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I often get questions about our small off-grid solar power system. If you’re looking to go off-grid at some point and are curious about how much you really need, I hope our experience will help you figure it out. I’ll be breaking down our experience using our most frequently asked questions.
What We Run (and don’t run) on Our Small 1.14 kW Off-Grid Solar Power System
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Our current off-grid solar system specs (as of January 2020):
- 6 solar panels rated to produce 190 watts each = 1,140 watts of peak power production*
- 4 sealed lead acid AGM batteries wired to produce 500 amp hours at 24 volts
- MagnaSine MS-4024 4000-watt power inverter
- Morningstar TS-M-2 charge controller to control charge from panels to battery bank
- System installed by us in 2017
*A note about power production: The solar panels are rated to produce 1,140 watts at peak sun, but will actually spike up to 1260 watts in certain high sun conditions. “Cloud edge effect” and direct sun when the panels are at an optimal seasonal angle help this to happen.
What do we run on solar?
- Cistern Well Pump – 2000+ watts to start and +/- 1000 to run (see this post to learn more about our off-grid water system)
- Radiant heat circulation pumps (+/- 350 watts to run) (see this post to learn about our DIY radiant heat)
- Tankless on-demand propane water heater (150 watts)
- LG High-Efficiency Top Load Washer (varies between 0 and 550 watts depending on what it’s doing)
- Cuisinart food processor (+/-250 watts)
- Crockpot (100-300 watts, generally not used in the wintertime)
- iMac desktop (100-120 watts to run)
- Hair irons (about 250 watts)
- Clothing travel iron (up to 450 watts)
Smaller items we use everyday include:
- Macbook Pro laptops (+/- 35 watts to charge)
- iPhones and Kindle Fire (5-20 watts to charge)
- Small kitchen appliances like a Magic bullet, stick blender, hand mixer, etc. (typically around 50 watts each)
- Dyson v10 Absolute stick vacuum (30 watts to charge, runs on a battery)
- All LED lighting (roughly 5 watts each with each room averaging 3 bulbs apiece)
- Ceiling fans and box fans in the summer (+/- 30-50 watts each)
- Random little electronics like radios, oil diffusers, model trains (when they’re out around Christmastime), etc.
What do we NOT run on solar?
- STOVE (we use a Premier Gas Range with Electronic Ignition similar to this one; 9-volt battery, has no standing pilot light and no electronic controls)
- REFRIGERATOR – (we have a Unique 9 cubic foot Propane Refrigerator and Freezer, similar to this one at Lehman’s)
- CLOTHES DRYER (we use drying racks inside or the clothesline outside)
- AIR CONDITIONING (yet…keep reading)
- HEAT PUMP OR OTHER ELECTRIC HEAT (we run hydronic radiant heat and have a wood stove for heating)
- ELECTRIC WATER HEATER – We have a tankless propane water heater that only uses electricity to run the “brains”
Also of note, I own a hairdryer, but at 1600 watts I don’t typically use it. I usually air dry my hair and then use a flat iron or curling iron at 250 watts if I want to “do” my hair.
We also got rid of our cannister vacuum that used 1600 watts to run and got ourselves a battery-powered Dyson v10 Absolute stick vacuum that only uses 30 watts to charge. It’s made a huge difference to the cleanliness of our home since we feel good vacuuming even in times of low sun.
Why are these the appliances we choose not to run on electricity?
Because these are the biggest power users in any home. Anything with a compressor or heating element will use a tremendous wattage to run, typically 4000+ watts for items like stoves and dryers to 9,000-15,000+ watts for traditional heat pumps. The same goes for the power to run a geothermal system, which still has to use considerable wattage to run.
Instead, we either eliminated these loads (like the AC or clothes dryer) or shifted the loads to a propane source (like the stove and fridge).
But if we’re trying to be “green” why wouldn’t we go ALL electric?
Cost, mostly, but also reliability. As much as I like the thought of running EVERYTHING on solar there are some hard realities here.
Creating our small system cost us about $9,500 in 2017. For us to run everything on electric, we would have had to account for up to 10,000 extra watts of power, and that’s just for the things we HAVE. If we added an electric dryer that’s another 4000 watts. If you pile on traditional air conditioning it’s about 3500 watts, or electric heating would be an extra 15,000-25,000 watts or more, depending on specific appliance models and any starting watt surges.
To account for a total extra 25,000 watts, we’d need an inverter capable of SO much more than the 4,000 watts we have, plus a battery bank large enough to supply constant power, and a HUGE solar array to feed it all.
Not only that, but the sun is variable, and with a system of considerable size we would also need a rather large backup generator to power all of those electric appliances in times of low sun, like winter. Such a generator would likely be propane-based anyway, which would use more propane for backing up an entire house than it uses for the small loads we actually shifted to propane.
A system that large could have easily cost us $50-70,000+, in which case we would have been better off paying the local power company the $24,000 they quoted us to have a line run to our house.
But what about other “green” options?
Being “accidental hippies”, I would be remiss to omit the possibilities of wind and small hydropower, along with items like cob ovens, rocket mass heaters, solar heating panels, solar hot water, and biofuel. I love the idea of all those things, but they are not always practical in every situation.
Folks often suggest wind as to us as a supplement, but it is not well suited to our specific site, so it would make a poor addition at the time of this writing. We keep an eye on the changing technology in case it becomes a more viable option for us.
We will likely pursue some of the other green options during future projects, like solar space heating, though we still have much to learn about their best practices.
Truthfully, the “greenest” thing we could do is to minimize our overall power needs.
This is also the “greenest” thing you can do with basically anything in your life. We make our propane needs minimal by having appliances that only use fuel on-demand, or in the case of our fridge by having one that is half the size of the average American fridge. It uses about 1/4 gallon of propane per day.
There are many unexpected benefits to minimizing our needs. By having a smaller fridge we waste far less food. We can see at a glance exactly what we have and aren’t tempted to overbuy foods because we just plain don’t have room for them.
By not having a dryer, we save power AND extend the life of our clothes by air-drying them. Using radiant heat keeps dust and allergens from circulating throughout our home, as we have no ductwork of any kind. The woodstove helps us use a natural resource that is plentiful on our property.
In general, having a small house and few needs keeps us from over-consuming resources. We have less to replace over time and less to get rid of. We don’t need as many batteries or solar panels, both of which have their own environmental consequences.
Do we have plans to expand our off-grid solar system?
Even after considerations for keeping it small, we DO have plans to roughly double our current capabilities. Why?
First and foremost, we’d like a bit more wiggle room, especially in the wintertime when sunlight is at a premium. We’d love to run the generator a lot less.
We’d also really like to install a small mini-split ductless air conditioner at some point in the next few years. We’ve both lived without air conditioning before and know how to handle it. Own personal comfort isn’t so much the issue as it is ensuring a safe, inviting space for friends and family who come to visit.
Not that I wouldn’t love a nice cool house in the summer. But still.
We actually have a pretty good system down for keeping the inside temps under control. But I have to admit it would be nice to have relief on the worst days and to have a more hospitable home for our loved ones to gather in during the hot months.
Want to get started with solar? Here’s a good primer for beginners.
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