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Smart Steps for Going Off-Grid

Ready to go all-in on off-grid living? We’ve rounded up clever design ideas to create an efficient home and the latest product offerings to help you get started.

Written by Suzanna Logan


 Home by Coventry Log Homes; Photo by Mark Sorenson

Successful off-grid living is all about two things: boosting energy-awareness and reducing consumption. “When you are building off-grid, energy efficiency becomes the most critical consideration,” affirms architect Kyle Barber. Of course maintaining comfort is key, too. Whether your motivation for cutting ties is to be kinder to the environment or to lower your monthly energy bill (or maybe a little of both), here are some essential “musts” for building an off-grid log or timber home.

The Experts

For advice you can count on, we went straight to the pros. 

Al Wallace: President of Energy Environmental Corporation, B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering and M.A. in Architecture 

Kyle Barber: Licensed Architect with New Energy Works, Certified Passive House Consultant

Do this: Design It Right

As with all other aspects of off-grid living, efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to a home’s design and layout. “Keep it simple,” is the building philosophy that should drive an off-grid home’s design, says Kyle. He recommends an uncomplicated rectangular shape with simple rooflines and deep overhangs. If you’re opting for a timber frame or hybrid, rather than a solid log structure, choose natural exterior materials that will weather well, and consider including a vented rain screen to “allow air behind your siding and give everything a chance to dry out and last much longer,” he suggests.

As for layout, right-sizing the house is an off-grid must. Consider your anticipated lifestyle and design spaces accordingly, as your off-grid needs and room sizes will likely differ from those in a traditional build. “Often, the shared living areas are the main focus, while the bedrooms are just sleeping areas and the bathrooms become very utilitarian,” Kyle says. “The idea is to not create more space than you need.” 

While there is no rule of thumb when it comes to square footage for off-grid homes — sizes can range from hundreds of square feet into the thousands — smaller homes will always be easier to manage in terms of energy usage. “But if you have enough energy sources — solar, a propane backup, wood stove — you can make it as big as your budget affords,” Kyle says.

Do this: Find the Sun

Good design isn’t just about what you build, but where you build it. How you site your home can have a significant impact on your home’s energy needs. Look for an architect or builder with experience in passive solar design to leverage shade and sunlight to your advantage. A home designed according to passive solar strategies will minimize heat gain from the sun in the summer and maximize it in the winter, thereby reducing reliance on other sources for heating and cooling. 

In general, the longest axis of your home should be within 15 degrees of south. “You want the most surface area on the south side, and you also want to smartly shade any southern sun with overhangs to get solar gain in the summer but not too much in the winter,” Kyle says. For hot climates where cool interiors are the goal, he recommends focusing on passive cooling strategies, like using operable windows and doors to create strong cross ventilation. 

Do this: Build Better 

If going off the grid and remaining comfortable is a priority, take a careful look at your home’s building methods and materials. “Focus on a really high-performance building envelope with good insulation in the walls and attic air sealing, passive solar orientation and high thermal mass,” explains Al Wallace, the president of Energy Environmental Corporation. “Unless you’re going to buy a million dollars’ worth of solar panels and cover your yard in them, you need to focus on efficiency.”

Energy audits reveal that gaps in the structural envelope, particularly in the floors, ceilings and around windows, are the number one cause of wasted energy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that air leakage accounts for between 25 percent and 40 percent of the energy used for heating and cooling in a typical residence. “The biggest cost is always leaking air,” Al affirms. 

In log homes, pay special attention to how logs fit together. Tongue-and-groove joinery, a foam gasket strip and caulking will all help keep your home airtight. In log, timber-framed and hybrid buildings, minimize leakage around windows and doors with a foam seal on the exterior and a spray foam on the interior with proper caulking. Other options to create an efficient building envelope include insulated concrete forms (ICFs) and structural insulated panels (SIPs). Both have impressive R-value ratings and can be used with full-log, half-log and timber frame homes. 


 Photo by Perry Mastrovito

Do this: Win Big with the Right Windows

Inefficient windows can derail your off-grid efforts. Heat gained or lost through windows accounts for about 25 percent to 30 percent of residential heating and cooling energy use, according to the Department of Energy. Double or triple-paned, low-E coated and gas-filled windows are the gold standard. Low-E windows have an invisible metal oxide film that reflects ultraviolet rays and minimizes solar gain in the summer, making them best for warm climates, while argon gas-filled windows prevent cold air from penetrating into the interiors and are best for cooler regions. Areas prone to hot summers and cold winters would benefit from windows that combine low-E and argon gas technology. 

Do this: Invest in Renewable Energy Sources

Unless you’re ready to eschew the creature comforts of modern living, you’ll need smart energy solutions for your off-grid home.

Solar energy, made available via photovoltaic panels or thermal tubes, is the front-runner. While solar systems are a proven game-changer for off-grid living, keep in mind that efficiency hinges on your regional climate and property’s specific topography. “There are limitations to solar,” reminds Al. “If the sun doesn’t come out for a week, you don’t generate electricity.” 

After 30 years of designing net-zero homes, he acknowledges onsite energy storage systems are available but laments their drawbacks: “Battery storage has to be replaced every 10 years, can’t be recycled and they can fail,” he says. A popular option is a grid-tied solar system that banks extra electricity with the local utility company. A policy known as “net metering” may even require the utility company to credit you for your unused electricity stored on the grid.

Wind energy, typically captured via wind turbines, is another renewable energy choice, although high up-front costs, area wind conditions and zoning restrictions are often limiting factors.

For solar or wind systems, a backup propane-powered generator can be a lifesaver. If the batteries in your renewable system reach low levels (due to limited sun or wind) or the power goes down for grid-tied systems, a propane generator will cycle through to keep your system running.  

Do This: Choose the Right Heating and Cooling Systems

As heating and cooling systems account for more than half of your home’s electricity consumption, it’s essential to narrow in on the best solution. “Heat is usually one of the first things I ask about when the plan is to go off grid,” says Kyle. Here are some options to keep you (and your home) cozy and comfortable:

  • Back to Basics: “Most off-grid homeowners use wood for heat,” says Al. A simple, wood-burning stove or masonry fireplace with a blower/fan may be sufficient to heat smaller homes. For heating water, a wood-fired boiler can make hot water with minimal electricity usage by “throwing in wood once a day,” Al says. “It doesn’t use any grid power, and the pump uses about 45 watts — the same as a couple of Christmas tree bulbs — to circulate the water.”
  • Water for the Win: In recent years, geothermal heat pump systems (GHPs) have exploded in popularity. They use the steady temperature of the ground to create comfortably warm or cool interiors with an open-loop network of underground pipes that circulate water and draw from or deposit heat into the soil. That water is then converted into hot or fresh air to heat or cool the home. Heated water also can be used for in-home use. The Department of Energy estimates energy consumption is reduced by up to 72 percent as compared to standard HVAC equipment. To fulfill the small electrical demands of a GHPs, a homeowner can pair them with renewable energy sources, such as solar panels or wind turbines.
  • Look Out Below: Radiant in-floor heating and cooling involves the use of air, water or electricity flowing through tubes installed into the flooring to heat or cool a room and is a go-to technology in off-grid homes. “The great thing about timber frames is that they offer really wide-open space and high ceilings, so they lend themselves to radiant heating and cooling,” says Al. Pairing a geothermal system with a hydronic radiant system sends efficiency soaring. “Radiant cooling with groundwater from geothermal is 27 times more efficient than forced air,” he says. Rooms can be zoned to certain temperatures, creating more comfortable interiors than forced air.

Do This: Think Outside the (Big) Box for Appliances

  • Cool Off: Often used in RVs or remote cabins, a propane-powered refrigerator offers true, off-grid food storage.
  • Lower the Lights: Battery-powered candles and lights are a safe alternative to traditional candles or oil lamps. Bonus: they create a cozy glow.
  • Keep it Clean: If a washboard and clothesline are too far off the grid for your liking, look for a washer and dryer that are Energy Star certified; they’ll use 25 percent less energy and 33 percent less water. Hoping to convert a natural gas dryer to propane? All you need is a propane conversion kit.
  • Waste Not: You’ve likely come across low-flow toilets, but this product might have flown under your radar: an incinerating toilet. As the name suggests, it’s in the business of, well, doing away with your business, turning waste into easily-disposed-of ashes. Out with the outhouse, in with the Incinolet.

See Also: Your Guide to Off-Grid Homes

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