The Homeowner's Energy Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Off the Grid

The Homeowner's Energy Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Off the Grid

by Paul Scheckel


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Make and Conserve Your Own Energy


With practice advice and a working plan, you can reduce or eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels. Energy-efficiency expert Paul Scheckel shows you the value of producing your own renewable energy — from sun, wind, wood, water, or biogas — and then points the way to personal action. Reduce your use, then produce!


Begin by doing an energy audit to boost your home's efficiency, and then explore the opportunities. From investing in basic retrofits to going completely off the grid, your energy future is up to you. Scheckel includes step-by-step plans for building a biogas generator and four other energy-producing projects.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612120164
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 03/12/2013
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 722,989
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

PaulScheckel is an energy auditor and consultant who has visited more than 3,000 homes, educating people about energy efficiency, cost-effective improvements, and indoor air quality. His articles have appeared in such publications as Mother Earth News, Home Power, and Vermont Life, and he contributes a monthly energy and environment column to two state-wide newspapers. A frequent radio guest, Scheckel has also appeared as a guest expert on the acclaimed television show “Ask this Old House”. He lives off-grid in northern Vermont with his family in a solar- and wind-powered house.

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Getting Ready for Renewables

Back in the early 1990s, when I was converting gasoline-powered cars to electric operation, my partners and I thought this was obviously the next step in transportation. Technology was indeed ready, and we even found a few customers, but we quickly discovered that it was much easier to convert cars than to convert driver behavior.

Batteries are the limiting factor in the viability of electric vehicles, and efficient driving habits can increase the range of travel by up to 50 percent. Try as we did, it seemed nearly impossible for many to unlearn wasteful driving habits. Stomping on the accelerator from a dead stop does nothing to increase an electric car's speed, but it puts a huge drain on the batteries.

When it comes to energy use, most of us have some of the same bad habits with our houses as with our cars. Getting your home — and yourself — ready for renewables requires understanding what renewable resources you want to use, as well as the practicalities of how to harness that energy. This chapter will help to guide your decision-making, with a broad view of what's required "behind the scenes."

The Big and Little Energy Picture

THERE IS MUCH that you can do to get ready for renewables. You can do it all at once, if resources allow, or you can take baby steps with incremental improvements to make your home "renewable-ready," ultimately resulting in substantial savings. Shifting toward renewables requires that you closely examine your relationship with energy and your expectations around how it serves you — and accept changes in both. Where is your energy coming from now, and how will you get it, or make it, in the future? On the fossil fuel main line, we don't just buy energy, but we also buy the convenience of throwing a switch or turning a dial to meet our needs with very little planning, thinking, or heavy lifting required. We have come to expect energy to be an invisible and seamless part of our lifestyle, keeping us in a very narrow bandwidth of comfort, without being anywhere near the raw materials, processes, or awareness of this huge global infrastructure.

Yet fuel prices are rising fast, as are concerns about all the resources required to sustain increasing levels of imported energy — resources ranging from money to land to human lives. When you think about it, it seems crazy to take fuels like natural gas and oil (which are highly processed, costly, complex, and difficult to obtain), transport them around the world, and burn them for heat. It's crazier still when you realize that the industry of refining petroleum products is the single biggest energy consumer in the United States.

All of these factors make homegrown options attractive on many levels. Equivalent heat is available from the sun or from "low-grade" (minimally processed, easily obtainable) biomass fuels found much closer to home. Drawing from local sources to heat your home can be as simple as planning at the design stage to take advantage of solar heat gain, or as complex as using a ground-source heat pump to scavenge heat from the earth and redirect it into your home. Somewhere in the middle of the cost and complexity scale might be installing a wood stove in your home, or adding an active solar thermal or solar electric system with substantial collection area and sufficient storage capability, coupled with effective and efficient delivery of that energy.


Society has energy choices to make, and so do you. These are not easy decisions because there are economic, environmental, social, political, and personal values associated with any energy source. These values can be viewed from both micro and macro vantage points, and you can bring your own value propositions into the discussion.

The question is: What do you want in your backyard — or in policy-speak, your energy "view-shed"? In terms of energy impact, the view from your house might have both visible and invisible components. You might see electric transmission lines, coal-burning power plants with their smokestacks, or wind turbines. Less visually dramatic but equally tangible impacts of energy production include the effects of smog when you breathe. You might not see an entire mountaintop removed to get at the coal or uranium underneath, but you know that the natural world has been affected.

You'll experience fewer impacts, a better view, and easier rest if you and your neighbors are using energy efficiently. If you opt for energy status quo, then you also choose to accept your share of the pollution and other impacts of various generation sources.


The term "carbon footprint" refers to the annual amount of greenhouse gases (GHG), or the gaseous emissions of substances that have been shown to contribute to the effects of climate change, for which every human is directly or indirectly accountable. There are many such gases, and they are often expressed in terms of carbon dioxide equivalency (CO2e) because CO2 is the primary GHG.

The average American has a carbon footprint of about 23 tons per year, nearly 80 percent of which comes from burning fossil fuels. That's enough carbon dioxide (CO2) to fill over 18 average homes full of this potent greenhouse gas. If you took all the oxygen (O2) out of the 23 tons of CO2, you would have a pile of carbon weighing almost 6½ tons. This is often called carbon equivalency or Ce.

Where do we store these gases other than the closet of our atmosphere? And the fallout, literally and figuratively, is that we must put up with days where ozone, smog, and unexpectedly high particulate matter limit our ability to breathe while increasing societal health care costs.

Take a Deep Breath

Our nation spends $15 billion each year on asthma medication. The increase in people suffering from asthma is partly due to increases in air pollution from dirty coal-burning power plants around the world. And we all share the same air. In America, many eastern states are downwind of coal power plants in the Midwest. When it's hot in Ohio, for example, locals crank up their air conditioners, and that ultimately raises the level of asthma-triggering particulate matter in the air of New England states.

To continue down the road of energy status quo means accepting continuous environmental degradation from acid rain and adjusting to a shifting global climate. We'll have to accept mining disasters, wars, increasing military budgets, and political destabilization as we wrangle for resources, as well as displaced people, extinguished wildlife, rising costs, and continued warnings to avoid certain foods that absorb various pollutants. And, every once in a while, we'll need to accept radioactive rain and witness productive farmland being reduced to wasteland. The environment in which we live is a closed system in motion. In terms of energy impacts, our backyards have expanded to include the entire planet.


All energy systems have a downside, and renewable energy sources are not to be excused for their contribution to environmental and social impacts. Land is submerged for huge hydropower operations, and people are displaced from their homes. Substantial wind resources are often found within sensitive ecosystems where roads and construction projects will take their toll. These installations may have a permanent impact on the landscape and local environment, but they do not have the continuous impacts of resource exploitation and pollution production that fossil energy sources do.

Basic Considerations

MAKING YOUR HOME ready for renewables means taking incremental steps toward meeting your own energy needs with minimal impacts. This can be done in a relatively pain-free way while you're doing other renovation work, as long as you plan for the eventuality of integrating renewables into your home and lifestyle.

As you make your plans, consider your needs:

• What do you want to use renewables for?

• How much energy will you need after efficiency improvements?

• What equipment is needed and where will it go?

At the same time, consider available resources that can help you meet those needs:

• Do you live in a sunny place?

• Do you have at least an acre of land and plenty of wind?

• Do you own wooded property?

• Are you near falling and/or flowing water?

• Are you a farmer with excess crop waste and manure to manage?

• Are you (or do you know) a restaurant owner with waste vegetable oil and/or food scraps to dispose of?

• How much energy can the available resources yield?

Of course, everything starts with efficiency. You don't want to buy or produce energy only to lose or waste it to inefficiencies. Reduce the energy use of your dwelling and maximize efficiency through weatherization and upgrades to heating and cooling systems and appliances. A small energy footprint allows you to meet a greater portion of your energy needs through a diversity of options.

Reducing your use means that a smaller, less costly renewable energy system can meet a greater portion of your needs. If you're off-grid, it also means less reliance on a fossil fuel generator to keep your system's batteries charged.

While it's certainly possible for renewables to meet all of a home's energy requirements, it's typically most cost-effective to supply up to 80 percent of your annual energy needs with renewables. This is because adding sufficient capacity for that last 20 percent, which you may need only for a short-lived, worst-case scenario, can double the system capacity and cost. In most cases, the technology is relatively manageable. The more challenging aspect to consider is your lifestyle and how much you are willing to personally engage in the process of assembling and managing your own energy systems.


If you're a hands-on person and are able, willing, and available to address maintenance issues as they arise, you might have the flexibility to experiment with various approaches and systems to see what works best for you. On the other hand, if this level of oversight isn't realistic or desirable, you'll probably need to hire a professional to install and maintain a more conventional system, and you will need to budget for maintenance. Set realistic goals around how much purchased energy can be offset with renewables.

Don't forget to look into state and local zoning restrictions that may affect structure height or the visual appearance of your home. Be ready to work with neighbors and officials to change laws that may prohibit the use of solar collectors, wind towers, micro-hydroelectric turbines, or even clotheslines.

Living with renewable energy will change your awareness of that resource. To make the most use of it, you'll need to be open to changing your habits to live within the requirements of renewables and possible constraints on their availability.

Defining Btus

A British thermal unit (Btu) is the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one pound (one pint) of water by 1°F, or about the same energy released when a wooden match is completely burned. The energy output of many heating, cooling, and cooking appliances is measured in Btus.


There's a good chance that your home is more ready for renewables than you might think. Sunlight falls everywhere, and proper design (or redesign) of your home can allow you to take advantage of solar heat gain to offset your heating needs while also reducing your cooling loads.

Even if your home isn't ideally oriented, a rooftop or yard with good access to the southern sky offers the potential to harness solar energy for use in water heating and electrical power for the home. A reasonable flow of wind or water offers additional opportunities for home power generation. Wood is widely available in split logs (cordwood) or pellets, and either option can be a good choice for home and water heating (see below).

Systems and Planning

WHETHER YOUR HOME is new or old, you can affordably make renewable energy part of your future by phasing it in to help control costs. For example, a little advance planning goes a long way toward minimizing labor costs of future installations of renewable energy systems. It's a good idea to work with a professional energy consultant or installation contractor to understand all the major components of the technology you're considering and to plan for things that will be hidden in the walls, such as wiring and plumbing.


Renewable energy technologies have three basic interacting systems: collection, storage, and control. You must provide a place for each of these systems to reside in (or outside) your home, as well as means for them to interact with and connect to one another.

Integrated within these systems is the process of energy conversion. With solar hot water, for example, the solar thermal collectors may live on the roof (or on a ground- mounted rack) on the south side of the house, converting the energy in the sunlight into fluid heat. A solar hot water storage tank may live in the basement alongside a backup water heater, with controls (sensors, an electronic brain, and wires) between the collectors and storage tank to control fluid flow and heat exchange between the sun and the storage tank. Another important element, of course, is the plumbing that connects the collectors to the storage tank.

For solar electric systems, there are collectors (solar panels), possibly storage batteries, power management controls, and wiring between them all. If you're considering wind energy, you'll need to know where the tower will go and how the power cables will get to your batteries or interconnect with utility power lines.

With utility-connected (grid-tied) electrical systems, the grid serves as the storage facility to which electricity is delivered as it's produced, and from which electricity is drawn when needed. Renewable energy sources are seldom consistent, so matching the supply rate to storage capacity is an important consideration. Most energy systems will also have some sort of monitoring facility so that you can see what is happening within each subsystem.


As you make home improvements or renovations, think about the master plan you have for all of the systems you're considering, and provide for their future inclusion as you work. One of the best things you can make available to your renewable energy installer is a chase (groove) between the roof and the basement that allows easy access and plenty of space for running wires, plumbing, or even a chimney without having to cut into walls.

If you're doing roof work, installing supports for future solar collectors will save time and money down the road when you're ready to put up your panels. This requires knowing the dimensions and mounting requirements of the equipment, so be sure to do your research. As mentioned, it's a good idea to bring in a system designer or experienced installer early in the process, and make sure the roof can handle the additional load of solar panels.

Renewable Habits

PUT TECHNOLOGY TO work for you, but don't expect technology to do it all. Living with renewable energy is about living within the means that nature provides. Adopt renewable habits, such as "one person, one light," and simply be aware of all energy being used in your home.

There are times when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, and those are times for conservation. But when nature gives, take advantage of the opportunity for abundance. For example, save your hot-water clothes washes for when the sun can heat the water.

Becoming aware of your energy habits and applying energy-smart strategies can make a big difference in the size and success of your renewable energy system. You can live in the greenest, most efficient dwelling and still use a ton of energy if you have not adopted efficient habits. Here are some tips to help enhance your renewable acumen.

Readiness tip #1: Increase your energy awareness by understanding what's happening in your house and why.

• Are there lights on that don't need to be?

• Do appliances have standby loads that always consume power?

• If you have a private water system, do you know when your well pump is on?

• Is the furnace pilot light on in the summer?

• Are the computer's energy-saving features turned on?

Readiness tip #2: Assess your energy use on every level by doing your own energy audit (see chapter 2). For example:

• Look at every outlet; know what's plugged in and why.

• Learn to read your electric and gas meters and understand where every last Btu or kilowatt-hour is going. Examine a year's worth of energy bills, look at monthly and seasonal trends, and think about what happens in your home during those periods.

• Try to determine how many fuel units are used for heating, hot water, air conditioning, and other electrical uses.

• Know something about everything in your home that uses energy — when it's needed and why, how much it uses while operating, and how best to control its operation.


Excerpted from "The Homeowner's Energy Handbook"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Paul Scheckel.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Part One: Home Energy Efficiency

1 Getting Ready for Renewables

The Big and Little Energy Picture * Basic Considerations * Systems and Planning * Renewable Habits * The Value of Electricity * Energy Action in Cuba * Build a Bicycle-Powered Battery Charger


2 Do Your Own Energy Audit

Getting Started * Electricity * Hot Water * Heating and Air Conditioning * Thermal Envelope * Windows * Prioritizing Your Improvements


3 Insulating Your Home

How Heat Moves * Measuring Insulation Value * Insulation Inspection * How Much Insulation Do You Need? * Choosing and Installing Insulation * Stopping Air and Moisture * Roof Venting * When "High Performance" Doesn't Perform


4 Deep Energy Retrofits

Looking at the Big Picture * A Team with a Plan * The Basement * Above-Grade Walls * Windows * The Roof * Air Leakage * Ventilation * Heating and Air Conditioning * Hot Water


5 Home Energy Monitoring

Electric Energy Monitoring * Gas Monitoring * Environmental Monitoring * My Hot Water Heating Story


Part Two: Renewable Energy

6 Solar Hot Water

Types of Systems * Solar Hot Water Collectors * Hot Water Storage * Additional System Components * Sizing the System * Maintenance * Homemade Hot Water * Build a Solar Hot Water Batch Heater


7 Solar Electric Generation

Solar Power Potential * Planning for a PV System * PV System Wiring * Orientation * Racks and Tracking * Economics * Safety * Living with Solar (and Wind) Power


8 Wind Electric Generation

Using Wind Energy at Home * Estimating Energy in the Wind * Estimating Wind Speed * Efficiency and Power * Wind Machines and Controls * Towers * Foundations and Anchoring * Maintenance * Safety * Wiring and Grounding * Wind Wisdom from an Expert


9 Hydro Electric Generation

Home Hydro * Calculating Hydro Energy * Measuring Flow and Estimating Power * Intake Site Selection * Penstock Pipe Selection * Turbines * Power Generators * System Efficiency


10 Renewable Electricity Management

Grid-Tie vs. Off-Grid * Definition of Terms * Electrical Wiring * Balance of System Components * Batteries * Mapping Motivations ... and Watts


11 Biodiesel

Venturing into Biodiesel * What Is Biodiesel? Benefits and Drawbacks * Essential Ingredients * Equipment Needs * Safety * Basic Steps for Making Biodiesel * Mixing Biodiesel with Other Fuels * Washing Biodiesel * Veggie Oil Conversion * Create a Biodiesel Kit


12 Wood Gas

Wood Doesn't Burn * How Wood Gas Generators Work * Four Stages of Gasification * Gasifier Operation * Cleaning and Filtering Wood Gas * Using Wood Gas * Storing Gas * Types of Gasifiers * Working Safely around Wood Gas * Two Men and a Truck * Build a Simple Wood Gas Cook Stove


13 Biogas

The Basics * Recipe for Making Gas * Solids, Liquids, and Volatile Solids * Temperature * Retention Time and Loading Rate * Types of Methane Generators * Using Biogas * Purifying Biogas * Biogas Is More than a Gas * Make a Biogas Generator



Metric Conversion Charts


What People are Saying About This

Laurie Guevara-Stone

"An incredible resource for anyone who wants to take responsibility for their energy use and production. Whether you are interested in saving money, creating a more comfortable home, becoming energy independent, or living lighter on the planet, this book has vital information for you.

Founder and Director of Appropriate Development So Laurie Guevara-Stone

"An incredible resource for anyone who wants to take responsibility for their energy use and production. Whether you are interested in saving money, creating a more comfortable home, becoming energy independent, or living lighter on the planet, this book has vital information for you."

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