Going Off Grid One Step At A Time: Step 1

While the number one rule for going off grid on a budget is always to become more energy efficient, it is also helpful to take a step-by-step approach.

Renewable energy can be as expensive or low-cost as needed.  The sky is the limit, unless your budget is.  And for many who want to become “unplugged”, the up-front expense is holding them back.  For those in such a situation, we recommend the step by step approach.  You don’t have to wait until an elaborate system is within your reach.  Taking one step at a time is a better method for getting started with renewable energy.  But the key is doing this without wasting money.

So many times, when getting into a new hobby or area of interest, people start out buying cheap equipment and later on find they need better quality gear or maybe even something entirely different.  And it ends up costing more in the long run.  We don’t want to do that with renewable energy.  We want to take  a methodical step by step approach that wastes as little as possible and will be able to utilize the first equipment purchased in a more expanded future system.


The Basic First Step

In most cases we will start with a fuel-powered generator.  If you already own a good generator that is of sufficient size (at least 4 kW but preferably 6-8 kW), use that.  An independent alternative for handy folks would be a woodgas generator (using a standard engine running on flammable gas procured from wood by a gasifier).  This would yield a higher level of independence during this first step, since commercial fuel would not be required.  But although a fuel powered generator requires purchasing fuel, I'm not against relying on it at this stage since this is a step in the right direction and our future goal is to wean ourselves off the generator by adding independent charging sources as soon as possible.  But for now, the generator enables us to set up an operable system with less money up front.

Our next component would be a bank of batteries.  For those on tight budgets, probably the most “bang for your buck” would be a good used industrial (forklift) battery.  Even though it will not have the lifespan of a new industrial battery, it can still work out to be an excellent deal from a financial standpoint.  Just make sure a regular maintenance schedule was followed and check the battery for any dead cells.  If possible, have a load test done to make sure it can still hold a charge.  Although forklift batteries are quite large and many people will be able to do well with only one, you may want to upgrade in the future.  If that happens, there should be little loss due to the low cost of a used forklift battery.  If you decide to go with a new battery, we feel that industrial batteries are the way to go.  Not only are they much heavier duty and should last much longer than L-16 batteries, but they are also less expensive (when comparing the industrial battery with a comparable number of L-16s).

An inverter is one item you should think long and hard about.  Anytime you upgrade in the future, there will be money lost (i.e. a trade-in or selling the old unit and buying a new one).  If possible, try to start out with the inverter you will be happy using in the long run.  If possible, a good sine wave inverter would be much preferable, but plenty of people live quite well with a modified sine wave model.  It’s up to you and your budget.

The final goal - complete energy independence

The final goal - complete energy independence

That is your basic system.  It is really all the major components you need to get started (other than breaker boxes and items such as that).  From this point on, try to focus on becoming as independent as possible through items such as solar panels, a micro-hydro unit, a wind turbine, and/or a woodgas generator (if it is not already part of your system).  As long as it produces power and doesn't require a fuel that you have to buy, it should help to make you independent.  You still may occasionally run the generator,  but you won't be dependent upon it.

Training Video
Here is a helpful segment from the introduction to my training course - Off Grid Boot Camp.  Enrollment will be opening shortly, so keep an eye out for emails about that in the next couple of weeks.


  • Michael

    September 15, 2015

    Any thoughts on the Tesla Powerwall as the battery component of the solution? On the surface this would seem to be an attractive solution to storing grid energy, backed up by the generator (ours is natural gas), and then ultimately connected to solar.

    • Nick Meissner

      September 16, 2015

      Hi Michael,
      As of now, I have not been able to find much technical detail on these units, so there are some unknowns. But what I do know is that the pricepoint still places them in a completely different bracket. In other words, you are not getting nearly as much "bang for your buck" as you would with a good forklift battery. They may be great batteries, but when you factor out cost per year, I just don't think they are a very good deal until they are able to drive the price down substantially. The other concern I have is the very odd high voltage that these batteries run on. There is little (if any) equipment that will function with that voltage of system for off grid use. I suspect that Tesla will release their own inverter and charge controller that will, and then you will have very little choice of your equipment if they can sell you on their batteries. That's just my surmising, but it's a great way to create a monopoly and sell your additional equipment. So the bottom line is, time will tell. But I would NOT recommend investing in the Tesla Powerwall at this time.

  • Perry

    September 16, 2015

    I too am wondering if you have any thoughts on the Tesla Powerwall. Apparently there are two models, a 10 Kwh and a 7 Kwh for different purposes, and they don't seem to need any venting.

    • Nick Meissner

      September 16, 2015

      Hi Perry, Check out the reply I just posted above. Thanks!

  • shirlsL

    September 17, 2015

    Hi Nick, any thoughts on hydro powered turbines? Cost of installation/operation/maintenance, power output, efficiency, flexibility etc.?

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