An off-grid home setup in the mountains

The idea of living off the grid has become increasingly popular in recent years. In fact, according to one estimate, nearly 180,000 families in the US are entirely off-grid, and that number continues to increase. Technology and rising interest in shipping container homes, tiny homes, and other minimalist housing alternatives allow families interested in sustainable lifestyles to move to off-grid living. 

This more sustainable way of life provides several benefits, such as reduced carbon footprint and financial independence. But what does it really mean to build and live in an off-grid home? And are these homes net zero? Here is all you need to know to decide if an off-grid home is right for you.

What Is an Off-Grid Home?

An off-grid home is an autonomous and self-sufficient house that is not connected to public utilities, and can meet its natural resources requirements through alternative sources. For instance, some homeowners use rainwater catchment systems attached to cisterns for their water needs. Greywater recycling systems and autonomous septic tanks or composting toilers also minimize dependency on municipal sewer systems. 

Thanks to net metering policies, homeowners are credited with their utility providers for the renewable energy they produce and direct to the grid.

An off-grid, tiny home setup in the mountains

With the increasing availability of renewable energy technologies and solar panels, many individuals believe off-grid houses are those that produce their own energy. Thus, it is imperative to mention that a large percentage of the 1.3 million solar panels installed across the US stay connected to the grid. 

However, the truth is that off-grid homes mostly have a solar battery bank to store the energy. Since there’s no sunlight at night and wind patterns can be erratic, homeowners can use a battery bank to store their energy for round-the-clock use. However, the amount of energy available depends on what’s stored in the battery bank.

A homemade solar power battery bank
A homemade solar power battery bank is used to store the energy off-grid homes harness from solar panels. Courtesy of Solar Power World

Since off-grid homes don’t depend on public utilities, off-grid homeowners need to be more dedicated to their property. One example is that off-grid homes in rural areas generally don’t have municipal garbage pickups, meaning homeowners need to reduce waste, compost, and identify accessible recycling facilities. 

Usually, homeowners of off-grid homes use sustainable living strategies to maximize the efficiency of their houses. For example, lack of dependence on municipal sewer systems can help decrease the negative impacts of stormwater and contaminated water leaving the property, but also simultaneously provide a source of irrigation and nutrition for food production and backyard gardens. 

Can Energy-Efficient Off-Grid Homes be Net Zero?

With a rising interest among homeowners to reduce their carbon footprint, you probably have come across other terms that can be easily confused with a net-zero home. But are energy-efficient off-grid homes net zero? Or is it possible that energy-efficient off-grid homes be net-zero? To answer these questions, we first need to take a look at what net-zero homes actually are. 

Net-zero homes are meticulously built to produce at least as much electricity as they use within a year. They generally are connected to the grid, so they can tap into traditional power sources if required. However, they will produce sufficient energy to pay it back in kind. Since they are connected to the grid, we cannot classify net-zero homes as off-grid homes. 

Thus, a net-zero home is not an off-grid or zero energy home, which aren’t connected to the power grid. Another popular misconception is with energy-efficient homes. Even though net-zero homes might be energy-efficient, they don’t always have to be energy-efficient, as long as the house produces sufficient energy to meet its needs. 

Is It Possible to Insure Off-Grid Houses?

Off-grid houses are becoming increasingly popular. As a result, insurance companies, banks, and other major financial institutions now offer specialized insurance plans to people and families who live off-grid. For example,  Donegal Insurance Group of Marietta and some other insurance providers offer a 5% discount on their premiums to homeowners in Pennsylvania who go off-grid with geothermal or solar panels. 

Powering an Off-Grid Home

Powering an off-grid house is probably the biggest challenge that comes with living in an off-grid home. Thankfully, solar panels and other renewable energy technologies are comparatively affordable now, and battery storage technology is also getting more efficient. 

You need to know how much energy you need and how much energy your batteries can store. You can use this free and straightforward off-grid solar calculator that allows homeowners to determine the right photovoltaic system size. 

To complete your off-grid electricity system, you need to purchase an inverter along with a battery storage tank. Home battery storage is usually the least durable and most costly component of an off-grid electric system.

Hybrid solar hydropanels installed on a rooftop
Hybrid solar hydropanels can be used to collect both solar power and drinking water simultaneously.
Courtesy of InHabitat

However, you can invest in a hybrid wind and solar system or a residential micro-hydro system to limit the required battery storage size. In addition, micro-hydro systems and wind turbines can produce electricity throughout the day. This way, your system can produce electricity at night even when there’s no sun. Continue reading to find out more details about these options. 

Off-Grid Home Batteries

Battery storage systems for solar panels and other kinds of renewable residential energy systems are usually the costliest part of the system. Their lifespan ranges from 5 to 15 years. Considering this timeframe, you will have to replace the battery system one to three times to match a solar photovoltaic system’s 25 to 30-year lifespan. Tesla Powerwall II, widely known as one of the top solar batteries in the market, costs approximately $7,000 and comes with a 10-year warranty. 

On the other hand, the LG Chem RESU 6.4EX storage system is a lithium-ion battery with 9.8 kWh and is priced at around $6,500. 

Wind

You can check your local wind speeds to determine if wind turbines are a good fit for your off-grid house. However, keep in mind that it’s more costly to set up wind turbines than solar systems. Plus, wind turbines also require more space.  

Micro-Hydro

If you have water on your property, you can consider using it to generate electricity. Which can be expensive, but it’s very long-lasting and responsive. Such a setup is perfect for houses located on a hilly site that has access to running water. 

Non-Renewable Energy

Many people want to make sure their energy is renewable. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible. For instance, you might not have the initial investment required to set up an off-grid system. Thus, you might have to depend on propane for heating water and cooking. 

Meeting Water Requirements in an Off-Grid Home

Along with power, you will also have to think of getting water to your off-grid house. If you use a natural source, such as a river or a stream, you must ensure that it’s available year-round. Also, think about how you are going to filter the water. 

Wells

An excellent solution for country homes is water from a well. Wells can supply water throughout the year and should last for 30 to 40 years, if not more. You can use electricity to extract the water from the well or a hand pump, that will surely help you save costs! Unfortunately, Wells can be pretty costly to install and are typically highly mineralized. 

Rainwater

Collecting rainwater is an easy way to meet your water requirements. You can use gutters and roofs to channel the water into barrels. You can purify the water in the barrels to make it fit for human consumption or just use it to feed animals and water plants. 

Water Tank

If you want a short-term solution to store water while you set up your off-grid house, you should consider using a water tank system to store water brought in from off-site. Tank systems can be expensive and time-consuming and won’t work as a long-term solution, as it generally means depending on the public or municipal source. 

Off-Grid Houses and Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency becomes a more pressing issue in off-grid homes than in traditional homes that use power from an energy company. 

Consuming too much energy in an ordinary house will only lead to high electricity bills. However, in an off-grid home, the same situation can lead to a blackout until more power becomes available, which is less than an ideal situation. 

As mentioned above, the first thing you need to do is calculate and plan your energy needs carefully and design an effective off-grid system to meet your power needs.

An energy-efficient off-grid house will allow you to save money when sizing your renewable energy system, which will put less load on your battery storage system. Alternative off-grid home appliances like refrigerators, solar appliances, and cooktops are designed to use less energy while still providing the comforts of contemporary homes. 

A photovoltaic and hydropower system in a field used to power an off-grid home

Even though you can source low-energy appliances for off-grid homes at houseboat and photovoltaic stores, here is a list of off-grid house appliances that you can consider:

Green Energy Innovations DC Refrigerators

These appliances use DC energy, meaning they can connect directly to the battery system. Thus, they will help you avoid the energy cost required to convert to AC electricity with an inverter. 

Wood Stoves

The US Department of Energy says that cooling and heating account for nearly 48 percent of the energy use in a typical US home. Thus, this is one of the most significant energy expenses. Using a wood stove for home heating can lower your energy need. 

Induction Cooktops and Stoves

Off-grid houses mostly don’t depend on natural gas or propane offered by public utilities. Even though several electric ovens and stoves consume large amounts of electricity, induction cooktops and stoves are some of the most energy-efficient options for your cooking requirements. For instance, Summit Appliances provides various induction cooktops with energy use as low as 1,800 watts. 

Drawbacks of an Off-Grid Home

The discussion above might have made you think that going off-grid would be a smart financial move. But that’s not entirely true, as off-grid homes do come with their own set of drawbacks. Some of these drawbacks are: 

Usage Spikes

Your water and power generation system might be perfect to meet your regular day-to-day needs. However, you might exceed these limits at some points in the year, especially if you have guests over. 

Lifestyle Changes

Your system is generally sized according to your energy requirements at the time of installation. Nevertheless, the addition of a family member or any changes in your routine can modify how you consume energy during the day, perhaps requiring a system upgrade. 

Recurring Costs

As you own the equipment, you will bear the financial cost of routine maintenance and component replacements. If you have a generator, you will also need to pay for the fuel costs. 

Last Word

We hope this article helped you get a comprehensive insight into what off-grid homes are, how to power them, how to make them energy-efficient, the drawbacks associated with them, and what makes them different from net-zero homes.

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