What’s Old Is New Again: How Our Grandparents Lived Off Grid

Steve CoffmanSteve Coffman | Updated Feb 27, 2019 (Orig - Mar 2, 2019)

Long before the Rural Electrification Administration started bringing power to rural folks who hadn’t been reached by big corporate power companies, farmers and people living away from profitable to operate transmission lines were stuck without the many benefits of electricity. Our grandparents and great grandparents were often figuratively left in the dark.  However, rural Americans are a tenacious lot, and if the power lines wouldn’t come to them, they would bring the power to themselves.

As labor-saving devices like washing machines and electric milkers became more important to the rural off-grid farmer, or things like radios and electric lights became more in demand, a number of ways to electrify the farm were used. They are all going to sound familiar to the modern prepper because we still use the modern versions of these methods to power off-grid cabins, and our homes in emergencies. As the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun, and here are three ways our great grandparents made their own electricity…

Wind Power

The earliest successful home wind generators showed up in the 1920s. These generators allowed farmers to harness the wind to charge a battery bank and power their homes. Sound familiar? It should because little has changed, beyond improving the efficiency of wind generators, battery banks, and control equipment.

These first wind generators were perfect for running radios, small home appliances, low wattage lightbulbs, and other sundry appliances that were mostly limited by the capacity and output of the farmer’s battery bank.

Today, we have higher output turbines, superior battery technology, better power control tools, the benefit to incorporate solar panels into the system, and more energy efficient appliances, all of which come together to make a wind power system a smarter off grid choice than ever before.

We can learn a valuable lesson from our early wind using ancestors. They didn’t understand electricity as an unlimited commodity that was simply there when you flipped the switch. Instead, they were painfully aware of the cost of creating that energy, and the upkeep required to keep it flowing. They knew that they were limited in how much power they could draw, and how long it would last when the wind wasn’t blowing – all things the modern off gridder should also understand.

As we can see, this nearly century-old home technology is far from obsolete. In fact, in a pinch, a person could do just fine with old school lead acid batteries and a basic wind generator just like our great grandparents did.

Home Electric Light Plants

The Delco-Light Plant was exactly what it was advertised as in the 1920s and ’30s – a complete home power plant. However, rather than running a dynamo at all times, it was used to charge a bank of batteries, which were connected to a monitor that would automatically start the generator when power dropped below a certain level.

These old fashioned home lighting plants follow a common theme – using battery banks to provide power most of the time, and simply being used to recharge them. It’s how most off-grid power systems work as well, and for good reason; it’s cheaper and quieter than an always-on dynamo, and outside of high demand loads, you don’t need to have a huge amount of power always available to you.

The idea of the old Delco system lives on today, in a modern off-grid generator. One might want to let the good folks at Generac know they are about 90 years too late for their claims though.

Delco offered farmers and other off-grid folks something no other home power system could offer at the time, a guaranteed charge all the time on their batteries, or at least as long as there was fuel to keep them charged. While there is a strong argument to be made for cheap wind power, that isn’t always a viable choice when you are off the grid.

Another thing Delco offered was complete home wiring kits, making it possible to purchase an entire system, right down to the wiring and a number of different home appliances all from one source, and financed through one place. It was a truly one-stop source for most everything a person might need when electrifying for the first time.

Of course, Delco plants became obsolete shortly after widespread electrification, and they are obsolete enough to not justify restoring and putting back into service, even with modern batteries. But they offer a fascinating look at how what’s old is all new again.

Standalone Generators

A lot of farmers in the ’20s and ’30s had various small gasoline engines or tractors with power takeoffs that various accessories could be connected to. In either case, a healthy market for various mechanical tools powered by engines or tractors existed, and that included electrical generators.

Much like the other two power systems our ancestors used that we just looked at, many of these generators were used to maintain battery supported lighting plants. Fairbanks Morse was one company who made such standalone generators, although there were others.

For farmers already invested in engines for running other equipment, buying a generator add on only made sense. Today, there is little practical analog – standalone generators are fairly affordable, and are certainly very efficient in terms of fuel. I suppose if you had an old tractor, or a standalone engine sitting around, it could make some degree of sense, but if you are looking to maintain a battery bank, or provide constant AC power, you are better off with a modern generator system.

Old Systems – Much Like New Systems

You’ll have noticed the common theme of battery banks by now. The voltage, watt and amperage ratings varied from installation to installation, but the concept remained the same as it does today. A bank of batteries wired up in series or parallel as desired, and maintained with some sort of external power plant, be it wind, or engine powered. Today, we can reliably add solar panels to that list in most places, or mix and match charging technology to suit our budget and individual circumstances.

Today, the vintage lighting plant, and telegraph battery jars of old are quite collectible and somewhat valuable, often fetching $50 or more per jar. If you happen to run across some on the old homestead, you might scare up some extra cash!

The greatest lesson to learn from our great grandparent’s lighting plants is probably one of economy. Modern off the grid power systems can create an abundance of electrical power, and store it in powerful batteries that were unheard of just a few decades ago. Combined with energy efficient LED lighting, and appliances designed to conserve power, the off-grid homestead is more easily and fully electrified than at any point in history. Heck, even powerful multi-kilowatt AC generators are within easy reach of most preppers and can be used to run high energy appliances and tools.

The point is, in some ways, nothing has changed, and in others, everything has changed in the world of off-grid electrification. The tools are similar, the methods are similar, but the output and technology are often vastly superior.

Conclusion

The lesson we can take away from this is that the rural prepper or homesteader never really needed to be connected to the grid. While access to the power grid is convenient, it strips a person of their full self-sufficiency. However, the cost of developing an off-grid power solution can be high, making the grid connection an affordable and easy alternative.

But it should be comforting to know that we can still easily walk in the determined footsteps of those who came before us, and continue to light our homes and cabins with electrical power generated by our own efforts, and controlled entirely by ourselves, and not some distant and heartless corporation, or government entity.

The modern prepper is well advised to develop their off-grid power solutions and keep in mind the spirit of farmers of the ’20s and ’30s who refused to be left behind on the march of technological progress, even as it seemed determined to ignore rural areas. Once again, we find that big cities consume most of the resources, and the rural landowner or homesteader is often a second or third class citizen when it comes to infrastructure improvement and access. Empowering yourself to create your own electricity takes control back, and I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.

The modern prepper is well advised to develop their off-grid power solutions and keep in mind the creative ways our grandparents were able to live off-grid.

Author’s Bio

Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.

 

 

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Updated Feb 27, 2019
Published Mar 2, 2019

8 Responses to “What’s Old Is New Again: How Our Grandparents Lived Off Grid”

  1. I remember when I was a teenager in the early sixties and visiting my aunt in the country that she would refer to the shed behind the house as the lighthouse. When I asked her what she meant, she told me about the old battery and generator set that they had in the thirties. The generator and batteries were long gone and the shed was now a storage shed.

    Reply
  2. Great history lesson; very interesting, informative, and exceptionally
    written.

    Reply
  3. Agreed

    Reply
  4. Would love to see an article with photos on how to use your car battery, an inverter and other parts to power some things in the home when grid power is down.

    Reply
  5. Great article!

    My grandpa told me about using the generator from a Model-T, hooked up to some old fan blades, to generate electricity in Wyoming back in the 1920’s. They would charge old car batteries and use them to run the radio and power a small light. All these old skills will become useful again at some point in the not-so-distant future.

    Way too many of the self-reliance projects I see in books and on the internet are just too expensive to be practical. Learning to scrounge old parts and put them together in new useful ways, like my grandpa’s windmill story, can save a lot of money and make most of these ideas more practical.

    Reply
  6. Back years ago at Deer Camp, my Uncle had combined a 12 volt alternator, a lawn mower engine and deck with some pullys to recharge the camper batteries as needed.

    Reply
  7. Ann,
    It’s really very easy to power a few things with a car battery and an inverter.
    Better than a traditional car battery, an easy to use “Jumper Pack” can be purchased from Harbor Freight along with an inverter. These are easy to connect, especially if the inverter has a cigarette lighter type male plug which is simple plugged into one of the jumper pack’s female cigarette type outlets. At worst, the inverter has a + (red) and – (black) clip(s) which you can snap onto the jumper pack’s red and black clips.
    While you’re at Harbor Freight, pick up some LED light bulbs!
    OK, now go home and charge up you jumper pack, then connect your inverter, and plug in a standard light with one of the LED bulbs, and you have light!!! now plug in a small radio and you’re all set!
    The larger the jumper pack (measured in “amp-hours”), the more/longer to can run things. The inverter you’ll buy is typically measured in watts. 200W would be the minimum I’d suggest. You can tell how much you can “run” with your jumper pack “power plant” by checking the wattage listed on the devices you’d like to power. Stay under your inverter limit is the best bet.
    There’s much more to electricity and powering devices than the above, but it should get you started.
    Enjoy! Michael

    Reply
  8. Thank you for this article. So interesting and informative. I very much appreciate your writing it.

    Reply

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