Off Grid CTO – Seeing The Light In The Darkness
Welcome to another post in the series about living life off the grid while working as the CTO of ModelOp, a great software company delivering the management of AI models and other analytics within your enterprise. We are hiring for multiple positions if you are interested in joining us!
In this post, we look at something that is very crucial during this time of the year. As we approach the shortest day of the year, darkness becomes a major issue. It not only affects the amount of energy I can produce, but also requires us to light our world to be able to cook our dinners, read a book, or even just to chase off the winter doldrums.
As winter solstice approaches, living up here totally dependent on the Sun really gives you an appreciation on why the solstice was such an important holiday celebrated by the earliest of civilizations. I’ve watched the amount of energy I generate slowly go down, as the amount I use slowly goes up. Knowing that I am less than a week away from that time when each day I start adding a bit more is welcome relief. It is a cause for celebration indeed! If the weather allows, there will definitely be a bonfire to celebrate the return of more light to my life.
For now, however, we are dependent heavily upon lighting of a large variety to even just start work for the day. It is very hard to make coffee in the dark, after all. And before the work day is done, we are once again back in the dark before we can start to cook dinner. Soon enough we will again return to longer days and much relief, but in this post we will look at all the different kinds of energy efficient lighting we use to maximize our limited solar energy we produce this time of year.
The old school fallback – Oil
I have to admit, even though I work with the most leading and bleeding technologies, my heart really loves old school solutions to problems. They are simple, practical, and just plain work. There is a reason they have been around for so long and continue to be used.
Oil lamps are just such an example of something that just plain works. I l love the light from them. Soft, a hint of a flicker, and they consume absolutely zero of my solar power. Just because I enjoy them so much, I use them almost every day in the winter. I start out with one of these small oil lamps in the morning to make my coffee and ease into the day. It slowly allows the brain to sync into work as the coffee brings you to life. A nice, soft, and mellow light.
They are cheap to acquire, and easy to scatter around. I keep one going in the morning while it is still dark right behind my computer screen to help with the stark contrast of the bright screen and the dark outside. Oil bought in bulk is not very expensive, and I even get plant based ones now that have virtually no smell compared to traditional kerosene.
Overall they are great, but they still do put off a little bit of an odor for sure, and do not generate a lot of light. Some care also needs to be taken to make sure you or your pets do not knock them over.
Lighting the larger space without electricity
One of the best birthday presents I got was an antique hanging oil lamp from my wife. I’ve always wanted to be able to light the whole cabin at night without using any electricity. She found this old 4 lamp hanging light and I absolutely adore it.
It is clever in that at the base there is a knob you squeeze together, and you can raise and lower the base of the lamp in place. It is spring assisted so it takes almost no effort. So you can lower it down to light it, and easily slide it right back up.
This light, again, will always work as long as I keep oil around to fill it, and gives off a nice soft glow to warm those long winter nights. Sitting beneath this with the fire going and my book helps to warm the soul.
Unlike the other oil lamps, I can leave this one running as I do not need to worry about it getting knocked over, so this solves that problem. The slight odor and dimness, however, are still there.
And let’s not forget the lovely candle. Yes, safety is required with these, as our cat learned the hard way when she decided to try and pounce the moving flame…. She had wax in her fur for about a month after that despite a bad haircut to go with it… But they are also very helpful in the dark of winter.
My wife gave me this candle this year that has markings for each day of the advent. So starting December first, I end each day with about four hours of candle to advance a day. It is the first time we have done this, but it really is kind of a great tradition up here in the middle of nowhere in the dark.
But seriously they are also a very good backup to always have as they are easy to store, burn a long time, and when it is completely dark they give off way more light then you would believe. We’ve become so accustomed to bright lights all the time in our society, sometimes it is nice to harken back to those days when one candle power was more than enough to light a room.
Clearly there are safety concerns and they must be attended to all the time, and they are quite dim, so this is not going to be a primary lighting solution for sure.
The future of lighting
Well in many ways, the future is here now and very affordable. When I first moved into the cabin, all of the lighting was regular incandescent RV style bulbs. These things drew a ton of power. I had to be very careful on lighting as a single bulb would draw 25w, and these were very small bulbs.
Next I moved onto cold cathode fluorescent tubes. I found these in PC building shops online, as people would put them in their gaming PCs to light them up from the inside, so they already ran on 12v. They did the trick, but honestly were kind of ugly and did not give off the best light as it was bright white. I had to mix a red one in just to warm it up a bit. They only drew 4w, which was great, but to light the room you needed 8 of them. It did the trick and reduced the energy I was using, but overall was not a good solution.
But now we have LED light bulbs, and they come in so many shapes, sizes, and varieties it is amazing. Many of them are native 12-24v, so they work in my DC only system right out of the box. Now my lighting is VERY different from the past, and each bulb typically draws less than 10w, and are 60w equivalent bulbs.
Ultimate Creativity in Lighting
In the past, the LED bulbs all looked like LED bulbs. The bulbs were awkward at best, not pleasant to look at, and best hid behind something thick. It was like staring at thousands of little points of light.
Now, however, you can get 12-24v DC bulbs in standard screw in base that fits a standard lamp. So we have taken several different lamps and cut the AC cord off of them. I’ve replaced them with DC plugs to plug right into our batteries. We like warm white bulbs so we get a very natural incandescent light style and it is hard to tell at all they are LEDs. When re-wiring, just be careful to get the polarity right when wiring as it matters with DC, unlike AC. In fact this very lamp when I got it the two sockets were wired differently between them. The same wire went to different parts on the socket on the right lamp vs the left. I am not even sure that is a good idea for AC…
By using these standard bases in lamps but wiring to DC we can have any style of light fixture in our off grid home now as well.
This really hits on all cylinders for lighting. It is as bright as a 60w incandescent bulb, but uses around 6w of electricity. It lights up the cabin bright and is a very pleasant color. They really are a game changer. To put it in perspective I can be watching a movie with the speaker on, have a light on, and running the server I am only using around 150w of electricity. Growing up, we had single light bulbs that were 150w!
My favorite style of lightbulb
I’ve always loved Edison bulbs, but have you seen how much energy they use? They are very, very power hungry and I never believed there would be the ability to have them at the cabin. Then, they did come out with the LED tubes in 120v AC, and there was a glimmer of hope.
Sure enough, they now have 12-24v Edison style LED bulbs, and I put them in this year. I used a standard outdoor downward facing lights and put the bulbs in there on the front and back porch. Downward facing is critical, as one of the greatest things is the night sky here, and I don’t want to do anything to add to light pollution.
That said, I rarely use the outdoor lights unless I am headed out to town and coming back after dark on the front entry way, or am out grilling my dinner at night. Yes, I still use the gas grill in the winter. I love grilling, and I also have a battery powered rotisserie for it. This christmas, it will be goose on the rotisserie!
These bulbs are great and look cool. Right now I can’t find the spiral pattern that they have in the AC bulbs in DC, which will look even better. When those come out, I will probably get some of those as well. These bulbs also only consume around 6-8w, and put out a very nice light.
And most importantly, celebrating the season
With the days being so short, and the night so long, it is easy to get lost in the dark and forget the joys of where you are at. To help stave off the winter doldrums, it is important to have traditions around the holidays to keep you active and engaged. One of mine has always been to light trees in a minimalist matter that softly glows in the winter night. I love the warm white Christmas lights that shine through snow covered trees.
Once again, we can turn to LEDs to give us this pleasure out here in the wilderness, but we also have added solar to the mix. There are many varieties of warm white lights now with a built in solar panel that both powers the lights, and turns them on only in the dark. So I don’t have to use any electricity, they can be remote from the cabin, and they take care of themselves.
I have two trees in my driveway, and one by the house lit up and with the snow on them they are absolutely amazing. The funny thing is I doubt anyone else will see them given we are the only ones up here, and it is unlikely a snowmobile will come by at night. But we are enjoying them anyways!
Likewise, we have solar powered flickering LED candles in the windows that also consume no power beyond what they generate. They are a nice addition to the soft glow from the cabin at night and also add that festive spirit.
Happy Holidays Everyone!
This year has been a challenging one in so many ways for so many different people, I do want to take the time to wish each and everyone one of you a wonderful holiday, no matter how you spend it.
The road is closed up here, and due to a family emergency I will be spending the holidays alone as my wife must take care of some other matters, but I will be surrounded by the vast beauty of nature. The silence up here is almost deafening, but pleasing none the less.
It is quiet time to reflect, relax, and remember what is important in your life. It is time to use the wood we worked so hard all summer and fall to put into place, and to realize we are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. It is also a time to work on some personal projects and to slow down to the pace of winter.
It is also most important to remember that the shortest day of the year is a mere few days away, and soon enough the light returns and the days get longer. As we head into 2021 we can all use that reminder that the light will return. It always does.
So until the next post, enjoy your holidays everyone!
Great read, Jim.
Thanks Warren, and happy holidays to you as well!
I love that ceiling lantern! Happy Holidays!