Going off-grid seems to be something like the holy grail of the prepping and survival community. I mean, which of us wouldn’t love to be able to live our lives, without having to pay those bills every month? Why wouldn’t we want to go off-grid, especially if it means that we are more self-sufficient, preparing ourselves for the inevitable disaster, whatever and whenever that might be.
Typically, when we talk about going “off-grid” most people are thinking electricity. But while that’s an important part of going off-grid, it’s not the most important. If we’re going to consider all our utility usage, especially our energy consumption, then the biggest part of going off-grid for most families is heating their homes. Except in the deep south, where air conditioning is more important than heating, heating our homes is the biggest chunk of our energy consumption.
With that in mind, it only makes sense to start our process of going off-grid by seeking means of heating our homes through the winter; one that doesn’t require the electric company, the gas company or any other company that brings any sort of power right to our homes.
That limits our options tremendously. There are few forms of fuel that we can readily harvest on our own. Most require a considerable amount of technology and are best harvested in large quantities, allowing the companies that harvest them to spread the cost out over a massive number of users. None of us can pay those costs alone.
Nevertheless, there are some options we should consider.
In many ways, I’d have to say that solar heating is the ultimate off-grid heating system. Solar power is clearly a renewable energy source, it doesn’t require any work to harvest and the energy itself is free.
The big drawback to it is that effective passive solar heating requires that the home be specially designed and built to allow sunlight to enter the home and be converted to heat energy. Most homes are not.
Even so, it is possible to get at least some solar heating out of most homes, although you might not be able to heat your home on solar power alone. The main key is to have a lot of south-facing windows, where sunlight can come in during the day, hit dark colored surfaces and be converted to heat. Even without a means of storing that heat for the night, this will help lower your dependence on other forms of energy for heating.
If that’s not enough, adding a sun room on the south side of the home, which has been designed for passive solar, can generate a considerable amount of heat, perhaps even enough to heat your home.
There are two keys to make this work. The first is to have a large enough thermal mass to store the heat that your passive solar heating system is going to generate. This heat will then be able to radiate into the home at night, providing your family with heat. The second is to have a means of circulating that heat throughout your home. Ideally, that should be by convection; but in an add-on situation, you’ll probably need some sort of fans, like ceiling fans.
Related: How to Build Your Own Solar Panels
Electric heating is probably the most energy inefficient and costly way of heating your off-grid home.
In order to have off-grid electric heating, you would need to generate enough electricity to power your electric furnace or electric baseboard heaters and have a battery backup system which is large enough to store the electricity you would need to have, in order to heat your home overnight.
A few years ago, I priced out a solar power system which would produce my average energy usage. It was $60,000. This didn’t include any sort of battery backup system and in reality, didn’t produce enough power for my max usage months. Adding those in would probably make the system top out at over $100 grand. About the only good thing would be that I wouldn’t have any operating costs.
Propane exists in that grey area between being on the grid and being off-grid. While it is not technically connected to any sort of grid, you still have to have a gas company of some sort which can deliver the propane gas to you, filling your tank. So, while you might be off-grid for the winter; this isn’t workable for a long-term survival situation.
The big problem with propane is cost. While propane heaters are fairly inexpensive, the gas isn’t. By comparison, it’s even more expensive than electricity, which is considered by most people to be the most expensive home heating method. But in a direct comparison of the same amount of heat generated, propane costs is 57.4% higher. It looks even worse, when compared to natural gas, which heats most on-grid homes. Again in a head-to-head competition, producing the same amount of heat, propane costs over six times what natural gas does.
Once upon a time, much of the US Northeast was heated by coal. People would have coal chutes going into their basements, where coal was offloaded so as to be available for the coal-burning furnace. It wasn’t homes either, but apartment buildings and commercial enterprises as well.
Yet coal has lost favor in recent times, mostly because it is considered to be a “dirty fuel” even worse than other fossil fuels. It produces more carbon dioxide than any other fuel, according to the Energy Information Administration. Therefore, if you are concerned about the environment, this may not be the best heating source for you.
Leaving that out, coal is a fairly cost-effective means of heating your home, although it is more work than heating with propane or natural gas. But compared to wood, coal is much less work. That’s because the energy density in coal is double the best hardwood firewood you can find. You can store double the amount of heat energy in the same space as wood. That’s because coal is about twice as heavy as wood.
The key is to use anthracite coal, which produces less sulfur and less pollution than bituminous coal (the kind burned in power plants). Anthratic coal looks more like a stone, than the black coal that we are all accustomed to. But anthracite coal is only about 1% of US coal production. Prices vary; but average $53 a ton, making it even cheaper than buying firewood. Of course, if you have coal on your property and a means of mining it, you can get your coal for free.
I’ve only seen waste oil used in heating workshops, never a home. Yet waste oil furnaces are highly efficient fuel burners, allowing oil that would otherwise become hazardous waste to provide heating.
The one big drawback is that commercially available waste oil furnaces are rather expensive, since they are designed for use in industrial operations. But then, you can always build your own.
This may not seem like an effective off-grid heating method, but you can buy waste oil from dealers. All you need is a tank to store it. When you compare the cost of waste oil to other heating methods, you find that every gallon of waste oil burnt saves $5.05 over using propane or $2.82 over using natural gas.
But that’s not the big advantage in my eyes. When I look at waste oil, I think of all the disaster scenarios I’ve read about, where cars are no longer driveable. If such a scenario were to occur, the availability of waste oil would be nearly endless. All you’d have to do is scavenge it from all the cars just sitting around.
I’ve left wood for last for a reason. Regardless of all the benefits I’ve mentioned to the methods above, there is no better off-grid heating method than wood.
Wood is a renewable resource, which you can harvest yourself. That means that unless you live in an area lacking trees (I do; we don’t have a lot of trees here), you can harvest your own fuel, making the cost of heating your home free.
Even in areas with limited trees, there are still ways you can use wood to heat your home. There are always people who need trees trimmed, dead trees removed, or limbs blown down by storms cleaned up. With a little ingenuity and some elbow grease, you can keep yourself in firewood for nothing more than the cost of gas for your truck and chainsaw.
Even if you do buy hardwood firewood commercially, it’s still the cheapest form of home heating there is, other than solar. It’s also something that can be retrofitted into most homes. While you might not be able to keep your bedrooms toasty warm with a wood-burning stove in the living room, you will be able to keep the living areas warm.
When we compare wood to other forms of heating, we find that it costs roughly 13% of electricity, 8% of propane and 52% of natural gas.
Besides that, if there ever is a TEOTWAWKI event in our future, wood will probably be the most abundantly available fuel source you can find, with the possible exception of waste oil. But then, the waste oil will probably run out eventually, while wood is a renewable resource. Properly managed, our forests will keep producing wood for generations to come.
One Final Note
Many of these heating methods only heat part of your home, because they don’t use the ductwork of a modern HVAC system. Yet for much of human history, that’s what people lived with. The idea that every room of a home must be kept at a comfortable 76°F is actually rather new. About the only people who could afford to heat every room of a home in olden times were the richest of the rich.
In the past, people concentrated on heating the main living areas of their homes. The only heat which would get into sleeping areas would be through natural convection of doors left open. Children often slept in the loft, because it was warmer.
Our ancestors also did a number of things to keep themselves warm, which we’ve let go by the wayside. Sleeping together to share body heat was common, with all the children in the home often sharing one large bed. It was also common to use bed warmer to warm up the bed, before getting into it. Beds would be piled high in the wintertime, with all the blankets the family had, helping to keep that body heat in. All in all, I’m sure they were warm enough, even though they didn’t have central heating.
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