When the power’s out in their neighborhood, Patricia Seaward’s neighbors grind their coffee beans at her house. Her coffee grinder, and the rest of her off-grid home in Barters Island, Maine, keeps running in any weather condition thanks to two resilient sources of power: solar and propane.
Independent by nature, Seaward chose the off-grid lifestyle after a career working at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
“Once I received a quote from Central Maine Power, I realized that the components for solar electric were only a few thousand dollars more than being grid-tied,” she says. “I rationalized where I worked and decided that I could lead by example. It was more the philosophy, doing my part for the environment, that attracted me.”
Seaward hired Albert Monaco, an electrician experienced with solar generation, to design her home’s off-grid, battery-based system. Monaco, owner of Oyster Creek Electric and Solar Options in Alna, Maine, installed a 2.5-kW solar photovoltaic array to power the home and charge the batteries.
But for peace of mind, and with the size of her roof limiting the number of solar panels that could be installed, both Monaco and Seaward knew the home would need a source of backup power. “Because of the days being so short in our winters, on some days you can’t produce enough power [with the solar panels],” Monaco says.
To keep the home running year-round, Seaward turned to propane backup power as the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly option. “My job at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection entailed working with homeowners whose wells were at risk or contaminated by various petroleum products,” she says. “As I live on the top of a hill, any petroleum spill could impact more than my property.”
Her neighbors would have little use for their coffee grounds if their water supply was contaminated, and diesel fuel has the potential for contamination from spills and leaks that are retained in the soil. Propane doesn’t spill, pool, or leave a residue, so it’s not harmful to soil or water in the unlikely event of a tank leak. Seaward also considered wind-generated backup power, but the cost was prohibitive.
Monaco installed a 2-kW propane generator with the start mechanism tied into the voltage of the batteries. When the batteries are depleted to a certain voltage, the generator automatically kicks on until the batteries are replenished to 80 percent.
Propane vs. diesel
In addition to its environmental benefits, propane has several other advantages over diesel, Monaco says. First, propane tanks are available in large sizes, so timely refueling isn’t a concern. “Most people have a tank that will run them 100, 200 hours, and that usually is about the run time for a year,” he says. Second, “Propane is also a whole lot cleaner, so maintenance on the machine is a lot less than if you were running on gasoline.”
Seaward was also able to use propane to power a variety of her home’s systems. She prefers propane to electric for cooking, and propane also happened to be the only viable choice to fuel her three-burner cooktop, broiler, and oven. “An electric stove would have required double the number of panels or running the generator for considerably more hours per month,” she says.
Propane also powers Seaward’s refrigerator, a clothes dryer, a manually operated soapstone heater for between seasons, and a boiler that provides hot water for domestic use and in-floor radiant heat. By using propane in the five applications of the Propane Energy Pod, the home provides maximum performance, comfort, and efficiency.
“We had a little snowstorm up here this winter, and we had winds 40, 50 miles per hour. But some people were out of power for three or four days because they just don’t have the manpower.”
Monaco says Seaward is far from the only local homeowner who has decided to leave the grid behind — in fact, his home is off the grid too. The local power company now has an owner in a foreign country and has cut back on local employees capable of quickly restoring power in an outage, he says. “We had a little snowstorm up here this winter, and we had winds 40, 50 miles per hour. But some people were out of power for three or four days because they just don’t have the manpower.”
Monaco and Seaward won’t have to worry about an electrical bill in retirement, but remaining blissfully unaware of power outages is also a major advantage. “I’ll go down to the local coffee shop and realize, ‘Oh, the power’s out?'” Monaco says. Owning one of the only homes with power has its perks. “That’s a real nice benefit right there.”