For those that live off grid, there are now numerous choices for efficient appliances. As with any thing else, the cost depends on the lifestyle you choose and how fancy you want to get. You can go very basic and spend very little money or you can go all out and spend thousands. For those that live on the grid and simply want a little more security, integrate an off grid high efficiency appliance into your home. If that is the case and the grid goes down, you can still function with ease.
There are four types of appliances I will examine as these are the most common areas of concern:
- Kitchen range
- Refrigerator and freezer
- Clothes washer
- Water heater
Cooking food is one of the greatest energy demands in the modern home. Microwave ovens draw 600 to 1200 watts depending on the model. The stove top element of an electric range draws about 1500 watts per hour on medium heat. The average oven uses 2400 watts per hour.
That is a tremendous amount of energy that is difficult to produce from a stand-alone off grid renewable energy system. That is why most off-grid folks will choose to cook using a solid fuel source. But, even if you live on the grid, you can take advantage of the efficiency of these appliances and save yourself some cash.
Bottom line, if you always want the ability to cook a meal, either on or off grid, then use an appliance that functions off grid. Given the energy consumption of an electric stove, you are far better off using a stove that requires a solid fuel source such as a gas range or a wood stove. If you live on grid and the electricity goes down for days to weeks, you can still cook for yourself.
Propane ranges are the most common for off-grid folks. Older models require the use of a pilot light which in my opinion is a waste. Newer models use battery ignition. This eliminates the need for the pilot light and improves the efficiency.
When I started living off the grid, the only thing available was a small stove that required the use of a pilot light. However, I did not want gas to be fed to the stove all the time. I simply installed a cut off valve on the wall behind the stove. When I need to cook, I turn on the gas and light the pilot lights. When I am finished, the stove and the gas line is turned off. Problem solved!
Here are a few examples of gas ranges:
This propane kitchen range has sealed surfaces for easy cleaning. It also has battery ignition. This range can easily be found at Home Depot here.
Image credit goes to Home Depot.
100% off grid: No matter what is going on with the power grid, you are still going to be able to cook.
Cost effective: These appliances are readily available and in demand. Consequently, they are very cost effective.
Small increased cost: There was a time when a propane stove was considerably more expensive than a standard kitchen range. These days, the difference in cost is negligible.
Being 100% off grid and living at high elevation, I use the wood stove for heat about 6 months out of the year. I take advantage of that by cooking on top of the wood stove instead of using propane. Consequently, after 20 plus years of being off the grid, I’ve learned a few things about cooking on a wood stove.
Antique and modern wood cookstoves are truly a beautiful appliance. They are also very expensive. The fire boxes on older models are very small. Consequently they need a constant supply of smaller pieces of wood in order to keep the cooking surfaces hot. However, modern wood cookstoves have much larger fireboxes and are much easier to maintain.
Here are a couple of examples of wood cook stoves.
This is the Pioneer Princess from Lehmans which can be found at Lehmans.com
Additional wood stove models, such as this one here, can be found onwoodstoves.net
When you start shopping for wood cook stoves you quickly realize there is an extensive selection to choose from. They are also very expensive. This is why I am a fan of using a regular wood stove for cooking. I can still heat my cabin, cook a meal, and save a considerable amount of money.
My personal preference is a stove with a “step top”. I have a Fisher model in the log cabin and this one is in my newer cabin.
In my experience, due to the design of the step top, it is easy to find areas on the stove with variable temperatures. This of course means variable cooking temperatures. By using cast iron cookware, such as Dutch ovens, you can essentially cook anything on top of this stove. One year, just to make a point, I cooked the entire Thanksgiving dinner on top of the wood stove.
The best part is that both of my wood stoves were given to me. That means FREE!!! I would definitely advise that if you are in the market for a wood stove then spend some time shopping around. Good deals are easy to find. Even if you have to clean it up and recondition the stove, that is far better than spending $4000 for a cook stove.
Source of heat: Cooking with a wood stove heats your home at the same time.
Free source of fuel: Using a wood stove is very cost effective if wood is easily available.
Heat output: If you have ever heated with a wood stove, you know they put out a lot of heat. In the warmer time of year, this can be a disadvantage.
Cost: Wood cook stoves are extremely expensive.
Here are a few additional resources regarding wood cook stoves:
Catch this YouTube video on How to Use a Wood Cook Stove
Discount Stoves. has a great selection of cook stoves.
You can also find an extensive selection of woods stove on woodstoves.net
Refrigerator and freezer
It would be hard to imagine a life without a refrigerator or a freezer. However, I lived without either of these appliances for 15 years. I mostly used a root cellar and ice chests. I also became very creative with taking advantage of the natural colder temperatures because I live at a high elevation. However, thanks to modern technology there are some fantastic choices for high efficiency appliances that are perfect even if you live off the grid.
There are three different ways to power a refrigerator and freezer: AC, DC and propane. Each mode of power has its advantages and disadvantages. How the appliance is powered, the efficiency rating, and the size of the appliance directly affects the cost. Also, bear in mind that the type of appliance you choose directly affects how you set up your off grid home.
This is the standard household refrigerator. It runs off of alternating current, which is standard household current. This type of refrigerator runs off of a compressor which circulates a refrigerant. It is the compressor that draws the greatest amount of energy.
Because this is the most common type of refrigerator on the market, there are numerous options. You have numerous choices for ice makers, large freezer compartment, different sizes, shapes, colors, etc.
Initial cost: AC appliances are by far your least expensive option.
Parts availability: It is extremely easy to find parts for these appliances because they are the most common type of refrigerator on the market.
Higher energy use: Of the three choices, this type of appliance consumes the most energy.
Must have an inverter: Because these run off of AC current, you must size your inverter in your renewable energy system to be able to handle the load. Additionally, you must design your renewable energy system to meet the additional demand for electricity needed to run this appliance. If you are using solar, this simply means additional solar panels. The added cost for your renewable energy system will likely out weigh the savings of purchasing an AC appliance.
For a great concise review of various refrigerator models, go to this page on the US government Energy Star website.
These units run directly off of DC current provided by a renewable energy system. This by passes the inverter and increases efficiency because of direct wiring into the battery bank.
These are some of the most energy efficient appliances on the market. They most commonly come in 12 and 24 volt models. The up front cost is considerably more than the average AC appliance and they are generally smaller. They also have the option of front or top loading. The top loading models are much more efficient because you do not loose all the cold air every time you open the door.
I personally have a Sundanzer refrigerator and freezer. This is my refrigerator in the front room of the log cabin.
Runs off of DC current: These appliances are wired directly into your battery bank and thus bypass the inverter. This alone increases the efficiency of the system.
Downsizes your renewable energy system:Anything you do that reduces your energy demands simply means you can design and install a smaller renewable energy system. This can save you a considerable amount of money and thus off set the up front cost of a DC appliance.
The beauty of a DC refrigerator or freezer is that it operates as a stand alone system. Some models by Sundanzer can be run off of a single 120 watt solar panel.
Initial cost: Some people look at this initial cost of DC appliances and think they are expensive. So, I listed this as one of the downsides. However, if you compare prices, they are not that bad.
The process of propane refrigeration was first discovered in 1824. However, this method of refrigeration did not become popular until the 1930’s when Servel invented the propane refrigerator.
They are also known as absorption refrigerators and operate on similar principles to an electric refrigerator. Electric appliances use an electric pump to drive a cooling agent through a series of tubes in the appliance casing. Propane refrigerators apply heat, produced electrically or by combustion, to a modified series of pressurized chambers to achieve the same result. These are commonly found in recreational vehicles.
Unlike electric appliances, one of the advantages to propane equipment is that they have no moving parts. There is no inverter, battery bank, or solar panels to worry about. They tend to cost more than AC appliances but less than DC appliances.
There are numerous manufacturers of propane appliances. Some of the bigger names are
No moving parts: This means very little maintenance.
Cost efficient: Cost less than DC appliances.
No need for electricity: These operate as complete stand alone systems. There is no need for any sort of electrical hook up.
Odor: Many folks do not like the smell of propane.
Carbon Monoxide: It is important to install a carbon monoxide detector when using a propane appliance. Regular maintenance must be performed as per the users manual to mitigate this potential problem.
On going cost: These propane appliances average 20 pounds of propane usage every 20 to 30 days. This means you have to continue to purchase propane and you are subject to vastly fluctuating prices which are out of your control.
Comparison of energy consumption: solar versus propane
Just for the sake of argument, let’s do an energy comparison between solar and propane appliances:
The SunFrost RF12 uses 24 amp/hours per 24 hours, which is 288 watt hours a day = 105 kW hours/year
A 10 cubic foot propane refrigerator typically consumes 1.5 pounds of propane per 24 hours. This is the equivalent of 32,250 BTUs or about 9485 watt hours per day. This is the equivalent of 3,462 kW hours/year.
For further information, read this post on Off Grid Refrigeration: Propane versus Electric
As with most appliances, the average clothes washer, not to mention a clothes dryer, uses a tremendous amount of energy. This of course can be a challenge if you live off grid. There are numerous effective ways to wash clothes off grid. But, for the purposes of this post I am only going to focus on various types of washing machines. So, let’s get down to it.
Portable washing machines
These appliances are usually much smaller than standard units. Correspondingly, they use a lot less electricity. Various models are available including stackable versions as well as ones that are literally small enough to fit in your bath tub.
For example, this small portable model can be found at kuppet.net
Very cost effective
Uses little water
Light weight and portable
Some hand work involved in switching clothes from one tub to the other (twin tub model).
Here is a good example of a stackable washer and dryer. This model can be found at the Appliance Connection.
Image credit to the Appliance Connection.
Washes larger loads
Hand Washing Alternatives
If you have to wash clothes by hand, the Wonder Wash is likely one of easiest ways to do so. It is very cost effective, light weight, compact and is great for small spaces and RVs. Best of all, it is easy to use and requires no electricity.
It can be found at The Laundry Alternative
Image credit to The Laundry Alternative.
Uses much less water
No electricity required
Requires some hand work
Only washes 5 pounds at a time.
For even more information and a good review of the top 10 portable washers, gohere.
There are numerous options for heating water for showers, dishes, laundry, etc. Just keep in mind that the point here is to be able to function even if the grid goes down. Thanks to modern technology, even electric hot water heaters are much more efficient these days. That said, electric water heaters are going to consume a huge amount of electricity. That energy consumption has to be factored into the design of your renewable energy system.
So, let’s consider different ways of heating water in an efficient manner.
Tankless water heater
These are by far the most efficient. They are very simple “on demand” hot water heaters. When water flow is detected by internal sensors the heating element turns on. Hot water is produced in less than a minute. Once the water is turned off, the heating element turns off as well.
There are two possibilities depending on your lifestyle:
- Off grid lifestyle: If you already have a gas range for your cook stove, the gas plumbing can be extended to the water heater. If the kitchen and bath room are on opposite ends of your home, a small propane tank can easily be placed on the outside of the residence close to the bathroom. This is what I do. If you choose an electric model, plan on a very large addition to your renewable energy system to meet the increased demand.
- On grid lifestyle: Installing a tankless water heater is a great way to save a tremendous amount of energy. It is a matter of choosing between an electric or gas appliance. If you choose an electric appliance, it could still be operated with a generator if the grid goes down. A gas water heater is going to function without electricity as long as there is water pressure. Therefore it eliminates the extra step of having the generator. If you live in a warmer climate, you could easily install an outdoor shower system by using a 20 pound propane tank for heat and connecting a garden hose for water pressure. This is an economical, stand-alone system for a hot shower no matter what happens.
Here are two examples of tankless water heaters:
Ecosmart Tankless electric water heater
This model can easily be found at Home Depot.
Image credit to Home Depot.
Less expensive: these models cost around $480.
Saves space: Easy wall mount that does not take up a lot of space.
Heats water on demand: Not only does this save on the energy bill, you essentially have an endless supply of hot water.
No venting required: Unlike propane models, no venting is required.
Consumes a lot of energy: an electric model is going to consume at least 2000 watts on a regular basis.
Rinnai gas tankless water heater.
Heats water on demand
Runs without electricity
Easier to set up a stand alone system
More difficult installation
Venting is required if installed indoors
Annual inspection required
Rinnai has a lot of information on tankless hot water heaters at Rinnai.us.
Cost is about $580.
Eccotemp also has a great selection of water heaters at Eccotemp.com.
They have some models that cost as little as $150. This is the brand that I use at my off grid cabin.
There are also a variety of other companies that sell tankless water heaters. So, shop around.
Standard Tank Water Heaters
I wanted to mention these just for the sake of comparison. In my opinion, standard tank water heaters are energy hogs. You are keeping a huge reservoir of water heated at all times which is a tremendous waste of energy.
These appliances heat water by means of electricity or gas. The average electric water heater is rated at around 4000 watts and runs about 3 hours per day. This equates to 12 kW/day. That is a lot of electricity for a renewable energy system to produce. In my opinion, if you live off the grid, a gas water heater is a better choice. For the sake of comparison, both of my cabins run well on a 1.6 kW array.
Heat Pump Water Heaters
This type of water heater essentially works in a similar fashion as a refrigerator, except in reverse. It moves heat in the opposite direction. A refrigerator works by removing heat inside a box and dumping it into the surrounding room. A heat pump water heater pulls heat from the surrounding room and dumps it into the water heater. This appliance uses electricity to move heated air from one place to another instead of generating heat directly by using a heating element. This is why they are 2 to 3 times more efficient than a standard water heater.
Heat pumps are only effective in climates that stay in the range of 40 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Additionally, proper function requires installation with at least 1,000 cubic feet of space around the water heater. This equates to a room that is approximately 8 feet wide, 8 feet tall, and 16 feet long.
Additionally, because of how this appliance functions, it will lower the temperature of the surrounding room. This is because it moves the internal cooler temperatures of the water into the surrounding room.
Energy efficient: These units use about 1/3 less electricity. If you really want a tank water heater, these are ideal for operating with a renewable energy system if you live in a warmer climate.
Insulation: They have about 3 inches of insulation around the unit.
No venting required: Since warm air is just being moved around by electricity, no venting is required.
Limited to use in a warmer climate: Due to way they function, they need to be installed in a warmer climate.
Cost: Expect to pay about $2,600 for an 80 gallon unit.
Slow recovery: It takes about one hour to heat 8 gallons of water. This is a fairly long recovery time once you run out of hot water.
For further information, there is a good article on heat pump water heaters atenergy.gov.
Home Depot has a variety of heat pump water heaters here. Photo credit to Home Depot.
Heating water with a wood stove
This is a fantastic idea and one that I use frequently. However, I use this in a very different way than what most would expect. More on that later. How you go about doing this truly depends on your daily needs and the size of your family.
The fun part about this system of heating water is there are several different options depending on your needs.
- Mount a water heating coil on the side or back of your wood stove and circulate water through that coil. The hot water usually flows into a separate holding tank next to your normal water heater. But, it also feeds into your water heater. A wood stove water heating coil can be found here. Also, Mother Earth News has a great article on the logistics of installing one of these coils. Read their article here.
Pictured at the right is a very simple diagram of what a system may look like.
Image credit to solarhomestead.com
- Keep large pots of water on top of the wood stove and rotate as needed to prevent over heating. I use a 5 gallon turkey frying pot with a spigot.
- Mount a heating tank on the side of the wood stove with a spigot. A wood stove heating tank can be found here.
Solar Hot water
Solar hot water systems are a very economical way to have a constant source of hot water. A small pump circulates water through a series of tubes heated by the sun. The heated water is stored in an insulated pressure tank.
The circulation pump is operated by standard household current or solar electric.The system is either installed inline with your present water heater or set up as a stand alone. The point being, this system is so simple it can function independently of your normal household systems. This means if the grid goes down, you still have hot water.
The downside is that these systems cannot freeze. Consequently, use is limited to a warmer climate. If you are located in a colder climate, the system must be drained for the winter.
The price of renewable energy systems has continued to decline over the past decade. The same is true with solar hot water systems. Solar hot water kits are reasonably inexpensive and can be purchased online for as little as $350 for a small system.
The system pictured here is from Solar Tech Direct, which can be found on their product page. This small model is designed for an RV.
Image credit to Solar Tech Direct.
Inexpensive: Smaller systems can be purchased for as little as $300.
Constant source of hot water: If you live in a warmer climate, even a small system could provide you with all of your hot water needs.
Stand alone system: The driving force behind this system is the water pump. That pump can easily be run with a small solar panel which means it easily functions off grid.
Only suitable for a warmer climate: Because you are dealing with circulating water, it cannot be allowed to freeze.
What I do for Heating Water
Since my cabin sits on top of a ridge with a narrow shelf road for access, I live in a dry cabin. It would be cost prohibitive for me to reconstruct the road in order to bring in a well drilling rig. Consequently, in order to get water to the cabin I’ve had to be creative.
During the warmer months, I store water in a 525 gallon cistern. I pump water to an Eccotemp propane on demand hot water heater using a 24 volt ShurFlo water pump. This produces enough hot water for showers, dishes, and washing clothes.
During the winter months, I do not use the cistern or water heater due to the freezing temperatures. I keep small water tanks inside the cabin. I have two 5 gallon pots on the wood stove at all times. Consequently, I have a constant source of hot water. To take a shower, I simply place the pot of hot water outside the shower stall. I then drop in a small battery powered submersible water pump that feeds the shower head. The point is that both methods used here are extremely economical and provide me with a constant source of hot water.
Additional Resources for Off Grid Appliances
For Sundanzer refrigerators and freezers, go here.
To shop Unique appliances, go here.
Sun Frost refrigerators and freezers can be found here.
To shop a variety of appliances, go to Ben’s Discount Supply.
Another great source of information on energy efficient appliances is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star Program.
For some DIY off grid projects, go to Solar Tech Direct.
Good basic article on solar hot water heating by the American Solar Energy Society.
The Cabin Depot has a large variety of appliances.
The folks at Real Goods also have a nice selection.
Additional Posts of Interest14 Ways to Cook Without Using Your Kitchen Stove
Go off grid and live well,