Off the Grid

Off the Grid

A family of four tries to use only the electricity they can produce themselves for a whole month.

By Amy S. Hansen, November 11, 2008

Copyright ©2008 Culture11

It’s 9 a.m., and I’m standing next to our house staring at the electric meter. Like a dieter staring at the scale, I will it to go backwards, but it’s whirling forward. This is wrong. It is June 5, the fifth day of our family’s electricity experiment. Is the meter running amok? No, I finally remember, I started the dishwasher before I came out. Hopefully, we’ll have enough sun to make the meter run backwards the rest of the day.

During June, our family of four people and one cat went on an electricity diet. We have a photovoltaic solar panel system on the top of our house that produces an average of 7 Kilowatt-hours a day. The electricity we produce goes into the wires and back into the general grid. So when we aren’t using much electricity in the house, our meter runs backwards.

We also have solar tubes in our house that bring in outside light (much like sunroofs). We have already done the “easy” stuff: We shifted to compact florescent lights; we put our computers to sleep; we unplug the television to avoid vampire usage; we use ceiling fans, and so on. But can we go a step farther and live comfortably using only the electricity that we produce? In our Washington DC suburb, June is the month to try this diet. The solar panels produce the most electricity because the sun is the highest in the sky. June is also likely to be too warm for the furnace and cool enough that we can get away without air conditioning. If we can’t do it in June, we can’t do it.

On June 1, our meter reads 5602.

We are neither Spartans nor Luddites in our family. The dishes are still washed in the dishwasher—uses less water than washing by hand. The computers are still being used. The refrigerator and lights are necessities. However, I bought a solar cooker and learned to use it, so the stove and the rice cooker are used less often. And I took a look at my boy’s habits and got them to buy into this month’s experiment. So I nagged them about turning off lights and closing the fridge door, but they actually became self-policing.

I looked at my own habits too. I used a wattage detector to find out how much each appliance actually uses, thus learning that it costs less to make hot water in an electric kettle than on the stove, and making two sets of toast right in a row is slightly less expensive then if the appliance cools down in between. Also I realized I drink lots of hot tea. Often I reheat the pot five times a day. Now, I heat up the pot once and stick the hot water in a thermos. Yes, the savings are miniscule, but I hope to find other savings that will add up.

June 2, our meter is still at 5602. It’s getting warm out, but with the boys in school and my office in the basement, we’re fine without the AC. June 3, it rained in the morning and then was cloudy the rest of the day. June 4, the cat got sick on the bed, so I had to do wash. Meter now reads 5603.

Okay, here is my problem with solar energy: You have to use it while the sun shines. It sounds silly but bear with me. This is my normal morning routine: get up at 7 a.m., get the kids breakfast and make their lunches, and get them on the bus by 8:30. Then I have about six hours to be my professional self. When the school bus drops them off at 3:30, I try to be available. I may not be entertaining, but I can cook and talk at the same time — better yet, they can cook too.

However, when I use a solar cooker, I have to start while they’re still at school and I am in the middle of work time. And here’s another problem. The solar cooker can be dangerous. The light is focused on the cooker using aluminum panels. Looking at it, for even a second, can burn your eyes. I have to put this hazard in our front yard, since that’s where the sun is. The front yard is also the school bus stop. So my cooking needs to be cleaned up before the kids get off the bus.

Some days I am ready to do this; others, I turn the oven on inside.
Here’s the next problem: Clotheslines. What better use of the sun could I ask for? But to do this requires rearranging our family’s chores. My husband does the laundry late at night. Both he and I are happy with this division of labor. Unfortunately, to use a clothesline I would need to take the chore back, and do it while the sun is shining. After the cat pukes, I wash the sheets and then hang them to dry. Okay, I can do it, but I can’t get as much writing done.

All of that said, we aren’t doing too badly. On a sunny day, we produce enough energy to run the dishwasher, the wash, even the drier (it’s natural gas), and still break even. So June 1 our meter read 5602, June 5 it read 5603. On June 20 it is still 5603. Not bad. The end of the month, though, blew our budget. It got hot. School was out. Friends were over and it was 90 degrees at 10 a.m. Do we get cranky in the heat? Spend fossil fuels to go somewhere air-conditioned? Or flip the switch?

I turn on the AC.

The next day my boys sat in the house on a cloudy afternoon. They had been sniping at each other all day and now both were quietly reading in different rooms. Do I ask them to move to the same light bulb?

Again, I used electricity to ensure domestic tranquility.

Because of the hot and cloudy days, our final meter reading on June 30 was 5615, thirteen more than what we started at. Or, in other words, we bought (each single digit increase represents 10 kilowatts) 130 Kilowatts in addition to the 220 or so that we produced.

Learning to read the meter was crucial to this month. If I didn’t pay attention, we could spend lots. I Googled “reading electric meters” and found many sites with decent explanations. The process is not really a mystery, but it does take a little practice.

June is over and we aren’t ready to get off the grid yet. Our next steps will be to get a solar water heater, and look at the efficiency of our appliances. We need to boost our production and whittle down our use. But we did it for most of the month. Vigilance on turning off lights, keeping fridge openings short, and using the solar cooker — especially the solar cooker —really did make a difference.

Someday soon we’ll be there. And I’ll be keeping track.

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