Power to the People-Light On
In the big picture electrical power is the single ongoing issue which dominates any discussion about being off the grid. Water is a royal pain in the summer, because we have had to [literally] scratch, claw and dig our way to success [or not], but once the system is functioning, it is pretty hands-off. In the winter, when we don’t need it, we generally have torrential amounts of water; we just have to keep it from freezing.
Heat is the easiest/most challenging element to implement. It’s easy because we live five miles up a dirt road, in the heavily wooded coastal mountains of NorCal. There is no shortage of wood. It’s challenging because I still have to go through the mechanics of providing as few as five cords-to as many as eight-for any given winter, but it’s all about working in incremental stages: baby steps if you will.
Even with a sniveling right knee, I had minimal problems using the log splitter (sorry, S.Staus) to render a stack of manageable rounds into firewood, both smaller stuff for the kitchen stove, or thumpers for the big stove. I merely put a leash on my enthusiasm, and limited my work to no more than two hours at a shot. The same with moving it in the wheelbarrow back to where I can access it easily in three feet of snow. Ok, scratch the word “easily” out of the previous sentence, because nothing comes easily in three feet of snow.
But, and it’s a big butt, electricity presents the biggest challenge. It is so idyllic to imagine an existence free of electricity, but believe me, I prefer to have the choice. Yes, there are 15,000 volts cruising along those high-voltage wires, crisscrossing Bell Springs Road, right at the top of our driveway, a quarter-mile off. But we only need 110 volts of it, I remind you, so that power is useless. Kind of like dying of thirst, while standing at the Pacific Ocean’s edge.
When we made inquiries at the local PG&E office, about the feasibility of getting power to our site, they informed us that they would happily provide power if the residents of the area desired it, but such had not been historically the case. In retrospect, I am glad for that, even though we pay a steep price, both economically, and in terms of personal inconvenience. It’s a war, with an ongoing series of battles to keep us on our toes.
Originally, the only source of power we had was a 3500 watt generator, whose purpose in life was to charge the two deep-cell storage batteries that provided twelve-volt power to the house. I had wired the cabin originally, with guidance from Matt, my younger contractor brother, but only for twelve volt. That meant we had good lighting, though no light switches; we still had to hit the button on each light fixture. Except for a portable cassette/radio, there were no other drains on our electricity. We used the genny to power the washing machine, and the clothes racks we used to dry them, required nothing in the way of electricity. We never have owned a dryer. Or a dishwasher (except me).
Around five years after we moved up, we sprang for a small television set and a VCR recorder, so that we could access films. There was/is no television reception in our area except for satellite TV, which had never been affordable, until after the boys had left the building. All those years they begged me to provide what all of their friends had, but it never happened until they were gone.
I admit that one reason I got it was to try and entice them back on occasion. It only works with Lito, who is as addicted to the Niners and Giants as I am. It is a good thing I am writing about electricity, or I might feel inclined to to mention something about the victory of the Niners over the mighty Pittsburg Steelers last night, but I will restrain myself.
Sometime in the nineties, we did an upgrade of the electrical system, so that now instead of two deep-cell storage batteries, we had eight. Now when we used the generator to charge the batteries, it took about five hours, but they were good for several days. We could also run the television and VCR off the batteries, instead of having to run the generator just to power our entertainment system.
The goal, of course, was solar energy; others around us had it, and it was well worth the investment, but we simply couldn’t afford it. Quite a while back, the price of individual panels leveled off at about 350 dollars apiece, and we had determined that we needed eight panels to provide enough electricity to power our house, including being able to use the washing machine, which drew more power than anything except the power tools I used for carpentry.
So we waited. When we finally had the system installed (not by me, that’s certain) we were ecstatic. It corresponded with the surge in the price of gasoline, so we were instantly reaping economic benefits of not having to burn five or more gallons a week to power the genny. We had no monthly PG&E bill, but that gas bill could sure add up. Now we could sit back a tally up the loot being saved.
It is still not peaches and cream, because as soon as I got full of myself and ordered the satellite TV, I found that the “control box” drew a ferocious amount of juice, and our power system needs another upgrade. It’s not going to happen for a while, and meanwhile the digital device which reports out the amount of amperage being taken in by the solar panels, and the corresponding amount of power being used in the house at any given time, is kaput. We are completely in the dark (quit snickering, boys) as to how much power we have stored up in the batteries.
At any second, the system just shuts down, and we are completely powerless. That requires that I gas up and start the generator, which immediately restores the power. It’s painful, but doable. Until we can afford to replace that digital device, we are in limbo. I do remember, however, what it was like to be in darkness. If I had my druthers, I’d take limbo, because at lest I can flick on the light, and the music for that matter. Maybe I’ll catch Chubby Checker doing the “Limbo Rock.”