Propane: The "Dirty Little Secret" of Living Off the Grid
Living off the grid sounds romantic…no more bills from dirty energy companies, self-sufficiency, green power, etc.; however, there is one “dirty little secret” found in most alternative energy homes. Without it, some off-gridders couldn’t cook, refrigerate, heat water, or dry clothes. That dirty little secret is propane.
Propane is a “by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining,”. Due to a vast majority of it being produced domestically in the United States, some advocates, like T. Boone Pickens, push for natural gas as a solution to our foreign oil dependence. Yet, natural gas and its by-product propane are fossil fuels, are non-renewable, and prices continue to climb to record highs making it very unsuitable for off-grid living and ideals.
Why Off-Gridders Rely on Propane Appliances
People who live off the grid have to watch large power draws from big appliances. Those who have ample power, such as from micro-hydro turbines, still need to ensure these electrical draws do not occur simultaneously. For those living on solar or hybrid systems, electrical appliances are simply not an option. Propane becomes their source for cooking, refrigeration, clothes drying, heat, water heating, and back up generators. As Home Power explains:
For decades, cheap propane has been the dirty little secret of “independent living,” the convenient, flexible fuel that can run a generator, fridge, clothes dryer – you name it. But cheap propane, like cheap oil, is gone and probably not coming back.
Of course, there are greener solutions to propane use, but they all come at a cost. For most off-gridders, just buying the panels, inverters, batteries, etc. is a huge expense, and the other projects, such as building a solar hot water heater, get pushed down the list for when more funds or time become available.
In my own off grid home, we use propane for water heating, cooking, and clothes drying. We do plan to install a solar hot water heater to help our on demand propane water heater not have to heat the water as much. Hanging our clothes out to dry is greener solution, but often laziness or ease interferes with this task. We recently purchased a little electric burner to use instead of the stovetop when possible, such as when canning. We heat with wood and passive solar, and we have an electric refrigerator.
Another Home Power article explains:
Practical choices are sometimes limited. Electric ranges are not an option for most off-gridders because of the high cost of the extra batteries and RE sources needed. There is no publicly marketed, hydrogenfueled range. I do use my solar cookers in sunny weather and, when possible, I use my wood heater to cook. However, this does not cover all the cooking I do. It’s not practical to do canning with solar cookers or on top of the wood heater, to give you two examples.
I’m open to suggestions for a viable off-grid alternative for cooking. While a portion of the grid electricity here in the Northwest is produced by hydropower, 80% of it is fueled by coal. Do we stop encouraging people to tie into the grid because of this? We can reduce our use of unclean fuel sources as much as practicality allows. We are a work in progress, with a higher goal.
Propane makes it possible for many people to go off the grid comfortably. We don’t like to talk about it much, as it ruins our self-image as energy independent individuals, but it is a reality of most off-grid life. We are a work in progress, like all human beings!