Preface to this article: I don’t know about you but when someone says they’re living off grid my mind conjures up pictures of a shabby RV attached to some chunkily placed solar panels and scattered generators and batteries. The vision I see is something of a cross between trailer camping and the show Naked and Afraid. Our President, Martin Learn, and his wife June relocated to Southern California from Las Vegas circa 2011 and planted a homestead “off-grid” just outside of San Diego. Since I started working at HES Solar, I was impressed, intrigued and curious to see what his lifestyle was like and what his wife must be like if she was “that rugged”. That’s why when I was graciously invited to a barn raising at his property in Julian, I jumped at the chance not only to document his set-up for the purpose of this article, but to see with my own eyes, how living off-grid is done. My presumptions were ignorant at best, for when I arrived what I beheld was a beautiful home, where our intrepid leader stands to be the king of his own private mountain. My words can’t really do the property justice so please, read and view on….
-Lenora Lostaunau, MA – Communications Manager
OFF-GRID LIVING IN CALIFORNIA
In 2011, I, Martin Learn, owner of HES Solar, a San Diego solar installation company, built a house in Julian about a half mile from the electric utility lines. It would have cost over $100,000 to bring in underground electric lines and I felt this was prohibitive. A robust battery bank solar system cost about $30,000. After the Federal 30% Tax Credit, the cost was reduced about $21,000. After little consideration, I found the decision to start living off grid to be easy.
Besides, “It’s what I do, so I’m living what I preach, and living comfortably”, I thought. “I could see the costs of equipment dropping while quality and warranties are getting better.” In September of 2011, while the entire county was without electric power, I returned to our hilltop off-grid home to find my wife watching the news on our big-screen TV. Newscasters were saying to each other, “I wonder if anyone out there can even hear us?” I just broke out in the biggest grin.
We have a well 720 feet deep. With a little over 3 kW in photovoltaic panels (PV) on the wellhouse roof, we can pump far more water than we need (the property features three 10,000 gallon water tanks where the one closest to the house pressurizes the water for the home). We use propane for hot water, cooking, and the clothes dryer, and my wife and I bought energy efficient appliances (there are two large propane tanks located in the rear of the home). So we are living completely without an electric bill and without a water bill. We got lucky, but also my wife and I worked our whole lives putting this together.
You can’t make your own gasoline, but you can make your own electric power.
Living off the grid in Julian, CA
CONSIDERATIONS FOR OFF-GRID LIVING NEAR SAN DIEGO
Even when houses have fire sprinklers, without electricity, sprinklers don’t work at all. Many people only have telephones that require outside electrical power and they are surprised that they cannot even makes calls for help or to communicate with loved ones. Backup power systems not only save on electric bills, they also provide a tremendous safety element for the home and its occupants. In the course of the construction of our sustainable home, the local Fire Chief, Kevin Dubler, did the inspections. Chief Dubler said he believed that every house in the back country would be safer if they had a battery backup power system. In each fire that has threatened our property the electric power went out in the area. In some places power went out for several days. In fact, getting water in Ramona became a critical problem. Many people in Campo lost all their frozen food in a week without electric power, but not us, we were just fine.
People are increasingly comfortable with grid-connected solar systems. Solar electric systems have become one of the best investments people can make, according to a recent article in the Union Tribune. One of our customers even wants to take his house off-grid right in the center of San Diego. “It’s doable and makes economic sense. This is not what SDG&E wants us to hear about,” says Bill Powers, an electrical engineer.
San Diego County requires a generator for back-up of an off-grid solar system. My experience tells me this is logical and a good idea because cloudy days do happen. Solar systems produce less efficiently when it is cloudy or when panels are covered by snow. Still, with our abundance of sunny days, we produce more than enough energy to sustain our family activities throughout the year.
Even so, generators can be programmed to turn on when battery voltage gets down to a certain voltage level. They power house loads while charging up the batteries. It’s a very reliable system. In the past, I’ve had a couple of cheap small systems, and today I would not recommend trying to save money buying “cheap” import products. Especially for someone living off-grid, electric power is too important to compromise on reliability.
Off-grid systems do require some attention. Flooded lead acid batteries, like super heavy car batteries, need to have the fluid levels monitored and replenished occasionally. Maintenance-free AGM batteries improve the ease of operating such a system greatly. Lithium batteries are coming down in price, but are still very expensive. Some have all the best characteristics you would want in a battery bank including efficiency, long life, and little to no maintenance.
Over 50,000 homes in San Diego County have grid-tied solar systems, without batteries. Historically, almost all of these systems will turn off when the grid goes down. But now SMA, a solar inverter company, has an option in new inverters that will deliver 1500 watts of power from PV when the sun is shining. This is enough to power a refrigerator, lights, and a TV, and can save a freezer full of food. This option would be a midway step toward having a battery backup solar system.
Calculating the cost of owning a battery bank solar system must include the cost of periodic battery replacement. This should happen every five to ten years, depending on type of battery, how they are used, and how well they are maintained.
Having a generator and knowing how to use it is another midway step. Starting a generator is easy at first but becomes a bit trickier after a year or two of storage. Battery backup systems are not for everybody, but they are getting simpler to use and maintain, less costly, and more reliable every year. They can represent an insurance policy in fire prone areas against being without water and power. They also offer protection against future utility rate increases. Grid parity is here now, and, in fact, it is cheaper to generate your own electric power than to buy it from a utility company like SDG&E or PG&E.