Last weekend, we started the installation of an off-grid electrical system at my cabin. LED lights were installed that run off lithium batteries which are charged by a solar generator. We also received most of a solar and wind system, which will be installed over the next couple of weekends.
Longtime readers and former radio show listeners will recall that I have this lovely little cabin out in the remote woods of rural Maine. My land and my cabin are my “true home”, and I get up there every possible chance. This is my off-grid homestead in the making. It’s where I want to retire eventually. It’s also my secondary location in case of SHTF.
I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. While I found the land and put the overall vision for it together, all credit for the cabin’s construction and expansion goes to Ed, whom I’ll refer to from here on out as Mr. Fixer. His construction and handyman skills made my off-grid living dreams a reality. The man can build, fix, or rig just about anything.
I’m also grateful to another family member, let’s call him Boston Bob, for taking up full-time residence there. Doing so has allowed an incredible about of work and upgrades to take place that just were not possible otherwise. He’s done the labor of living in an off-grid cabin, hauling water and dependent upon a gasoline-powered generator for a full year in all 4 seasons. This has provided insight that couldn’t have been gleaned otherwise. This has added security to my secondary location and made it a more livable and feasible fall back location in case of emergencies.
My little oasis away from the city started out as a basic, 14’x14′, 1-room cabin with a 2nd floor we used for storage. Since then, it’s had two additions, put in a bathroom and kitchen, plus added a covered porch. Here is a short list of cabin upgrades that took place over this past year. I will come back and link to articles on these projects over the next few weeks.
- New wood stove installation
- Kitchen installation (taken from our camper and repurposed)
- Bathroom installation, including:
- Composting toilet
- Propane shower
- Larger water tank
- Expanded and covered porch
- Newer, tighter, front door
And now, finally, a solar and wind system installation. This is a dream come true for me.
Financial Challenges to Off-grid Power
I’m not kidding saying this is a dream come true. I have wanted off-grid power at my cabin for almost twelve years now. The number one obstacle has been the prohibitive cost compared to cash on hand.
Back when the cabin was first built, solar panels were outside of my budget. Most of the wind turbines on the market, even for individual homes, were huge and expensive. Small wind turbines were impossible to find, never mind afford. There were, however, crafty DIYers on YouTube showing off their small wind experiments.
Over time, the cost of solar panels has come down significantly. Small wind turbines, including small, vertical-axis turbines, are common enough now that you can buy them on Amazon. With the increased availability, their prices have also come down. At the same time, I’ve been putting money away specifically for solar and wind power.
The budget and the cost finally aligned. I got myself a solar generator, a dedicated solar panel, and then a solar and wind system. It was a complete kit with both solar panels and a wind turbine. I also picked up some LED dome lights, and lithium batteries.
Switching to Solar and Wind Power
Until last weekend, the cabin was powered by a Honda generator. It has been a reliable and relatively quiet power source, at least, compared to other gas-powered generators. It has served it’s purpose well, only ever needing a tune up.
However, a gas-powered generator presents a few problems. The first is a reliance on buying gas. This was about an $80-$100 per month expense, and that was only running the generator from late afternoon and into the evening. Not only is that an expense, but we cannot produce gasoline on our own. It is a level of dependence I would rather not have.
My primary issue, however, was noise. Even a quiet generator produces noise. A running generator is a tell tale sign that someone is there. The lack of noise is also a tell tale sign that no one is there. If you have a predictable routine, such as turning the generator off at night before bed, anyone living within earshot will know when you’re vulnerable.
Another major drawback to gas-powered generators is that they must be operated outside. You cannot run them safely indoors. You must go outside to turn it on and off no matter if there’s a storm outside, or if you have an injury that makes getting around more challenging. If anything of value is outside, it becomes a target for thieves looking for a quick snatch and grab.
Switching to a solar generator and adding a solar and wind hybrid system will provide power generation, day and night, sunny or cloudy, with minimal noise (from the wind turbine), and without an ongoing expense and dependence on gasoline.
Step 1: Solar Generator
My first step was to replace the gas-powered generator with a solar generator. The solar generator I bought isn’t as powerful as the gas-powered generator. But, this was my first foray into solar power. I wasn’t sure how efficient it would be at charging from the solar panel.
I bought an Aeiusny Portable 500W (288WH) solar generator with a portable Aeiusny 60W solar panel. The generator is a power station, so you can plug your devices in and charge up batteries. It has a lithium battery, so you don’t have to vent anything like you would with a lead acid battery. Lead acid batteries off-gas hydrogen which is highly flammable.
Not only can this generator be run indoors, it’s much smaller than I expected, which is great for a small cabin. It has a lamp, 3 AC outlets, and 4 USB ports.
When I placed my order, I didn’t realize that I also needed a connector cord to charge the generator off the solar panel. I assumed either the generator or the solar panel would have included it, which was an error on my part. Thankfully, the generator can be charged with a car charger which was included.
The generator came charged and ready for action. The first night I used it, it ran the two drop lights I’ve been using to light up the cabin after dark, charged my phone, and charged my laptop. Woke up the next morning, and there was still 85% left on the generator. Not too shabby!
The next day, I charged it up on a short drive into town for supplies. I used it to charge my phone, laptop, and lights. The product description said it could run one a 12 volt, LED television, like the type you find in campers and motor homes. I don’t have one of those, but there is an LED television and DVD player that I would run off the gas generator. I gave it a whirl to see if the solar generator could handle it.
I watched a 2-hour movie, and it did drain the generator’s lithium battery down to about 40% from full. But, guess who didn’t have to go outside at night in the cold Maine winter temps to shut down the gas generator? That’s worth the price of admission right there.
The connector cord arrived a couple of days later. Now, I got to see how long it would take to charge from 0% to full on the solar panel. What I didn’t know is that a lithium ion battery shouldn’t be allowed to drain down to zero. Not that anything happened to the battery this time, but I won’t be making it a habit going forward.
It took the better part of a sunny day, maybe 7 hours, to fully charge. Considering that it handles my basic power needs by itself, I’m pretty darn happy with my new solar generator and solar panel. The gas generator is now saved as a backup (two is one, and one is none), and I’m no longer hemorrhaging money on gas for the generator.
One more neat thing… the solar panel has 3 USB ports so you can charge your devices from the solar panel directly. You can do this even with the generator hooked up and charging.
Step 2: LED Lights
With renewable power at the cabin, one of the first things I had Mr. Fixer do was install some LED dome lights. When at the cabin, I had made use of the natural light during the day, and then I used a couple of drop lights in the evening as needed, powered by the gas generator. It wasn’t nearly as convenient as flipping on a switch and having light where and when you want light.
With the addition of a roof covering the porch on the south side, it made the cabin even darker inside during the day. I knew it would do that, but that roof gave us so much more usable space. That porch roof also gave us the perfect spot to mount solar panels.
I got a pack of 10 LED dome lights and wire. These suckers are bright! One went in the kitchen, bathroom, living room, 1st floor bedroom, and the 2nd floor. There are still lights left over that can be set up outside on the porch, which will be screened in this summer.
Mr. Fixer set up the batteries, wired the cabin for the lights, and put all the dome lights in place. I had them set up higher than eye level on the walls and on the ceiling so they wouldn’t quite be so blinding. Did I mention, these lights are bright?
Step 3: Lithium Ion Batteries
I opted for lithium ion batteries. Lithium batteries are not rechargable, but lithium ion batteries are. They also stand up to cold temperatures better than lead acid batteries. To start off, I bought 4 lithium ion batteries. They are more expensive and less powerful than lead acid batteries, but they have a couple of distinct advantages:
- Lithium ion batteries operate in and withstand cold temperatures better.
- Lithium ion batteries do not vent and can be stored indoors.
Lead acid batteries can withstand temperatures down to -90°F, but only if they are fully charged. A partially charged lead acid battery can freeze at 34°F. We can’t guarantee that the temperatures inside the cabin would remain above freezing if it were to be empty for a few days during the winter.
This can cause the battery to work harder, and the electrolytes in the battery to expand and leak. To use common New England parlance, Maine winters are wicked cold. We’ve already had the joyous experience of having to replace our first on-demand, propane water heater’s lines bursting. I don’t need to experience batteries leaking too.
Lithium batteries can still freeze, but at a much lower temperature. They also shouldn’t be charged if the temperature is below freezing. They can, however, be stored indoors without being vented. Adding ventilation wouldn’t be too hard, but it is another pipe that would go through the wall or roof, making a weak point for potential leaks during rainstorms. If I can avoid punching another hole in my roof or walls, that’s a good thing.
The batteries come charged and Mr. Fixer set them up to run the LED lights. The solar generator is currently recharging the batteries as needed.
Step 4: Solar and Wind System
While this solar generator is awesome, it’s not quite enough power for what I want to do in that cabin. Ultimately, I would like to have a couple of ceiling fans in the two additions, and a small, dorm-sized fridge. I need a system that can run those things, plus the run the water pump, lights, radio, and watch the occasional movie.
I opted for a combination solar and wind power kit. The kit I bought was the ECO LLC 1500W Wind-Solar Generator Kit. It comes with a 400W wind turbine and six 195W solar panels. This system will generate power day and night, in full sun or in cloudy, rainy, or even snowy weather. Where the cabin is located, there is almost always a good breeze. Of course, there won’t be much power generated on a summer night with no wind. But, that’s what the battery bank of lithium ion batteries is for.
The solar panels will likely take up the entire roof over the porch. Last weekend, there were some wet weather issues that prevented a lot of outside work getting done, so this solar leg of the installation will get started next weekend. We also still need to get a pole for the wind turbine.
It will probably take Mr. Fixer another 2 to 3 weekends to finish the system’s installation, depending upon weather and any snafus that could pop up along the way. After that, we’ll see how well it works, how much power the system actually generates at this location, and if any further panels, another wind turbine, or more batteries are needed to meet our readiness group’s needs. I’ll have another post with more pics of the wind turbine and solar panels, and Mr. Fixer’s progress next week.
Have you gone off-grid and have a story or advice to share? Share with the class and pop it in the comments below!