Dec 10, 2012

Off-Grid Living Part 1: Lighting

I'm going to assume that you don't have upwards of $25k available to begin investing in photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, along with a massive battery bank to store all your free energy in.  Instead, I'll take a simple, low cost, back to basics approach to off-the-grid lighting in this post.  I'm only going to deal with non-electric, simple solar, and battery operated alternatives.  I'm also going to cover day-lighting otherwise dark interior spaces, and lighting at night.


You may want to get plenty of natural daylight into your home with windows and skylights to eliminate the need for daytime artificial lighting.  It's even possible to get some natural daylight into rooms that have no outside windows or skylights.  You can use transom windows over doors, or install windows or other openings in interior walls.

If privacy is a concern, or you simply want to hide clutter, there are translucent materials that can insure privacy while still admitting daylight.  They include glass block, obscured glass, stained glass, and translucent films that can be stuck to glass to obscure the view.  You could simply hang a curtain or blinds in front of the window that would still allow some light in to a space that would otherwise be pitch black. 

Obsurred glass

Glass block

Stained glass
Transom window over door
Pass-thru between rooms
Interior door with tempered glass
Velux, the skylight company, makes a special type of skylight they call "Sun Tunnels" which allow you to get daylight into spaces that may have obstructions in the attic above them, or for various reasons the skylight can't be placed above the actual room you want the skylight in.  With sun tunnels, you can even get a little daylight through the ceiling of a first floor room in a two story building.  There are probably other companies aside from Velux that make similar products.

Velux Sun Tunnel

Light at Night:

Interior propane light fixtures:  They produce a nice light that you can read by.  The drawbacks are that they produce a lot of heat, they are potential ignition sources, and they must be manually lit with a flame.  Maybe there are some out there with automatic piezoelectric ignition, but I haven't seen 'em.  They also require oxygen to burn and they release their combustion products into your indoor air.  Of course the main drawback is that they require propane which releases ancient CO2 and in some sense ties you to the grid, just not the electrical one.  I've included some photos of indoor propane light fixtures below.

Indoor propane light fixture
Indoor propane light fixture
Indoor propane pendant fixture

There are outdoor propane lights too.

Candles are an option too.  I like candle sconces that mount on the wall.  There are some that have mirrors mounted behind them which I imagine would come close to doubling the apparent light output.  There are also candle lanterns, candelabras, hurricane lanterns, and a wide variety of means to use candle light attractively and effectively.  They range from simple to elaborate and classic to modern in style. 

 With candles you've also got the choice of tapers, pillars, votives, and tea-lights, and paraffin vs. bee's wax, plus scented vs. unscented to deal with.  There is far too much content to get into here, so I'll move on to other non-electric lighting types.  The main concern with candles would be the open flame hazard.  That is something you need to mitigate as much as possible with wise placement choice, attentiveness and vigilance.

 Again, a few photos below... 

Simple mirrored candle sconce
Triple candle sconce
Modern triple candle lanterns
Candle lanterns

Oil lamps are yet another off-grid lighting option.
  Many oil lamps will run on either paraffin based oil or kerosene.  The paraffin is probably the best choice because it lasts longer and doesn't produce smoke.  Scented oils should be avoided because they may produce smoke.  Oil lamps can be found in a wide variety of styles and include ceiling hung, wall mounted, and table top models.  They also can be adjusted for brightness or fuel conservation. 

Like all the options discussed so far, they do represent a potential fire hazard if not placed and used properly, and their use without adequate ventilation is definitely not recommended.  I've included some photos of various oil lamp models below, and further below that is an excellent short video that is very informative.

Ceiling hung oil lamp

Table top oil lamp

Wall mounted oil lamp

Table top oil lamp

Informative oil lamp video
(about 3 minutes)

Camping style lanterns, like the well known Coleman lanterns, work great and burn brightly, but are intended for outdoor use only.  In practice, I've found them to be seemingly safe indoors so long as the space is well ventilated and reasonably large.  They run on white gas or unleaded gas.  I would not take a chance using unleaded gasoline indoors personally.  They also make a variety that runs on small propane canisters.

Coleman lantern

Battery operated lanterns and flash lights, etc.:  First let me begin by saying don't even consider anything without LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes).  They are very efficient, which means your batteries will last a lot longer, and unlike all other bulb types, they're not likely to break if dropped or tipped over.   This is the one type of light that I can recommend without reservation in terms of their safety and affect on indoor air quality.  

I'm reasonably sure that it makes sense to get rechargeable batteries and a solar battery charger for these.  I think that is an environmentally friendlier solution than disposable batteries, but I'm not positive about that.  Hopefully someone will verify or dispute that to set everyone straight in the comments section below.  

The lantern style is good for setting on a table top or hanging to illuminate a wide area.  For specific tasks, and for walking around, you'll probably want a flashlight.  Other things to consider are headlamps and baseball caps with built-in LEDs.  They allow you to walk around and/or work on things with both hands free.  The light will automatically aim at whatever you happen to be looking at or focusing on.

LED lantern

LED lantern w/ hand crank 

LED flashlight.  This one is solar powered.
LED flashlights w/ hand cranks

LED headlamp.  Get a center strap like this one, otherwise it will slide down and be annoying.  
Cap w/ LEDs in brim.  You can also buy LEDs that clip on to a hat you already own.

Tap lights:  Again, only get the LED variety.  These are great because you can use them for task lighting, under kitchen cabinets, in a closet, next to the bed, in the bathroom, or pretty much anywhere you want to use them.  They are very convenient because you don't need to light them.  You turn them on and off simply by giving them a little tap, thus the name.  They are also very safe, don't pose a fire risk, and don't affect your indoor air quality.  You can use them individually or in groups, and they come in a variety of styles. 

LED tap lights under a kitchen cabinet.

Ultra simple solar lighting:  There are beginning to be some very simple solar lighting devices available now that don't require you to know much at all, if anything, about solar power, wiring, and so on.  I'm going to include a couple of examples below.  There are table lamps and desk lamps that you can just keep in front of a south facing window in the daytime, then move where ever you like at night.  There are also some lighting systems consisting of one or two lights, or more, that use a tiny solar panel placed outside to charge some lights that are kept indoors.  And of course, there are lots of outdoor solar lights, including motion activated security lighting.  All are worthy of your consideration.

Ikea solar desk lamps

Solar desk lamp available from Northern Tool
Solar pendant lamp,  Northern Tool
"Light Portal"  indoor solar sconce by Yeti Solar

Solar security lighting

Click here to view part 2 of my off-grid series, Refined Living with no Electricity.

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