Off the Grid – Is Now the Time?

Off the Grid – Is Now the Time?
By Jack Ellis

Off-Grid by Choice

During the last big storm, Roger Priddle on Cawaja Beach got a call from a friend. “The power is out all over the area!” the friend exclaimed. At first, Roger assumed his friend was just joking again. Roger’s lights were still on, thanks to his home’s PV (photovoltaic) solar electric power system. He is “off the grid” and proud of it.

In May, 2005, Roger and his wife, Bev, demolished their cottage dating from 1931, which was originally built by his great-uncle, James Walker, one of the three original partners for whom Cawaja Beach is named. They have now built their dream home following long-held ideals of reducing their ‘carbon footprint’ to an absolute minimum. And this home is still a work in progress, with additions and adjustments to its structure and equipment on a continuing basis.

The home is not small, having 1200 sq. ft. on the main floor plus the same amount on the lower walkout level. The main level has a large living-dining area open to the kitchen, with master bedroom, bathroom, office and mudroom. Although Bev and Roger are still active teachers in local schools, they have laid out this level for wheelchair access, should it ever become necessary. The lower level has two bedrooms, bathroom, central sitting area with walkout to the beach, along with a large utility area housing the energy system components and wood storage.

Three main principles guided their lengthy process of research and planning:

1. reduce the amount of “embedded energy” in the final structure of the home. This means that as much as possible of the materials going into it should be recycled rather than new. Thus the large amounts of energy required to create new lumber and insulation, etc., are avoided.

2. reduce the amount of operating energy the house requires for space heating, water heating and electric power for lights and appliances.

3. use renewable solar energy and wood heating with a goal of almost complete energy independence.

Used framing lumber and insulation were picked up from houses being demolished, at a cost of about $200 rather than several thousand dollars for new materials. It took over two months for Roger to pull nails, but the resulting studs were dry and straight, not prone to warping, and many trees were saved. The recycled insulation went into outer walls that are 12” thick, with R46 insulating value, rather than into the landfill. Those walls are actually double, with inner and outer 2X4 framing insulated with R13 insulation, and a 4” space in between insulated with R20.

At the suggestion of their builder, Michael Josland of Midland, roof trusses were specially designed to provide an attic with 600 sq. ft. of space, now used as Roger’s workshop, and clerestory windows that allow access to the roof to clear snow from the solar collectors. They also have a 24” “raised heel” which permits the roof to have R80 insulation as well as preventing heat loss at the roof/wall joint. Extra care was taken installing the vapour barriers and sealing them everywhere in the structure. The exterior will in future be clad in pine siding cut from some of the trees that now partially shade the solar collectors, covering the triple layer of tarpaper now visible over the exterior sheathing.

The heating system uses an ingenious combination of wood and solar hot water. The main source of heat is a large masonry wood heater in the living room (see photo). Eventually to be finished with local granite, it is constructed of concrete blocks with a small firebox and a complicated interior path through which the flue gases exit. Similar in principle to the tile stoves widely used in pre-war Europe, the maximum amount of heat is extracted from the fire, and as the massive masonry heats up, it is effectively stored for later release. The stove even has a stainless steel coil connected to the hot water system.

The lower level has luxurious heating with hot water radiant heat coils embedded in the concrete floor. These draw on the hot water system, which is heated in three ways: by the masonry wood heater coil, by four solar heating panels installed on the roof last November, and by natural gas as a last resort. Yes, the home has a natural gas connection, used just for cooking and as the rarely needed backup for the hot water heaters. If the house is left vacant for some time, the heat from the lower level is sufficient to maintain the whole house above freezing.

On all but the coldest, windy days, one fire per day is sufficient for full comfort heating. The annual wood consumption is about 1 1/2 bush cords. The old 900 sq. ft cottage needed five times as much!

The home has all of the electrical gadgets one could want, with one exception: no clothes dryer. Laundry is done in a high-efficiency front-loading washer, which spins at a very high speed. Drying is done on a rack near the masonry stove, or on the clothesline in good weather. While the average household uses 750-1000 kwh of electricity per month, conservation-minded Bev and Roger average just 90-120 kwh. Their refrigerator is their worst ‘energy pig’, but they are considering super-efficient models.

The electricity supply is a bank of nine PV solar panels mounted on the roof. Their angle (45 degrees) is correct, but they are somewhat off-line of true south. Also, some shading occurs from tall trees in front of the house. These may soon selectively be cut for siding, however. The panels can produce up to 1300 watts of DC power, charging a bank of twelve batteries capable of holding 1600 ampere-hours. A 40-amp inverter converts this stored power to regular 120-volt AC fed normally throughout the house.

Full batteries can run the house for up to five days without sunlight, at the frugal rate Bev and Roger use power. To prevent batteries from being discharged too far in the dull, cold winter months there is the option to run an extension cord to Roger’s sister’s cottage, adjacent. But even this occasional small ‘attachment’ to the grid may be eliminated in future by selective tree removal and the possible addition of more PV panels.

Is it all worth it? Bev and Roger think so! He scolds our various levels of government for not supporting solar power as much as some US states do. Subsidies to install the solar panels can amount to 75-80% of their cost in some jurisdictions. In Ontario, you just get the 8% PST rebated, as with a hybrid car. The new Standard Offer Program to “sell” power to the grid in Ontario sounds good: they will credit each kilowatt-hour fed from a residential solar installation into the grid with 42 cents. But the catch is, it is a credit, applied to your hydro bill. If you don’t use up your credit within a year, it disappears! Their attitude is: who needs hydro bills in the first place?

Off-Grid by Necessity

Judy and Cam Gardner are weekend and summer residents who also have deep roots in Tiny, having spent 25 summers at Cedar Point with their two children. Judy’s mother, now 87, has been there since childhood. Judy was formerly the proprietor of ‘Jude’s’ store in Lafontaine.

Four years ago, they purchased 50 acres on the ridge between the 18th and 19th concessions and had a log home built by Vince Ladouceur of Penetang. It is over 1 km from the grid, for which Hydro One wants an arm and a leg to run service. But they, too, are ‘green enthusiasts’ who want the satisfaction of being independent of the grid and as energy-efficient as possible.

Their two-bedroom home has two levels totaling just 900 sq. ft., but thoughtful design and a vaulted ceiling with gallery in the central portion make it appear much larger inside. Great attention was paid to the insulation of the mansard roof, and custom French windows are airtight.

The main heating in the home is an airtight wood stove, with a small propane stove in the basement to heat the home when unoccupied. Propane is also used for cooking and hot water heating. A high-efficiency forced-air propane furnace also resides in the basement, but mostly ‘collects dust’, according to Cam.

Energy-efficient lighting is used throughout, with compact fluorescent bulbs even in the candelabras. The whole electrical system is powered by two sources: an array of ten PV solar panels with an 1800 watt capacity mounted on stands behind the utility shed, and a 7.2 Kilowatt diesel generator. The solar power charges a bank of sealed batteries capable of storing power sufficient for about three days without sun. To prevent the batteries from being discharged below 60% capacity, which drastically shortens their 25-year life expectancy, the diesel generator is programmed to start up and take over.

A clever two-stage water system is used to reduce the power needed to pump water continually from the 400-foot deep well. There is a 3000 gallon underground cistern which the main pump fills using the diesel generator. Then, a small pump drawing from the batteries fills the normal indoor pressure tank.

What of the future? Judy and Cam are keen followers of the permaculture movement, which promotes all forms of ecologically sustainable activities. They are developing plans to install a swimming pool designed on permaculture principles, filtering its water through natural vegetation. Clearly, their home and grounds will develop organically!

Is It All Worth It?

In cold dollars and cents, ‘off-grid’ still has a long way to go. But the necessity to reduce our use of energy and the greenhouse gases that go with generating it make it imperative that we move in this direction, and SOON.

The technologies of solar energy are developing rapidly, and costs have fallen, much as with computers and electronic entertainment gizmos. At present, the payback for PV solar electricity is measured in decades, however.

But many actions you can consider are now very cost effective, and have immediate environmental benefits:

Reducing your energy consumption by conserving energy costs little or nothing and has an immediate payback. Use compact fluorescent lights, turn off everything you are not using, put TVs and stereos with remote controls on switchable power bars, so they don’t draw power when supposedly “off”. Insulate and weatherstrip everywhere you can.

Consider using wood as a heat source. Masonry heaters are the best, but few installers are available. Airtight heaters are relatively inexpensive and highly efficient.

Solar water heaters are now the most cost-effective household renewable energy source. If you have space for the panels and a clever plumber, you can use these to pre-heat your hot water tank and save significant amounts of electricity.

Solar electric panels (PV) cost about $4 per watt, and a full system installed with battery storage and inverter runs about triple that, or $12,000 per kilowatt. But new technologies are upon us; already the first panels that look like and install like shingles are on the market. In future, PV panels may just be a painted sheet of plywood.