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. 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; in fact, 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 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.

A feature of homesteading is a desire to trade cash-reliance and modern conveniences for sweat equity and a deeper connection with nature. Our philosophy is more moderate. We don’t see ourselves shifting radically from modern conveniences at this stage in our lives.

That’s not to say we’re not far 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, heat, up steep mountainsides, alongside yellowjackets and snakes, and so on. But when we’re finished working on our land, we want to sleep in conditioned air.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Partial solar arrays are infinitely more affordable than full ones, and it usually doesn’t break the bank to harvest a little wattage from hydro or wind. Depending on your power provider, you may even be able to reverse the meter when you make more power than you need, sending watts back to the grid for credits.

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 lines can be aesthetically nicer and more reliable, since downed trees can’t take out underground wires. Cons are higher price per foot and expensive excavation that we hear is hard 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 ecosystems to build human-livable space. In fact, everyone benefits immeasurably when you don’t. What a world it would be if all developers had a better grasp of that fact.

Anyway, as we were making the above-vs-below-ground decision, 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 power 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 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 (a forgotten wedge of snarly, steep grade), we could save something like $10K. The line would run up his hill and underground around 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 our financial well-being; fair enough – 3 important facts came to light.

  1. Being indebted to our northern neighbors seemed unwise. They’d be perfect neighbors if we didn’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 wallet.
  3. As mentioned, neighbors along the right-of-way decided to go on-grid. When they did, they brought powerlines nearly as close as our northern neighbors’ lines. Suddenly, everything clicked.
grid of grid choices
Be patient, and better answers reveal themselves

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

Now the lines could run above ground without cutting into views or usable space, saving serious coin on excavation for underground lines. Using high-tension Hendrix wire reduced tree removal and future maintenance on the lines. 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 the right-of-way, but that’s somebody else’s land, so we ran plans past those landowners first to make sure they were cool. We also checked if they wanted any of the trees we were removing from their land. A right-of-way is a funny thing. You may have usage rights, but the land and its features still belong to the owner.

excavator building driveway

The new plan meant cost-sharing a portion of the connection fee with our current and any future right-of-way neighbors, which was just fine with all involved. On the spring equinox, the neighbor’s powerlines appeared, and we were ready to finish the last of the tree removal and 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 and powerline route planned, Power Guy came out a few more times to make sure all 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 saw on a stick (loaned to us by Power Guy) to remove one last pesky branch. Shake Weight has nothing on a saw-on-a-stick workout.

When we finally got the nod that the area was sufficiently cleared, it was time to cart the septic permit and 9-1-1 documentation (which we picked up back in December shortly after closing) to the utility company office, 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 contractors to use.

As of this weekend, all our poles are in. After they string wires next week, we’ll wait for the evening cool to set in around 8 and head 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, water well, maybe geothermal HVAC (depending on price).

Maybe we’ll go off-grid when technology evolves. For now, going on-grid is a major milestone of progress as we enter month #8 of this electrifying homestead adventure.

4 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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