerator is as annoying to you as it was to me, a propane one might be the answer. They are quiet and keep your food cold all the time. No turning on and off. They too, have to be defrosted manually.
Putting Together A Small System
Start with buying one 50 watt solar panel. It will need a small charge controller. The charge controller will keep it from overcharging your batteries. Pick up a cheap automotive inverter off the shelf from any store. This will switch your power to make it able to plug your AC electrical gadgets into the system. Batteries called deep cell lead acid batteries, such as fork lift truck batteries or golf cart batteries are the type needed. They will store the power that comes from the sun into your system. Depending on how much power you will need you can use 2-4 batteries in the beginning. They are bought together and put into service at the same time. Add some cables to connect them to each other and you are ready to get started.
It is not necessary to buy a meter in the beginning, but it will help you monitor your usage. It will also show you how much power each electric item uses. When you are off-the-grid the meter is an essential part of the system. A good meter is not very expensive and will not add much to your system. As you add more panels to your system you can add more appliances and gadgets. If you opt to go off-the-grid in the future you will have enough equipment to get started immediately.
Now what do you do when there is no sun for days? Depending on where you live, there will be times where there is no sun. Those dark gloomy days of winter in the north are well-known. That is when a generator comes in to play. That is when you charge your batteries using a generator or even a car. A good generator is worth every penny. Just remember to use it as little as possible. Batteries will always be needed if you intend on being independent when there is a power outage. If you are grid-tied without a battery bank and the power goes out, you will be without power also. They are the key to making your system not dependent on the power grid.
There are solar packages available that include all the components you need to have a small system for one price. These packages are solar energy kits or plug n' play solar kits. No wiring needed on some of them. Set it up in the sun and then plug your lights in. Add a battery or two to the kit and your power will be stored. Their cost is low, some are less than a thousand dollars. This will give you a good idea on what kind of equipment you might want to add in the future.
As in any major change to your lifestyle, there will be things to get used to and to learn. Once you are living with a small system, you will have on hands experience and will be able to update and move up in your alternative energy system. If you find it is not something you want to live with and you have not spent a lot of money on it, you can sell the equipment you bought.
It Is Your Choice
You will come across many people trying to tell you cannot live off-the-grid. They will tell you how the panels will never pay for themselves over time. Neither will your vehicles. They lose value as soon as you start using them. Yet, nobody will tell you not to buy one. Just the opposite. If you buy the panels slowly and cut your bill down over time, then the panels have saved you money. They have done the job they were bought to do.
If you stay on the grid your whole life and figure out what your bill is over all that time, then chances are you could have bought a nice size alternative energy system with that money. If you had taken out a loan to buy it, then it would have been paid off in a few years. The electric bills are never paid off. It is matter of what you want to do. Not what other people have to say about it. They have their choice also.
Living with a small system is not the same as living in a big house with a lot of electric appliances and gadgets. You have to monitor what you use. You have to be careful to take care of your equipment. If you can't handle a little work to use a system, then yes, that would be your choice to not have one. Just keep paying the electric company like you are doing now. If you are the type of person who likes to be independent and enjoys the work to run your own system, then that is a whole different story. Then you will enjoy learning and maintaining the alternative energy system.