Sunday, February 6, 2011
Having lived off the grid for over ten years, running the gamut from completely non-electric to a fairly technical hybrid solar system, I have come to understand the complexities of real survivability in an extended grid-down situation.
The more complex our off-grid system has become, the more convinced I am that the simpler your system, the more viable it will be long term. I have also realized that the more components that make up your system, the more fragile and prone to failure it is. If any one system ceases to function, or function properly, it will affect the entire system. Our photovoltaic system is a perfect example. Our solar panels work wonderfully, however, the first day we installed our charge controller, it malfunctioned. We installed a new charge controller, which worked perfectly, but about a year later, one of our two inverters quit functioning properly. Without both inverters, we were no longer able to produce 220 volts, making pumping water from our well impossible, without a generator. We have had generators fail, batteries lose cells and wind turbines fall out of the sky. Our system is incredibly vulnerable. If any one component fails, our entire system fails. If you look to the power grid to provide your household electrical needs, your vulnerability is increased tenfold. Our system, however primitive, has only five components capable of failing. The power grid has hundreds.
Ultimately, you can spends thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on alternative energy, and you will still be quite vulnerable to complete system failure. Looking to our forefathers for inspiration will yield a much more sustainable lifestyle that will provide our families with not just the ability to survive for the long term, but the tools and knowledge to flourish. When considering a grid-down lifestyle, you may want to consider old fashioned alternatives versus high-tech options. Here are some things that Sir Knight and I have discussed:
1. Water: Gravity fed is always optimal, of course, but when that is unavailable, low tech options are best. Hand pumps for your well, water filters for ground water and water catchment systems are low tech, practical options. When you rely on two inverters (like we do), if one fails, you are out of luck. If you rely on your generator (like we do), running out of fuel or having your generator break down will really ruin your day.
2. Food Storage: Root cellars are great! They are practical, time tested, reliable methods of storing food for the long term. Keeping canned goods in a root cellar will increase their shelf life and your root crops will last all winter in their most nutritious state. You can keep many foods fresh longer in a root cellar. They require no power and very little maintenance. Everyone should have one!
3. Food Storage II: An ice house would be an incredible, wonderful luxury. With a little pre-planning, it is very attainable. Milk, butter and other dairy products will keep well, even in the heat of summer, in a well insulated ice house. Your lemonade and iced tea would actually have ice in it. Ice cream wouldn't be an unheard of treat.
4. Food Storage III: Creating a "winter refrigerator" is a convenient, do-able idea. Sir Knight plans on cutting holes in the back of our well insulated refrigerator and plumbing it to the outside, so that, when it is cool in the winter, we have the ability to open the holes in the back of the refrigerator and let the outside air cool our food. Low tech and non-electric, it is a wonderful food storage option for the cooler winter months.
5. Hot Water: Plumbing a hot water tank into your wood cookstove provides free domestic hot water. It too, is low tech, using only plumbing, not gas or electricity, just natural convection.
6. Waste Management: Everyone, and I mean everyone, should have an outhouse! Very few folks will be able to keep up with a water supply capable of running a toilet. An outhouse is a very sanitary method for dealing with the call of nature. It would be by far less expense to build the Taj Mahal of outhouses than it would be to have an alternative energy system capable of running basic plumbing.
7. Lighting: Having a number of high quality kerosene lanterns and a supply of fuel, having candles and knowing how to make them, or utilizing a very simple 12 volt solar system (not requiring inverters) are preferable to a solar system like ours, that requires inverters, huge battery banks and charge controllers.
All said and done, we have learned a huge amount in our off-grid adventure. One of the most valuable lessons has been "the simpler, the better". We will keep our off-grid system, however, we will make a concerted effort to simplify. Sir Knight is collecting all of the cables necessary to rewire our system to bypass the charge controller and inverters, if need be. We are planning our root cellar and ice house. An outhouse is on the books. We have been stocking up on wick, fuel and spare parts for our kerosene lamps and lanterns. Redundancy is good, but simple is better.