Off-Grid VS. Grid-Tied Solar: Things That Might Surprise You!

We are solar fans… BIG TIME!

Our house is off-grid and we love to share with anyone who may inquire about what it is like to live the solar life.

For the record, this has been generally met with surprise and a sense of wonder as to whether or not they could do it to as well.

But one thing that we have noted, is that people almost always assume that we are grid-tied; meaning physically attached to the electric grid.

We are not.

Our house is, in fact, off-grid. In other words, we have no physical connection to the electric utility. And while both grid-tied and off-grid power systems utilize solar panels, they are very different in application. (For an in-depth look at this, check out ‘Difference Between On Grid And Off Grid Power’.)

Living the solar way, as we do, gives us a very unique, and sometimes painful, perspective on the pros and cons of solar power.

The following are a list of real world surprises that we have encountered.

Grid-Tied Solar Surprises – The Good

  • Net Zero Home – Arguably, one of the most attractive features of grid-tied solar is the ability to build a Net Zero Home. For those who may be new to this concept, a Net Zero Home is essentially an all electric home where the solar array is large enough to provide an entire year’s worth of power. In other words, no utility costs…ever!

And who wouldn’t want to live in a house with no utility bills?!

  • Low Startup Costs – Since you are attached to the electric utility, there is no need for energy storage, as you simply pull from the utility when you need it. This is a positive thing for those on a budget as sizable whole house battery packages generally start around 10K.
  • Fastest ROI* – Grid-tied solar is awesome in that it allows you to sell back any extra electricity that your panels may generate over the course of a day. Quite often, this will come in the form of a ‘credit’ which can be later redeemed on those cloudy days where your panels do not produce enough power and you need supplemental electricity from the grid.

This means that if you have enough ‘credits’ you will not have to pay for the electricity that you do end up using. Clearly, having little or no electric bill is going to save you money, which translates as a most pleasant Return On Investment (ROI).

*Every situation is unique, so while the overwhelming RIO is fastest for grid-tied users, there are always exceptions. An example of this would be a very remote location where the cost of connecting to the electric grid would be greater than the cost off-grid system.

Grid-Tied Solar Surprises – The Bad

  • Panels Don’t Work In A Blackout – Imagine how frustrating it would be to spend a significant amount of money on a system built to produce power, only to have it sit idle when you need it the most.

This is what happens when there is a power outage for the grid. Even if the sun is shinning and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your panels will do absolutely nothing during a blackout. And there is good reason for this.

The risk of injury to utility workers from a solar array back-feeding into power line, is considerable. What they do is dangerous in the best of conditions. They need to KNOW that the line they are working on is, in fact, off and isn’t going to kill them as they try to do repairs.

For this reason, grid-tied solar panels must always be disconnected from the utility in the event of a blackout.

# Note #

There are work-arounds for blackout situations that include a manual disconnect and on-site energy storage. But these must be approved by your local utility.

Grid-Tied Solar Surprises – The Ugly!

  • The Utility Can Cut You Off At Any Time – One of the most shocking things for me to learn was that just because the utility allows you to connect today, that doesn’t mean they can’t force you to disconnect tomorrow.

There have been instances where utilities have lobbied for changes against home solar. And in these unfortunate situations, home-owners were given the choice; either unplug your panels or unplug from the utility.

Considering that most grid-tied systems do not have the hardware for off-grid use, this really is no choice at all.

Sadly, these panel owners quickly found their sizable investment to be nothing more than expensive paperweights.

#Special Note#

For anyone considering grid-tied solar, it should be understood that permission must be obtained from the utility. In other words, just because you have the means to purchase solar panels, this does not automatically translate to being able to use them.

When you attach to the grid, you are in fact, utilizing their infrastructure – infrastructure that has cost and infrastructure that others rely on. And as such, the utility reserves to the right to manage things as they see fit.

If they feel that it is not in their best interest to allow you to use solar panels, they reserve the right to do so – whether you’ve already paid for them or not.

Off-Grid Solar Surprises – The Ugly!

  • Expensive – Off-grid systems are expensive…sometimes VERY expensive. This is largely because of the necessity for energy storage. Power can not be pulled from the grid for those times when the sun is not shining, so instead it must be stored on site – in the form of whole house batteries.

Battery technology has seen rapid improvements recently, both in capability and cost. And these improvements are forecasted to continue. But at the moment, taking a house off-grid is still a substantial endeavor.

  • Lack Of Knowledge – When preparing to purchase our off-grid power system (back in 2015), I reached out to seven different solar professionals for quotes. Five of these ‘professionals’ informed me that off-grid systems simply could not power a normal house.

The sixth expressed serious reservations and the seventh proved to be fairly knowledgeable regarding system capability. Once I had proven that I had done my homework – in the form of a whole house load – I was able to work with these last two professionals to realize the necessary home power system.

In other words, 5 out of 7 established professionals, did NOT understand what could be done.

  • Lack Of Support – When you are off-grid, you have assumed the responsibility for the powering of your home. Unless you are a skilled off-grid professional, this can prove very challenging when things go wrong.

For example, after our first year of living in the house and learning how things work, we came to the conclusion that the home power system was not working completely as it should.

After a frustrating amount of ‘phone tag’ and arguing, it was realized that the appropriate firmware was not installed.

This is something that should have been caught MUCH sooner. But because no one in the loop (most especially myself) knew how the system was supposed to perform, it essentially ran a year at half capacity.

Off-grid solar is still very much a rarity for full sized houses. Because of this, the knowledge base is fairly limited. Chances are, if you choose to go this route, there will be a significant learning curve – though this will lessen as home power systems become more common.

Off-Grid Solar Surprises – The Bad

  • Getting Approval Is NOT Guaranteed – Quite often the new and experimental can be shunned in favor of the proven. The two main concerns that we had when choosing to build our off-grid home were the township and the building inspector.

Fortunately, the township proved to be extremely easy to work with. But it should be noted, that local administrators do have the ability to say ‘no’ to your plans. So make certain that you have a clear path to victory before you start plunking down big $$.

The building inspector, however, was not as easy going. And in all honesty, they’re not supposed to be your friend, they’re supposed to be the ones who make sure that your house isn’t going to kill you because of shoddy workmanship.

It is true that some of them have a ‘god complex’. Ask your local builder and they’re sure to have a horror story or two.

But we understood how our home was different and recognized that we were asking someone, who didn’t share our dream, to put their name on something that they hadn’t even seen before.

For this reason, we provided a thorough and complete spreadsheet of every single electrical device inside the house and their subsequent power requirements (aka, a whole house load).

With this spreadsheet, our building inspector was able to compare the maximum draw of electricity our house could possibbly occur, with the specs of our home power system.

In the end, we compromised, with him signing off on our home power system and with us installing a receptacle for a power meter, should a future homeowner decide to attach to the electric utility.

Off-Grid Solar Surprises – The Good

  • You Are An Asset To Your Community – With the chaos of the 2020 presidential election, there was a definite sense of concern leading up to inauguration. Because of this, my wife and I felt compelled to reach out to our local law enforcement and explain to them that there was a house in the community that would not be affected by any grid related power outages.

The response from law enforcement was immediate!

To put things in perspective, when our propane tank is filled in January, we will not need any further outside assistance until November.

How many hospitals can go 10+ months without external assistance? Yes, I’m sure there are emergency generators involved, but do they have enough fuel onsite to run for 10 months?

The same question can be asked of the police and fire departments.

When you are living on off-grid power, you have established yourself outside of a system – a system that is incredibly important and as such, a target.

In the very off chance that this invaluable infrastructure goes down, you will be in a position to help… and this may very well save lives.

Hybrid Systems

There is one other type of system that deserves mentioning and that is the hybrid system.

A hybrid system is essentially a grid-tied system that has the hardware and the battery storage to ‘unplug’ from the utility and act independently as an off-grid system.

This type of setup has all of the costs of an off-grid system, but allows the homeowner to benefit from selling any extra power back to the electric utility. It also saves cycles on the batteries (charge and discharge) and thereby extending the life of your power storage system.

But unlike a typical grid-tied system, you have the option of still powering your home in the event of a blackout.

The benefits of a hybrid system are obvious, yet despite this, hybrid systems are currently very rare.

Special communication with the electric utility should also be given if you are considering to go this route. A physical cutoff will need to be made easily accessible to utility workers in order to ensure that your panels, as well as, you battery storage, is not going to feed back into the grid – endangering them as they work.