There are many people who have houses or cabins which are not connected to the utility service grids. In most cases, the utilities are not available or are extremely costly due to the distance to the nearest access point. With the use of technology, a comfortable life is possible at these locations. People living off the grid install alternate energy devices such as wind turbines, solar energy collectors, water turbines and other methods to harness useable energy. Most off the grid houses use batteries to store energy for use as needed. In addition to energy capture via alternate methods, most off the grid installations are very concerned with conservation of energy. Heating is a major energy use in many houses. Those houses off the grid are often heated by firewood or similar fuel. Delivery of heating oil, propane or diesel fuel is often difficult and expensive. Off the grid home owners attempt to minimize the use of such fuels.
Depending on the location of the home, off the grid experiences vary widely. Some locations have ample wind that allow wind turbines to produce a great deal of power. Other locations are not as windy. For these homes, wind power might be less attractive or even cost probitive. Solar energy collection is important for some locations but less so for others. The Pacific Northwest experiences many hours of fog and rain during the winter. This can make solar energy systems much less useful. Luckily that area is not as cold as many others so the overall energy needs for the home are less. Each off the grid home must be evaluated to consider the whole energy use and production parameters.
Off the grid homes must evaluate the energy requirements for the location and the occupants. The climate plays a very important part in the energy use. Colder areas will require more energy to be used for heating. Insulation, building contruction and wind abatement are very good items to check. Such homes should have ample insulation in attics and walls. Buildings can be constructed to reduce exposure to frigid wind. Trees, hedges or out buildings can be placed in the path of the strongest winds. These techniques help to reduce the heating energy load for the home.
More building occupants usually require more energy. More space is required to be heated. More food must be preserved for more people. Lights are used for more things. Every member of a household off the grid must be aware of their impact on the energy use of the home. There is a real lifestyle impact to note for those in these homes.
Certain modern conveniences are difficult or impossible to use in off the grid homes. Refrigeration is a major user of energy. Television, and other entermaint devices, may be hard to operate. Internet service is often expensive or unavailable for off the grid homes. Even lighting presents particular challenges to off the grid homes. Many of the homes are powered by batteries that store collected energy. The technology used for lights and other devices must be compatible with the battery system. Complicated devices such as invertors, relays and controllers are often required to support normal lights and electrical devices. Some homes use technology originally designed for recreational vehicles or boats when they are located off the grid.
Electrical energy is available from the sun. The homes that are off the grid use solar collectors, photovoltaic cells or both. The collectors use direct sunlight to heat air or liquid which is moved to areas that need heat. The heat collected can be quite significant. In areas with high amounts of sunshine, like Colorado or Wyoming, these devices can accumulate heat even on very cold days. The concept is the same as used by some solar swimming pool heaters. A medium is heated by the sun and then circulated into the area where the heat is used. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Using special types of silicon embedded in glass cases, these cells are capable of producing direct current which can be stored in batteries.
Electrical energy is also available from wind turbines. As has been noted, some areas experience steady winds. These are candidates for wind turbine installation. Other areas may get less frequent wind but of high strength. Turbines might be economical for these locations as well. Those areas off the grid with infrequent or light winds should avoid the expense of wind turbines. Often wind energy is harnessed in conjuction with photovoltaic panels. A charge controller regulates the energy stored in batteries.
Another practical method used for electrical generation by off the grid homes is micro-hydro power. These are installations of generators in streams. Depending on the availability of flowing water, there can be significant power available to the home. As usual, each location will have qualities that render such electrical production more or less affordable. The basic requirement is for a flowing amount of water. The two factors are the drop of the water, measured in head, and the flow rate. If a site has enough of either, they can use a generator to harness power. Many locations are able to capture nearly all of the electricity required by the home. Other sites use water power to supplement the other energy sources. In most every case, the installation required for a micro-hydro generator is custom. The turbine must be sized to match the water flow. The water may have to be diverted from a stream and brought to a turbine via a culvert. There are many variables to consider. The benefit of such work is that micro-hydro energy is available 24 hours a day while the water flows. Even an intermittant water source may be used. Some off the grid water users will dam up a small water flow to establish a reservoir. When ample water is available, it is released into the water turbine. There may be significant restrictions and regulations so be sure to check with local government if this is an energy source that you wish to use.
Many owners of off the grid homes report that they are living comfortable lives. Normal urban behavior is not exactly possible, but basic comforts like heat, light and entertainment, are available. Some owners are able to connect to the grid but choose not to. Off the grid home owners are able to show how the application of technology can allow them to live where they want and with a sustainable existance.