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Water for Nothing and the Watts are Free

(With apologies to Mark Knofler & Dire Straits - but I just couldn’t resist it!)

In 2005 we decided to make our home in the middle of nowhere and two of the first challenges we faced were what to do for water and power. We have a large reservoir next to which we planned to build our homestead and I figured to use it for a water source, or put in a well. It didn’t take long to learn that unless you have a spring or stream in the mountains, the water around here really sucks. That’s the surface water. All the well water I’ve tried is worse. The solution has been to use rain water. We started by collecting rain water from the roof of the cabin by running the down spouts into plastic 55-gallon drums. The water was filtered and treated then put into an underground tank for the cabin. As we added buildings, we added barrels, or catch tanks. Next we built an insulated heated building to house three 2,500-gallon storage tanks, which gave us an additional roof to collect water from, as well as a storage system. The shop roof provided another source for water as did a large storage shed. Now that the new house is almost done, we picked up an additional source. All our buildings have steel roofs which not only provide some protection from wild fires, but also are great for collecting rain water. We placed 550-gallon catch tanks at the main house and the shop. So how much water does this system generate? On an average year, this system will generate sixteen thousand gallons of the best water you’ll every drink. We use about 1000 gallons of water per month. We don’t waste water, particularly in the winter time when harvesting water is more difficult, but we always have plenty to meet our needs. Water problem solved! So, what about electricity? The obvious answer was to call the power company and have them run a line from the county road. Yeah, right! Thirty-thousand bucks! - and that’s just to bring the line into the ranch. Then we would be paying per month for power. So, we opted to look into an off-grid power system. In the mean time, we used power inverters that ran off of our vehicles for more than two years while I researched, designed and built our power system. In September of 2007, I hit the switches and powered everything up. We had been without power (except for the small inverters and generators) for more than two years. It was such a treat to put away the oil lamps and just flip on the light switch! What’s it like living off grid? The Rolling Stone’s said it best: “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.” Living off grid is an “exercise in compromise.” We have a wind turbine and solar panels that feed a 1000-amp/hour battery bank which in turn powers a 240 VAC 4500 Watt 18-amp inverter. That’s a lot of power, and with a 25-mhp wind or full sun, or both, this system creates far more power than we can use. So much more that a large resistive dump load unit is required to “burn off” the excess power. If it’s cloudy or at night, with no wind, we rely on the battery bank. But even a 1000-amp/hour bank has a limit. If you go below 50% of battery capacity, it shortens the bank’s life. So on what we call “gray days” with no wind or sun, we keep the battery system charged with a small (3200 watt) gas generator. We run a large (23 cu. ft.) deep freezer on a timer that comes on at daylight and goes off at night. The refrigerator, other appliances and heat are all propane powered. Nothing is plugged in or left on unless it’s in use. All of our lighting is with LED bulbs, which we have found to be superior to both CFL and incandescent bulbs. It takes a lot of discipline for it all to work, but after living with our own power system for almost eight years, we are always astounded when we visit someone and see how much power the average family just simply wastes - often without realizing it. So what’s the bottom line? We have no monthly electric bill. We use about $300.00 worth of gasoline a year for the “grey days.” I have an additional larger solar array that I will install soon. That will reduce generator use by about 50%. We spent (including the new array) $24,000 to build the system, plus my time. So, the day I hit the switch we spent far less than the cost of bringing power from the grid. We enjoy far greater reliability than with commercial power, and power outages don’t exist for us. Or as Jackley says “what’s a power outage?” So, the system is very reliable. All the components are “off the shelf” and easily replaced and all buildings are wired to code. We can operate any electrically powered device as long as we pay attention to the amount of power being generated by the system. The downside issues? I am our power company. If something in the system quits working, I have to fix it. The only major maintenance item is servicing the bearings in the wind turbine on 7-8 year intervals. I designed the tilt-up tower to withstand whatever Montana weather can dish out. It’s what my dad would have called “hell for stout.” When buying appliances or items that use electricity, we have to investigate how much power that item will use. If it’s a “power hog” we do without it. We spend about $1,800.00 per year for propane, mostly for heat. We heat a large shop, several outbuildings, and the house and cabin, all of which are well insulated. Off grid living is not for everyone. The fact is most folks are way too spoiled. We have learned to live within the operating limitations of our power system and it takes a certain amount of “work” to do so. We know the wattage consumption of every electrical device we own, and how much power is available to run them at any given time. My engineering and construction background made it possible for me to design, build and to maintain our system. All that said, after living for 2 ½ years without power, we had no problem adjusting to our power system, and we can’t think of any reason we would want to go back to the grid! So I guess the Stones really did get it right!

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