Winter Off-Grid but not Winter Off-Guard

Living off-grid cannot be learned from books or blogs. Each off-grid set up is unique; each winter is different. I have gone through quite the learning curve over the past few years. Winters are cold….and difficult…..and snowy. There’s no way around it….off-grid living in our Canadian winter is not easy. However, like many challenges in life, it is also quite satisfying when you make it through another one.

Over the past three winters, I have learned to be much more careful about monitoring my battery levels, and to make better decisions about when to use my generator proactively to prevent low battery drain. I now have substantial experience with operating and maintaining a generator, and starting a generator in extreme weather conditions (e.g., minus 30 degrees Celsius in an ice storm). I have found that off-grid living gets easier with lived experience.

I am proud that I have reduced my energy footprint on the earth through these efforts. However, when it’s snowing and cold and dark and I don’t have enough battery charge to run my little furnace through the night, I still have to put on my headlight, heavy coat, and boots and head outside and start that generator…that’s just how it is!

Food Storage

Fall arrives, and soon, the days are shorter. When the source of your tiny home’s electricity is the sun, you are not going to be able to collect and store as much energy as you were in the summer. For me and my small solar energy set up, of just two 250-watt panels, this means a big lifestyle change. If you can’t run both your fridge AND your furnace through the winter, which would you choose? Yep, I chose my furnace, too. Instead, I have a cooler that can keep ice blocks frozen almost indefinitely. 

 However, this set up attracted a hungry friend who wanted to get inside, too! If you look closely at the photo below, you will see the raccoon teeth and claw marks on my cooler. This problem was unintentionally solved by a small addition to my entranceway last summer: solar powered deck lights on either side of my door. Apparently, this small amount of light is enough to keep hungry raccoons at bay. I no longer need the concrete block on top of my “fridge,” something I do appreciate when popping outside to grab some cream for my coffee.

Alternative Light Sources

During the long winter evenings, I also need a source of light in my tiny home. While I have recessed LED lighting built into the ceiling, using these requires me to run my inverter, something that drains my small system more than I can usually afford. My top choice is an LED lantern that runs on a single tealight candle. In the photo below, my LED lantern casts light on the components of my solar setup: inverter charge controller and electrical panels.

This lantern uses the heat from the tea light to run a small generator that powers eight LEDs. It casts enough light for my couch/living area. You can see in this photo that the LEDs can be directed where you prefer using the telescoping arms, functioning more like a lamp. Alternatively, they can sit directly above the candle, functioning more like a lantern.  One tealight usually lasts the entire evening. To keep costs down, I buy large bags of tealights at a thrift store, or make my own out of beeswax. If I am sitting on my couch in the evening, this is the only light on in the house.

However, off-grid living requires me to have backups for my backups. I also own many other alternative light sources: an old oil lamp, LED spotlights that I can charge on sunny days, an LED solar powered rechargeable lantern (takes forever to recharge but good as a backup), beeswax candles. My last resort is a small solar-powered flashlight that can also be cranked to increase power. It has never let me down. Once, I left it on and went to sleep and it was still running in the morning!  It has taken a beating, as I used it to work on my parts car. I have not had to reach for it for a long time, but it’s great to know it’s there. I had to look for this flashlight to take a photo of it. It had been in a drawer for a very long time...and it worked!

Generator Servicing

My generator is my main source of backup power through the winter. I need to know that I can start my generator at any temperature at any time. If my large AGM batteries that run my home’s electrical system get too low, it compromises their functioning and shortens their life. They are not cheap to replace! This means that keeping them in the top half of their charge is a high priority. My furnace fan runs on electricity (DC current) that is drawn directly from these batteries. If I cannot run my furnace, my batteries could freeze, and this could damage them beyond recovery. This is a significant weakness in my current system design: I need consistent battery power when there is much less sunlight overall, and the furnace must also run overnight. When my charge gets low, I must turn to my generator for about a three hour charging session to fill my batteries and ensure I have enough charge to run my furnace overnight.

The beginning of the winter is therefore time for me to make sure my generator is in tip top condition. I usually change the oil and do a test run if I haven’t run it in a while. Here is a picture of me preparing to change the oil…uh oh…where is that wrench?

I make sure at all times that I have enough premium gas in my gas can to run my generator at least 10 hours (three charging sessions). I start adding gasoline antifreeze as soon as temperatures dip below minus 5 degrees Celsius.

Last winter, money was tight and the generator battery that powers the electric start went completely dead. I was able to bridge the gap by boosting the generator battery with my booster pack. However, one cold night early this winter, that stopped working. My solution was to buy a small car battery that I now keep inside the tiny house. When I need to start my generator, I simply bring the battery out and attach it. A few nights ago, the generator started on the first try. I need my generator to be this reliable. It was worth the $90 to get my peace of mind back. 

Here is my nice new battery sitting on a piece of insulation to keep it warm. It enjoys the company of my herb garden!

Editor's Note: I am about to begin my second winter in the eco-cabin, where I have a high-efficiency mini wood stove and for back up an off-grid wall-mounted propane furnace. It was nice to relive my off-grid days by posting this article. It had been a lifelong dream to live off-grid. Now, my eco-cabin in on the grid, but off-grid ready. Feel free to drop me a line if there is a topic related to tiny homes that you would like to learn more about!