Today, many people are pursuing the off grid lifestyle for a myriad of reasons. For some, the money-saving benefits are most appealing, while others simply wish to have energy security in the event of a power outage. These are both benefits of off grid living. One of the first necessities one must consider, especially in cold climates, is off grid heating.
The reality is that most homes are not designed to operate well off grid, so it’s usually beneficial to make small, budget-friendly steps toward off grid goals.
The best place to begin is with the changes that will have the biggest impact on finances and energy security, which are typically heating and cooling. Combined they are the biggest energy cost for the average household, accounting for a large proportion of the annual energy bill.
Off grid heating starts with home efficiency
Prior to thinking about what heating systems would be best suited for your home, it’s worthwhile to consider the steps you can take to improve your home’s efficiency. This will do two important things: help you to reduce your energy usage and make the most of the energy you do use.
The best part about this process is that it’s extremely affordable and requires very simple materials. The key points include inspecting your home for drafts, making improvements to your home’s insulation, and installing a thermostat where possible.
Draught-proofing, or draft-proofing, is the best place to start. Drafts are cold currents of air that can cause considerable heat loss and cold pockets within a home. They regularly come from the gaps around doors and windows, as well as venting and the holes commonly found around pipework.
You can easily draft-proof your home as a DIY project. Simply go around your home on a cold day, looking and feeling for drafts. Then do what is required to patch them up.
For example, if you find drafts around your windows and doors, you can install excluders and strips, which can be sourced very cheaply from all good hardware stores and online.
Insulation is also extremely useful at limiting heat loss in your home, as it ensures heat is kept inside for as long as possible before it is lost to the external environment.
The roof is the biggest heat loss culprit, with a staggering quarter of all heat generated lost through the roof. It should certainly be prioritized when considering insulation.
To minimize heat loss through the roof, you can use rolls of fiberglass and other insulation materials that you simply lay down in the attic.
Another key place to insulate in your home is around water pipes since uninsulated pipes can result in higher water heater usage. To do this you can very easily wrap foam around the pipes that snap into position for a secure fit.
The best off grid heating methods
Once you have improved the energy efficiency of your home you can begin thinking about the best types of off grid heating systems.
There are a variety of options available, each with various pros and cons. These include wood-burning stoves, active solar heating, passive solar heating, propane gas, and other carbon-based fuels such as gasoline, coal, oil, and diesel.
The type of heating solution that is right for you will depend on a wide variety of factors, including your local climate, heating requirements, access to fuel, and the size of your property.
Ideally, you should have more than one option available, that way you will always have a backup heat source and won’t ever have to rely on a single source of fuel.
With that in mind, here are some of the best types of heat sources for off grid living:
Wood burning stoves
Firewood is relatively easy to access throughout the country and the cost per cord can be very good in comparison to other types of fuel.
If you have enough land, you can potentially harvest and re-plant your trees on an annual basis. Often a wooded property will have enough fallen trees already on it to avoid cutting down trees for years.
Wood is also great because you can harvest it and store it yourself, potentially giving you access to a 12-month or longer fuel supply on your own property. That’s certainly a lot of fuel security.
The best types of wood to burn for heating purposes are hard/dark woods, such as oak and elm. These are very dense woods that will provide a longer and more consistent burn, whereas soft woods such as pine will burn quickly and unevenly.
Common wood-burning appliances that are ideal for off-grid living include the likes of wood-burning stoves, furnaces, and fireplaces.
In particular, wood-burning stoves remain popular for off grid living as they require no electricity, can provide that homely aesthetic, and are able to generate a good amount of heat. They are also relatively cheap to buy and install.
Unfortunately, there are some disadvantages to stoves, namely that they need to be cleaned and maintained as ash and creosote deposits gradually build up within them. They also require a certain clearance area, so may not be suitable for very small homes.
Unlike other heating appliances, wood stoves also need a good amount of supervision. For example, you can’t just leave the house if your stove is burning and you will need to regularly feed it more wood to maintain the heat. Still, stoves can provide a good amount of nice, dry heat and are certainly reliable.
Propane is a gas fuel obtained through the processing of crude oil, along with kerosene, gasoline, and diesel oil. It’s particularly useful as an off-grid fuel since it is so versatile and can be used for a wide variety of different appliances, including propane space heaters, generators, and cookers.
Most propane heating appliances also have thermostats, which are certainly useful as it means you can control the amount of energy you use and when.
Another major advantage of propane is that it is extremely energy efficient, meaning you generate a lot of energy for the amount of gas burned. It is also considered a “clean fuel” in the Energy Policy Act of 1992.
Another advantage of propane is that it doesn’t degrade at the same rate as other common off-grid fuels like gasoline and firewood. As a result, this fuel is a great choice for long-term storage.
Unfortunately, there are a few disadvantages to propane fuel, mainly safety concerns. For example, pressurized propane tanks can be quite hazardous if not handled or stored correctly, particularly if stored in large quantities.
In addition, the cost of propane can vary widely depending on your location. Also, propane appliances can be difficult to repair, often requiring a high level of knowledge and/or training to handle.
Active and passive solar heat
Solar powered heating is another great option for off grid living. It must be said, however, that it is only really viable as a primary power source for those that get substantial amounts of daylight hours. Therefore, it shouldn’t be entirely relied upon by those that live more north of the equator, where the availability of sunlight is going to be limited.
Still, for some, it can be a superb option for warming the home. One method involves the use of copper-painted pipes filled with water. This setup is placed in a location that gets a good amount of sun exposure. The thermal energy from the sun will be absorbed by the water, becoming warm, and in turn, will flow to wherever the pipework is installed.
This system is not passive, as a pump is required to control the flow of water. It works much like a conventional water heating system, except instead of a gas or electric water heater, the sun’s natural rays are used.
The downside to this system is that it requires a substantial amount of daylight hours to be viable and is an active system so requires some power to keep the pump running.
Another more familiar method of active solar heating uses solar panels that capture the sun’s energy during the day to power a home heating system. This method requires batteries for power storage and to keep power throughout the night when the sun isn’t shining on the panels.
Passive solar is another great option to consider. This method makes use of the sun’s energy by capturing heat through large, south-facing windows, thermal walls, or water tanks. No special equipment is needed to take advantage of passive solar energy.
A biomass system is a little more complicated than the ones mentioned so far and the results can be incredibly variable depending on the amount of biomass you have access to. Still, biomass is a great way to make the most of your waste.
Much like a compost heap, this process involves collecting all materials that will naturally be degraded by microorganisms, e.g. leaves, manure, wood chips, compost, corn, and grains, and placing them in a single location. They will generate heat as they break down.
Strategically-placed coils of pipe inside the compost pile will absorb heat that is released during the biodegradation process. This can then be used to heat water or even be fed into a greenhouse to help maintain its temperature. Again, this certainly won’t heat your entire home, but it can provide some use.
While there are plenty of methods for heating your home off grid, hopefully this gives you some ideas. A combination of one or more of these along with ensuring you’ve maximized your home’s efficiency will go a long way toward reducing heating costs.