Our Off The Grid Solar System

by Ron – author of  Off Grid and Free-My Path to The Wilderness  

This is a follow up to a reader’s question I received from a previous post. As a reminder, my wife and I are the couple living alone 100 miles in the Canadian bush. Back around 1980, when I first started on my off-grid journey, both money and experience were in short supply. One might say I was young and clueless. Nonetheless, I set out to homestead in northern Maine and I outfitted my cabin with an off grid setup which was so small it bordered on the absurd. I had one small solar panel, small charge controller and a car battery. I planned to power a car radio and tiny TV.

I had what you would call a chronic power shortage. In lieu of the electric lights, I used kerosene oil lanterns for many years. I endured that nonsense for quite awhile and then I finally added a couple of small solar panels I built myself from scratch. I also bought 2 marine deep cycle batteries and added a few 12VDC lights. There, that should improve things.

Wrong! I still had a chronic power shortage. Very little improvement! Those panels and deep cycle batteries helped a little but northern Maine is a battleground when the seasons change and there are some long stretches of cloudy, rainy weather. Even with a cheap generator and battery charger, in my 20 years of homesteading in Maine, my setup was never a satisfactory arrangement. But the entire experience was a terrific learning tool and one thing I learned was how much power gadgets consume.

When we made the big move to the wilderness of Canada, I vowed we would up our game and do it right. The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness:

“When engineering the system, I had to factor in a multitude of variables. What did we want to power? How much power was consumed by each device, and how long was each device expected to run in a day? How many days of battery storage did I want? Did I want a 12VDC, 24VDC, or 48VDC system? Did it make sense to power some things direct from the batteries? So many decisions. I began by making a list of all the appliances and gadgets we needed to power. I also considered what possible items we might want to buy for the homestead in the future and made an allowance for those things.

Next, I estimated how many hours each day the item would run and then added a large fudge factor. I calculated battery size so that we would have lots of power even if the sun didn’t shine and/or the wind didn’t blow for a lengthy period of time. Because nothing is 100% efficient, I needed to take that fact into account. So, for example, if I drew 100AH (amp-hours) out of the battery,
it might take 110AH of solar/wind power to recharge the battery. This gives you an idea of the decisions that need to be made for any off-grid system.

You may wonder how the sun actually powers the house. Solar panels produce direct current (DC) voltage, a form of energy batteries can accept. In effect, the solar panels recharge the batteries. We have a couple of appliances that can run directly off the DC from the batteries, but the majority of our appliances run off of standard 120VAC.

The inverter, an electronics box, enables our batteries to power all the electrical items we use on a daily basis which require alternating current (AC). It takes 24VDC battery voltage and converts it to 120VAC, so we can function like any typical house. Sensing when the generator is running, the inverter then becomes a powerful charger to replenish our batteries.

We flew in and installed almost a ton of deep cycle batteries. Because I never want to fly in and manhandle 300-pound sets of batteries again, I baby them and allow only a 20% discharge before fully recharging them. Although the batteries are made for a deep discharge, meaning you can drain much of the power out of them before recharging back to full, we prefer to shallow discharge only, and, as a result, we anticipate a much longer life expectancy before they need to be replaced. They are still going strong after 16 years. Of course, proper maintenance is essential too. Keeping the battery tops and terminals clean of acid and encrusted sulfate is a priority, as is keeping them full of distilled water. A little care will go a long way towards battery longevity.”

That battery bank I mentioned in the book has a 1576 AH (amp hour) capacity. The batteries feed a 2400W Trace modified sine wave inverter. A Trace power center has the Main battery disconnect and solar charger among many other functions. A Trace auto-transformer is wired in so that we can take full advantage of the 6000 Watt Diesel generator’s output. When the generator runs, the 240 VAC output is fed to the the transformer which steps it down to 120 VAC. The inverter can sense when the generator is running and then it becomes a battery charger. An 800 Watt solar array on the roof and a 2000 Watt wind turbine matched to a Midnite controller/Clipper rounds out the electrical systems. We’ve come a long way from the days of kerosene lanterns and tiny TV.

I’d like to bring you up to date on a personal note. It was my intent to participate more on the discussions and perhaps throw a few more posts in as well. But I’m totally overwhelmed here.

We have lived in the wilderness for 17 years. It has been the pinnacle of my life. However, we are about to make a life changing transition. Life has been one big adventure for us and we have one more adventure to pursue before we hit the checkout counter. April 1, we make the move to Nova Scotia and will be starting from scratch again. We hope to build a new homestead on or very close to the ocean.

I wrote to MD explaining our circumstances and that I was sorry I wouldn’t be able to participate as I had intended. He was enthusiastic about our move and he wondered if I might make some update posts now and then.

At this point, we are uncertain where we will park ourselves. We do know an expedition tent will be home again for the foreseeable future. We used an expedition tent for 4 months while we built our wilderness home. I don’t know what Internet arrangement we will have, so I can’t promise when I will be able to make a post but I would be delighted to give you an occasional update to let you know how we are progressing.

Ron and his wife currently live 100 miles in the Canadian wilderness on a remote lake. As part of the back to the land movement that originated in the 70’s, they have spent their adult years living the homestead dream. You can follow and contact Ron at https://www.facebook.com/offgridandfree.mypathtothewilderness or http://www.inthewilderness.net/

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Comments

  1. Old Counrty Boy says:

    Thank you for the information you provided. Best wishes in your new endeavor.

  2. Jesse Mathewson says:

    Ron, first I will say again how much I enjoyed your book, I rarely by paper back unless it is deemed necessary/acceptable for shelf/ yours made that list!

    As always your very well worded (I need lessons) articles and writing is appreciated. I have nothing contrary with the article, I find it sums things up well. I would add that individuals really need to know declinations and days of sun- this will do much to assure or ensure ones efficacy in producing beneficial power using solar.

    Regardless, as always thank you. Amazing job and love your work! I make notes in some books, yours is one, this is a positive thing as the notes are additions to based on your own thoughts 🙂 makes a nicely completed or more inclusive tome as it were

  3. Ron, best wishes to u & ur loved ones in ur move to Nova Scotia. I imagine that such a move would be a huge undertaking, given ur remote location in N Alberta. Makes me wonder if u’re moving to be closer to family. I hope u’re able to sell ur home in N Alberta. It may be fascinating if the home buyer would share why they decided to move to a remote place in N Alberta, but they may prefer not to share that. At any rate, best wishes.

  4. Does anyone have an email address for Ron?

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