Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

New Batteries

by Cam Mather

Many years ago when we were homeschooling our daughters, before they went on to university and graduate studies, we embraced the concept of “lifelong learning”. The basic concept of lifelong learning is that learning isn’t something that is only acquired from a textbook or only acquired during a certain time of your life, such as kindergarten to college, but is something acquired in all sorts of different ways and is ongoing  from the moment you are born until you are placed in a pine box (or a recycled cardboard box for the more environmentally aware.)

Our move off the electricity grid was the ultimate test of this as we leapt into uncharted waters 12 years ago. We used every resource we could find to learn about solar and wind power including talking to others who were living off-grid. This process of learning really hasn’t stopped since we got here. Right now we’re in the process of installing new batteries. In an off-grid home you need batteries to store your solar or wind generated electricity so you have lights and computers and running water at night and on cloudy days. For the last 12 years we’ve relied on a large set of nickel-cadmium (Ni-cad) batteries that were salvaged from a decommissioned government bunker, nicknamed “The Diefenbunker”. This was a bomb shelter built in the 1950s to house the Canadian Government, led by John Diefenbaker at the time, in the event of a nuclear war. In the 1990s it was decommissioned and the batteries ended up at various off-grid homes in the area.

Our Ni-cad batteries are coming to the end of their life and we’re replacing them with a set of Surrette deep-cycle lead-acid batteries designed for off-grid applications like ours. The beauty of Ni-cad batteries is that very little maintenance is required and they are extremely rugged. You can’t over or under charge them. Lead-acid batteries are a little less forgiving. You have to pay a bit more attention to them to make sure you maximize their life. So I’ve been learning as much as I can about the proper care and handling of lead acid batteries. The source I use is “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William Kemp. Yes, I publish the book and so this will sound like a blatantly biased review of the book. I will not argue, but let me give you some perspective.

When we moved off grid there was only one book on photovoltaics which was very technical and useless for the average homeowner, and Paul Gipe’s book on wind which was excellent but contained way more detail than I needed. While publishing a renewable energy magazine we convinced our friend William “Bill” Kemp to provide an article. He enjoyed it and when we discussed subsequent articles about solar, wind, inverters, batteries, etc. we decided we had a book. The Renewable Energy Handbook has gone through two revisions and is  North America’s best selling book about renewable energy for good reason.

First Bill has struck the perfect balance between technical and practical, and provides readers with the knowledge they need on the various components of an off-grid system, without overwhelming them with engineering degree-level details. Second, Bill is one of those rare engineers who can actually explain things so that people understand. In fact he seems to take great joy in this, as opposed to so many knowledgeable people you meet who go to great lengths to show you just how smart they are while leaving you completely baffled. Third, The Renewable Energy Handbook touches on every element required for someone looking to integrate renewable energy into their lives, which makes it an indispensable tool. There are lots of other books that focus on wind or solar or energy efficiency which doesn’t help someone wanting to learn about all of these areas. And Bill not only “gets it” from a technical perspective, but he lives it. He’s been off-grid for more than 15 years now and as a pioneer in the field he talks from a position of authority. He’s comfortable sharing his knowledge about his off-grid system because it works and it works exceptionally well.

This was a round about way of saying that even though I’ve read the book several times, I still use it constantly as a reference. When I first read the battery chapter much of the material wasn’t applicable to my Ni-cads. Now that I’m installing lead-acid batteries I have re-read the battery chapter and it’s incredibly helpful. What continues to boggle my mind is that someone like Bill can know so much about so many elements of renewable energy and be able to share it in such a way that people who are not engineers or electricians can access this information and digest it and use it. I think this is pretty rare, and I’m finally understanding why people approach Bill at renewable energy fairs raving about the book. People love when they read something that educates and inspires them and this is the reaction we get time and time again to The Renewable Energy Handbook. Plus I know everyone who reads the book makes changes in their lives that reduces their footprint on the planet, and that’s a pretty good feeling too.



  1. Parts of the Diefenbunker again put to good use! The facility is largely unused, save for tours, though there have been occasional film-nights. I think it should be a theme-hotel for special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, and powered from renewable sources.

  2. Jerry

    Cam, how did the battery exchange go? Did you end up shutting things down and how did things come up? cheers, jerry

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