Our Solar Adventure
Heidi overseeing the electrical work with Darrin and Kuno.
Our Solar Adventure
For some time we have talked about going off-grid. Nova Scotia Power is pricy and we really wanted to have more control. We looked into different forms of off-grid power: solar, wind, hydro, generator...they all have pros and cons, and all have hefty up-front costs.
At the beginning of our adventure, we were looking for a piece of land or an old homestead to buy and build our own farm. We had dabbled in chickens and decided we wanted more, so we put our house up for sale and started looking. We couldn't afford to own two properties, so when our house didn't sell, we couldn't buy anything else. We were discouraged but held on to our dream. Then we remembered something our Pastor had told us once. He said that we need to use what we have been given before Adonai will give us more. We prayed about this, and decided that we would use the property and the house He has given us now, use it to the fullest, expecting to get more when the time was right.
During the winter and spring of 2014, in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada, there had been some extreme weather. A very cold winter and the early arrival of hurricane season when Albert hit parts of the Maritimes. We heard lots of stories of people losing thousands of dollars of food from their freezers when the power went out. A friend of ours had just stocked her freezer with meat, meds for her animals and other supplies that must remain frozen, all of it lost because her generator didn't work. We started to think about the stored vegetables, beef, chicken and soon to be added goat meat that we would lose if we lost power for several days at a time. We felt that it was time to find an alternative source of power.
Our 1/5 acre farm is in a very tight neighbourhood. We have houses all around us and we are very close to the road. We knew that wind power was out of the question and we don't have a river for hydro power. We decided to look into solar power, with a diesel generator back up (more on the generator in another entry). We started some research online and contacted some Maritime companies dealing in solar power.
We spoke with the owner of a company called Green Lizard, Kuno Kuenze. We decided to have him come and give us an estimate. We soon discovered that an estimate for solar power is more involved than we were expecting. First, Kuno installed power monitors on the appliances that we wanted to put on solar. The monitors were in place for about a week to determine how much power was consumed by that appliance. We decided to test our fridge, two freezers and our water pump. He also looked at our power bills from the last year to determine the amount we used for the whole house. Once the tests were completed, Kuno determined the size of the system we needed to meet our needs.
We were a little surprised by the price, to say the least. Kuno was honest with us and told us that we really needed to cut back on our consumption to be able to put the whole house on solar. He made some changes to the plan to include just the appliances tested and the water pump, along with a few plugs and lights in the basement that are not huge power consumers. He came back to us with a lower price but still more than we had hoped. We crunched the numbers and decided that the investment now, was worth the savings later. We had a line of credit available to us and gave Kuno the go ahead for the project.
The first thing that needed to be done was to shingle the roof. The shingles needed to be replaced anyway, and Darrin didn't want to have to shingle around the solar panels later. Next, the panels needed special bracing to put them at the correct angle to capture the most sun. The front of the house is south facing so it was perfect for the most daily sunlight. Darrin had them custom made from aluminum and installed them himself.
The wires needed to be fed down through the roof to the basement where the batteries and electrical box was going to live, so we used a PCV pipe and our laundry chute that was directly in line with the batteries. In the basement we have six huge batteries which, when fully change, will provide enough power for three days of inadequate sunlight. We also have a back-up to NSPower, in case we have inadequate sun, to charge the batteries as well.
So, now we are set up for going partially off grid with solar power. We have a cold fridge, two frozen freezers, running water, and a few plugs to charge cell phones and our laptop. With an extension cord we can wash laundry on a sunny day by plugging the washer into one of the solar plugs. We can also watch TV if we wanted to but only in our bedroom which is also in the basement. With our wood cook stove, we can prepare our meals and it is hooked up to our hot water tank so we have wood-fired hot water as well. Before going off grid, we will be building a "winter kitchen" in the basement to make food prep easier and to have a few small appliances to use on sunny days. We have been collecting oil lamps and candles to light our way in the dark evenings, too.
For the last couple of months we have been practicing being off grid. Using the wood stove to cook some meals, turning off lights as much as possible and putting on sweaters instead of turning on the oil furnace. We have all made some changes and we soon will be ready to turn the power off.
What has been the payoff so far? Since moving to solar for our fridge, freezers, water pump, as well as hanging 90% of our laundry rather than using the dryer, we saw our NSPower bill drop by about 40%. When we turned off the water heater and started using the wood stove exclusively for heating our household water (which is scalding hot, by the way), our power bill dropped by another 25%. That is a total drop of almost 60%!! Our plan is to put the extra money back into the line of credit to pay it off quicker, compared to just making the minimum payment. At that rate, the LOC will be paid off in nine years. Since the panels and batteries have a 10 year warranty, it is a sound plan. Of course, we would like to pay it off faster, but as long as it pays for itself, it is worthwhile.
We will talk more about the backup generator, the winter kitchen and the wood cook-stove, as well as weekly updates about our time off-grid when that happens. Stay tuned....more to come.