Can you go off-grid in the city?

solar-panelsIs it possible to go off-grid in the city? It’s a question I’ve pondered for years. When I lived in B.C. I didn’t take it quite as seriously, but moving to Alberta, I have.

When I look at my utility bills it’s a little frustrating. I actually get charged for water drainage based on the number of square feet of my lot? Really? Epcor manages the groundwater too?

And gas. The fixed charges ever y month are ridiculous! In B.C., my gas bill wasn’t a whole lot more than that.

How would you go off-grid in the city?

There are several systems you’d need to replace, and it might not be easy. Possible? I think so, but you’d have to plan it. And when I refer to going off-grid, I’m mainly referring to major utilities such as electricity, gas, water and sewer. Phone and Internet are other possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be disconnected? I would love it.

Water

I have looked into water collection and filtration systems, and this one could be a challenge. I haven’t yet calculated if there’s enough precipitation in Edmonton to be able to pull this off, but I think it’s possible.

You need to have a roofing material that doesn’t leach chemicals into your rainwater. You’d need to collect all the runoff from your roof in underground tanks, and from there filter the water and direct it into your house. It would be key to reduce your water use, which could be done with composting toilets, low flow faucets and showerheads, efficient dishwashers and clothes washers.

Sewer

This one’s not as hard as you might think. Your sewer stream pretty much splits into two parts: black water and grey water. Black water comes from your toilet and grey water is from your sinks, tubs and washers.

The black water is easily dealt with in a composting toilet. They’re not expensive and are environmentally friendly. They turn human waste into compost. Do you want to put it on your garden? Well, that’s up to you, but you could put it in your yard in good conscience.

Grey water is a little tougher to deal with, mostly because city government would probably stand in the way. You simply need to gather your grey water, send it to a holding tank, end disperse it underground. You can use it to water plants, etc.

I’m not fully familiar with all aspects of a grey water system, but I know that houses in the country use the same principle, except they discharge grey and black water. The beneficial aspects of a grey water system are that they aren’t dumped into a river but replenish ground water, make it so you’re not using treated municipal water on your yard (which seems like a waste) and it disconnects you from the municipal services.

By using a composting toilet you reduce the amount of water you use.

Gas

If you use gas for heating, this one wouldn’t be that hard to get rid of. One of the primary considerations is to reduce your heating load and switch your clothes drying to solar and electricity. I would also switch to geothermal heating and make sure your hot water is heated with electricity and solar.

My goal is to eliminate my gas connection. Bye bye furnace. Bye bye gas hot water tank. The furnace would be replaced by geothermal and the hot water tank is electric and is supplemented by solar hot water.

Reducing your heating load

By reducing your heating load, which just means insulating and reducing heat loss, you make it easier to provide the power to run your other systems.

The steps may be simple or they might be more complex and costly, depending on your home. The previous owner here was smart and put on two inches of extra insulation on our house and installed triple glazed windows. That’s a good start!

You can make sure your doors are insulated, seal up all the cracks where heat might escape, insulate crawlspaces and especially your attic.

Insulating really well is common sense whether you’re on grid or off. It reduces the amount of fuel you need to heat and reduces the electricity you need to keep cool in the summer if you use air conditioning. If your house were to be designed properly, you wouldn’t need cooling in the summer either.

Electricity

This is the tough one. Electricity is going to power your geothermal heating, hot water, clothes drying, lights and all your electrical devices. The trick is, how do you generate enough electricity to be able to power all those things?

First, you need to make sure you’re using as little electricity as possible. Simple things like compact fluorescent bulbs help, but LEDs will be better. Take advantage of nice days to dry your clothes outside (what a novel concept). Do you really need air conditioning (if you super insulate, you may not)? I lived for years without air conditioning. Big deal.

The key is to generate enough electricity to power your geothermal system which can function like a heater and refrigerator all in one. You reverse it in the summer and it cools your house. Nice.

Generating electricity

It’s a nice thought to have electricity as the one form of power for your house, but how do you generate enough? And how do you get the city to go for it?

Solar is one obvious answer, but there are several parts to it. Solar panels can generate electricity and solar hot water panels can preheat your hot water, reducing the need to heat it with electricity. To further complicate things, your geothermal can also heat your hot water. So, solar hot water would reduce the load on your geothermal system as well.

If you think you won’t like the look of solar panels on your house, stop reading. Your roof will have solar panels and solar hot water panels.

Electrical wind generators

swedish-energy-ballAnother way to generate electricity is to have a wind generator. I’ve seen two that intrigue me. One is on a vertical axis and takes up very little space. Another resembles a whiffle ball and spins on a horizontal axis. I could have one on my house and one on my garage. It would be key to make sure that they do not have guy wires and are more than adequately secured.

I don’t worry about the killing birds argument. First, it’s a rarity. Second, if the wind generator doesn’t get them, global warming may eliminate their species. I think one of the Prime Directives from Star Trek probably addresses that well.

windside-vertical-axis-wind-turbineThe major problem really would be your neighbours and the city. NIMBYs and numbskulls? Your neighbours would complain they’re noisy (they’re not) and the city would probably complain just because it’s different. Sorry, I don’t care about your codes. If you’ve watched Mike Holmes, you’ll understand that minimum code requirements barely qualify as toilet paper.

Edmonton is a very windy city, I find, and I’m sure there would be plenty of windpower to make this viable.

Is it enough electricity?

Important question. How much is enough? Will your solar panels and wind generators be enough? Perhaps. You also need to have adequate storage for those times when the sun isn’t out and the wind’s not blowing.

You’d need to do some serious planning to ensure you have enough electricity for all your needs. Electric stoves, dryers and hot water heaters are major power hogs, so you need to make sure you provide more than you think you’ll need.

Other electricity generation methods

We’re a little ways off yet, but a home power cell could be another option. From the reading I’ve done, it seems like a stationary power cell might be more feasible than one for your vehicle. Along with electricity they can also generate heat. This would be a nice addition to the other systems.

Cost?

I never said my dream was cheap. I haven’t calculated a cost yet, mainly because I would have to know what my requirements are, but I can see it approaching $100,000 or more, quite easily.

Solar panels, while becoming cheaper, still are quite expensive. Geothermal for my house would be in the $40,000 range. Solar hot water is surprisingly inexpensive. I have to put on a new roof anyway, so that’s going to have to be spent anyway. $20,000? Wind generators? $10-15,000? Battery backup? I have no idea. Solar panels? Again, no idea yet. Toilets, maybe $2,500. Grey water system? $5,000?

Seems like a lot of money to spend just to disconnect from those power bills. Does it make sense from a practical perspective? Well, that depends on how you look at it.

Peak oil?

The idea that we’ve reached the mid-point of world oil production and that it will decline from here is a reality. We don’t know when that mid-point is, but it will happen. The idea really came to the fore when US oil production peaked in 1970, as predicted by an American petroleum expert. He predicted it in the 50s.

Alberta’s conventional oil production is also in decline. You think through the boom it’s increased? Sorry, it’s declined every year since about 1998 (earliest year for which I’d seen the figures).

Wonder why I don’t want gas as my heat source? Well, Canada is running out and usage is increasing, especially by the oil sands.

You can argue it, but it’s a simple matter of fact: energy costs will increase in the future. If peak oil becomes a reality, or more accurately, if the general population realizes it is, then watch out. This is when alternative energy will be alternative no more.

Global warming

As much as I want to save the planet, I realize there’s only so much I can do as an individual. You’ve seen my ideas. This is what I want to do.

Human beings collectively don’t seem to be too bright. We only seem to take action when forced. We tend to be more reactive than proactive. Sure, there are exceptions. Don’t take it personally. I’m not necessarily talking about you, but we’re all guilty of complacency at one point or other.

If the economics work, then people will change, but not before. Why can’t we do the right thing because it’s just the right thing? Who knows, but I’m trying to make choices that are the right thing.

Governments

What I’m proposing is a little radical. Expect entrenched interests like electrical, water, sewer and gas utilities to fight this idea. They’ve got the money to do it, but whose interests are they fighting for? Certainly not yours.

Governments, unwise ones at least, will generally fight this as well. It’s too different. It’s too forward thinking. It upsets their apple cart.

Think of the benefits this could bring. Tax credits that promote these types of options could be something that helps turn the economy around. It’ll benefit oil and gas companies too.

If, within a year, Canadians cut the amount of oil, gas and electricity they use in their homes and cars in half, wouldn’t that be beneficial? Those utilities could then sell that oil and gas to higher bidders in the US; same with the electricity. We’d probably meet our original Kyoto obligations (perish the thought).

Manufacturers of solar panels, wind generators, geothermal supplies, home building supplies (windows, doors, insulation), would all be busier than ever. And what about the people required to install these things? They couldn’t keep up.

You think that wouldn’t turn around the economy?

How about incentives to trade in your gas guzzler on a much more fuel efficient vehicle? If Detroit or Windsor produced some of those, even better.

The banks

Our federal government could even come up with a program that required banks to lend to homeowners based on a formula. I don’t know if it would work, but here it goes.

Your home could be assessed to determine the best ways of cutting your energy use. The final cost could be added to your mortgage at a preferential interest rate and the bank could offset that amount with any government incentives. Ideally, the savings you see today (based on current and projected energy costs over the amortization period of the loan) and in the future would offset the additional mortgage payment you would make.

So, for the home owner, ideally it would be revenue neutral. As energy costs increase, homeowners would see savings. It would increase the value of their home. It would stimulate the economy. It would lower our greenhouse gas emissions. Canadians would be more independent and less reliant on giant utilities (okay, so it’s not as good for them).

The details

Of course I haven’t given all the details. They can be worked out. I think the concepts are important. We can move toward these options on our own, proactively, or we can do it reactively. It makes much more sense to take control, do it now and be prepared.

The question I have for every Canadian politician is: do you have the guts to make these kinds of decisions that are in the best interest of Canadians?

Will it happen?

So, will I ever go off-grid? I’d like to. Frankly, I just don’t have the money to do it. If I did, I would. I would be a pioneer. If you’re out in the country, it’s far easier.

Let’s hope business is even better for me in the future and I’ll be able to do it.

This is hardly a complete treatment of the subject. There’s so much more that could be said, and I’d like to go into more detail in the future. Feel free to share your ideas and comments here.


About 

If I were to picture my ideal life, I’d be sitting in some far off land, sipping a coffee in a café, my backpack at my side, camera around my neck, motorcycle at the curb, pondering my next stop or maybe madly typing away on my laptop about my latest adventure.

12 Responses to Can you go off-grid in the city?

  1. Electricity storage solutions are a critical aspect of being able to go off the grid. In Germany, they have proof of concept projects going where a compressor is used to pressurize air in a tank (they went for an old mining site, but it can be an artificial tank) when electricity production is higher than consumption. When demand is higher, the pressurized air is released to put a small, high-efficiency electricity generator in motion and fill the gap… :- )

  2. I agree that electricity storage is key. An easy way out would be to go the route of net metering, but it kind of defeats the purpose of going off-grid. It also makes you vulnerable to supply disruptions as your batteries essentially are the grid.

    I’d be interested to see if there’s a production model of the compressor.

  3. I think the best way to move towards going off-grid is to start taking steps and just keeping taking those steps whereever and however you can.
    Laundry is a pretty easy starting point. The new horizontal washing machines use a lot less water and are a big advantage to hang drying clothes because they have faster spin-out speeds and those faster speeds mean your clothes are very well wrung out when you take them out of the washer. Or you could step even further off-grid and get an old-fashioned wringer washer!
    Here is the coolest clothes drying rack I have found. It folds up really small. Definitely built to last. Putting it right below the ceiling fan works nice in the winter.

    • Hi Nick, thanks for the comment.

      I agree we need to take those steps however we can. Laundry does take up a lot of energy in the form of gas and electricity for heating the water as well as drying clothes.

      Municipalities are gradually coming back around to letting people have clothes lines in their back yards. Or, you can just do it anyway.

      It’s great to take these steps, but we also need to be taking the bigger steps to reduce our energy consumption too.

    • If you’re thinking about rainwater collection, consider the Bermuda Roof. As an added bonus it’s also hurricane resistant!

      After that the calculations are easy: (footprint of the roof) x (inches of water) = average gallons per year

      You might want to calculate for a standard of deviation or so, and you can still be half on the grid by installing an emergency level valve made from toilet parts into the cistern.

      http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,636457,00.html

      Good luck!

  4. Pingback: Haiti reconstruction: shipping container homes | alainsaffel.com

  5. Another way of working towards off the grid that I’m aiming towards, (and I know it isn’t for most people, but more and more are looking at it) would be RV, van or boat living. Solar and/or wind generators could meet most of the electrical needs, a gasoline or diesel back up generator for when additional power is needed (laundry/microwave or electric stove and for air conditioning) propane and/or wood stove for heat and water heater (used solar to pre-heat the water to cut that cost) Also collect rain water for use in commode, washing clothes etc….

    Some day I think I’ld like to try full time RV living, traveling with only the price of fuel, parking, cable/internet, maintenance, fees from parks and such and food. But will start with a home base, (probably weekends at first) Find a few (or more) acres of land and set up a homestead of sorts, with RV, add solar panels and wind turbine(s) in addition to wood stove (someone already gave me a small one) for cooking and heat. A large garden for some food and a small greenhouse addition to RV (for additional heat during daylight hours) or nearby just to extend the growing season, Dig a cellar for storage and possibly some sort of geothermal as well

    I was thinking car dolly (one that the whole car rides on, not one the just lifts two wheels), towed behind, and once on location, vehicle would be unloaded and the dolly could be pulled along side of the RV, enclosed – small greenhouse on one side and mudroom with small wood stove on the other side.

  6. Jobs,Work and Career Forum

    last year we bought two electric stoves that we use on our kitchen, they are nice because they do not generate smoke ;”`

    (Editor’s note: I loved this comment so much I had to post it… about a month later, sans URL. I just wonder what they’d been cooking on before, cow dung?)

  7. I Googled “Living off-the grid in a city” and found your site.
    Build an Earthship! You can DIY (i.e. building materials are salvaged tires/earth, and labor cost is cheap as long as you’re willing to put in the labor) and go off the grid at the same time.
    http://www.earthship.org/

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve looked into earthships and they seem like one heck of a lot of work! Those tires take a lot of soil! I do like the concept of a south-facing earth-bermed house. Not particularly practical in the city, but if you have property it is.

      Cob construction seems like it would be just about as much work as a rammed earth building.

      Hay bale construction seems like a pretty good option on the prairies though. Bales are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, wood is as cheap as ever and they’re super insulated! Not sure, but cities may even approve hay bale construction too.

  8. your idea of waste water isnt practical sorry to say,, having lived on a farm with both an outhouse,, and a lagoon, then upgraded to a septic tank and feild.. which I think is what you are proposing. A septic tank and feild need to have a great deal of land and prep(gravel) to work properly, and the solid waste needs to be pumped out. I laughed out loud when you talked about dishwashers.. when you are relying on rainwater for your total water.. don’t think so! The same with flush toilets..showers.. or automatic clothes washers. they use too much water. you want to cut back.. start by unplugging every thing in your house that you are not currrently using(even if turned off all appliences use a little bit of electrical current at all times unless unplugged).. then turn down the heat in your house to 19 degrees.. and leave it there.. if you get cold.. use a blanket or put on more clothes. turn down the heat on your hot water tank..you should be able to hold your hand under the hot water tap when it is turned on fully without any cold water running. Change the light bulb wattage in every light bulb in your house.. and never leave a light on in a room when you aren’t in it. Run full loads of clothes in the washer.. and hang clothes to dry.. in the summer and winter.. wash dishes by hand.. it uses less water,soap and gives family time together.. When we implimented these simple methods, we cut all of our utility bills by 1/3.. I thought we did darn good!! We also arranged for equalized billing on all our utilities, with the settle up month in the summer(instead of before or after christmas). Makes budgeting so much easier.

    • Hi Denise,

      Thanks for your comments. Actually I’m not suggesting a septic tank and field, an outhouse or lagoon. If you refer to the sewer section you’d see I’m proposing to use composting toilets, eliminating the need for lagoons, outhouses or septic fields.

      Removing a flush toilet eliminates a great deal of water use, as do water efficient appliances like a front loading washer and modern dishwashers. I actually did the calculations at a later date and, based on average rainfall in my area, I think we could do it without having to rely on municipal water. Never said it would be easy and you’d need a pretty good sized cistern to get through the dry periods.

      We are on metered water in the city so I have our usage data. The city would be unlikely to approve a greywater dispersement system, but it could definitely be done. I know people who are doing it.

      We’re actually looking at moving outside of the city and building a small home on an acreage. We fully intend to superinsulate (one foot thick walls) to reduce the heating load. The lighting system will be 12 volt DC and powered by photovoltaics. Efficiency is always the way to go! I’ve done a lot more research since I wrote this, and I’m not far off the mark on what I first wrote.

      I can’t remember if I said it in the article, but we also cut our electrical usage by 1/3. To cut it much more would be difficult, especially with kids in the house who don’t have quite the same commitment to efficiency. We’ve already got all the bulbs replaced with compact fluorescent, but are waiting for prices on LEDs to drop a bit more before we go that route.

      Thanks again!
      Alain

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