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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Getting off power grid not only for the cabin

A huge source of joy with a cabin in the woods comes from making due with less.

The cabin provides a glimpse into a simpler time when a good fire, conversation and stargazing were things to savor.

Candlelit dancing sessions with my wife to soft music in the cabin are those memories I visit when I need something good.

Yet in world of ever improving technology, a few things become necessary to turn “roughing it” into “smoothing it” at the special place.

One of those amenities was brought to us by Thomas Edison. But for a remote cabin, bringing in electricity can be cost-prohibitive and, dare I say, unwelcome.

In my cost-conscious world, I use a trusty propane lantern to provide most of my light. For specific duties, I use overhead battery-powered LED lights with remote switches that I bought years ago from a certain box store.

I then purchased enough rechargeable batteries, of various sizes, to ensure that I always have enough batteries to run everything from fans, a handheld shower, a music box, headlamps and the lights. When anything loses power, I simply haul the batteries home and recharge them during the week.

With this method, each bedroom, the cooking area and even the privy have lights on demand. But my system takes practice and diligence.

Sun powered

While I make it work, I’ve known for some time that solar power would be the next logical step. I decided to research how to bring power to the cabin without paying a power company.

Imagine a system that monitors itself, starts a generator automatically when needed and can even start an electric heater to preheat the cabin hours before the owner’s arrival.

The range of possibilities is limited only by money and desire. Solar power doesn’t only provide a potential solution at the cabin, it could, and probably should, be something that folks in cities should explore.

Kyle Baird, of Spokane, found himself in this situation three years ago.

He and his wife, Rachel, built a home on Spokane’s west side and inquired about having Avista Utilities provide power. Digging an 1,800-foot trench or adding power poles and transformers would cost about the same as installing a self-sufficient solar system.

“The idea of going off the grid was very intriguing,” Baird said. “We wanted to be accountable for the power we use. People leave lights on all the time and water running. We wanted to know how much power we were using and to be accountable for it.”

The Baird’s builder put them in touch with Bruce Gage at Eco Depot. Gage will hand you a series of questionnaires that makes one think about power usage beyond simply flipping the switch.

Before he can design a system, the client must add up all the things that draw power at the home. Refrigerators, freezers, ovens, vacuum cleaners, lights, dishwashers, clothes washers … everything that needs some form of electricity to operate becomes a number.

Gage can then take that number and design a system to power it.

The Bairds went online to find out what their appliances needed. And, they also decided what they could do without.

“We have a well,” Baird said. “One of our biggest power draws is running excess water. We have to think about doing laundry on a cloudy day. Things like a shower. Do you shower at night? No, if I can shower during the day.”

The Bairds chose not to have a dishwasher and they purchased a propane-powered clothes dryer. They then purchased a small, highly efficient refrigerator.

“We have people out and they take long hot showers. That’s a massive consumption of power for us,” he said. “It’s funny, people just don’t get it.”

And winter can become a challenge, especially when snow covers the panels that draw the electricity.

“Sometimes in winter, you get most of your power from” the generator, he said. “But on the flip side … we’ve had two weeks straight where the generator has not run once.”

Generators need fuel and the oil changed. But even with fuel costs, Baird estimates that the couple pays about $600 a year for all of their power needs.

“There are chores associated with this,” Baird said. “You have to think the system.”

How it works

Solar panels absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into 12-volt power. That power then typically runs to a charge controller to regulate the power streaming to batteries. It’s then routed to an inverter to convert that 12-volt electricity into the 110-volt power that runs most appliances in the United States.

And, depending on the model, all those boxes that route the energy throughout your system can think for you.

For instance, Baird’s regulator monitors both the incoming electricity and battery levels. When the battery levels drop to a certain point, the system automatically starts a gas-powered generator and the system charges itself.

“My regulator shows the watts coming in. I can look at my phone and know what is going on,” he said. “You don’t even need to think. If a generator has to run, it runs.”

While the self-contained system needs batteries, Gage can also design what’s known as a grid-tied system.

In that scenario, homeowners install solar panels and convert that electricity to 110 volts to run their appliances. On those days they generate more power than they need, the power actually flows back into the power company, which then provides a credit for any electricity provided.

The home then pulls power off the power company’s grid at night or on days when the panels cannot capture enough energy to power the system. While most folks still end up paying the power company, the cost is significantly reduced.

“I’m getting a lot more inquires about” grid-tied systems, Gage said. “You can also retrofit batteries to a grid-tied system.”

Despite the chores and not having a dishwasher, Baird said the benefits outweigh any time he spends on maintenance.

“I’m so happy and thankful to be like this,” he said. “I don’t miss being grid-tied at all. And when everybody lost power, we never lost power.”

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