How I Minimize Electrical Use at My Cabin


Most of the time we take electricity for granted.  Plug your appliance into an outlet and you’re off to the races.

But sometimes, electricity isn’t as easy to come by.  Up at the cabin, it can be a fairly limited resource.  You may be relying on a generator or solar system to power everything.  And when that’s the case, more power often comes with more cost.  Maybe it’s a bigger generator.  Maybe more panels and a bigger battery. 

That’s why I put together this list of tips for reducing your power consumption at the cabin.  Whether you’re off-grid or you just want to keep electrical use as low as possible at your cabin, these tips will come in handy.

Use non-electric or high-efficiency appliances whenever possible

Some of the biggest consumers of electricity are large kitchen appliances.  That’s a big part of why cabins often have smaller appliances than most homes.  Another reason is that we just don’t do as much cooking at the cabin as we usually do at home.  The third and probably primary reason is that our cabins tend to be smaller than our homes, so space is limited.

However, you don’t always have to go down in size and convenience to cut down on electrical use.  For some appliances it makes a lot of sense to go smaller.  But in some cases I like to keep the more traditional size.

Oven and Stove

For an oven and stove, rather than install a tiny oven that can’t fit a casserole dish I prefer to install a propane oven.  A lot of traditional gas ovens and ranges can be retrofitted for propane with a simple adapter.

Cutting out the electric oven and moving to gas could save you around 2,000 watts when baking at 350°F.  Plus, I prefer cooking on a gas range anyway.

My recommendation is that you install a large propane tank at your cabin.  It can be filled on an as-needed basis, maybe once per year, and it will power your oven as well as a gas fireplace if you want one.  Learn all about how to safely use a propane stove and oven indoors by reading my article on the subject.

Refrigerator

Yes, they do make propane refrigerators.  In fact they’re really common in campers and motorhomes.  And using one would cut down on your electrical usage.

However, propane refrigerators and not as efficient as some of the electrical refrigerators out there.  As in, they use more energy to refrigerate your food.  I know we’re talking about reducing electrical usage here but hear me out.

Refrigerators don’t actually use that much power on average.  The real issue with electrical refrigerators is the starting wattage.  If you’re using a generator, a traditional refrigerator might cause the breaker to trip or the engine to shut off if anything else is running when the refrigerator compressor kicks on.  That’s because a traditional refrigerator can use 1200 Watts on startup even though the running watts for the same fridge is only 130.  On average refrigerators use about 57-160 watts and don’t even run most of the time.  And if you go with a smaller, apartment sized refrigerator at the cabin like this one on Amazon, you’ll only be using under 70 watts while running and nothing the rest of the time.

A smaller refrigerator like this one should peak at around 800 watts.  And if you’re using a 3800 watt generator like the one I recommended here which has 4750 watts available for startups, you should be in good shape.  And if you’re on solar, as long as your battery can handle that output you’ll be in good shape since the average wattage is so low.

Microwave

I’m a little old fashioned on some things and I would recommend just skipping the microwave.  They use a lot of power while running (like 1400 watts) and I prefer to eat food that’s cooked in an oven, on a stove, or over a fire.  If you must have a microwave, go with something fairly small.  A countertop microwave may be the best option for minimizing power consumption.

Believe it or not, the same is true for toasters and toaster ovens.  They actually use a lot of power while they’re on.  If you want to have these smaller appliances then just make sure you’re not using them at the same time that you’re using your microwave if you’re on a generator.  If you’re on solar, it’s alright to use multiple appliances at once.  Just make sure that your solar system can generate enough power, or that your battery is large enough, to provide you with the power you need for your cabin stays.

If you go several days or even weeks between stays, then investing in a larger battery with less panels can work.  But if you use the cabin frequently, you’ll need enough panels to generate the power you need.

Lighting

I would keep lighting to a minimum to reduce electrical usage.  If you’re building, make sure you have plenty of windows.  Natural light is better for you anyway, and it’s really nice to have a lot of natural light up at the cabin.  Skylights are also a great way to let in a lot of natural light.

For the lighting that you do install, and you should have some, make sure you use energy efficient bulbs like LEDs.  They cost more up-front but they use significantly less power.  A 60-watt incandescent bulb puts out the same amount of light as an 8-watt LED.

Doing a little math, you can see that just 10 incandescent light bulbs will draw 600 watts of electricity.  That’s almost 1/6 of all the power that my generator can put out.  One bulb is almost as much as the apartment refrigerator I mentioned earlier.  The same 10 lights with LED bulbs will only draw 80 watts of power.

Heat

For heat, I like to skip the electric altogether and use wood or at least propane.

My favorite way to heat a cabin is with a wood burning stove.  You can read all about that here.  Electric heat is expensive.  Even small electric space heaters use up to 1,400 watts or so.  Installing a furnace gets even more pricey both from a cost and from an electricity standpoint.  Especially if you’re going all electric.

Wood stoves do take some upkeep, and you have to go through the effort to build a fire every time you want to heat the cabin.  But it’ll keep your electrical usage way down.

And if you want the convenience of being able to heat your cabin at the flip of a switch, install a gas fireplace and connect it to your propane tank.  This will also save you a ton of electricity but provide the convenience of heating your cabin without building a fire every time.

Cooling

When it comes to power consumption, if there’s one thing more costly than heating, it’s cooling.  Central air conditioning uses a lot of power.  In fact it’s by far the largest portion of my power bill at home.  Even window air conditioning units use a lot of power.  I recommend that if you really want AC for the summer, use a small unit.  Then focus on circulating the air.

Fans use a lot less power than most other electrical appliances and devices.  Install ceiling fans to keep air moving and use between about 55 and 100 watts.  The worst of them might use up to about 120 watts.

Moving air does a much better job of cooling than stagnant air.

Another thing you can do is use the trees around your cabin to shade it on the sides that get the most direct sunlight.  In the northern hemisphere, that will typically be the south side and the west side of the house.  Believe it or not, a bit of shade on the cabin will make a big difference.

If you don’t have the option for shade or if it’s still just too hot, use a window AC unit.  That, in conjunction with fans, will keep your cabin reasonably cool.  And if your cabin is in a dry climate, crack open some windows at night when it cools off substantially.

Convenience vs Power Consumption

Convenience and power consumption don’t always have to be at odds.  I love my energy efficient cabin that runs on a little bit of solar power.  I can keep it off-grid and enjoy both nature and the convenience of the cabin.

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