Here’s what you’ll need, and what you’ll need to know.
No matter how rustic, simple, or minimal you want to live, some form of electricity is still pretty much a necessity. There are many options for sourcing electricity for your off-grid home, including solar panel options, electrical generators and batteries, or bringing in traditional power lines to your property, and each option or scenario has its own price tag and logistics attached to it.
Solar panels are a favorite option for many off-grid homesteaders, and for good reason. Though sometimes pricey upon initial installation, using solar power means you are not tied to your local electric company — not responsible for a monthly electric bill.
Solar panels collect energy from the sun, store it, and convert it to electrical power inside the home or vehicle. Panels may be totally stationary on the roof of your home, small and portable via a large case of sorts for travelling, or even sticky and flexible to apply directly to the roof of an RV or other vehicle.
But when setting up a solar system — you know what I mean — you are not just tossing up a few panels, plugging in, and calling it good.
In fact many homesteaders hire a professional to install their system, and where we live, a local Amish family offers to install solar for home living for a price similar to what the electrical company would charge to install power lines.
In considering going solar, you must ensure that the size and capacity of your panels are capable of producing the amount of power you require, you must utilize battery banks of your choosing to store the collected solar energy, and understand the wiring, converting, and use of power. More needed power means more panels, more batteries, more configuring, and it can become complicated.
And though I do love the concept of using free energy from the sun to power our lives, I know that solar is not always the best option for everybody.
Pros & Cons
The biggest downfall when it comes to solar power, comes with location.
If you live in an area where your panels will be shaded at all — by clouds, trees, etc. — you’re automatically not going to get as much out of your solar panels. And if they’re covered in snow? Forget about it.
Some solar panels are made to always face the sun — changing their orientation throughout the day to track the sun as it moves across the sky. But expect this sort of setup to be very expensive. Of course the smaller portable panels I mentioned earlier can be moved as needed, but if you are looking to power your home with this sort of panel, then you’ll need quite a few panels with a very high wattage and a very small home, as these are more ideal for the travelling vanlifer or camper.
In southwestern Colorado, where we have our own little tiny house homestead, there is a ton of sunshine to enjoy, making solar power appear to be a very plausible option.
However, the same elements that created the massive dunes in our neighboring Great Sand Dunes National Park, are the same elements that can be extremely rough on a solar panel setup.
I mean, it gets windy af out here.
And this past winter, many of our solar-using friends in the area saw their expensive systems completely wiped out by the extreme weather and storms.
Basically, solar power can be absolutely perfect under the right conditions, but many times, the conditions must be absolutely perfect as well — and most homesteaders rely on the use of generators or propane alongside their solar panels, as it would be impossible to rely on solar power alone.
Have I already mentioned how, when first setting off on the Life Rustic journey, we immediately went out and bought the biggest, baddest, loudest, and most powerful gas generator in stock?
Lolololol totally unnecessary.
That bad boy gave us a constant 6,000 watts of power and weighed about a thousand pounds.
We have since downgraded to a small, lightweight inverter generator that produces about 1,000 watts and purrs like a kitten. So really, we upgraded.
Similar to considering solar panels, when shopping for a generator you must first consider how much power (wattage) you will need. Every household appliance provides on the label the amount of watts required for it to operate, so you simply need to add up these numbers. And in doing so, you may quickly decide that you will make your coffee the old fashioned way in a kettle, rather than sacrifice the high wattage that your electric coffee maker is going to hog from your generator or battery bank.
Why else do you think we’ve gone so long without a microwave? Watts, baby, watts!
And really, that applies to whatever sort of power you are using off the grid. When you are responsible for sourcing and storing the power yourself — whether from the sun, gas generator, or propane tank — and not getting it via a constant supply from the power plant down the street, you realize that there are many appliances, gadgets, and the like that you may not actually need to use.
The good news, though, is that you are forced to not be such lazy bum consumer who is so dependent on the system to just give give give so you can take take take and — you know what, I won’t get on this soap box today.
Less Wattage is OK
Anyway, using approximately 1,000 watts has worked just fine for us. We can power the lights in the little Jellybean Shasta, turn on the television and gaming device, plug in a laptop, and charge our phones, devices, and batteries all from the generator.
Does it take some prioritizing to also operate the water pump or other high-watt appliance at the same time as another with our smaller generator? Yes. But with a battery bank that stores the power created by the generator — again using the setup needed with solar panels — the power doesn’t have to come from the generator alone, every time.
Which is why homesteaders utilize pretty much everything — solar panels, generators, propane tanks, etc. — with each thing specified for a different job.
What’s great about inverters, too, is that they are incredibly efficient. Where our former beast of a generator would spit out 6,000 watts of power by simply turning it on, blowing through gallons and gallons of gasoline in the process, the inverter generator basically produces the power as needed, which means saving lots of gas and eardrums.
It’s pretty much like roadtripping in a Prius versus roadtripping in a military tank.
That said, though, our inverter generator sure is a delicate little guy, and requires quite a bit more maintenance and upkeep than the powerhouse we used to have. Every few weeks we are giving it a complete oil change, cleaning or changing spark plugs, and checking or changing the air filter. But, as it has continued on like a champ through many nights that dipped into double digits below zero this winter, the tradeoff in maintenance has been necessary and worth it.
And, though I mentioned before that these types of generators are usually more expensive than those that aren’t quiet inverters, I would recommend them over the big beasts, especially if you plan to travel with your generator — as many states and parks have regulations regarding a generator’s carburetor, sound decibel, and other details.
But, as with all the topics in this series, it really depends on your situation and needs. What the nomadic vanlifer requires will probably differ quite a bit from the needs of an off-grid homesteader, and trial and error is very much a part of the process.
I think we can all attest to that, though!
A long-winded explanation over land access, coming next.