We live a life that many would consider to be blissfully simple. Our electricity is generated by solar panels and a small micro-hydro power turbine run by our seasonal stream, Brown’s Gulch. We homeschooled our kids and live in a tiny cabin, augmented by a large, communal type space above our dairy barn. I don’t get manicures or pedicures or even polish my nails (who wants polish bits getting into the artisan goat cheese we make?). I rarely style my hair and don’t mind shopping at The Goodwill. We have wood heat, no air conditioning, cook meals from scratch, and raise chickens for meat- I, the strict vegetarian, do the slaughtering and butchering of this kindly-raised, healthy protein source for my meat-eating family.
This morning just about the worst thing that could happen to an off-the grid system occured. We had a total blackout. Bizarrely, it occurred at the precise time, 5:15 AM that our alarm clock is set to ring, or in our case a background white noise is turned off. So the silence is what usually wakes us up. But this time not only the sound ceased, but also the glow from the digital display went dark and the fan bringing cooling air in the window spun to a halt. It took about eight seconds to realize that something was seriously amiss.
We live in a part of the country where it is common for rural power customers, the on-grid people, to have periodic power outages during inclement weather. An ice laden tree branch takes down a power line or a heavy wind pushes lines together, blowing a transformer. While we have done our best to not feel a little smug when the rest of the community can’t flush their toilets or use their cordless phones while we are blithely flipping on light switches and posting to Facebook , I will confess to the tiniest hints, just the tiniest, of smugness.
Well, when you live off-grid, the power only works when you properly maintain and monitor your power “plant”. After five years of vigilance, it only took two days of letting our guard down to do possible irreparable damage to a battery bank that would cost around 10 grand to replace. Our oversights were a combination of leaving the diversion load on (it is meant to shunt surplus power to our hot water holding tank), not having the generator in the emergency start mode (when it is supposed to automatically start if the battery bank drops to critical levels), and topping it off with a dead generator battery (so it wouldn’t have started even if it had been in the emergency mode).
So now, with the generator running and the sun shining on the 36 photovoltaic panels, we wait; Vern researching the likelihood of reviving the batteries and both of us figuratively crossing our fingers that the worst thing that could happen will soon become just a lesson in complacency.