On Episode 450 of the Waves of Tech, we are joined by Heather Welch of the Sunshine & PowerCuts podcast talking about the myths, realities, and technology behind off-the-grid living. Out of necessity 7 ½ years ago, Heather and her husband built a customized off grid system in rural northern New Zealand after being told a power connection would cost over $30,000. Heather shares her story of building the system, the technology behind the system, and the obvious ups and downs of living such a lifestyle. Adapting to changing conditions in terms of weather conditions, personal needs, and capacity limitations is a major component of the system. Many of us have strongly held perceptions of this lifestyle and Heather shares numerous myths, misconceptions, and realities of off-the-grid living. We finish off with offering up several concrete tips and takeaways from her experiences.
Off-the-Grid Living & The Technology Behind It
Heather Welch and her husband have been living off-the-grid for 7 ½ years in a northern rural area of New Zealand. When a power company offered up a cost of $30,000 for a grid connection, they decided to custom build their own power system for their new home. The solar power system is DC (direct current) and the house runs on 240V AC (alternating current). Here is the technology behind the system.
- Solar panels, charge controller / regulator, 3kW inverter / charger, battery bank (20 batteries), circuit breakers, cabling, a Mate unit (readings of voltage of battery bank power, wattage consumption, use and drop the generator), backup generator (6kVA).
Ups & Downs of the Lifestyle
Without question, lack of a grid connection comes with some ups and downs. However, this doesn’t mean that the lifestyle is difficult or complicated. It’s about building a system that makes sense for yourself and your home and finding ways to manage your energy throughout the day. Plus, there is some pride, excitement, and accomplishment of the lifestyle choice.
- Empowering & achievement on a sunny day – feels good to generate your own power
- No professional needed to troubleshoot the customized system
- Living in an area not ideal for solar power, low sunshine hours in region
- Heather’s region is known for the lowest level of sunshine in New Zealand annually
- Having to use the majority of the power during the middle of the day
- Building a custom system over time – slow progress, limited capacity
- Frustrating keeping track, the steps to maintain the system, tackling issues
Adapting to the Lifestyle
As she said, Heather and her husband adapted to their lifestyle out of necessity due to the extremely high cost of grid connection. As a result, they have learned and embraced the idea of adapting to weather conditions, system limitations, and much more. Rather than starting with a plug-and-play system, they started small and expanded the system as needed. She has learned to let go a bit having been very conservative in the beginning in terms by not using other energy sources. Now, she will buy fuel for the generator to help recharge the battery bank rather than trying to work within the limited capacity and poor weather conditions.
Myths, Misconceptions, and Realities of Off-the-Grid Living
There are some strongly held opinions and stereotypes of individuals that choose to live off the grid. We know you have a few in your head at the moment. Here is a laundry list of myths that Heather shared with us. For the record, Heather is not a hippie, not a doomsday prepper, and not hiding in the woods because of some government conspiracy.
- That it’s expensive – it can be, but sometimes like in her case, it’s not
- Being off-the-grid does not translate to homesteading (raising own food, making clothes)
- They own and operate a construction company; she used to work away from home
- That you should be off all the grids – no phone, internet, appliances, etc.
- Their home is only a short drive from town for groceries, gas, and necessities
- When travelling, they both enjoy the comforts of on demand energy without guilt
- That being off-grid means being grid-tied where you feed back into the power grid
- TV advertising very often push singular setups which drives perception of systems
- View that being off the grid is simpler- but that doesn’t mean it’s easier
- It’s more labour intensive, requires diligent mindfulness
- Requires a person to be active in the generation of power and understanding capacity
Modern Views of Electrical Demand & Technology
We clearly live in a time where on demand energy is at our figure tips. We want our streaming video, our social media apps, and our gaming consoles to work with much effort. However, shifting to a conscious level of energy consumption does help the environment, the pocket book, and your well being over time. Heather is highly conscious of her power generation and consumption all the time, and yet is still very conservative. She does not take it for granted and appreciates conveniences of on-grid power more so than she did before.
Final Tips for Listeners
So, here are some key tips and takeaways that to listeners and those really interested in moving toward the direction of self-sustaining power, energy production, and conscious consumption.
- Always have alternatives, and have alternatives for your alternatives
- Alternative lighting options include torches (batteries, hand crank), solar lamps, candles
- Power options including owning a couple backup generators using gas/petrol
- Alternative cooking methods – gas stove, woodfire oven, electrical appliances
- Alternative ways to heat hot water – electric, woodfire wetback, gas
- Solar panels need to be accessible for maintenance, cleaning, and repair
- Be sure panels have full access to sunlight, unobstructed by vegetation and structures
- Visit professionals for sound advice and have electrical contractors verify work
- But always do your own research when building and creating the system you want
Resources & Links