House warming takes on a whole new meaning when you’re living off the grid. If your survival goal is to be highly self-reliant, chances are you will need a way to avoid the season’s cold weather while pursuing that goal. Or, maybe Mother Nature has decided that she’s in charge, so you have no option but to live off the grid. Either way, there are ways you can stay warm.
Living off the grid doesn’t mean you have to absorb winter’s chill season. Follow these tips to ensure your home retains the heat you generate.
There’s more than one way to heat your home without using electricity, and the method you choose will depend on your personal preferences.
“The two most common ways to heat an off-grid house are using a woodstove or using one or more propane-fired space heaters with through-the-wall venting,” says Martin Halladay of Green Building Advisor, who has lived off the grid for 35 years. If you choose to go the wood stove route, make sure you carefully estimate the amount of firewood you’ll need to make it through the winter. Ideally, Halladay says, you’ll stockpile a winter’s worth of firewood before October 1. In addition, you can add warmth to your house by ensuring that the sun’s rays can fully reach it. “Passive solar heat is a great place to start,” says Claudia J. King of Smart Solutions, Inc., which offers high-performance energy-efficient products. “Do whatever you can to allow for the sun’s energy to heat mass.” That can include something as simple as trimming trees.”
King recommends that you evaluate your entire “Thermal Envelope,” which includes walls, windows, ceiling and floor. “Good use of passive solar thermal can reduce heating loads by large numbers,” she says. “The better the performance of the thermal envelope, the warmer and more comfortable the home will be in difficult times. It is static and non-mechanical, and the single most important part in maintaining efficiency and comfort at the least cost or work.”
ACTIVE SOLAR SYSTEMS
To warm your house, you may want to delve deeper into the solar option. In addition to absorbing the sun’s rays through passive placement, you may also consider solar energy that involves carefully placed panels.
“An active solar system (like solar hot water) correctly tied into a primary looped hydronic system is really an excellent way to go, but must be weighed in carefully,” King says. “Lots of heat options exist like conventional wall-hung gas boilers and wood gasification boilers. Wood gasification or biomass boilers are like incinerators and can burn almost anything combustible (including trash). These systems have very small electric loads and can operate at very high efficiencies,” she adds. Geothermal heat pumps have received a fair amount of press over the past few years, due to their ability to pull natural heat from under the ground and deliver it to your home.
These may not be as common in off-grid homes as you’d expect, however. “Geothermal heat pumps are fine for some applications, but they still use large amounts of electric power and are typically seldom used off grid,” King says. “An example of a good geothermal application is when you have both a heating and cooling load (similar in size) or need at the same time. An ultra-energy-efficient home can use one or more small high SEER-rated (up to 27) ductless mini-split heat pumps and be a success down to about 5 degrees (F). These small systems have small electric power requirements and great performance.”
“The two most common ways to heat an off-grid house are using a wood stove or using one or more propane-fired space heaters …” — Martin Halladay of Green Building Advisor
INSULATION IS KEY
Once you’ve nailed down a heating method for your home, it’s time to institute part two of your warmth strategy: Containing the heat. “If you want to focus on staying warm, you need to build as airtight a structure as you can and then use the right form of insulation,” says Blake Reid of Snug Planet, a Tompkins County, New York-based company that performs building analyses to advise homeowners and businesses how to make their structures more energy-efficient. “Carefully identify areas where heat can escape,” Reid says. “A lot of the way heat is contained is sealing up holes,” he notes. “No matter what insulation you have, it won’t be effective if holes in your walls let the heat escape.” Even if you just built your home and you’re confident there are no leaks, think again. “People make holes in your walls, such as plumbers, electricians, framers, and cable technicians,” Reid explains. Energy auditors can find those holes and seal them. When considering insulation materials, be sure to use a product that will fill your walls completely.
“We really like cellulose,” Reid says. “It’s made of ground-up newspapers, and you can squeeze it into your walls and it really fills them. It’s more airtight than fiberglass, because when air moves through fiberglass, its performance is degraded.” In addition, Reid says, don’t stop just at your walls.
“We believe in insulating all around, even the floors, to make sure no heat escapes,” he says. Plus, you should look at your entryways to confirm that they aren’t allowing heat to leak out. “Use spray foam, weather-stripping and sealant in any place needed to fill cracks, penetrations and around windows and doors if any trim is ever removed,” King advises.
“If you want to know if you’re prepared, the solution is simple: Shut OFF your main power under your ideal conditions …” — Claudia J. King of Smart Solutions, Inc.
If you’ve never endured a winter off the grid and you’re unsure of whether you’re ready, consider a test run. “Most people who are connected to the grid have little experience without power for more than a day or two,” King says. “If you want to know if you’re prepared, the solution is simple: Shut off your main power under your ideal conditions, then make a list of the things you still need,” King recommends. “Repeat this a few times, and you will learn what it takes to get things done.” Who says you need electricity to generate heat?
KNOW THE COSTS OF FUEL
If you plan to live off the grid, be ready to cut ties with your natural gas provider, in addition to your electricity service. “When people talk ‘off grid,’ we normally have no natural gas available so propane becomes the only gas option,” King says. “We use a cost per million BTU chart that makes looking at options a bit easier, but certainly consider maintenance, life-cycle and power use.”
CONSERVE YOUR ENERGY
It’s always important to conserve energy in your home, but it’s even more essential when you’re living off the grid and every degree counts. “Like all things thermal, use everything wisely, keep doors shut and don’t waste energy,” King says. “Take full advantage of anything natural that you do have, like light, snow, sun, cool nights, water, gravity and moonlight.”
MAKE A PRACTICE RUN
Before you’re forced to live without power, do a trial run. Shut off your main power under your ideal conditions and make a list of the things you need. Repeat as necessary, and you will learn what it takes to get things done.
HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN
When you’re living off the grid, you need a back-up plan for power. “Resorting to a generator in winter is typical—not unusual,” says Martin Halladay of Green Building Advisor. “In most parts of North America, there are many fewer hours of sunlight during the winter, while electrical needs increase.”
“If you have a back-up generator that you intend to hook into or back-feed your power system, know how to connect it and use it safely,” says Claudia J. King of Smart Solutions, Inc. She also recommends that if it’s your first winter using the generator, use it sparingly, only as needed, reserving your fuel. “Monitor your fuel use so you can plan accordingly for future fuel storage next winter,” she adds.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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