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10 Years Living Off-Grid - My Thoughts

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Last week we performed “major” maintenance on our Bergey wind generator. After seven years of operation the main bearing froze up and needed to be replaced - see how burned up it was below on right. Our friends and installers, Edwin, Pamela and Ray Falk, from Suntric completed this work on a beautiful sunny and nearly windless day. Focusing on the wind generator for the day caused some reminiscing and I felt those considering an investment in Renewable Energy might appreciate some of our thoughts.Burned bearing

Sarah Johnston and I decided to leave the grid behind when we built our home in 2002. As a matter of fact, we left a lot of conventional thinking behind as well. Thinking such as the need for a central heating system that burned hundreds of gallons of fossil fuels to heat our home. The need to energize and watch mindless commercial television. And a lot of the other “keeping up with the Joneses” attitudes so prevalent then and today. We felt we could live quite well using the sun for heat and to generate electricity, and indeed we are living very comfortably with all the modern conveniences we need, on an electric budget of about 3000 kWh a year. I say about 3000 kWh, because we don’t know or worry about the amount we produce; we just keep our batteries properly charged and live quite well. 

Wind mill going upWhile we live in a home that would fit nicely in many suburban neighborhoods and we have all the modern conveniences we need, we did not try to replicate a typical suburban home and lifestyle here at our Balance Point Homestead. We built a very energy efficient home, bought very efficient appliances, and consciously chose to use energy judiciously – for example we hang our clothes on dual linear solar dehydrators (aka clothes lines) rather than burn tons of coal to dry our clothes. See other details of the our homestead here.   

I shake my head when I hear about another 5 or 6 or 7 kW PV system going up on someone’s home. The unfortunate reality is that most “solar” homes that are grid-tied, even with a fancy new 7 kW system, use more electricity than they produce. The “average” American uses over 12,000 kWh a year! Our point is you can live very well on a lot less – we do very nicely on less than 3,000 kWh a year and that includes losses from the use of batteries. So, don’t put off investing in renewable energy until you can afford a system that will replicate your current usage. Instead, start reducing your current use of electricity. Start choosing to use less. Think about the asthma caused every time you flip a switch tied to the traditional electrical grid and think about investing in clean renewable energy instead.Windmill up

Many believe electricity is very efficient, but this is a myth. Grid generated and distributed electricity delivers only 35% of the energy used to your home. Most of the energy goes up the smokestack as wasted heat and a lot is wasted in the far-flung distribution system. Produce your own electricity locally and avoid all that pollution and waste.

Our system is made up of 2 kW of photovoltaic (PV) panels and a 1 kW wind generator. If you are going to be grid-tied, then you will probably do better using just PV instead of including a generator. The reasons are: there are few “good” sites for wind in our area; generators require more maintenance; and PV is very consistent, year to year. If you have a good wind site great, but be sure to have the site checked before you invest in a wind generator. If you are going to use batteries or be off-grid, then a wind generator may make sense because they can produce energy when the sun is not shining and this increases your chances of getting a charge during long cloudy periods.

If you can ground mount your PV array you will be able to adjust the tilt seasonally to maximize generation and you will be able maintain and clean your array more easily. Plus, a Vertical arrayground mounted array runs cooler, which increases production during warmer weather. See top picture where our array is set up for summer sun. See on the left where our array is currently tilted to 90 degrees. This maximizes solar energy by taking advantage of the light reflected off the snow and eliminates the need to clean off show!

Another important detail is to take time to learn about what maintenance your system needs and perform it on a regular basis. Batteries and generators require more maintenance and care than a strictly PV grid-tied system. If you neglect the basics you can ruin a system in just a few years. So budget the time and money and you will be very happy with how well your system will perform over it life.

Finally a major key to success is to work with an installer you trust to accurately estimate your loads and solar resource. It is important that you structure your system to your needs and goals, not buy more just because the sales guy thinks it is a good idea! I highly recommend Suntric Renewable Energy (, especially if you plan to go off-grid. Edwin has been off-grid for 25 years and has been operating Suntric for over 15 years. He and Pamela use everything they sell. Now this is a second generation business with Ray taking over day-to-day operations. Contact Ray at (315) 771-9930 to set up a site-visit.

My final words of advice are to reduce your usage before or as you invest in renewable energy; don’t try to take the American lifestyle off the grid! Good luck in your efforts to use less energy. Contact me if you have any questions or visit us on the solar tour.

Dave Smalley and Sarah Johnston have been living off the grid for over ten years on their Balance Point Homestead in Fultonville, NY. Contact Dave by comments to this blog or privately via Member Email.


Comments on "10 Years Living Off-Grid - My Thoughts"

  1. OEIC default avatar Dave Gibson January 15, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Wow Dave, now you’ve really got my head spinning.  I’m building a place in Bleecker this year and looked at going off-grid.  All the solar guys I talked to recommended a 7 KW grid-tie system.  You can actually manage with a 2 KW off-grid?

  2. OEIC default avatar daves January 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Glad I caught you before you went off the deep end! Really though what you should buy depends on what you want to do. Give me a call sometime and we can chat (922-5204) and I’ll share what we have done and how it has worked out.


    PS. Please don’t forget about the little Bergey that generates sometimes when the sun don’t shine!

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