We moved into our off-grid house a month ago and have been taking baby steps fully integrating our lives into our new home (we still have the old house we're selling, so have access to "real" power, etc.).
We first began sleeping there and then coming to our old house to shower and eat (i.e., cook). Eventually, we began using the water, and plugged in the refrigerator, and are now bathing there regularly. Why were we so afraid to jump right in? We were worried about how much power we had, or didn't have. The controls for our Outback charge controller were overwhelming at first. The display shows things like the five stages of charging regulation, there is screen after screen of data and information, and even though we had read up on all of this, we were, to say the least, overwhelmed with information. We didn't know how much power we actually had, how much we were making, or when and/or if the power would go out any second!
But, we just kept reading and watching the numbers until we "got it." Listen, read, and watch and it all soon makes sense.
So, what's it like living in an off-grid house?
There are two of us in a two-story home in New England (i.e., cold winters). We opted for the big fireplace insert (which is basically a wood stove with windows set into your existing fireplace) and we have never been so warm. During the most recent snowstorm we were inside in our shorts, barefoot. We do have a furnace but so far, no need for that (we have it mainly so we can leave for more than 24 hours at a time during the winter).
I had long ago imagined little to no water pressure. Spitting showers were in my future, and washing my car at home would be a big no no. But nooooooo, water pressure is the best I've had, and yes, instant hot water DOES work! We opted for the super-efficient water pump that cost extra, but definitely paying off.
All or our lights use CFLs and we have more than the usual number of lights and light switches so you can control light where you are in the house (task lighting), rather than lighting up the whole thing unnecessarily. Since we've never run out of power (yet), this has worked great and we can breathe easier than we thought about this.
Our appliances are extremely efficient. Our average kwh (kilowatt hours) at our old house, with its old frig, washing machine, etc. uses about 20 kwh per day. And we used CFLs there too, we're very good about leaving lights off, we use cold water to wash our clothes, no dryer, etc. Our new house uses about 2-3 kwh a day (at most). Our refrigerator, alone, uses about 1 kwh per day and it's on 24/7. It's a normal sized refrigerator, brand new, but none of our appliances have extras on them: no cold water from the door, no ice-making machine, only one appliance has a clock on it! We also use Belkin power strips and turn off all our TV and associated electronics (stereo, DVD player, satellite TV box) when not in use. Rather than having to unplug them all (leaving them plugged in uses standby power that adds up over time), one switch turns them all off at once. (Note, the switch is on the wall, no climbing around behind furniture to unplug anything). I don't have a dishwasher, but I could, and will, someday.
Appliances/Luxuries of Life
Daily Life: When we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check out the voltage readout. A reading 48 or above is plenty of power, anything below and we have to watch it and see if we'll need to run the generator to power up the batteries (we haven't had to do this yet!). If it's above 48 and it's also sunny and/or windy, we're even better as it's only going to increase during the day.
The reading is on the wall in the kitchen so it's easy to watch. You can also see at any time how many amps of power you're using at any given time. It's usually at 0 because it doesn't read anything below 1 and our house is so efficient. When we run a vacuum cleaner or a ceiling fan (and especially something with heat, like an iron) it jumps to anywhere between 6 and 32 amps. But it also fluctuates. When you first turn something with a motor on, it jumps up pretty high then settles down to a lower amperage. So, when I thought I'd only be able to vacuum the house on long sunny days in the summer, I was wrong. I can do this pretty much anytime I feel like it (did I say "I feel like vacuuming"?).
If the voltage is low, I may want to forgo vacuuming that day but we can also charge it up with the generator (a couple of hours of the generator running will supply us with plenty of power for a few days). We do try and not have to use the generator, however, as we're conscious of burning fossil fuels unnecessarily.
So, I watch TV, I listen to the stereo, I take showers, wash dishes in hot water, there's plenty of light, and I can blow dry my hair on a cold day. What it took was preparation and new "stuff." It's a great testament to how efficient new appliances and electronics are getting these days. I could be double-y efficient at the old house as far as usage and still use 10 or 20 times the power I do now at our new house.
We tend to grin a lot and jump and dance a lot at the new house. It's so warm and solid and efficient and light-filled that we have to sometimes pinch ourselves that it's all ours.