Solar panel installation
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What to consider before going off-grid

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Thinking of buying a rural property? Trying to figure out whether it makes more sense to go “on grid” or “off grid”? Is it best to clear a right-of-way, bring in power poles and connect to the local power utility, or to forget all that and set up your own private system using solar panels, batteries, and a generator, or other viable off-grid energy sources such as propane?

Either way, unless you choose to live without electricity, having a reliable source at the lowest cost is key to living comfortably—and staying connected to the rest of the world.

The reality
In situations where there is the option of going on grid or off grid, cost will be the first consideration. Lars Jensen is owner of Integrated Power Systems in Kelowna, BC. He says that if bringing in outside power is going to cost more than $20,000 or $30,000, it is worth considering being off grid. However, if it is any less, he stresses that it makes more economic sense to hook up to the power grid. “It is never smart,” says Jensen, “for someone who is already on grid to switch over to off grid, because of the extra cost for a system and the fact that power rates are currently very cheap in Canada.” However, the initial set-up cost isn’t the only factor.

Off-grid real estate costs
For some people, one of the primary reasons for going off grid is the lower cost of real estate. Off-grid properties are often much less expensive than properties serviced by an electrical utility. For example, Shane and Tamara Johnson were able to buy their 160-acre off-grid dream property in Stony Plain, Alberta, complete with a 38-acre lake, for $70,000, while at that time (1999) the average price for on-grid properties was starting at about $160,000. Shane eventually became so involved in off-grid power that he started his own company, SolarPanel.ca. And while the capital cost of his “Living Without Compromise” system was just over $50,000, even when added to the cost of the 160 acres he still came out ahead compared to buying an on-grid property.

No electricity bill
One of the reasons many people, including the Johnsons, choose off grid is that they don’t want to get stuck paying electrical bills for the rest of their lives, especially when uncertain about how high electricity rates will climb in the coming years. Going off grid means being independent of power companies. And while the capital cost of setting up an efficient off-grid system may be higher than bringing in utility power (depending on the location of the nearest source) this is normally offset over the ensuing years by monthly costs much lower than a power company bill.

Aesthetics/lifestyle
Being off grid is often part of a deeper “back to the land” aesthetic in which independence from “the man” (not only power companies) is key. It may be about being self-sufficient, about teaching kids to be green and not to take things for granted. It may be about having your own water supply, septic system and perhaps even growing your own food and raising animals. Having an off-grid electrical system, whether solar, wind or micro-hydro, certainly fits into this ethic.

Sample systems: 
Off-grid solar
The cost of installing an off-grid system depends on how much electricity needs to be produced. Along with propane, solar systems are one of the most popular sources of off-grid power, so we’ll use them as examples.

The $1,000–$1,500 option: This most basic type of system is for those who only need electricity for a few 12-volt lights and perhaps a 12-volt radio. The system will likely consist of a 140-watt solar panel, a 12-volt deep cycle or sealed AGM 100 amp-hour battery and a controller to regulate charging.

The $5,000–$10,000 option: Lars Jensen’s Integrated Power Systems provides DIY kits that are pre-approved total systems. However, they do require some electrical knowledge and the installation must pass an electrical inspection. This type of system will provide power to lights, stereo, microwave, vacuum and other 120-volt AC appliances, though not all can be operated at the same time unless users opt for the larger 4,000-watt inverter system. The kits include a few solar panels from 500 to 1,000 watts, a 2,000- to 4,000-watt inverter and up to four AGM batteries with a watt-hour capacity range from 4.6 to 9.3 kW of storage.

The $20,000 option: This could be called a whole cabin system and is the most popular price-point system sold by Shane Johnson’s SolarPanel.ca. The system includes about 2,000 watts of solar panels, a 7,200-watt dual 120/240-volt inverter system and a battery bank with a capacity of 1,200 amps at 48 volts. Johnson says the system provides enough to power most homes (and certainly cottages) with standard energy-efficient appliances such as a fridge, freezer, TV, lights, microwave, well pump and septic system pumps and a circulating pump for a wood- or propane-fired boiler for radiant in-floor heating. This whole-home system means that the owners can pretty well live as they would if they were hooked up to the grid. Note that solar systems do not generally provide electricity for direct household heating or domestic hot water. Those are normally generated either through rooftop solar water heating systems or through a separate propane-fired water heating system. The $20,000 cost does not include a 7–13 kW gas or diesel backup generator ($3,500–$11,500), which is necessary for those occasions when solar power can’t provide enough electricity.

The top-end system: Lars Jensen pegs a top-end off-grid system at between $30,000 and $70,000, which would provide enough electricity to power a luxury four-bedroom home and all its appliances at any time without any worries. These systems are significantly larger, with solar arrays ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 watts. The inverters range in capacity from 8.8 to 17.6 kW. The 48-volt battery bank would be about 2,400 amps.

With these larger systems, lots of good spacious southern exposure is needed as the solar arrays need a lot of room. Also, a larger mechanical room is required to house all the equipment. A generator, which may or may not be included in the package, would be between 12 and 30 kW.

Ongoing costs: Once an off-grid solar system is installed, the ongoing costs can vary quite a bit. There will be fuel and upkeep for the generator, propane and/or wood for cooking, heating and possibly domestic hot water. Batteries last about five to 10 years and, for a $20,000 system, cost about $5,000 to $8,000. Costs can range from as little as around $1,000 per year for Shane Johnson’s full-time home to $6,000 or more for areas heavily dependent on their generators.