power company trucks

Going On-Grid and Why We Did

by Beth

Homesteading is frequently associated with living off-grid, but living truly off the grid can mean big cash or lifestyle changes. Maybe we’re a couple of softcore or moderate homesteaders, but the choice to take our raw land on-grid ended up being an easy one.

Here are the reasons we decided to connect to the power grid and how we did it.

choosing power line route
Winter (pre-power poles) and now

Background
Before we made an offer on our land, which was 1/4 mile from the nearest powerline at the time, we met with a representative from the utility company to see what it would cost to get power there.

We immediately “connected” (grid pun) with the power guy, who ended up being a utility company measuring wheellocal friend full of sage advice about settling rocky Tennessee mountain land land like ours. His counsel has pointed us in helpful directions ever since. He also lets us borrow tools and gave us tough love on the state of our driveway, which has now been professionally graded, crowned, tiled, and graveled. So there. But I digress.

Power Guy has walked our land a dozen times since last fall, rolling his little measuring wheel. He’s priced connection options, advocated for us with neighbors, and meticulously identified trees and branches for clearance.

Why We’re Going On-Grid
Having a benevolent grid Svengali like Power Guy helped make going on-grid feel like the path of least resistance, and we do like going with the flow. But even as we were consulting with Power Guy, we were researching what it would take to be completely off-grid. After all, we’ll have a well and septic, so we’re 2/3 free of public utilities. Why not go all the way?

Two reasons: cost and lifestyle. 

Cost: Currently, a solar setup to cover our US-citizen-standard power consumption, plus ongoing maintenance and battery replacement, would cost the same as over 30 years of above-average grid-electric bills.

Factor in the energy efficiency of the dome and plans to lower electricity usage with at least a woodstove with a fan, and we’d never be flush.

Meanwhile, the utility company offers a $3K connection-fee credit and 10 years of no-interest financing on the remainder. Add $200 for inspections and $415 for an electric-box setup (we’ll save a few hundred by installing the box on the pole ourselves), and going on grid ended up being under $5K out of pocket.

FYI, that’s around 90 grand less than our quote for a full solar setup.

Cost-wise, grid-electric beats solar all day long. Of course, there are other reasons to be grid-free, like a sense of freedom. Even the word “grid” sounds like a snare, and any self-respecting homesteader will take issue with that.

While the notion of being severed from the public grid is romantic and awesome (let the grid go down, lawd), with current prices, we’d be tethered to a solar provider forever via debt and maintenance.

Not to mention that some see permits as grid, and even our no-code-having county has permits; everywhere does for things like septic, certificate of occupancy if you want to insure your place, etc., but that’s for another post.

solar setup on a hillside
Smokies solar setup at Hemphill Bald. At this time, partial solar is great for supplemental or lower power needs. 

To the next point: lifestyle. We wouldn’t need that 6-figure solar setup if we decided to, say, use a generator nightly and still not have power some nights or shady days. If we ran fewer electronics, worried less about climate control, didn’t have fish tanks that need electricity to maintain their delicate chemistry, and didn’t care if our guests could have hot showers, our approach would be different.

Homesteaders typically want to trade cash-reliance and modern conveniences for sweat equity and a deeper connection with nature. Our philosophy is a moderate version of that. We don’t see ourselves shifting radically from modern conveniences at this stage in our lives.

It’s not to say we’re not a lot more rugged than we used to be, because we are. I dare anyone who wants to call us “soft” to come out and try to keep up for an afternoon in the cold or heat, up steep mountainsides, alongside yellowjackets and snakes, and so on. But when we’re finished working on our land, we want a hot shower and to be able to cook and charge our devices and sleep in conditioned air.

There are many alternative power options to suit a fractional, on-grid approach to sustainable living. Partial solar arrays are more affordable and can even help reduce grid-power consumption by “reversing the meter” (sending watts back to the grid when the sun makes you more than you need).

Other folks out here get some wattage from hydro, building little dams on the many creeks. We don’t see a lot of wind currently in East TN, but it’s out for us anyway because of how sheltered our big hill is. Noise may also have been an issue.

TIPThink solar is for you but can’t decide? An owner-builder of a partially solar dome in Vermont has extensive experience with solar and domes. If you’re on a journey at all similar to ours, you could contact him. Take a dome-cation to Vermont! There’s nothing better for decision making than real-time experience.

How We Went On Grid
We contacted the local utility company to have a sales representative (Power Guy) assess the land and apprise us of options, including whether to go above or below ground and which nearby powerlines we could connect to.

After that, there were conversations to be had with neighbors and decisions like whether to go above or below ground.

Below-ground powerlines can be aesthetically nicer and more reliable, since downed trees can’t take out underground wires. Cons are a higher price per foot and expensive excavation that we hear is tricky to do yourself, especially in rocky soil.

However, underground lines require a box every 400′, so they’re really not invisible. And since they’re connected to the grid and its network of above-ground lines, the added reliability only goes as far as the lines are underground. If a tree falls on your neighbor’s above-ground line, your power will still be out. Lastly, if something goes wrong with your below-ground wiring, it’s harder to fix.

On the other hand, cheaper above-ground power means the eradication of a 30′ swath of beautiful trees “to the heavens,” along with treasured quiet and privacy.

new road with trees saved
Saving trees, y’all

When Power Guy saw our anxiety over tree loss, he offered option #3, above-ground with Hendrix line, and we took it.

At +$1/foot, this high-tension wire reduces tree removal by a whopping 14′ width and allows for fewer poles. Having to clear only a 16′ corridor meant saving dozens of oaks, hackberries, mulberries, persimmons, gum, poplars, sycamores, black locusts, and giant cedars.

Of the few mature trees we did clear, many were already dead because of the kudzu. We’ll hopefully be able to mill the viable trees we took and use them as lumber, though we’re still a little stumped by the milling process.

By the way, the utility guys and the contractors we’ve auditioned have praised us for saving trees, which makes us feel pretty good. You don’t have to wipe out entire native ecosystems to build something. In fact, everyone benefits an infinite amount when we don’t. What a world it would be if large-scale developers had a better grasp on that.

Anyway, as we were making the above-vs-below-ground decision, the neighbors on our right-of-way hooked up their above-ground power. We realized how little we noticed the poles and knew going above ground was the right call.

new power lines in spring
Above-ground power: more subtle than you’d think. Find the poles in the photo…

Another decision that may arise is where to run your power from. If you’re landlocked like us, and if you’ve read about what to know before you make an offer, you’ll know it’s important that your deed includes the right to run utilities up your right-of-way, in case you have no other options.

When we wrote that contingency into our land offer, we really weren’t planning to use the right-of-way to run utilities. The right-of-way is to the south, but Power Guy was of the strong opinion our neighbor to the north was the best connection option.

If said neighbor were amenable to a line running across 100′ of his property, over a scraggly wedge of steep grade, we could save something like $10K on the overall project. The line would run up his hill and underground about 300′ to our build-site.

It was a good idea in theory. As we suffered through months of awkward encounters with the northern neighbors – who have no interest in kindness or in our financial well-being; fair enough – 3 important facts came to light.

  1. Being indebted to our northern neighbors seemed unwise. In fact, they’re perfect country neighbors if you don’t need anything from them. Quiet, and they like their pristine land buffer as much as we do.
  2. Our soil is rocky, so excavating 4′ down for 300′ was going to put a wallop on our budget.
  3. As mentioned, the neighbors along the right-of-way decided to go on-grid.

We hadn’t been sure those neighbors planned to go on-grid (they’ve since built a peach of an outhouse behind their tiny home). When they did, they brought lines nearly as close as our northern neighbors’ lines. Suddenly, everything clicked.

grid of grid choices
Be patient, and choose connections wisely

The new plan let us combine the cost of our driveway (which Power Guy said we needed for the utility company to approve installation; they like adequate egress to their poles) with any remaining cost to clear the way for power, a huge win.

Now the lines could run above ground without cutting into views or usable space, saving serious coin on that excavation for underground lines. Using high-tension Hendrix wire reduced tree removal greatly. Though it was still a huge job, Chris was able to handle the bulk of it with me as his tractor-driving helper.

TIPJust because you can doesn’t mean you should. Our deed legally allowed us to run power along our right-of-way, which is someone else’s land, so we ran our plans past the landowners first. We care that our neighbors like the changes we’re making. Our land was in their family for over a century. We also checked if they wanted any of the trees that we removed from their land. A right-of-way is a funny thing. You can have usage rights, but the land and its features ultimately belong to the owner.

excavator building driveway

This plan meant sharing 1/2 of our right-of-way neighbors’ new-power connection fee, which did them a solid and incentivized them to move forward. On the spring equinox, the neighbor’s new powerlines appeared, and we were ready to finish the last of the tree removal (a job we could do ourselves) and have the excavator build our road.

Read more about the driveway build in this post about the real costs of settling land.

cropped-dsc05468.jpg

With the driveway in, neighbors happy, and powerline route planned, the Power Guy came out a few more times to make sure all the necessary trees and branches were out of the way.

extendable stick saw
A saw on a stick is a terrible thing

Chris now has not only a high level of expertise in tree clearance but in chainsaw repair and blade sharpening. He did awesome work with our trees, down to saving our 2nd biggest mulberry by using a ridiculous saw on a stick (loaned to us by Power Guy) to remove a last pesky branch.

The Shake Weight has nothing on a saw-on-a-stick workout. It’s a shoulder burner.

When Power Guy gave us the nod, it was time to cart the septic permit and 9-1-1 documentation (which we had picked up back in December not long after closing) to the utility company, pay inspection fees, and sign off on our connection fee. The utility company gave detailed instructions for installing the power box. The local hardware store is preparing the assembly for us, with a plug-in for our builders to use.

As of this weekend, all of our poles are in. After they string the wires next week, we’ll wait for the evening cool to set in around 8 and go over to install the power box assembly. After a final inspection by Power Guy, the switch will be flipped. We’ll be powered up and ready for more next steps: pole-barn installation, dome-layout finalization, and decisions about foundation materials, general contractors, septic, well, maybe geothermal HVAC (depending on price).

Maybe we’ll go off-grid when technology and our philosophies evolve. For now, going on-grid has been a ton of work and a major milestone for Freestone, as we enter month #8 of this electrifying homestead adventure.

3 comments

  1. Really enjoyed stumbling upon your blog and reading a bunch of your posts as you embark on this adventure. Particularly looking forward to hearing what you find out about geothermal, as we are looking to buy a piece of land and build our own home and one of the sustainable builders that we’re talking to said that doing a geothermal is a much better overall investment compared to solar since we’re not in an area with a ton of sun all year round.

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    1. Thanks! We’re at the beginning of our research on Geothermal but have heard great things. We’re planning to meet with contractors in the next couple weeks to learn more. We have a ton of sun in our area, but solar still doesn’t add up for us yet. One day, hopefully!

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      1. I just learned the federal government let the geothermal energy tax credits expire at the end of 2016, and here in Oregon are expiring at the end of 2017…such a bummer!

        Like

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