Living Off the Grid in Saskatchewan
by Brian Bueckert
Did you know, on a clear day the sun emits 1,000 watts of usable energy per square metre every hour on your roof? That is enough energy to run all the lights in your home and your TV at the same time!
When I was in high school, I took a course in electronics and learned about solar and wind systems. From that moment on, it was a part of me. I set a goal to one day have a farm that ran on wind and solar, to make hot water with sunshine, and heat my home with renewable energy.
I remember my first windmill. It was very small, about the size of a frying pan. I built it from used parts found around the garage. I was so excited to test it that I held it out the window of my car and drove down a grid road to see how much power it would produce. At about 10 kilometres it did nothing, so I sped up to 20 kilometres. That got it turning, but just barely. You know the old saying, “If some is good, more is better?” Well, let’s just say the experiment ended abruptly at 40 kilometres per hour as the windmill took off like a jet engine on steroids and left a nice big scratch the side of my car. Ah, the crazy things we do in our youth.
About fifteen years ago, we purchased two big windmills and four solar panels. Documenting as I went along and making small changes to our farm, we discovered we could go off grid, but it would cost us about 70 thousand dollars to make that dream a reality. Not having that kind of spare cash, I was content to continue to dabble and test theories, building systems and recording the results.
Over the last five years, the solar industry has grown in leaps and bounds and so did commercial production. The cost of solar panels plummeted as more companies got on board. As my savings grew, and prices dropped to less than half the original calculation, it was time to make my move and buy the material I needed.
To be honest, anybody can buy one solar panel, a few batteries, live in a cave with one light bulb and call it, “living off grid.” Technically, it is, but that is not our idea of off-grid living. We wanted to take an existing farm with a home and shop and make it work without sacrificing the comforts we have come to enjoy and the business practices of the farm. I knew it would be more difficult to figure out, and to install, but then who ever said good things come easy.
There are two types of solar systems, photovoltaic for generating electricity and radiant for generating heat.
We installed 4 KW of photovoltaic solar panels, and a 1 KW Bergey wind turbine. We also bought a generator, so I could continue welding and repairing my farm equipment (a necessity on the farm to keep things operating smoothly). A year later, we added another 2 KW of photovoltaic solar panels to take advantage of the indirect sunshine on cloudy days and in the dusk and dawn hours. We also installed a solar radiant hot water system. In the darkest part of the year (January), we do run the generator occasionally to keep the batteries in the top half of their charge cycle. Draining a battery completely shortens its life span. In keeping with our green lifestyle, we have a diesel generator that runs on biofuel made from vegetable oil.
The batteries are the heart of our off-grid system. A good set of batteries can make all the difference in convenience and simplicity of management. We’ve invested in a set of Surrette batteries, made in Canada, that are designed specifically for this type of application. Experience has proven to me that the larger reservoir and higher quality battery will ensure that they will last years longer than standard deep cycle batteries found on the store shelves.
We heat our house with a Countryside pellet stove, so our home is nice and toasty all winter with warm radiant heat. It takes a little more work than a gas furnace. We must fill the hopper twice a day, and empty the ash bin once a day, but the reward of being able to use our farm’s waste grain for heating fuel, and the pleasure of having a nice homey fire all winter long is worth the effort. All farmers will tell you that over the years they have lost a bin or two of grain to heating or mould or bugs, rendering the grain un-sellable, so instead of dumping it on the ground we use it for heat.
We still have a natural gas furnace. We use it for a backup heating system should something break in our main heating system, or if we want to take off for the weekend. The gas furnace kicks in automatically to keep the house warm. In my mind, it is always prudent to have backup systems in place.
One lesson we learned is that heating hot water is more difficult than making electricity, and it takes a LOT of energy. A person would be wise to invest in a good solar hot water system right from the start. Then, once it is working properly, install the grid tie or off-grid system. After installing a solar water heating system, we discovered that heating water with the sun is a very effective use of solar energy. Just three hours of sunshine can raise the temperature of our 300 litre water tank significantly, even when the outside temperature is a bone rattling -30º C. I know it sounds crazy, but yes, you can have long hot showers all from the power of the sun.
In the minimal sunny hours of winter, our grain furnace keeps our hot water tank topped up, then in spring, summer, and fall when our grain furnace is turned off, the radiant solar panels heat the water. We have also configured our off-grid system to divert excess power from the photovoltaic panels to run an electric water heater booster on cloudy days when the radiant solar is less effective.
In our farming operation, our tractors run on a mixture of used French fry oil and diesel fuel. Years ago, we went to a weekend seminar in Alberta to learn the science behind biodiesel and how to properly convert kitchen grease into something useful. Now (once a month), we head to town to pick up used oil from restaurants. We use it to run our tractors, to plant and harvest our organic grain, and run the front-end loader and backhoe. We are very happy for the free fuel and the restaurant owners are happy too, because they get rid of a product they would otherwise have to pay for disposal of. One of the funniest things about biodiesel is that the car’s exhaust smells like French fries, so if you ever find yourself driving behind our car, beware, you may get the munchies.
We have found that in the summer we produce way more electricity than we need, so I modified a burnt-out yard tractor and converted it to all electric. It can mow the lawn on sunshine and does chores around the yard.
We have been off grid for a few years, and we would never go back. What we love about our system is the energy independence, lower environmental impact, and the money we save by not having a monthly power bill. The payback on our system is about seven years, and we expect to save about $30,000 over the next twenty years.
Technical specs: 1800 Ah 24volt Surrette Battery bank, 6 Kw electric solar, 4 Midnight 250 charge controllers, 6 Kw glycol radiant solar, 4.2 Kw Magnasine inverter, 1.0 Kw Bergey wind turbine.
To learn more about our farm, located near Yorkton, SK, you can visit our website www.bueckert.ca.