Log Cabin Self-Sufficiency: Important Facts That You Should Know About Off Grid vs. On Grid
‘Off-grid’ is defined differently according to individual people. When some people say they want to live off grid, they mean it in the sense of making their own renewable energy; others go the full hog and want to be completely independent and self-sustainable.
The dream of living off grid is now a lot easier to achieve than before due to the wide range and availability of products, however it can still be a costly option and is definitely not as easy as being grid tied (i.e. on grid).
This article will take you through off grid and grid tied pros and cons, and then delve a little deeper into off grid living and how to actually make it possible in your log cabin home.
An off grid home is completely independent from public utility services, generates its own electricity and has separate systems for water and sewage that are not connected to the grid.
In contrast, a home that is grid tied is connected to municipal water supply, sewage, electricity, gas and other similar utilities.
As of 2013, Home Power Magazine estimated that around 1.7 billion people in the world live off grid, including at least 180,000 families in America.
Why off grid?
Most people’s ambition to be off-grid stems from wanting independence. Being independent from public utilities means you are not subject to their rate increases, terms and policies and possibly blackouts.
Land that is not connected to the grid is usually much cheaper as not many people want the responsibility of being in charge of their utilities.
Having a utility line extended to a piece of land can be costly depending on how rural the area is. It can be more cost effective in some cases to set up off grid than have the line extended. However you must be careful making a decision based on this alone as setting up your off-grid system can be expensive and has ongoing costs.
Off grid systems are often modular, you can add and grow off-grid systems retrospectively as and when money or time allows you.
Generating your own energy and pumping your own water (amongst all the other things that come with living off grid) forces you to think more about usage and thus are usually very energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
The disadvantage of being off-grid
In some cases, being off grid can do more damage to the environment than good. For example some generators contain toxic lead acid and diesel generators produce greenhouse gas emissions.
To live off grid can be costly; you usually need lots of equipment, supplies, generators and batteries. Some of which need to be replaced every 5 to 15 years depending on the quality and type you get.
The initial outlay is high and maintenance is an ongoing cost and responsibility – it is not a simple case of putting up solar panels or wind turbines!
You will need at least a basic bank of batteries which can cost anywhere in the range from $1000 to $4000 and more!
A lot of energy can be wasted from transferring energy to the batteries and back again. According to EIA data, lead acid batteries are only 80-90% efficient in storing energy, and as they age they will become less efficient. This effectively means you will lose 10-20% of the energy you have generated.
You will probably need a back-up generator which can be costly in upfront costs, ongoing fuel and maintenance costs.
If your off-grid system fails at any time the carbon footprint of a fossil fuel backup generator is higher and less effective than utility companies.
Why on grid?
When you’re on grid, you won’t just run out of electricity if you leave your lights on by accident!
You can easily have dual energy supplies, by using on-grid and adding your own solar panels depending on where you live and local rules and regulations.
This is appealing because you can add them as and when budget allows, and any excess power which you generate can be sent back to the grid so you can credit it for use at a later date – some would argue this is much better than an off-grid battery system.
It is estimated that on-grid solar systems such as these will pay for themselves by offsetting utility bills in around 3-8 years.
Lots of states offer incentives to using solar panels which are connected to the grid.
The disadvantages of being grid-tied
If the grid power goes down, you have no electricity! However in most places in the United States, utility companies are very reliable and this happens rarely.
You have less of an incentive to be cautious with how much energy you use.
Living off grid in practice
If you have decided that having your log cabin completely off grid is for you, you will need to give a lot of serious thought as to how you will achieve this.
Below are some of the considerations you will need to think about.
Here you have a few options and with all of them you will usually need batteries and a backup generator:
- Solar power – photovoltaic solar panels are a great option for those of you living in a warmer climate with lots of sun exposure and they require little maintenance, however, they can be costly and it is not usually cost effective to power a whole home with just solar power.
- Wind turbines – if your area has good wind speeds, this may be a good option for your log cabin. You will have to take size into account if you go down this route, a 400-watt turbine which could probably power a few appliances, has around a 4 foot rotor, whereas a 10,000 watt turbine has a 23 foot wide motor. There are again, pros and cons with wind turbines. The obvious con is that it will only work if there is a breeze, this could be a pro depending on your area.
- Microhydro electricity – uses a source of running water to generate electricity. Energy Alternatives Ltd states “Our experience with micro hydro systems has demonstrated that water power will produce between 10 and 100 times more power than PV or wind for the same capital investment.” Obviously this method of generating energy requires you to have water running very close by to your log cabin.
You can also check out your states policies on renewable energy and get an idea of cost for solar panels – this will help you determine the right size of battery bank watts of solar panels and the solar charge controller you need.
If you do opt for solar panels, I would recommend you assess your piece of land for its solar efficiency.
You can go without electric if worst comes to worst, but you cannot go without water. It is essential to have a water source or a way of getting water to your log cabin.
According to the EPA, around 15 percent of households in the United States source their own water.
There are a few different options:
- Natural Springs
- A Well – they can be quite heavily regulated so make sure you use a licenced well driller.
- Rainwater Harvesting with a cistern
You can also look to explore off-grid water systems.
Sewage and Toilets
The most popular system used for sewage is a sceptic tank which will need to be emptied around once a year. Alternatively, you might just want to have a composting toilet. This is a great video on how composting toilets work and the benefits for the environment.
Showering in your log cabin
Showering off grid can be tricky for two reasons – firstly, water can be a scarce commodity, secondly, heating the water can use a lot of energy! To heat your water you can:
- Heat your water on a stove (the old school way!)
- Solar water heater
- Wood stove hot water heating system
- Use the electricity you have generated to heat the water
All the grey water has to go somewhere from your showers and washing up. You can use a system for drainage, or you can recycle your grey water. It will not be clean enough to drink but you can use it for washing and household tasks.
To recycle your grey water you can use reedbed filter systems, wetpark systems or distillation.
Heating your log cabin
You could use the electricity you have generated to heat your home, although this is probably the most expensive option.
An alternative and probably the most common is to use fire, in the form of a wood burning stove or similar.
Insulation will also play a big part so make sure you read how to insulate a log cabin.
If you are still not feeling quite ready to take the plunge into off-grid living, take a look at this!
This couple live off grid in a yurt and have made a fantastic video about their day to day lives and energy usage, collecting water, taking showers and more.
Do you have any tips you would like to share with our readers about living off grid? Are there any worries you have about making the shift to living off-grid? We would love to hear your thoughts and share our experience with you. Let us know in the comments below, or send us an email!