Some people will probably look at the title and believe that therein lies the caveat. However, the solutions presented herein are so inexpensive as to be effectively free even if they will require a few dollars output for some of the materials needed. There is also another common myth and misconception that should be dispelled before commencing with any of these projects.
The Myth of Twelve Volt DC Current
I wish I had a dollar for every time that some slick salesmen wanted to sell me all manner of doodads and sundry goodies that they would swear to God himself he would need if he were to live in a homestead off the grid. Among the more costly investments are power inverters so that you can easily enjoy all of the comforts of home even on your homestead.
First off, if you are not comfortable on your homestead, that should be among the first issues addressed. Second, virtually all of the modern conveniences and luxuries of “civilized society” can run on twelve volt DC Power, on the homestead or off.
Have you ever had somebody driving up the other side of the road with their bright lights or high beams on? Do you think they have a 110 volt AC generator in the back of their car to power those lights? Ever heard the boom box in the next car over when you were stopped at a stop light? Ever watched the kids playing videos and even video games in the back of the minivan mom is driving around?
Truck stops, RV Supply Stores and other locations provide the average prepper or homesteader with a virtually endless supply of modern conveniences, many of which will run on propane and/or twelve volt DC current. Furthermore, a homestead can be wired for 12 volt DC power using some relatively inexpensive speaker wire and normal household switching. Add in a solar water heater and voila!
You now have virtually all of the luxuries of modern living and “civilized society” without the need to live in a crowded and uncomfortable urban setting. This setup may or may not be a permanent solution, but by and large, our one hundred and seventy acre homestead ran entirely on solar and wind power, with generators being used only when we needed to work in our machine shop.
Batteries, Cables and Battery Banks
The batteries for a homestead should ideally be deep cycle marine batteries, designed to be fully and more frequently discharged and recharged. New batteries are best, but used batteries can often be found at junkyards for a few dollars each.
The important thing to note however, is the difference between connecting numerous batteries in a bank and the wiring. The batteries will have to be wired either in parallel or series. In a parallel connection, all the batteries must be identical, and the voltage is the same as one battery, but the combination has more current capacity. In a series connection, the battery voltages add up to a larger charge. The parallel connection is most likely going to be what is needed to run the power off the grid. The battery cables should be new, or at the very least, free from corrosion.
Coca Cola is exceptionally well suited for removing all of the corrosion from old batteries and battery cables.
Used or New Alternator
I generally picked up alternators at the Junkyard. I had friends there and many of the supplies I needed, could be more readily affordable, even on my limited budget, when purchasing them from the local junkyards.
To test the alternator, it will be necessary to be able to turn it rapidly. In the center of most old alternators, on the back side, there is a distinct metal looking “circle” that should magnetize when the alternator is spinning rapidly, as it would when attached via the harmonic balancer of a vehicle engine. If it is so desired, a small led or even an old 1156 or similar brake light bulb can be inserted between the alternator and the battery bank, and used as a test lamp to ensure that the battery bank is receiving a charge. It may also be necessary to add gear reduction or an increase to generate a sufficient level of energy to fully power the battery bank.
Stationary Bicycle or Treadmill Generator
In this configuration, the real wheel of the tire should be removed and a stand built to support the bicycle in the same position it would be in to ride it. It helps to have an easily adjustable seat height so that the bicycle generator can be used by anyone who has a desire to consume additional levels of energy.
The alternator should be hooked up so that it can be directly connected to the large sprocket that would normally be pedaled in order to drive the back wheel. The larger the front sprocket, the more speed will be generated for the generator per revolution.
Two key points to remember here are to make certain that the alternator mount still retains the ability to be adjusted, and there may also be good cause to add in a belt-tensioner separate and apart from the alternator, but still within the area of the belt connecting the alternator to the sprocket being turned by the pedaling.
Inverted Bicycle Generator
Some people may be more inclined to pedal by hand, and in such cases, much of the setup for the generator can remain the same, though the unit should be mounted at such a height so as to allow for the more comfortable chore of pedaling by hand.
There are in fact, an increasing number of physically challenged people electing to move off the grid for both quality of life and health reasons, and some people may be incapable of riding a more traditional bicycle set up, but may still require energy just the same as anyone else.
When I was first beginning to build a homestead with my dad, we had a dead battery on an early trip out. In that particular case, after a little bit of thinking, my dad took a little bit of rope, some tape and ultimately, tied the weedeater down to the engine and transferred the alternator belt over to the weedeater for a period long enough to fully charge the battery.
A similar setup will also work with an old lawnmower, though both of these solutions will require the use of fuels that may not always be on hand on the more isolated homestead. Nevertheless, these solutions, while a bit more involved in the construction and requiring fuel to boot, may be more viable solutions for those who are constantly charging batteries for hand tools or who are using power more consistently while building their homestead or prepper site off the grid.
Portable Windmill Generator
One of the initial generators we built, utilized a very intricately cut and shaped fifty-five gallon drum that served in essence, as a vertical-blade windmill … meaning that the remnants of the drum stood upright, with the cuts and bends of the sides shaped in such a way so as to catch the wind and turn the entire, complete barrel or drum.
This was then mounted on the rear-end of an old vehicle we had, though we replaced the ninety-weight gear oil with substantially lighter oil, added a few gears in order to obtain the necessary revolutions of the alternator to generate power.
Since our particular homestead was in the high desert and subject to fierce winds, we also added a centrifugal braking system in order to prevent damage to the windmill and also to reduce the likelihood of overcharging the battery banks.
Drum Windmill Generator (Can also be used to pump water)
For those that may not be proficient with advanced principles of metal working, a more viable solution to the above-noted portable windmill generator is a different configuration for the drum or drums being used.
This procedure will require a bit of additional welding, but is still not overly complex … and for some, substantially easier than the model described above. In this case, one or two 55 gallon drums are cut in half vertically. This will leave two to four “troughs” or half barrels, that can then be welded on as the blades for the windmill in question.
Again, the inclusion of a centrifugal brake or other means of reducing excessive speeds is highly recommended.
Centrifugal Braking Mechanisms
A centrifugal brake uses the centrifugal force from the rotations as a means to apply pressure to brake pads against the axle, thus preventing excessive rotation during periods of high wind. The centrifugal brake can be set up on the larger, vertical axle or the smaller, reduced axle if more braking power is needed.
For our centrifugal braking system, we used thick rubber as our brake “pads” … though these will wear quickly in areas with constant high winds, and should be checked and maintained just as frequently the oil levels in the rear axle should. Once a week or so should be sufficient for checking for wear and tear.
These brake pads were held in place inside of two back to back camshaft bearings, with an adjustment so that the faster they spun, the tighter the rubber pads would press into the axle in order to reduce speed.
The container for the brake pads … the portion that actually moved in and out … moving in as it was drawn down, was attached to a free-wheeling bearing attachment that would allow for four cables to be strung from the top “brake” to the free-wheeling gear along the outside of the axle farther down.
A heavy weight was then added to the center of each cable so that as the axles would spin the weights on the cables would extend in an outward direction and draw the brake pads down directly on to the axle, causing friction and a reduction in speed.
While the first few options are easier to build, they also require the input of muscle and sweat to draw electrical energy out. The latter options are more complex to build, but will not require so much human output over the course of time. All of these can be built relatively cheap and are surprisingly effective means of supplying complete power needs to even the most isolated homestead completely off the grid.