Living off the grid in winter requires a little more prepping than living with traditional heating and electricity options. While some of the items on this list may look familiar as part of your own winter home maintenance list – especially if you live on a homestead or country property, other chores are specific to an off the grid home.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
11 Ways We Prep for Living Off The Grid In Winter
Winter lasts a long time in this area. Here are some of the things we do.
1. Get Our Generator Shed Ready for Cold Weather
As mentioned in my previous post on generator basics, we currently depend on a generator to back up our solar power, especially during our short winter days.
We have a Kubota 11,000 kW diesel generator permanently installed in our generator shed, plus a portable gasoline generator.
We like to do a quick clean-up inside the shed and in the area outside as well by mid-September.
November 2023 update: We now use a Tesla 2 Powerwall along with our Kubota diesel generator.
September 2021 update: On December 24, 2019, our generator shed burned to the ground, leaving us without backup power. And that means we were completely dependent on solar power only for a few days. Not fun when we only get about four to five hours of sunlight per day.
We did get a portable gasoline generator as a temporary measure until our new system arrived.....delayed until this past spring due to the pandemic travel restrictions and our territorial border closure.
2. Change the Oil in the Generators
Before the really cold weather hits (usually by late October), we check the main generators and change the oil if needed.
During the summer months, we may go 48 to 72 hours without running a generator. However, we still use one several times a week, especially if we work on any homestead projects or renovations requiring power tools.
So if the running hours are getting up there, Dan will change the oil. Better to do it on a crisp fall day than on a frigid, blustery winter one.
3. Check the Diesel for the Generators
Because we run our diesel generators much less during the summer months, there’s a chance the fuel in the tank can get old and sticky. This can cause a big problem – a generator that won’t start.
And that is not something you want to deal with when you live off the grid in winter. So, we funnel out the old fuel if needed.
Most of the time, the fuel consistency seems okay. However, we add a diesel fuel stabilizer to ensure we don't have "sluggish" fuel to cause problems over the cold winter months.
We also drain the bottom of the diesel fuel tank outside the shed. This removes any water collected at the bottom of the tank over the spring and summer.
Dan usually drains it into a 30-liter yellow portable container (red is for unleaded gas, yellow for diesel). He then leaves the container out all winter.
Any diesel that enters the container will sit on top while the water freezes at the bottom. Then, it's easy for him to pour the diesel back into the tank. And the water/ice remains on the bottom of the portable container.
4. Check the Generator Shed Heater
Living just a few hours south of the Arctic Circle means it gets cold here, especially in January and February. This is about the time that I usually wonder why we live off the grid in this crazy-cold place.
This means we also need to heat our generator shed once the temperature drops to about -15 to -20 degrees Celsius.
We have a propane wall heater on the outside of the shed. This helps keep the shed warm enough for the generators to start even when it's well below zero.
5. Adjust Our Solar Panels For Winter Sun
Another reality of living off the grid in winter is adjusting for alternative energy sources, like solar panels. Each autumn, we adjust the solar panels on our roof to maximize the sunlight during the winter.
Since we live at about 62 degrees north, the sun never really gets high in the sky from October through the end of February. Instead, we watch it move across the horizon, just slightly above the trees.
Moving the panels lets us take advantage of every last bit of sunlight to charge our battery bank. And it reduces our generators' required running time and our annual diesel fuel costs.
6. Fill The Propane Tank
We depend on propane for a lot of things. (Too many things. A topic for another post!)
A propane-fired boiler powers our propane oven and
6-burner stovetop, which is ancient but does the job propane cooktop that we installed in 2019.
It also powers our propane-fired line-heating glycol system - more on that in section #7. We used to have a propane fridge, but it's far too small for our family.
So, part of the winter prep for our off-grid home includes ensuring our propane tank is filled before turning our boiler on for the season.
Through the winter months, a propane tanker truck comes out our way once a week to fill the tanks of all of the off grid properties in this area.
And not budgeting for this was one of my many off grid living mistakes. Although propane is convenient, I find it expensive.
As we become more self-sufficient, we're exploring money-saving alternatives to reduce our use, if not eliminate it altogether. And we do know families out here that heat and cook with wood exclusively.
However, given the size of our home and the -30 to - 40-degree winter temperatures around here, I suspect a wood-heat-only setup would be too expensive and difficult for us to maintain.
7. Check Our Boiler
The boiler that helps heat our home is a 30-year-old beast. It's a 250,000 BTU Well-MacLean propane-fired boiled.
Update: Our old boiler finally gave up the ghost in March 2018. We managed with just our wood stove through a few -28 Celsius days in March and April. In June 2019, we had a brand new propane Vmax NTI combi boiler and on-demand water heater installed.
Update: November, 2023. So, after four years, we're not fans of the NTI combi boiler. It's temperamental, noisy, and a massive disappointment. Now, it may be that the installer did a crappy job. Yet, when I searched online just last month, I found hundreds of forum posts and complaints about this model.
And when Dan called NTI directly (many, many times), he was finally told that they don't even make it anymore because there were so many problems.
Our boiler heats the glycol (antifreeze) and pumps it through our main floor in-floor pex lines. It also heats glycol to the upstairs baseboard radiators.
Each winter, when we switch the boiler on (I try to hold off until at least mid-October or when it's -15 degrees Celsius outside), Dan looks at the pex lines coming from the manifold on the boiler. If he sees air pockets in the lines, he adds glycol with a transfer pump.
8. Pump Out Our Sewage Tank
We live in Canada's Northwest Territories, a subarctic region with many trees and rocks. Yes, much of Canada is indeed covered with trees and rocks, but in our area, the trees are a little skinnier, and the rocks a little bigger.
Our home is built on bedrock, so we can't have a septic field bed. And, of course, no sewers, although our off grid toilet works pretty much as a regular modern toilet does.
Instead, we have a 2000-gallon sewage tank. It's housed in a big wooden, well-insulated box just outside our house.
Two or three times a year, the sewage removal guy makes his way carefully down our trail and driveway in his tanker and pumps it out.
We like to complete this in November so the contents of the tank don't freeze and crack the tank.
Then, through the winter months, as the tank slowly fills, it freezes gradually. And that's okay because the gradual freezing won't crack the tank.
9. Double Check Our Water Lines and Glycol System
Each fall, in addition to checking the glycol levels for our boiler system, we check the glycol (antifreeze) level on the tank in our water tank room.
The glycol gets pumped through a line alongside our water line, with both lines housed in an insulated pipe leading from our house down to the lake.
Dan does a quick "visual inspection" of the pipes to ensure nothing looks like it needs repairs.
Read More: Our Off GridWater System
Read More: Our Off Grid Water System in Winter
The water tank glycol pump is simply a converted water tank heater that pumps into a 10-gallon pail before being pumped to the lake.
This is easier than checking glycol levels in the boiler. You look inside the 10-gallon pail to ensure the input and output lines are below the glycol level.
10. Wood Stove Check
We depend on our wood stove for heat through the fall, winter, and spring months. Two years ago, we replaced our trusty old Osburn with a new Roby model. Honestly, like our NTI boiler, it's been a bit disappointing. It just doesn't heat our main floor as well as our old one.
I'm saving my pennies to get a Pioneer Princess wood stove in a few years.
Now, in previous years, prepping the wood stove for winter was pretty straightforward. Dan would go up on the roof with the chimney brush and clear out the chimney.
Next, we'd remove any ashes remaining in the stove from the occasional summer fire, clean the glass window, and polish up the exterior. Then check the interior and exterior pipes and the damper for any damages. And that's it.
11. Order Wood or Chop Wood for Winter
Many people in the North who live off the grid in winter heat their cabins with wood. But not everyone chops their own.
Chopping wood requires a license, but at least it's free.
However, the license only lets you chop your own wood in specially designated woodlots around the Territories. They're usually in a burn area - a place where bushfires have passed through.
When you go into town to get your license, you must specify the nearest mile marker and highway of the woodlot you want to chop in. So it's a bit of a hassle. And most of these woodlots are at least a couple of hours' drive from our home.
We use about ten cords of firewood each winter, requiring multiple trips back and forth from a woodlot to home with our truck and open-top trailer. So along with our good friend and neighbor, we ordered 20 cords from Patterson Sawmill down in Hay River.
They bring it out to the top of our trail on a flatbed. The trail into our home is pretty rough and winding and narrow. So then we spend three or four days ferrying it back to our homes using another neighbor's dump trailer.
How do you prepare for winter in your neck of the woods? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.