Notice of Disconnection: Living off grid in Wisconsin

“Hi everyone.  We’ve decided to live off grid.  Goodbye to light and water bills, sudden power interruptions, etc…”
Remember those dreaded words in red ink, the final warning if you haven’t paid your bills for more than three months? Well, we’ve written our own notice of disconnection, and we are loving every minute of it, including the many challenges.

Living off grid is not for the faint of heart.  It entails sacrifice; awareness raised two levels higher than the typical zombie state, and a measure of bravado that you are the master of your own convenience-fitted destiny.  No more lifelines to the utility giants.  You’re on your own.

Doing this takes meticulous planning over time.   Honestly, as with everything else, necessity was the mother of invention in our case.  My husband wanted to build our home far from the road, deep within our property.  This entailed being about 1800 feet from the town grid, which would have cost us a fortune to connect to.  Being an engineer, he proceeded to design an independently functioning home.

Let there be light
People in the United States have this mistaken notion that off grid means no electricity.  Guests from Phoenix were coming over to stay at our house, and were warned by friends that there would be no electricity.  That is entirely possible.  After all, off grid simply means not connected to the utility line. So the arrangement could be anywhere from a dinner by candlelight and drawing water from a well arrangement to our sophisticated set-up.

Our journey to the light, literally, started at the point of basic necessities. We determined our basic requirements.  We would need a refrigerator/freezer, a washing machine, lights, TV, computers, a coffee maker and a water kettle. Here is where sacrifice comes in. Other heat generating equipment had to be given up because they consumed too much energy. Hair dryers were a no-brainer (I never use one), but we had a considerable argument over the dishwasher and clothes dryer, before I finally agreed.

Hot water is a must, but that was going to be addressed by another energy source; more on that later.

From this list, my engineer husband computed the daily consumption in terms of kilowatt-hours, and determined how many solar panels and storage batteries we would need. At present, we have 21 panels, laid out at a 45-degree angle on our roof.  According to my husband, this angle is meant to maximize sun exposure, given that our location on the globe is at a 45-degree to the sun.  Go figure. I am not an engineer.

The energy collected is stored in batteries, and then channeled into the house through an inverter. You need to be constantly aware of sun incidence.  It dips pretty low in November and December, at which time you might need to cut down on use, or attach a diesel run generator as back up, to re-charge the batteries. You also have to be checking the data panel everyday.  Sometimes, due to moisture or other reasons, the system can trip and switch off, ceasing the crucial energy collection during daylight hours.

In our year of living off grid, we’ve only been at a critically low level during the weeklong spell of overcast skies around Thanksgiving.  We didn’t have the back-up generator yet, so we resorted to using gas lamps for three days, and kept the TV and computers off.  Since installing a genset, we haven’t had to use it, ironically.  Still, it’s always good to have back up.

During summer, when the sun shines for more than twelve hours a day, the system provides enough energy to power even a window type air conditioner. We are always mindful of our use though, switching of all unnecessary lights, and not leaving the TV idly on during the day, just for sound accompaniment.

The scariest part of independent living is being on your own.  Like leaving the nest for the first time, you’ve got only your wits about you to stay afloat.  No more incessant calls to Meralco to repair the line and “be quick about it!”  Now is the time to hone your problem solving skills.

Planning is key in any new endeavor. We gathered the sun incidence averages for a year, and quickly saw that November and December would be critical. Our three days of darkness in November were caused by two converging factors. We missed a full day of collection during a sunny day because, busy are we were with our guests, we didn’t notice that the system had tripped again. Second, there was an unusual spell of overcast skies for about six days straight. Having decided that you will go solar, learn as much as you can about the system from your supplier.  When something arises, don’t panic. Just go back to the manual, and see if there is a DIY solution (like simply turning on the switch when it trips). In the worst-case scenario, you can call your supplier.

At first glance, it looks like the situation could be an engine for personal growth, at the very least.  You learn something new, and how to stand on your own, utilities-wise. But the real advantage of this setup lies in being independent not only of the solutions an entity like Meralco can provide, but also of the problems it creates.

In the recent weather disturbance in the United States east coast, a massive snowstorm dumped several inches of snow unseasonably early, in late October, when the leaves where still on the trees.  The trees became so heavy; they toppled over and brought down power lines, cutting off electricity in millions of homes.  In such a scenario, ours would have been the only house in the area with light. 

In this country with its perennial brown-outs (power outages in our Quezon City home are perpetually caused by a truck ramming onto a post on J.P. Rizal Ave., which is all the way across Katipunan Road in the next barangay, but which shares our area designation of Vice Grid 42), being off grid would make you the envy of your neighborhood.

After all these discourses on the finer points of living by solar power, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about cost.  I attended a presentation by some environmental science students of the Ateneo de Manila University last April 2011, and the price per watt for solar panels hovered around $2.80. I believe it has done a nose-dive in the past year, to about a third of the price. And it just keeps getting better!

Next issue is Part II: Rain, rain, come my way and “It’s hotter than hell in here”
By Victoria Mendoza Fritz

(Reprinted with permission from the Business World Online Edition, Mar. 16-17, 2012, Weekender (S3), pp. 1-2).