Review: Les Stroud – Off The Grid

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I had the opportunity to watch Les Stroud's documentary called Off The Grid.  It's a great film documenting how Les Stroud, Sue Jamison and their 2 young children bought a 150 acre abandoned 1930's farm land in Northern Ontario and started what a lot of us dream of: living a sustainable life closer to the land.

Les Stroud is probably better known for the TV series Survivorman where he spends 7 days marooned and surviving in various hostile locations throughout the world.  He filmed this documentary between seasons when he and his family decided to take the leap into this great adventure. 

I like the documentary because of its personal approach.  If you follow Survivorman you will see it follows the same format of narration and self interview.  I wasn't really sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised that it is not a be all end all film of latest technology stuffed with technical data and crap.  It's really a story of how and ordinary family can accomplish living a more simple life, off-grid and without a deep pocket book.  How the move affects different aspects of their lives and the overall pros and cons of this lifestyle change.  One of my favorite parts of the film is how they go over their concerns with how the move will affect their children.  Being a father myself, I could relate to their struggles of trying to have the best of both worlds: Urban activities and Rural lifestyle.

I would recommend this great documentary to anyone wanted to see an overview of what it would take to rebuild a homestead and live off-grid.  You can only fit in so much  in an hour and 10 minutes so it's an overview not a step by step blueprint, however there is a ton of great information packed in.  I watched it 3 times and still goign through notes of things to research myself. 

I would love to see a follow-up to this film where there is more detail in the rain water harvesting System and well, update on the new cabin, update on the integrated solar/wind system such as how they calculated their electrical consumption to size the system and how close they are to their numbers analysing their actual use... but most of all it would be great just to have an update on how the family is adapting to the move ;o)

If your interested, you can purchase a copy of the full documentary or if you're lucky you can catch it in 2 one-hour series from Canada's OLN (Outdoor Life Network) or and affiliate.

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In the last two articles in the Solar Energy Primer we discussed how to reduce energy consumption and Solar Panels.  In this article we will discuss DC to AC Inverters and the different models on the market.

The AC inverter is the heart of your Renewable Energy Systems Power Panel.  Unless you want to revert back to really old school where the only off-grid options where a battery bank and 12volt RV appliances, it is necessary to have an AC Inverter.  The basic function of an Inverter is to take input DC voltage (VDC) and convert it to AC voltage (VAC).  It's secondary function is to charge a battery bank should you chose to have one.  Most grid tie systems don't have a battery bank, but could have one for backup power supply.  If you are off-grid, a battery bank is a requirement.  During times of none sufficient power supply from your renewable energy systems, the inverter will convert DC power from the battery bank to AC power for your home appliances.

Electricity can be viewed as a Sine Wave, which is a mathematical function that can be viewed as a graph.  You can search the Internet for more information, but for our purpose think of Sine Waves as the purity of the electricity provided by your inverter to your appliances.

There are 4 types of Inverters:

  • Square Wave Power Inverter - These are very inexpensive and not to be used for home systems.  Usually in the under 500W range, you will see these inverter types used in cars and boats and plug into a cigarette lighter.
  • Modified Sine Wave Power Inverter - One of the most popular inverters due to its economic price, it produces and AC wave form somewhere between Square Wave and Pure Sine Wave.  These inverters are sometimes called Quasi-Sine are less expensive and work with most AC appliances.  Some appliances without a regulator will cause a buzzing sound and some appliances such as motors that use speed controls or timers will not function with these inverters.  Modified Sine Wave Inverters are recommended for small cottage use or boats, but not your average home use.
  • True Sine Wave Power Inverter - These inverters produce the cleanest power and work best with all AC powered appliances in your home.  Although True Sine Inverters are more expensive, it is worth every penny.  After spending your hard earned money on producing your energy via Solar, Wind or Mini-Hydro, the last thing you want is to then lose it and/or produce "dirty" power.  True Sine Wave Inverters are now very affordable and are really the only way to go for off-grid home AC inverter use.
  • Grid Tie Power Inverters- If you are already connected to the Utility, you can stay that way with a Grid Tie Inverter and use the Utility as your backup power.  As an added bonus, most Utilities now provide "net-metering" which allows you to sell your extra power to them.  This in effect means during peak producing hours, and after your optional battery banks have been charges, you will sell your extra power back to the Utility actually spining your meter backwards.  The Grid Tie Inverters are True Sine Wave Inverters with a added function of sensing your power consumption and synchronizing with the Utility to sell it and push to the grid.  It also has a safety feature to sense power failure from the grid and if so, cease pushing electricity.  This is a safety feature for Utility workers to ensure no home electricity is powering the grid while the workers are repairing the issue.

When configuring your Renewable Energy System keep in mind that all your DC components such as Solar Panel array, Battery Bank and Inverters all need to run on the same voltage.  In followup articles we will discuss wiring run length and gauge.  These are all tied into selecting the proper VDC for your system.

You may be wondering what to do with your heavy usage appliances like stove and dryer?  Well you can compatible inverters in series to double the ouput voltage.  You would use this technique to produce 220-240 volts required for these heavy appliances.  You can also configure them in parallel to double your power.  We will cover these topics in much more details in later follow-up articles in Solar Power Primer series so stay tuned!

Keep it Green...

Energy Efficiency First

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So you are thinking of introducing some sort of Renewable Alternative Energy into your plans for a more Sustainable Living. Before you try to size your system you must begin with energy efficiency. Just as the government realized it is cheaper to invest in energy efficiency then energy creation, so will you as you run through your project.

More with less is the theme here, but do not think you have to revert back to oil lamps and cooking over campfire. There are lots of energy saving tips to make your home more energy efficient and best of all most governments in North America have millions of dollars in grants to help you reach your goals.  Once you know exactly what you are wasting energy on you will be happy and most likely make it your personal mission to reduce your energy consumption and monthly bill.

Here are a few examples:

  • Swapping out old light bulbs to CF (Compact Flurescent) will reduce energy consumption by 80%
  • Installing on-demand water heaters will reduce hot water energy consumption by approximately 50%
  • Turning down the thermostat and putting a water heater blanket will reduce your energy consumption by approximately 20%
  • Low-Flow shower heads and aerator faucets will reduct water consumption as well as energy consumption used to heat that water
  • Replace old appliances with Energy Efficient appliances
  • Get a leak test done in your house and follow the recommended remediation steps could save you up to 50% of your heating costs
  • Adding Solar Water Heating system can save you approximately 50% of the energy used for heating water
  • Install a home power meter like the cent-a-meter to precisely monitor your energy consumption and take action appropriately like reducing Phantom Electric Loads

These are just some of the examples of what you can do. A quick Google search on home energy efficiencies will give you more information then you can handle and as mentioned above, make some calls into your local and federal/state governements to see what programs they have available for energy efficient retrofits.

These action items can be done over a period of time and most are not that expensive to accomplish. Here is the list of items we've done or are planning to action by the end of the year:

  • Bought bulk CF bulbs on special and replaced in all fixtures. Some local government have give aways for CF bulbs to promote use, so be sure to check that possibility.
  • Installed a water heater blanket and foam insulated all hot water pipes
  • Installed low-flow shower heads
  • After having a Leak Test done, we've replaced all windows and doors. Needed to be done anyways with 25year old wooden frame windows
  • Installed foam gaskets in all electrical outlets to reduce draft
  • Installed child safely plugs in unused electrical outlets to further reduce draft

The Leak Test was an eye opener for us and the follow up report was great. It detailed what action items would give us the biggest bang for our buck, literally. We are expecting a nice grant for our energy efficient upgrades so far. Before we call them back to do a second test and submit our paperwork for the grant, we will also replace the attic door with a new efficient, insulated attic door.

Living on the East Coast of Canada we have long cold winters so every bit insulation and reduced heat loss helps and equates to electricity and dollars saved.  Over the winter we also plan on purchasing and installing the cent-a-meter home metering system.  This will allow us to monitor, identify and reduce energy consumption during the heavy heating season and give us good numbers to work with for planning our hybrid renewable energy system.

That's it for now... Keep it Green ;o)

Phantom Electrical Loads

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The fist step in planning a renewable energy system is to reduce the energy consumption. Phantom electrical loads account for approximately 6% of a homes electricity consumption. Phantom electrical loads can be easily reduced to save electricity, money and carbon footprint.

Take a look at the appliances you have plugged into your electrical outlets around your home. Appliances used throughout the home usually have on/off switches. What most people fail to realize is that even when you turn off these appliances, most will still draw energy. This energy draw is called a "phantom load" and needs to be taken into consideration to reduce energy consumption and planning a renewable energy system for implementation in your home.

Some devices are easy to recognize such as appliances with built in clocks, DVD players, televisions, coffee makers, etc... Others are not so obvious such as your door bell, electric charge razor, computers, etc... Appliances that can be operated with a remote-control is also consuming power around the clock. It has to stay in a ready state in order to be switched on by the remote control. The ready state consumes less electricity than when the device is turned on, but over a 24-hour period the energy consumption can be substantial. Multiply that by 365 days and you are looking at a nice electricity bill and wasted energy for "convenience".

The easiest way to reduce or eliminate phantom power draw is to plug these devices and appliances into power bars that include their own on/off switch, also called switchable outlets. When you turn off the device or appliance, turn off the power supply to the switchable outlet.

If you think this will be inconvenient or a pain, remeber the fact that you will be saving approximately 6% on your electricity bill. Do the calculation yourself and you'll be pleasently surprised. This the cost of grid energy going up and the up front capital cost of haressing your own renewable energy, every bit helps.

Move on energy savings coming soon... in the meantime keep it Green!

Wind Power Primer

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There is a lot of talk lately about wind energy for both personal and public generation. The US alone is set to increase its wind farm capacity 45% in 2008. This trend will continue into personal wind energy generation. Wind turbines are dropping in price and becoming more efficient in design to capture all the energy it can from the wind.

Wind energy converts kinetic energy that is present in the wind into more useful forms of energy such as mechanical energy or electricity. Wind energy is a pollution-free, infinitely sustainable form of energy. It doesn’t use fuel; it doesn’t produce greenhouse gass's, and it doesn’t produce toxic or radioactive waste.

Wind energy is one renewable resource we are able to capture to generate clean, sustainable energy systems that can be relied on for the long-term future. Modern aerodynamics and engineering have improved wind turbines. They now provide reliable, cost-effective, pollution-free energy for individual, community, and national applications.

Wind energy is the kinetic energy that is present in moving air. The amount of potential energy depends mainly on wind speed, but is also affected slightly by the density of the air, which is determined by the air temperature, barometric pressure, and altitude.

For any wind turbine, the power and energy output increases dramatically as the wind speed increases. Therefore, the most cost-effective wind turbines are located in the windiest areas. Wind speed is affected by the local terrain and increases with height above the ground, so wind turbines are usually mounted on tall towers.

Wind turbines are only one part in a complex setup to harness the power of the wind. We will cover each part of the complete configuration in up coming posts, including a shoppers guide and how to select proper location for your new wind turbine.

Stay tuned and Keep in Green!!