These days Energy Independence is a big thing. We use too much power, too much gas, and too many resources to drive our everyday lives. That means that methods to reduce the amount we spend, and the amount of energy and resources we consume are becoming more and more attractive. For many people going ‘off-the-grid’ is the ultimate goal, disconnecting yourself from all outside resources and building a home that is completely independent and self contained. If that is your goal, you have to investigate the three basic requirements of any home; power, water, and waste removal.
The first on that list, power, is arguably the most important of the three. Almost everything else becomes much easier if you have the ability to generate power. If you want to run your LCD TV, your laptop, charge your phone, or run a full waste disposal system or have anything more advanced than a hand-pump well, you need power. Like there are three major things a home needs, for power generation, there are three major types of power generation, Solar, Wind or Hydro-electric, which one you use will depend greatly on your location, and your property.
First, and most commonly used these days for energy independence are Solar Panels. These handy devices have now become affordable for most people looking to change their system and become energy independent. The requirements for a Solar system are relatively simple, most solar systems’ power generation numbers come based on a south facing roof, with five hours of direct sunlight per day on the surfaces. As you might guess, this isn’t always possible in some regions. Places where direct sunlight is rare might have to plan for larger solar systems, or for a different method of power generation. Prices for solar systems are also going down, as more companies find cheaper, more effective methods of producing solar panels. Solar generation is also relatively low maintenance, as most manufacturers give a 25-30 year warranty, and the only other piece involved is a converter, which also only requires replacement every 15 years or more. Solar panels do eventually drop off in power generation, but you can expect to see only about a 10% power generation drop during the warrantied life of a solar panel.
So let’s say you live in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, along the coast. Your truly sunny days are rare, but you have windy days as much as 330 days a year. For you, the option of a home wind generator might be a better option to fulfill your power generation needs. For an off Grid wind generation system, you are going to have a battery-based system. Your wind generator will have the turbine itself, a charge controller, a battery bank, and a dump-load device to help manage the irregularities involved with wind power. These systems are more mechanically complicated then a solar system, but they have the potential to generate and store much more power in a shorter amount of time. These systems are also, unfortunately, not cheap. A wind powered system will set the average home back thousands of dollars, and since there are mechanical components involved, also likely will require more diligent and expensive maintenance, but with proper care you can expect a wind generator system to function with minimal interference for upwards of 20 years. Due to the power storage ability of having a bank of batteries, the power delivered to the home can actually be steadier then a solar system, even when the wind system is not running at full capacity.
There is also a growing market for home-hydro electric power. If you live near a river, or even a largish stream, you potentially have an untapped power source there with a system based around Microhydro electric generators. Out of the three common forms of power generation, this is also the most expensive, and time-consuming to set up. Why is that? Because with a hydro-electric generator, you have to divert water out of your water source, pipe it through a turbine, and then back out so it rejoins the main water flow. This brings in potential environmental impact concerns, plus it potentially requires significant construction on your property. That said, Microhydro electric generators work very much like wind-powered systems, but without the uncertainty of the vagrancies of weather. As long as you have consistent flow (and you should measure that flow during the lowest part of the year) you have power generation. Like wind-power though, most often Microhydro generators feed into a battery system that then connects to home power. These generators also generally run for 25 years or more, but due to silt buildup, and other issues, hydro generators also have a harder and more frequent maintenance cycle.
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/ge_bib/welcome.htm Has several guides on the different power systems, the drawbacks, and other concerns regarding the major off-grid energy systems.
So we’ve solved the power issue, that leaves us with two more, Water and Waste. Water is probably the simplest thing to investigate next, because you require at least one source, and there are usually only two places you will get water these days, a well, or a river. Well is the most common, non-municipal water supply. $10-15K will get you a well, a pump, and a general water system that you will find on millions of homes in America today. These pumps do require power though, unless you wish to use a hand system in order to feed your water. River water is exactly that, and if you have an appropriate feed system, you can potentially draw your water directly from a river or spring source. In both cases, you can supplement your water with catch cisterns, designed to collect rainwater. In all three off-grid water sources, you will want to take care filtering your water. Untreated or ‘greywater’ is useful for many things, but most naturally sourced water requires filtration before it is potable.
The third major concern going off the grid is waste removal. Waste removal is always an issue, because we do not want any possible infection or contamination in our groundwater and our soil. For homes with no sewer service, septic systems are the simplest solution; as the system manages organic waste quite ably with little maintenance beyond the addition of RidX or other septic treatment systems. Other forms of waste that cannot go in the septic system can either go into a compost system, or a furnace for substances that just will not degrade in a natural composting settings. Septic systems will range from $5,000 to over $20,000 depending on the system and style you choose, a good composting system can be free, but specific devices used for composting can cost as little as $100. Furnaces, as separate from a fireplace system can range from the hundreds, to thousands of dollars depending on how much waste you expect to incinerate.
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