I have been living off the grid for 15 years now, and there are certain parts of my daily energy use practices I take for granted as normal. Yet, when I visit friends or relatives living on the grid, I become aware of how differently I use electricity. While watching last week’s PBS NOW program about families living off the grid in Iowa, I began to wonder if the principles of energy use necessary for living off the grid might be beneficial for people living on the power grid. Specifically, I am referring to using only one heavy load appliance at a time, constantly monitoring your power meter, and turning off "phantom" power loads.
Use One Heavy Power Load at a Time
15 years ago, my power system consisted of one solar panel, one golf cart battery, one DC light, and one DC car stereo. Today, I live in a modern off-the-grid home complete with many large energy-using electrical appliances, such as a washing machine, air conditioner, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, and baseboard heaters. Using these appliances off the grid is only possible by limiting their usage to one at a time, with the exception of the refrigerator (which remains on 24 hours a day). Unlike grid-connected homes, where it is common to see multiple large loads running simultaneously, most people living off the grid cannot run their washing machine while vacuuming, their heaters while washing dishes, etc. Alternative home energy systems are limited to the amount of power stored in the battery bank and what is being currently produced via wind, water, and/or sun for available power.
By only using one large power appliance at a time, these systems can keep up with home power demands. What if grid power users followed a similar model of power usage? What if people only used one large power draw at a time, thus using less power for longer periods of time, rather than using a lot of power over a shorter duration? Living in California, we are constantly reminded of rolling blackouts during peak power usage months. The "Flex Your Power" campaign advises grid users to wait until after 7:00pm, when there is less demand on the grid, to do laundry, wash dishes, etc. They call this "using appliances wisely." If everyone used heavy power loads with caution, perhaps our power grid would be less strained and function at a smaller energy producing capacity.
Monitor Your Meter
One prominent feature in every off the grid home is a meter within the living quarters. These meters often measure amps and volts, and allow the user to know how much power is available to them, and how much power is being used at any given moment. Gazing often at this meter becomes a part of life off the grid. As Dale Kittleson, interviewed on PBS NOW, said, "First thing in the morning, come down the stairs, look out the window, see if the sun is shining, look at the meter and see how far the batteries are from full." I look at my meter first thing in the morning, while using heavy power-using appliances, before I go to bed, etc. How often does someone living on the grid look at his or her meter? I would think that if people could see their meter spinning rapidly during high power usage in their home, they would use electricity more wisely. What if grid-connected houses’ meters were in the living quarters? Having the meter in a convenient location makes monitoring energy usage easy. No one wants to go outside in the rain or snow and gaze at his or her meter 10 times a day!
Kill the Phantoms
This sounds like good Halloween advice: Kill the phantoms! Electrical devices draw phantom loads when they are "off." TVs, computers, printers, etc. draw small loads of power when shut down, and these phantom loads add up. Every person I know living off the grid uses electrical outlet strips for phantom loads. They may not turn them off all of the time, but when the batteries are low, the phantoms are removed from their power source by flipping the power strip switch. If US grid homes turned off their phantom loads, it is estimated that a billion dollars would be saved on energy bills and enough power would be conserved to power Vietnam, Peru, and Greece!
These three simple ideas from living off the grid could help Americans use power more wisely. By using one heavy electrical load at a time, monitoring your meter, and killing phantom loads, grid users can learn from the over 200,000 US homes off the grid how to be more energy efficient. Sometimes, changing a light bulb just isn’t enough.