Travelling Off-Grid with My Dirty Little Generator: A Bargee’s Perspective

off-grid electricity for mobile homes is challenging.
Woman wrapped up in a tangle of electrical wires.
Artwork by Dream Studio AI.

Discover the joys and challenges of travelling off-grid, living in a mobile home. From the convenience of home comforts to the struggles of dirty electricity, it’s a journey worth taking.

Travelling off-grid- What are the most important things needed to live a good life?

Moving off-grid and maintaining your electricity supply for a mobile home has its challenges, especially on a boat. The last few months have thrown us some curve balls. Problem-solving skills are what’s needed. And I think you’d agree that for a good life off-grid you need power to run all those conveniences that we often take for granted. 

Ask yourself, how much do you love getting back to home comforts after a camping trip turns cold and wet? That steaming bath. A comfy couch in front of your favourite film. Your own king bed or the smell of marmite on hot toast… whatever your vice, we all need comfort now and again.

So when I lust after a hot shower or want to use my own washing machine, you might empathise. Except fool me put myself in this position in the first place. You might wonder why on earth anyone would choose to live with such inconvenience! Didn’t the human race invent modern life for good reason? We moved on, right? 

Travelling off-Grid Is an Education

The truth is, I like my handy gadgets too, but not at the expense of swapping my off-grid life for another soul-destroying house where the best view is a shopping trolley turned upside down atop a bus stop. Or where the size of the bills crush the joy out of living. And consider where homeowners will be in the survival game after the great financial reset. And what about gas-guzzling climate issues?

That’s why we struggle, get things wrong, grunge things out – and it isn’t easy. But through this puzzling of cryptic clues, banging our heads together, and working out the engineering of how it all works, we are in a superior position to the average Joe. Sorry if your name’s Joe! But it’s true. 

We can plumb water, rewire electrics, fix a boat engine, install solar panels and wind generators, and understand why a digital washing machine won’t work off a mobile generator. So is the dream of a mobile off-grid electric home just a crazy idea? Maybe.

Mobile Electric Generators

And that leads me to our latest problem. Why won’t the washing machine run off the generator? Yes, the generator is powerful enough! Then someone suggested earthing the generator, so we hammered a metal tethering post into the muddy bank and connected it up. The washing machine’s digital panel still flashed in protest. 

So we shelved the entire problem for a year. Lugging the rejected washing machine back through the half dismantled canal-boat window and down the towpath on a two-wheeled trolley to a place of storage was too much for our stumped minds to juggle.

Until we met a mate- an electrician friend. New hope kindled, we swiftly transported him to the boat to assess the whole saga. My heart lifted when he came off the phone with the generator sales company, (an answered prayer?), and quickly sank again, as he didn’t have a solution. 

But we discovered that mobile generators all have floating earth. This is residual electricity that does not get used but causes an uneven wave of dirty electrical output. Modern machinery with digital panels enjoys a pure, evenly timed sine wave of A.C (alternating current) electricity, which is what mains electric grid power produces. 

Off-Grid Electric Generators Are a Dirty Business!

We feed DC (direct current) 12-volt electricity from a lithium battery through a pure sine wave converter to turn it into AC mains for convenience on the boat. For example, our fridge freezer and computers work from mains. The alternative of a 12-volt fridge is too expensive, but it does use much less battery power.

You can’t use our converter to turn AC into DC, despite the 1970s rock band ACDC’s claim to fame. And the mobility of such generators means the problematic earth won’t run some modern equipment, (despite the advert). The electricity is ‘dirty’, with uneven waves that throw out the timing and upset some modern appliances. That’s why my laptop mouse jumps around when the computer is in charge mode.

Were we back to square one? Would the washer-drier have to go? Would we ever have self-respect and convenience in our little boat? Travelling off-grid, we need to master our mobile electricity supply. Will we ever join the 21st century?

A Eureka Moment!

The answer came in the night. Call it a God moment, or an Isaac Newton’s apple instance if you like. Was it possible to clean up our electricity, turning it from AC into DC, by feeding the generated electricity through a battery charger, then back through the inverter- DC to AC? 

Morning came with new hope, and with the generator hauled out of its box and the battery charger and converter attached to the circuit, our canal boat steps became a no-go area. The washing machine switched on, and the drum filled, turned, and spun. “Wahoo!”

Only the weight of our washing in there stalled the spin- we might need two battery chargers to carry enough power, but the riddle is on the way to being won!

Travelling Off-Grid: Electric Mayhem

Later this week, we discovered another dilemma. When we make a circuit with the boat’s electrics and the steel of the vessel, there is a problem. It reminds me of when my brother used to say, ” Can you just hold this clip a minute?” I’d help him out and, for my efforts, get an electric shock- such was my brother’s glee. 

I was wary then of my husband pulling the same trick when he said, “Touch that.” The shock wasn’t too bad. However, a fire hazard- possibly. With dead wires and a spaghetti of different coloured electrics snaking the boat’s length, a full re-wire has just become the critical agenda.

With three trips to town, because the assistant can’t measure two pieces of wire the same length, progress is slow. But armed with two, thirty-six-metre wires, we eventually move forward with our plans of travelling off-grid and having electricity for our mobile home. The damage?- Over a hundred-pound lighter in the back pocket! 

My better half pulled the many ancient wires out from under the gunnel along the length of our kitchen, bathroom, lounge and bedroom. Two wires replace the lot. It just takes a lot longer to do than it takes to write it down. What next!

Depending on Wind Turbine Technology

The second wind generator was a birthday present- an expensive one! Only it vibrates on the roof, like a wild goat on a mountaintop stamping his feet. The three blades are long and should weigh the same, only these are a few grams out, and it seems to make a difference. 

The pole might not be sturdy enough, the company suggests. Photographs and video messages back and forth confirm the supporting structure is fine, and the blade weight difference shouldn’t cause the problem. 

So we’re stuck with a German windmill (not Chinese like turbine number one) and this doesn’t perform well either, until a friend with the same make of wind turbine, now redundant, kindly offers us his set of shorter blades. It’s an improvement on vibration but the real test- well, we’re still waiting for a strong wind!

Solar panels are wonderful! And that’s all I’ve got to say about that just now.

Mobile Off-Grid Electric Versus Lifestyle

So, friends in the right places really have proved key to off-grid survival. When you hit a problem you can’t overcome, an experienced other helps move things along. But we waited a long time to find an electrician who was open to coming aboard and knowledgeable enough to take the time to explain to a layperson how mobile generators work. 

And as a Grade Four Physics and Chemistry kind of girl- I know- a modern gender disappointment, I’m learning more about electricity now than I ever learned in school. This is a good life. But travelling off-grid and powering a mobile home is no mean feat!

You might also like Wind Turbines and Narrow Boats

Useful links:

What Is the Best Off-Grid Power System?

Disclaimer: Never mess with electricity unless you know how to do it safely. If in doubt always get the advice of a qualified electrician. This blog’s author does not seek to educate you or take any responsibility for damage caused by your own actions.

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