It’s Time to Do It Yourself
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that like the cost of everything else, energy costs are continuing to rise, and they aren’t going to reverse course any time soon. On top of that, you are still going to continue to need energy every day – to heat and cool your home, preserve your food, get your work done and keep your family safe. So, it will continue to cost you more and more just to keep up with the quality of life you are used to every day. Is that news bad enough? Did I scare you off yet?
I hope not, because, as promised, there’s some good news, too. And that good news is that you do not have to just accept the bad news. There are things you can do to reduce your energy dependence while lowering the costs of the energy you do consume. What is more, there is even some bonus good news: reading this eBook is the first step in making that happen.
The purpose of this book is to show you some ways you can decrease or even eliminate altogether the amount of energy you use that comes from the local utility grid – i.e., the energy you buy every month. You will learn about some projects you can undertake on your own to lower your energy bills while keeping your lifestyle intact and protecting the environment. You can even us materials you already have around the house.
Before we dive right into the DIY stuff, however, there are just a few things we need to clear up first.
The Myth About Contractors
Want to know a secret? It’s a pretty good one, and well kept, to boot. It’s also pretty important to the rest of the book, so you may want to pay attention. Are you ready? Here goes:
You do not need a contractor to install alternative energy.
Yes, there are contractors out there who handle or even specialize in alternative energy. And yes, many of them would have you believe that you are helpless to get off the grid without their expertise.
The truth, however, is that a savvy and technically-inclined homeowner – which you likely are, since you are reading this book – can often undertake an alternative energy project by himself on some scale. It takes some skill, technical prowess, patience, ability to follow directions and an eye for detail, but it can be done. If these traits describe you, then you are in luck, because you are reading the right book, and you have a good start on saving a lot of money, both on energy costs and parts and labor.
Remember: this is old technology. Humans have been harnessing the power of the wind and the sun for generations. The materials have come a long way since then, and the technology has grown more complicated, but the principles are the same. Your ancestors mastered some of these same techniques — albeit in a more antiquated fashion – and you can, too.
Still, it is imperative to keep safety at the top of your list of priorities.
Legal Stuff (Keep it Safe!)
Even if you have all the traits I just mentioned, that does not mean you should feel free to dive right into slapping up solar panels and windmills around your property and trying to wire them up in your home. Remember that part about being patient and paying attention to detail, because there is some homework to be done first.
First of all, check the local laws and regulations regarding electrical work. While some municipalities allow homeowners to perform maintenance and construction projects on their own homes at their own risk, many places require that work be done by a licensed contractor. This is more common with electrical work, such as installing alternative energy systems. Be sure to look into whether the law allows you to undertake such projects before getting started.
Secondly, do a self-assessment. Be honest with yourself about the level of knowledge, skills and comfort you have pertaining to the task(s) at hand. Research the project you wish to do diligently, read the instructions carefully and if you are just starting out, start small. Even though you will be working with alternative energy, it is still electricity and can be very dangerous, especially in the absence of proper care or equipment. If you are not careful, you run the risk of damaging your home or possibly causing yourself injury.
Remember: be safe.
When to Call for Help
If at any point in a project you feel you are in over your head – either because the project is too difficult, you overestimated your abilities, you have the wrong tools, or you just feel uncomfortable proceeding – do not be afraid to call in a professional. While we did just discuss that they are not always necessary, contractors exist for a reason. Sometimes you will find that you simply need help, and that is OK. You are much better off being safe and getting professional assistance than you are making a potentially dangerous mistake.
How do you know what contractor to call? What do you look for in a contractor? Great questions.
Since alternative energy is still a relatively small and sometimes neglected field, it lacks some of the standard quality assurance certifications you might see in other industries. This does not mean there are not plenty of good contractors out there, of course. It just means you have to be more diligent as a consumer in finding the right one.
Here is a brief list of some important things to look for in a contractor:
Local licensing and industry certifications. Despite the absence of those industry-standard certifications we just talked about, there are still credentials you can check for.
- Experience, both in the alternative energy field and in the local area.
- References. Speak to friends and neighbors about experiences that may have had with the contractor.
- A warranty or other guarantee of quality work.
Now, armed with your background research, a sense of caution and a list of good characteristics to look for in a contractor, you are ready to start your path to DIY, grid free living.
SOLAR POWER 101
Some of the most powerful, plentiful and freely available energy on Earth does not originate on Earth at all. The rays of the sun radiate massive amounts of solar energy on the planet every day. Aside from making us sweat and turning our skin bronze at the beach, solar rays can also be converted to electricity, which can then be used to heat your home, provide hot water and power household appliances and devices.
Below, I will tell you how you can harness the power of the sun in your home. First, though, let’s discuss how solar energy works and some of the benefits you can realize from going solar.
There are essentially two ways to capture solar energy so that it can be converted to a useful form: photovoltaic (PV) cells and solar collectors. Each has their own distinct uses. PV cells are designed to collect solar radiation for conversion to electricity, for both storage and consumption. This electricity can be used just like traditional grid power to power everything in your home. Solar collectors, on the other hand, capture the sun’s rays and retain them as heat, for use in home heating applications.
By now, you are probably aware of some of the major benefits of solar. Otherwise, you probably would not be looking into making a switch, or reading this book! Aside from the obvious benefits of lowering monthly energy costs and helping the environment, there are some other perks to consider:
- Not only are costs lowered by reducing or eliminating the amount of grid energy used, but there may also be tax benefits are government subsidies available to you for switching to alternative energy.
- When you use a solar system with a battery backup system, electricity is stored in batteries, independent of the utility grid. If the power goes out due to weather – such as a downed power line – your self-contained system will be unaffected. You can go right on enjoying the modern conveniences and comforts, while your neighbors can only watch in envy.
- Solar systems require little maintenance once installed. Routine maintenance is limited to essentially just keeping the panels clean and swapping out batteries when they get depleted. Other than that, and the occasional repair, there is little to maintain on your solar system.
But that’s enough talking about how great solar energy is. How about if we get on to how you can put it to work for you? First up: using the sun for heat.
Heating and Hot Water Are Easy
Obviously, the sun is a massive source of heat. After all, it warms the entire planet! If only there were some way to actually focus that heat so we can use it for whatever we want, right? Not surprisingly, you can… and it’s not difficult, either.
The secret lies in a special panel called a solar collector. A solar collector is not to be confused with a solar panel, or photovoltaic (PV) panel. Both are designed to absorb and collect solar radiation. However, the purpose of a PV panel is to convert this absorbed energy to electricity, whereas solar collectors merely capture the heat from the sun’s rays, then transfer the heat to liquid medium – water, coolant, or a mixture of both – which can be pumped through a network of pipes for use to heat your home or water. When one of these collectors is mounted on your roof, you can put that stored heat to use in your home. First, though, you must choose which type of solar collector is right for you.
There are two types of solar collectors for residential use: flat plate and evacuated tube collectors. Flat plate solar collectors are the simpler of the two. The plate sits atop your roof. As the sun beats down on it, a metal sheet inside absorbs and collects the heat, heating the coolant inside a series of tubes. Evacuated tube collectors are significantly more complicated. Each collector has multiple tubes inside it, each of which has its own metal absorber sheet. These tubes act in concert to collect heat, which is then transferred via a manifold.
Flat plate collectors are cheaper to purchase and install. Evacuated tube collectors are more efficient and can be used in smaller spaces than flat plates. These are just a few of the factors to consider when deciding which type of solar collector is the right one for you.
That is all well and good, but how do these solar collectors actually heat your home? Pretty simply, really. Aside from the solar collector(s) installed on your roof, your home will also be outfitted with a network of pipes and tubes. After being warmed by the sun’s rays, courtesy of the solar collector, water is pumped through these pipes, which radiate heat into your home.
That is the direct way to do it. In colder climates, where water would be in danger of freezing up on the roof, you need an indirect system. This works the same way, but with an added step. The tubes in the solar collector are filled with coolant, which is pumped down to a transfer tank in the house. The tank is filled with water and wrapped with those coolant-filled pipes. These heated pipes when warm up the water in the transfer tank, which is pumped up through the network of radiator pipes and into your home.
Of course, if solar energy can heat your home, it can just as well keep your hot water warmed up. There are two ways to do this. One is to have your hot water supply circulate through a tube inside the solar collector. The water is constantly being cycled through the collector, which acts as a heating element. The other way is to store water in tank, which can then be heated by the same means as the transfer tank described above.
Since this is a do-it-yourself book, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how you can rig up a DIY solar heating system in your home. While the design, construction and placement of a piping network in your home is the trickiest part of installing a solar heating system, it can be done. Easier than that is the task of building a flat plate solar collector, since it essentially involves heating up metal in the sun, then transferring the heat using water as a medium. Of course, there’s more sophistication to it than that, but the principle is there.
Many guides to building your own solar collectors are available online. Instead of focusing on that, we are going to spend more time discussing how you can build your own PV panel to power your home with the sun’s rays.
Creating a PV Panel From Scratch
As I mentioned earlier, photovoltaic cells are designed to not only absorb solar energy, but also subsequently convert it to electricity via integrated circuit technology. The cells themselves are usually small, so they are wired together and arranged to create a collective unit, which we call a solar panel.
Arranging many cells in a panel greatly increases both the solar input and electrical output potential, making the sun a much more viable and convenient energy source. Solar panels are commercially available in a variety of sizes and wattages, but you can also make your own without too much difficulty.
Before you get started on the construction, first gather your materials. You have some leeway here with modifications and improvisations and what not, especially if you have some experience with construction and know the properties of certain materials. I have included some tried-and-true materials here, as well as noted some possible opportunities for substitution. If it’s your first time out, you may want to start small and follow the instructions carefully before experimenting and getting creative on your own. To get started, gather the following materials:
- PV cells – These are commercially available. Get as many as you want/need, depending on the voltage you want to produce. Most cells produce 0.5 volts of direct current (DC), no matter what size they are. The ratio of voltage to current (volts:amps) changes with the size of the cell, however.
- Plywood – You can use either or ½” or ¾” thickness, depending on the planned size of the panel how stiff you need it to be. Alternatively, you can try something like ridged cardboard for a smaller panel, especially if it will be sheltered or otherwise protected from the elements.
- Lumber for rails – This will go around the outside of your panel to make a frame. A thickness of 1 ½” works well. You can also use the rails to divide the panel into sections if you so chose. This is good if you are making a large panel of, say, 5 feet or more on the longest side. Rails add support to the glass covering as well as stiffness to the plywood and allow you arrange the cells in smaller blocks rather than one large array.
- Sealant – This will protect the wood from the elements, so that you do not find yourself having to make a new panel next year. A metallic coating or moisture cured urethane works best here. You can also use a fiberglass resin, but it will not be as water resistant.
- Cell backing – This is what you will attach the cells to directly. Thinner plywood works, but since this will be protected by the outer plywood, you could use something less durable, like cardboard or a high density foam. If you are making a small panel and not dividing it into sections, you will just need one piece slightly smaller than the panel frame. Otherwise, you will need a few pieces that have been cut to size.
- Soldering iron, minimum 30 watts
- Solder – Silver works well, as does any low temperature solder.
- Wire or metal strips – You are going to use this to make connections between cells and sections of cells.
- Double-sided tape – This will hold the panels in place, so the stronger, the better. You could alternatively use a strong adhesive glue or silicone caulk — which you will need anyway — for this, but keep in mind that will make it more difficult to remove a single cell for replacement or repair down the road.
- Insulated wire
- Bolts, wing nuts, washers
- Caulk – To seal the panel up. Silicone works best to keep moisture out.
- Cover material – To go on top of the cells in the completed panel. Glass, acrylic and Lexan all work, with the advantage of the latter two being that you can bolt them directly to the plywood. This should be about 3 inches shorter on each side than the panel material.
- L shaped aluminum angle stock
Double check that you have everything you need. Ready to go? Good. Let’s get started:
Phase I: Staging the Components
- Cut your plywood to fit. The size you need will depend on how many panels you have and of what size. For ease of maneuverability, you may want to avoid having a panel that is bigger than 3 feet along the shorter side. Remember: measure twice, cut once.
- If you are using rails in your design, now is the time to attach them. Space them evenly.
- Seal the wood with your resin, urethane or metallic coating. This part is crucial in order to protect the wood — and your hard work — from the elements. After the first coat is dry, add a second one for best results.
- Take your backing material — the thinner piece of plywood, cardboard or foam — and lay some cells out on it. Map out where the tab wires will be when the cells are attached, then drill holes for them to go through. If you are using rails in your panel, you will need a separate backing piece for each group of cells.
Phase II: Assembly
- Start soldering. Add a drop of solder to each of the six contacts on the back of each panel. Use these solder joints to attach a thin strip of wire along each row of contacts (two strips per panel). Cut the lengths of wire long enough that a few inches extend over the edge of the panel in the direction opposite that of the front tabbing wire.
Tip: Use gloves when handling the solar cells to avoid getting oils from your hands on the photovoltaic material.
- Using the holes you drilled as a guide, lay down strips of double-sided type on the backing piece. Carefully position each cell on the tape, pressing lightly to adhere it to the tape. Gently feed the wires through the drilled holes.
- As you lay each row, alternate the polarity. That is, if your first row has the negative wire (the tabbing coming from the front of the cell) at the top of the panel, the next row should have the positive wire (the metal strips you soldered to the back) at the top.
- Lay the whole cell array face down on a flat, dry surface, like a large rug or piece of cardboard. See how there are pairs of wires sticking out of each hole in the back? Each one of those consists of a negative and a positive wire. Solder each pair together.
- Use your wire or metal strips to connect the sections to one another. Attach all the positive terminal wires together and all the negative terminal wires together. I recommend using insulated wire for the leads that will connect to the terminals on the panel.
Phase III: Putting it All Together
- Set the cell array to the side for a moment, because you have one more piece of work to do on the panel. Drill two holes close to each other near one end of the panel. This is where you are going to put the bolts to create your positive and negative terminals. Put a dab of silicone on each to seal it from moisture, then thread the bolts through. You can also use some of the resin from earlier, or urethane. There are a few solutions here, just make sure the holes are sealed up nice and tight.
- Set the cells into the panel. The whole array should fit in there nicely, with room for your glass — or acrylic, Lexan, etc. — to go over the top. Don’t forget to attach your lead wires from the back of the cell array to the terminal bolts in the panel frame.
- After setting your covering sheet over the top, fill in around the outside with caulk. Let it dry before seeing if you need a second layer.
- Finally, use the L shaped aluminum stock to hold the glass in place. Drill holes through the sides of the frame — remember to seal them up! — to secure the aluminum in place.
There you have it! A fully functional and durable PV solar panel that you made yourself. Like I said, it may take a few tries to get it right, so start with something small first rather than building a massive panel to power your whole house on the first try.
Now that you have built it, you will of course have to install it, both physically and electrically. This can get even more technical, and requires working with live electricity, so here is one part where you may want to consider consulting a professional. Below is a brief guide, but if you find this is lacking in detail for you to get the job done, you may be out of your depth and need to re-read the section on “When to Call for Help” at the beginning of this book.
Also, for this part you may need some specialized mounting hardware and additional materials. While you can build your own mounting rig, there are so many factors that going into properly placing and installing a solar panel that it can be pretty unique to each situation. So, rather than exact detailed instructions for mounting and installing your new PV panel, I will go over some good guidelines to get you started.
Whatever your plan for installation, be sure to consider prior to and during the construction process so you can be prepared when the time comes.
Phase IV: Installation
- You will need a platform to support your panel. These are available commercially, or you can build your own from common construction materials. The advantage of a DIY mounting platform is that you can custom size it to meet the dimensions of your homemade panel.
- Decide where to place the panel. Solar panels require a clear view of the southern sky for maximum efficiency, so you may have to clear tree limbs or other obstacles blocking direct sunlight. Another option is to install your panel(s) on a standalone structure, rather than on your home or to another existing building. If that is the case, you can buy a separate tower or construct one out of sturdy lumber, metal piping or PVC, for example.
- Be sure to adjust the angle of the mount so it captures the sunlight maximally. This depends on your location, so do your research to determine at what angle your panel should be seated.
- Once your platform is located and installed properly, securely mount the panels to the platform.
- Wire the solar panel(s) to the output, whether a fuse box or inverter. Strip insulated wires at each end attach them to our terminal bolts before stringing them to the output device.
- Make electrical connections to the battery backup and the rest of the household wiring system.
Congratulations, you have just gone solar! Keep in mind that your home and your family consume a lot of energy, so do not expect just one DIY panel to get you off the grid entirely.
Do not fret, though – it is possible go completely grid free with solar energy. It just requires enough equipment to get the job done, especially since the capturing and conversion of solar radiation is not a 100% efficient process.
One way to boost the amount of electricity you draw from alternative energy, and reduce your energy bills in the process, is to supplement your solar system with energy from another source. Diversifying is not just a good idea for your financial portfolio, but for your energy one, as well.
Where can you get some of this extra energy from? Well, you have already mastered the power of the sun, so why not capture the wind?
YOUR VERY OWN WINDMILL
While the idea of using the sun to stay warm hardly seems a novel one, it may surprise you to know that people have been harnessing the wind to do their bidding for them for thousands of years. Windmills got their name because they first ones made use of the wind’s energy to do just what the term implies: mill grain. The mill machinery was housed inside the body of the windmill and connected to a turbine. The turbine was connected to three or four blades, which caught the wind. When the wind blew, the blades moved like sails, spinning the turbine and voila—milled grain.
It’s a very simple application, and nowhere near as sophisticated as converting wind to usable electricity, but it’s still rather impressive, no? At the time, the idea of being able to use a free and abundant resource like wind in place of manpower must have seemed at once like a fit of insanity and a stroke of genius.
Centuries later, we have figured out how to take the same concept several steps further. When those blades start to move in the wind, and that turbine turns, it also produces friction. And friction, of course, is a form of energy. Using a motor and batteries, that energy is converted to a usable form and stored for later use. Throw in advances like streamlined blade designs and better motors, and all of a sudden wind is an efficient source of clean energy.
How do you put that energy to work for you? Quite simply, you need a windmill. You can buy one, if you like. Many models are available commercially for use in residential applications. They even come in a variety of capacities and sizes, so you can find one that works for you.
However, something tells me you didn’t start reading this book because you want to be told how to buy a wind turbine. Instead, let’s discuss how you could go about building one.
Build From Scratch
Remember that the same safety precautions mentioned earlier apply here as well. In fact, you would do well to be even more cautious with this project than with the PV panel, since wind turbines involve large blades, unpredictable winds and other moving parts. Remember to do an honest self-assessment before beginning a project, and seek help if at any point you are unsure how to proceed.
As with the PV panel, start by gathering your materials. Again, I recommend you start small and work your way up. Building a windmill, even on a relatively small scale of 1000 watts (W) or so, requires the ability to cut and weld steel, among other things. Note that these are only simple instructions. To do a thorough job, you will need a detailed set of plans. Many are available online for free or purchase, such as at Vela Creations (www.velacreations.com) or Earth4Energy (www.Earth4Energy.com)
A simple list of materials for building a small windmill (about 5 feet tall) includes:
- Motor – The motor will be the generator of the wind turbine. Instead of using it the way you would typically use an electric motor, which is to use electricity to generate mechanical energy, you are going to do the opposite. Mechanical energy – in the form of the rotating blades – will be converted to electricity by the motor, essentially making it a generator. The Ametek 30 is a good motor to use for a small windmill. Really, any simple DC treadmill motor will work, as long as it can withstand current in excess of 10 amps and produce a minimum of 1 volt per 25 rpm.
- Blades – These can be fashioned from PVC pipe or lightweight sheet metal, among other things.
- Tail – This piece acts as a sort of rudder for the blades, keeping them properly aligned to the wind. You can also use a lightweight sheet of metal for this. Look around the house to see if you can salvage something or pay visit to the local scrap yard. In a pinch, a paint roller tray can work.
- Tower – This can be constructed from just about anything, so long as the base is heavy, broad and sturdy enough to keep it upright in the wind.
- Optional: batteries and controller – These are used to store generated electricity for use later. I won’t discuss how to use them in this guide, but know that they are options when installing a windmill.
Now that you have your essential materials, here are some basic instructions:
- Start with the turbine assembly. Cut the blades from your material if necessary and attach them to your motor. Put the assembly aside.
- Build the tower. You can be creative here, so see what you have lying around. PVC pipe, some sturdy scrap lumber or pieces of scaffolding are all some options. If you are really fortunate, maybe you can get your hands on short length of an old TV tower, which makes the whole project less labor intensive.
- Construct a base. A wood frame filled with poured concrete works well. You can add cinder blocks, bricks, sandbags or other weight after the concrete has dried. For a five foot tower, you want a base that measures at least eighteen inches square.
- Put the fully constructed tower into the concrete base and allow it to dry. Make sure it is fully secured in place before proceeding.
Tip: You can do steps 2-4 first, then build the turbine assembly (step 1) while the concrete is setting.
- Mount the turbine assembly on top of the tower. (Note that we can get away with doing it in this order because we are using such a short tower. For larger towers, you may have to mount the turbine assembly on the tower before attaching the tower to the base. If you go this route, use some kind of guy wire or rope to stabilize the tower against the weight of the turbine assembly while the concrete sets.)
You just built your first windmill. All that is left to do now is wire it up to your home’s power supply via an inverter and/or fuse box, and you are all set. Wind power has been harness by your hands.
Stuff From Around the House
One of the most satisfying things about building a DIY windmill is doing it with spare parts. This not only saves money and puts old junk to good use, but it keeps waste out of landfills. You already knew using alternative energy was friendly to the environment, but you probably didn’t realize how friendly.
You probably have a bunch of stuff lying around that you could use in building a windmill, without even realizing it. I mentioned a few examples above, but if you will bear with me I will rehash some of them here for reference, and even throw in some new ideas:
- Scrap metal is invaluable, especially lightweight sheets of it. You can use these for the tail, or cut them to make blades. Old scaffolding or metal pipes can be used to make a sturdy tower.
- PVC pipe is another windmill multitasker. Not only can it serves as a light and sturdy tower, but it can be cut into contoured and efficient blades.
- A caster wheel can turn into an excellent rotating mount for a turbine assembly, allowing it to be turned toward the wind for maximum efficiency.
- A circular saw blade or even a road sign can be used as a hub to attach your blades, allowing them to turn the motor as they rotate in the wind.
The point is that there is hardly any shortage of materials to put towards a project like this one, even in your own home. Don’t be afraid to get creative. See what you have lying around the house. Call up the local junk or scrap yards. Use online tools like Craigslist and Freecycle to find others’ junk that you can turn into your own treasure. You will find that the rewards of your creativity are even more than just the savings on materials.
THREE WAYS TO HEAT, COOL AND POWER YOUR HOME
After all that, you are pretty well-versed in supplying your own power by using alternative energy sources. That is hardly all there is in the plethora of options for keeping your house comfortable via less conventional means. Here are three more tips on alternative ways to heat, cool and power your home:
- Install a wood stove. Particularly if you live in a climate with a long cold season and have consistent access to firewood, burning wood can be a comfortable and affordable alternative to other heating methods. If the cost of electricity weren’t high enough, the wallets of people who live in homes with gas furnaces are even lighter.
- Tap into the Earth to stay cool. You may already know that geothermal energy can be used for heating and – by a more indirect process – generating electricity. Did you know it can also keep your home cool? Simply put, the system works by taking advantage of the naturally cool temperatures a few feet down in the Earth’s crust. By digging some trenches and laying pipe in them, you can tap into this for your own home. Much like the direct solar heating system I described above, water and coolant are pumped through these pipes and cooled by the Earth. Then the cooler liquid is circulated through a system of pipes in your house before being pumped back below ground again in a continuous cycle.
- Harness rushing water. Much like wind energy, hydroelectric power makes use of the energy generated by moving water to create electricity. The whole concept is the same as with wind, but instead of a windmill, you have a water wheel that is turned by some body of moving water, like a creek or small waterfall. Utility companies use huge dams to employ this strategy on a massive scale, but it works just as well for a single home too.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you a pretty good idea of how many options are out there. Of course, one simple way to reduce your dependence on the local utility grid is to just start decreasing the amount of energy you consume.
There are obvious ways to do this, but some of the best routes are not always the clearest ones, such as saving on heating and cooling costs by planting trees, which I will tell you about next.
I have mentioned a few times in this eBook the value of being creative. Whether you are trying to conserve energy, looking for new sources of energy or doing a DIY alternative energy project on the cheap, taking a creative approach can be extremely helpful.
Well, with that in mind, here is a creative idea that many people do not think of when trying to cut energy costs: using the landscape to your advantage. Silly as it may sound at first, trust me when I say you can creatively landscape your yard to effectively reduce energy consumption in your home by up to 25%.
Keep it Cool
In the summer, the hot sun can be a nightmare, making it relentlessly uncomfortable outside. To combat this heat, you stay inside and blast the air conditioning. But, with a few tricks, you can use Mother Nature against herself to help stay cool:
- Plant deciduous trees at angles that keep direct sunlight from reaching your windows.
- Position trees at low angles along the western exposure and northwest corner of your house. This will provide shade against the late afternoon sun.
- Use ivy or other wall crawling vines to keep brick walls or aluminum siding cooler in the summer sun.
- Make liberal use of bushes, shrubs and other plants throughout the area to keep the ground from absorbing – and then radiating – excess heat.
Warm it Up
Whereas in the summertime you want to try to mitigate the sun’s rays and keep them from superheating your house, in the chilly winter months you welcome them to warm the place. This is the idea behind using creative landscaping to reduce heating costs. By making use of passive solar energy – which is really just a fancier term for “sunlight” – you keep your house warmer without having to crank the thermostat. Here are some landscaping strategies to help you do that:
- Avoid shading southern exposures, especially ones with windows.
- Remember how you strategically positioned those deciduous trees for the summer? Good news: their leaves fall off in the winter, letting in more direct sunlight.
- Dense evergreen shrubs can provide protection from frigid winter winds.
Seems pretty simple, right? That’s because it is! So simple, in fact, that there is no real reason not to put creative landscaping to good use in your yard and start saving on energy costs today. Plus, having a home surrounded by lush plants is more pleasant and aesthetically pleasing, anyway.
Going Grid Free Is Simple
I would be willing to bet there are skeptics out there among you who are not necessarily buying all the benefits of conservation and alternative energy. I can just hear the questions and complaints now:
- “Why would I want to put time into building my own solar panel? The savings can’t be that great.”
- “What good is a 100 watt windmill going to do when my family uses over 7 kilowatts of electricity every month?”
- “Planting trees is going to lower my electric bill? Give me a break!”
- “Even if I do all these things, it’s still almost impossible to be grid free, and if I’m still paying for electricity from the power company, there’s no point.”
I hear you, loud and clear. It can be difficult to see how things like solar collectors and DC treadmill motors can be important players in energy conservation. Try to think of the ideas in this eBook as a jumping off point, like the first steps to going grid free. It’s true that none of these ideas will get you to that point tomorrow, next week, or even over the next couple of months. But if you have a grid free life as one of your goals, you may as well start making strides toward it.
As for that last comment above, it’s simpler to go grid free than you probably think it is. Lots of people have done it, and more and more do it every year, either to save money, protect the environment or just to be self-sufficient and feel a sense of accomplishment.
It’s true that there was a time when abandoning grid power was full of challenges. The technology was expensive and not very effective, information and instructions were scarce and options were limited.
These days, however, those obstacles are easier and easier to overcome. We have already talked about how far wind turbines have come, and PV cells have made great gains in efficiency as well. As the technology advances, the prices also drop.
With the ubiquity of the Internet, the amount of information available to people wanting to make the switch – for example, this eBook – is innumerable and easily accessible.
The options available to consumers continue to grow, too. I discussed solar and wind energy, but let’s not forget other sources, like geothermal energy, which employs the natural heat of the Earth. Or hydroelectric power, which harnesses the enormous potential of moving water.
There you have it. It is easier, cheaper and even more beneficial than you think it is to move yourself off the power grid and into the realm of alternative energy. Just like with the DIY projects outlined in the book, start small and build your way up.