3 Steps Toward "Off-Grid" Living

If your energy expenses seem totally out of control, you may be understandably tempted to look for alternatives to your municipal power company and the teeter-totter of automotive fuel prices. Your conscience may also be nagging at you to do the right thing for the environment by practicing more sustainable habits. The good news is that those options are indeed out there, and you just might be able to take advantage of them. Here are three possible approaches to taking your life "off the grid."

1. Get Free Energy from the Sun

Solar energy costs nothing once you're willing to put up the money for solar panel installation on your roof -- and the federal government allows you to deduct 30 percent of that investment in the form of an income tax credit. A typical rooftop solar panel can generate up to 240 watts of power, substantially reducing your daily reliance on the city's electrical grid. Solar shingles are another, arguably more discreet-looking option, but the fact that they sit directly directly on the roof (without the gap created by a solar panel's framework) can transfer some heat energy into your attic, possibly requiring you to beef up your insulation. Additionally, they can't be tilted to catch the moving sun as solar panels can. But either option could help you lower your monthly electric bills. 

What about your electronics? Much of the electricity consumed in this day and age powers or recharges laptops, tablets, mobile phones, music players and other devices. These little gadgets don't require that much electricity individually, but collectively and over time the wattage expenses can add up. Solar panels can save the day here as well, not only through a rooftop solar panel installation but also through small portable solar charger kits. Take these kits with you when you travel, or simply place them in a sunny part of the house and plug devices into them as needed.

2. Harness the Wind

Living in a windy part of the world can be an inconvenience -- but not when you're trying to minimize your dependence on city utilities. That's because in many areas it's perfectly legal to set up propeller-driven wind turbine systems. These tall towers turn wind power into electric power by using it to push the propeller blades, which in turn activates the turbine. The resulting electricity goes to a battery for on-demand distribution throughout the home.

The cost of such a setup depends on how much power you want to obtain from it. A "whole-house" system might cost $30,000 -- but if you're already using solar power and just want an extra boost from the wind, a small turbine would only cost a small fraction of that figure. In any case, government rebate programs to offset that initial investment are available for wind power just as they are for solar power. In fact, a solar/wind combination could be an ideal way to go off the grid completely; otherwise, you might need to supplement your wind power with a feed from the city's power lines on windless days.

3. Run Your Diesel Car on Cooking Oil

Automotive fuel is another ongoing expense that can hold your monthly household budget hostage unless you buy an all-electric vehicle (or at least a hybrid). But if you have an old diesel-powered vehicle that you'd prefer to keep driving, and you happen to live near a friendly restauranteur, you may be able to fuel that vehicle for next to nothing on discarded cooking oil. You'll need to install a conversion kit to make this possible, but it will pay for itself as long as you're getting your fuel either free of charge or for a nominal fee from restaurants. You're not limited to your neighborhood burger stand either -- many restaurants all over the country are happy to get rid of their waste oil in this manner.

Cooking oil comes with cons as well as pros. For one thing, you have to filter out all the debris in the oil before feeding the oil into your car. Since the higher viscosity of cooking oil requires that it be heated up, you may also have also to run the car on regular diesel for several minutes before switching over to your cooking-oil tank. Some states don't even allow this alternative fueling method. But if you manage it, you'll be mostly freeing yourself from fossil fuels (and the costs associated with them) without having to buy a whole new car.

From solar panel installation to "grease power," you may have more energy options than you ever realized. Talk to your local solar, wind and automotive service providers to find out if an off-grid existence lies in your future!