Monday, December 6, 2010

Off-the-Grid Electrical Lessons

From the Dollar Stretcher.

"...many people contact me to ask how they can cut the cost of their electric bill, without changing over to alternative energy sources. For anyone who is trying to cut energy costs, here are some ideas to get you started.

Main Energy Users

You can apply some of the same principles an off the grid home uses, but use it to drastically cut your electrical power usage. Of course, the main energy hogs are the ones that use heat, such as electric heat, electric hot water, electric stove and oven and the electric clothes dryer. There's air conditioning, as well. These appliances use huge amounts of your electric power, eating up your watts as soon as they are turned on. Switching to propane or natural gas for water heating, home heat, cooking and clothes drying, along with more efficient refrigerators and freezers will offer savings. For an air conditioning alternative, there are evaporative cooling systems. Changing to these appliances will instantly cut off more than three-quarters of what you usually pay for electricity.

If you want to use expensive energy from expensive sources willy-nilly, by all means go off-grid, but it isn't necessary to live the off-grid lifestyle when you can use the grid more effectively. If you want to refrigerate absolutely everything, light up absolutely everything, and leave on absolutely everything, as well as buy over-priced appliances with limited use, then by all means go off-grid. The price for entry starts at $50k just for the solar panels--then add thousands more for the specialized appliances, and the cost of wiring your home to take DC power, as well as the unpredictability of the weather, and you begin to see the futility of solar power anywhere but the southwestern U.S.


The very first thing I tell them to do is to change all their light bulbs to the newer compact fluorescent bulbs. Screw in light bulbs should be mostly compact fluorescent, using about one quarter the power of regular bulbs while giving the same brightness and color. Timers are great for children's rooms or any room where the light is usually left on.

LED bulbs are great for kids' rooms, and use even less energy than CFLs. There are even LED nightlights--I have 4.


And especially for anyone who is thinking of replacing a computer. Replace your big desktop computers with laptops. They use much less power. We run two laptops over 12 hours a day on very little power. A desk top (actually it is the monitors) uses as much in a few hours, as ours do in a week. The monitors are what you have to watch.

Modern flat-screen monitors don't use as much power as the old CRTs did. Whatever you use, avoid using the "standby" mode--it eats energy even when you aren't using it!

Cooking Ranges

Newer gas cooking ranges have what is called a "glow bar" in the oven. It uses electricity, so even if your power is out, you can't use the oven. This is an electric red-hot glow-bar pilot in the oven that consumes 400 watts all the time the oven is used! Instead, look for one of two types of pilot light ovens. An oven with regular gas flame pilot light is the simplest. Better is an oven pilot that lights by electric spark when the oven is started and goes off when the oven is finished. Propane or natural gas stoves with gas pilot lights need no power connection at all.

Try finding one outside an off-the-grid appliance store. An alternative use, but restricted to outdoors: the BBQ. A gas BBQ does just what the author wants, only it must be used outdoors because of the potential for gas and carbon monoxide leaks.

Another solution: generators, which are strangely enough TAILOR-MADE for when the power goes out.

Another option would be no options! Yes, that's what I did when purchasing my brand new Premier propane range. It has no timer, no oven light, no light on top and no clock. You can purchase a separate timer for a few dollars just about anywhere. And most people already have a clock in their kitchen anyway. The same is true with lighting. Remember that you do pay for all those little options. And they are electric users.

Again, available only at off-the-grid appliance stores, and usually run gas or DC power. EnergyStar pretty much did away with anything less than what you see in the stores, which used to be known as "contractor specials"--no options, no dials, no gauges, no lights, nothing.


Ordinary AC refrigerators and freezers run on over 200 watts AC, and run many hours a day. Most have less than 2-inch insulation. Fortunately, special refrigerators and freezers are available, which use less than 30% as much energy. Sunfrost refrigerator products have 4- to 6-inch insulation, and a quality compressor on top where it can't put heat back into the box. The RF-12 model runs 50 watts for 12 hours a day, totaling 600-watt hours a day. Compare that to the standard models, which use around 3000 watt hours each day. Just think how that would cut that electric bill down!

FALSE ECONOMY ALERT! I have checked these out, and sorry to say there is very little interior space left when all the necessary insulation's built in. A 20 cubic inch Sun Frost may only actually yield 12-15 cubic inches inside it. The bigger the outside of fridge, the more interior insulation you get for your money (all $2000 of it).

If you were to take my ideas about unplugging the refrigerator to heart, you could cut down your energy just the same without being fooled into thinking you can get the same amount of room for way more money. Again, these are specialized appliances for off-the-grid living, and come mostly in gas or DC power. Instead of spending $2000 to get what amounts to a smaller fridge, rethink what you're putting INSIDE your fridge, and downsize when appropriate. I found a small unit (smaller than dorm size) at WallyWorld that doesn't have all the racks for sodas and boxed foods--it actually has door shelves, and is available for less than $100. If you had to, you could stack 2-3 of these babies (to get a fair amount of storage) and still use less energy that that $2000 monster!


It goes without saying that another big saving for any household is to hang your laundry outside. I do that and even in the snowy cold winter of New York State. It is no big deal to me, and I admit to liking the way my home looks with my laundry hanging on the line. You could use a gas dryer and that would give you some savings, but of course, there is the price of the fuel, and it still does use some electricity, as well.

The Staber washing machine is also built with the off-the-grid family in mind. But what a savings for the family on the grid as well! It is a simply designed machine with under 200 watts running power, with only a larger surge at the start of the spin cycle, which means that 165 watts per load is much less than any other regular washing machine uses. It's a double plus, as it uses less than half as much water per load as other machines as well. Spins faster than others, saving more energy in faster drying on the clothesline or in your dryer. So if you do a lot of wash each week, this is a good way to save on the electric bill every month.

Again, FALSE ECONOMY ALERT! The Staber machine is a gas or DC-powered unit made for off-grid living. The machine (now made for RV use) takes 3 hours to wash a load of clothes the size of your bathroom sink. A more sensible alternative would be to simply buy and use (during off-peak times) an American front-loader washing machine, which uses 1/3 the water a top-loader does, and only takes 30 minutes per load.

If someone were so worried about the electrical load being put on her solar panels, she should look into taking her laundry out to a laundromat.

Ghost Loads

There are some appliances that consume your power twenty-four hours a day, even when you think they are turned off. Televisions, stereos, office equipment, garage door openers and many, many others. These appliances really need to turned off when you are not using them. By turned off, I mean the plug pulled out or they should be on a outlet strip that is turned off. Remember that little things count when you are trying to cut your usage back."

This I agree with. Having tracked down and killed off two phantom loads around here (the router and the satellite box), I managed to shave $10/month off the electric bill. The other necessary-but-phantom loads here are the freezer and the refrigerator--both of which could stand a good unplugging, and I plan to start canning meat in the spring, and re-examining my refrigerator contents tomorrow.

Anything I may have running overnight, like nightlights, are LED and have a daylight-off sensor built into them. Porch lights go off at 10 p.m. or earlier, and are CFL (soon to be LED once the 60-watt equivalent bulbs become more widely available).

In a couple of years, I want to get a hybrid tankless water heater that holds enough stored hot water for a 30-minute shower, but that's all...a "small tank" if you will. These come in gas or electric. The reason why it will take so long to get one: the unit itself is only about $500, but the installation is about another $1000. Since mine would be going right where my old tankful is right now, and there already is water and electricity to the area (no rerouting of anything necessary), as well as a dedicated circuit, I'm going to call a plumber next spring and have him come take a look and make recommendations.

I WAS thinking of going to a gas water heater, but now that I've seen these, this is a better idea. That way, I can do dishes, shower, clean, and maybe do laundry during the day on OFF-PEAK HOURS while Hubby's at work (just like I do now), not pay to store water all day and night (except for that little bit), and gain more space in my utility room. Hubby can take his 4 a.m. showers without worrying about running out of hot water.

There is another form of hybrid water heater, but it's basically a regular water heater with two power sources: both gas and electric in one. You can program it to run gas on high-peak times, and electric during off-peak times. It has a programmable thermostat like you see for HVAC systems. This system does have a huge installation cost, because gas, water, and power lines have to be rerouted to it, it has to have dedicated ventilation, and it can only be set up in certain places.

My HVAC system is a hybrid like this, but I had the right conditions for it: a former gas system was already in the attic (so I had a gas line up there), plus electricity up there, and the system could sit where the old dilapidated one was. I have since figured out how to switch it to run gas during high-peak hours, and electricity during off-peak hours, but I can't put that into the program for each day and time. The system is supposed to run gas when heat demand reaches a certain level (as in below freezing temps), and electric when it's normal demand, with a recirculating blower when the house needs just one more degree to maintain set temps.

Instead of letting it run on "auto", which would run electric heat until near-freezing temps outside, I override it during on-peak times to "emergency heat" (which runs the gas system), cutting my electric bill without sacrificing heat like Mr. Tightwad does (since my gas bill's already low, and gas is cheap compared to electricity). Nowhere in the operator manuals does it say to do this, but I learned how from a friend who installs these HVAC systems in Colorado. Unfortunately, there's no way to program the thermostat to flip between gas and electric for on-peak and off-peak hours--only a way to program it to adjust temps or turn off completely at each hour of each day. I guess you could say I hacked the system.

Yep, I'm upping my gas bill, but not by much--I'm already on the fixed monthly payment plan, so it can't get much higher. As soon as I'm finished shaving the electric bill, I'll also switch that to the fixed monthly payment plan.

If Mr. Tightwad were prone to shelling out for this system, he could be joining me. I admit, plugging in an electric blanket is easier at this point, but why not use the gas and electricity you're already paying for more effectively? Jockeying the gas/electric heat, plus killing off phantom loads, plus changing demand to off-peak hours, plus using car windshield shades in the summer has cut my electric bill by $50/month total--the cost of my old cable back in the apartment.

The only other way I can see to get efficient is to move to the equator, but then you have ungodly humidity.


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