Off the Grid Heating – Best Off Grid Heating Systems Compared
During temperate parts of the year, you can live off grid without giving much thought to cooling or heating, simply enjoying the natural comfort instead.
Once winter starts closing in and temperatures drop, off grid heating will certainly be at the front of your thoughts.
But heating an off grid home can be quite different from keeping a grid tied one warm since resources are generally limited when disconnected from the grid.
In this article, we’re going to explore the best off grid heating systems, plus some DIY systems for off the grid heating on a budget. All of your questions regarding combating cold temperatures in your off grid home will be answered below.
Major Considerations for Your Off Grid Heating System
Most homes today rely heavily on natural gas and electricity to heat their homes.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, heating and air conditioning account for more than half of a home’s energy usage on average, and it’s electricity and natural gas that are most heavily relied upon for the production of all that energy. The next runners aren’t even close!
Unfortunately for anyone whose life is off grid, natural gas and electricity are two resources that are rarely abundant in an off grid home.
Without access to essentially endless natural gas and electricity, off grid abodes must find other ways of providing for their heating needs. But because off grid living is so different, you’ll need to keep the following in mind when looking at off grid heaters.
What powers the heater?
As already mentioned, in most grid tied homes it’s electricity and natural gas powering the heating, but those aren’t viable options off grid.
Granted, with solar panels and a large enough battery bank, you could use electric heating. Most off grid setups do not create or store sufficient amounts of power to run such heating though.
Common fuel sources for off grid heating systems include propane, wood, the sun, and diesel.
How much does it cost to purchase the heater? What will it cost to keep it running? This comes back to your fuel source as well, but you must consider the cost of continuing to run your heater throughout the winter.
Does the heater require much input from you, other than turning it on?
For example, must you continuously add fuel, or will it run for long periods without the need for you to do anything?
Is it feasible for you to continue supplying the amount and type of fuel your heater requires? Can you keep it running long term, or will parts wear out quickly.
Difficulty to Install
Some heaters are portable and can be easily used anywhere. Others will require permanent installation. Is that something you can handle? If not, consider the cost of hiring a professional to install it.
How much maintenance does your off grid heater require?
For instance, fireplaces need their chimneys cleaned. Nozzles on propane heaters sometimes clog and you’ll have to unclog it. Can you perform this upkeep yourself? What if you had a professional install your heater?
Will it Work at Night?
Some types of off grid heating systems are effective during the day but lose their effectiveness at night, like anything relying on the sun.
Effective Heating Area
How much space do you have to heat? Heating an off grid tiny home is far different than a large four-bedroom.
Whatever heater you decide on must have sufficient heating capacity for the area you wish to keep warm.
It’s unfortunate, but regulations in certain areas can make some types of off grid heating systems illegal to run. Even wood stoves aren’t legal everywhere as many jurisdictions have banned them or made them prohibitively difficult to have legally, particularly in California.
Best Off Grid Heating System
Keeping in mind the variables we just covered should help you decide which of the following ways of heating an off grid home is most applicable for your situation. We’re going to cover all your options from the best to the worst, and we’ll even go over some cost-effective DIY ways to heat your off grid home at the end.
Fireplaces represent the ultimate off grid heating system. Fire has been used to keep people warm since it was first discovered, and it’s just as effective today as it has ever been.
What’s most appealing about using a fireplace is the high availability and low cost of wood as a fuel source. Many people living off grid can fuel their fireplaces with wood on their property with little fear of running out any time soon.
Of course, you can always buy wood as well, though this is certainly a far less cost-effective route. Not everyone has enough wood on their property though. In that case, you may consider…
Instead of burning logs, pellet stoves burn small pellets of compressed wood shavings. These pellets are more efficient because more of the pellet burns before the flame extinguishes than when burning logs.
Wood pellets are easy to source, and because they’re so efficient, they’re also a very affordable heating fuel.
Most pellet stoves today have large hoppers that hold a lot of pellets, which allows them to run for a very long time without your input. Your home will stay warm all night running a pellet stove.
Pellet stoves do require electricity to run a fan that helps dispel the warm air, though most off grid solar setups could accommodate a small fan easily. However, pellet stoves do also require more upkeep than wood stoves or fireplaces.
Wood stoves are a great way to heat a home while still using the very green and renewable fuel of wood. One benefit of wood stoves is that you can use the top of most as a cook surface while the stove is in use, hence the name wood stove.
This means you can easily do much of your cooking during the winter without using your other appliances that might use less renewable fuels like propane.
Wood stoves can be quite efficient, if you get a good model with thick walls that’s completely air-tight.
You’ll need to vent a wood stove to the exterior of your home, but aside from keeping everything relatively clean, wood stoves don’t require much maintenance.
Propane is a very common fuel source for off grid heating since its prevalent, safe, affordable, and lasts a long time in storage. You can find it pretty much anywhere. Even most gas stations offer propane tank exchange.
The biggest downfall of propane is that you can’t produce it at home. You’ll need to get your tank refilled whenever it starts to run low.
But propane is a rather efficient heating fuel, so you won’t burn through it too quickly. Plus, it’s very likely that you’re already using propane to power other appliances in your off grid home, like stoves, ovens, or water heaters.
Also, propane stores incredibly well. It has an indefinite shelf life when properly stored, and the right container can last for up to 30 years, meaning you can stockpile as much propane as you want with no worry of it going bad.
Having said that, there are many safety precautions you’ll need to take when storing or using propane. For instance, propane tanks should never be kept inside, and both propane and carbon monoxide testers need to be present in the home. There must be adequate ventilation and all installations must meet local codes.
Of course, that all depends on how you plan to heat with propane.
Most propane heaters are designed to heat an area and not the whole home. There are some whole house options like propane boiler systems that disperse heated liquid through pipes running in your home, but these are very expensive and require extensive installation.
On the other hand, portable propane heaters are easy to use, safe when the proper precautions are followed, and surprisingly effective.
Mr. Heater portable propane heaters are far and away the most popular in this group, and for good reason. They pump out loads of heat in a safe manner using the portable one-pound propane cannisters that are available everywhere from Walmart to Ace Hardware. Using an adapter, you can hook your larger propane tank to one of these heaters, but keep in mind that larger propane tanks should never be brought inside for your safety.
There are several sizes of Mr. Heater portable propane heaters available, but the one that I prefer is the Buddy heater. One tank will last the whole night on low, which pumps out plenty of heat to keep my entire RV nice and toasty, even when it’s freezing outside.
- 4,000-9,000 BTUs of heat output
- Low-oxygen shutoff
- Tip-over shutoff protection
- Safe for indoor use
The price of diesel has been steadily rising, making it a less attractive fuel source. Still, diesel heaters are extremely efficient, and this fuel is available everywhere.
Diesel fuel will safely store for 6-12 months in proper conditions. So, you can stock up to some degree, but don’t overdo it! Diesel is easier to store than propane, and even more accessible since you can get diesel at most gas stations.
Many diesel heaters use as little as 0.1-0.25 liters of fuel per hour, making them one of the most efficient off the grid heating options. This equates to about one gallon of diesel for every 4-10 hours of heat, depending on how high you run the heater.
If you’re lacking in space, then diesel heaters are a great choice because of how compact they are compared to how much heat they produce.
Another upside to diesel heaters is that they’re very inexpensive. You can purchase kits that contain everything you need for installation for well below $200. One I’ve got my eye on is this 2kW kit from Happy Buy that has a digital LCD screen and thermostat!
DIY heaters are some of the best off grid heating systems because they’re so inexpensive to build and operate. And since you built it, repairing it will be extremely easy if anything breaks, meaning you’re less likely to be left without heat if something goes wrong.
There are many types of DIY off grid heaters. Some are designed as permanent installations while others are built to be portable. You’ll find some that harness the power of the sun and others that utilize a variety of easily accessible fuel sources.
We’re going to go into more detail about DIY off grid heaters below, but if you can jump to that section by clicking here.
Runner-Up Off Grid Heating Options
These are still great ways to keep your off grid home warm during winter, but there are inherent drawbacks to these options that are difficult to overcome.
Solar Air Heaters
Solar air heaters are extremely efficient and entirely renewable. They are essentially heat exchange systems that use the power of the sun to heat air inside the exchanger that is then exchanged for the cool air inside your home.
Purchasing a solar air heater can prove to be difficult. There aren’t many companies that make them. They’re highly specialized, and if you find one, it’s likely prohibitively expensive.
In truth, your best bet with solar air heaters is to simply make your own, which we’ll cover at the end of this article.
Installation of these devices is also a bit of a hassle since a solar air heater requires an inlet and outlet through your wall.
The biggest drawback though is that solar air heaters can only keep you warm during the day! When the sun goes down, your fuel source is gone, and so is your warmth.
Geothermal Heat Pump
Geothermal heat pumps are very efficient. Unlike many off grid heating systems, these can be used to heat the entire home.
Problem is, geothermal heat pumps are very expensive, costing $10,000-$30,000 on average.
They also still require electricity to run, so you have to do some careful calculation to make sure your energy microgrid can even handle the geothermal heat pump’s power requirements.
Installation is a hassle because they’ll need to use heavy equipment to dig deep enough for your ground loop, making it a rather invasive process overall. After that, they’ll have to run ducting through your home as well, unless you already have ducts in place.
Biomass boilers are awesome in theory. They’re essentially heat furnaces that can burn any type of biomass for fuel, so you can toss in leftover materials, scraps, leaves, lawn trimmings, and whatever else.
Right now, biomass boilers are primarily made for industrial applications. There are residential boilers available, but they’re very costly and only make a good fit for large homes; they’re simply overkill on anything smaller.
The primary issues with a biomass boiler are the price, size, and inconvenience of the system. These are very large, and therefore, quite expensive systems. Plus, they require you to continuously add more biomass for fuel, which can quickly become a nuisance. There’s also not much chance of you installing or repairing one yourself, which is another knock against them for off grid use.
Worst Off the Grid Heating Options
As you’ve seen, there are some great off grid heating systems to choose from, even if some have glaring flaws and drawbacks. But the following heaters are not good choices for off grid heating, and I’d recommend you stay away from these options.
Air Source Electric Heat Pumps
It’s true that these heat pumps are some of the most efficient HVAC devices, but they still use far too much electricity to be applicable in most off grid situations.
Depending on the size and model of your heat pump, it will use between 545 and 7500 watts.
Even at the low end of those numbers, keeping up with those energy demands, especially at night with no solar power coming in, could prove to be too much.
I’ve never seen a residential off grid electrical system that could handle 7,500 watts of continuous output for just one appliance!
Electric Space Heaters
Take a walk down the heater aisle in any big box store and you’ll see dozens of electric heaters that plug into the wall.
These are great when you’ve got limitless electricity. For an off grid home, however, they’re a terrible choice.
Despite their small size, these heaters use a ton of electricity. Most will pull about 1,500 watts when operating. Even if your inverter can provide that much power, how long can your batteries supply it before they run dry?
And if you need heat during the day as well, then your batteries will never get a chance to recharge unless you have several thousand watts worth of solar panels.
Altogether, electric heaters are too inefficient and use too much electricity to be a viable option for most off grid homes.
DIY Off the Grid Heating Systems
Perhaps the most cost-effective option is to create some heating devices of your own to harness the renewable resources available.
DIY off grid heating devices have the advantage of costing very little to produce. Moreover, they’re often much cheaper to run than alternative heat sources, sometimes running at the mere cost of a few cents an hour.
In order to build an effective DIY heater, you’ll need some basic tools and skills. Luckily, most will use only a few materials.
Two primary types of DIY heaters are most common. First, you have small induction-style heaters that have a burning fuel source inside such as an oil burner. The other main type of DIY heater harnesses the power of the sun to heat your air in a similar fashion without any flame.
DIY Solar Heaters
DIY Solar Air Heater: Method 1
The first way to make a solar air heater is by using black drain pipe.
To start, you’ll need to create a wooden frame with a backing. Inside of this frame and placed against the backing for support, you’ll need to weave the drain pipe back and forth to fit as much of it in this frame as possible.
On the side where the drain pipe is exposed, you’ll then cover it with clear acrylic plexiglass so that the sun can heat the drain pipe inside through the acrylic panel.
The two ends of the pipe will need to be inserted into your home while the air heater itself stays outside to collect heat.
Inside, you’ll need to install a small USB computer fan that will force the air through the heat exchanger. When it comes out the other side, it will be warm from the sun’s heat, allowing it to heat the entire room.
DIY Solar Air Heater: Method 2
This device is also known as a coke can or beer can heater because it’s primarily made with aluminum cans. In essence, it’s the same as the first DIY solar heater we just covered, but in a smaller package that can be easily moved around and doesn’t require permanent installation.
Again, you’ll build a wooden frame with a backer. Inside, you’ll stack aluminum cans that have been painted black. You can also drill a hole in the bottom of each can to help air flow through each stack.
A plexiglass cover will go on the front where the sun will penetrate through to the cans inside.
You’ll then need to install a heat outlet on the top of the device with a small fan that can pull air out through the heat outlet.
Portable Radiant DIY Off Grid Heater
This radiant heater is small, portable, and powerful enough to heat up a room. Even better, it’s made from everyday items that you probably already have, other than the 100% carbon felt used to line the tin cans. Luckily, you can use just about any wicking material in place of the carbon felt, such as torn up jeans, cotton rolls, or bandages.
Best of all, you can burn all types of fuel in here, including methanol, ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, and more.
Construction is dead simple. You need two cans, one small enough to just fit inside the other. Both cans should have one lid removed and be empty and clean.
Four holes should be poked around the perimeter of the top of the smaller can, with one small hole in the center of the bottom. Both cans should then be lined with your carbon felt or other wicking material.
Next, you’ll need to make the wire heating element by wrapping a piece of steel mesh around the smaller can to shape it. Once shaped, you can attach the heating element to the smaller can, and the essence of your heater is complete.
Next you can make a reflector to help direct the heat where you want it. This can be easily constructed from some cake tins and a small piece of aluminum. You can even add a handle to the top for easier carrying, and a few small drawer pulls installed on the bottom will act as feet.
To operate the heater, simply fill the larger can with fuel, place the smaller can inside with the heating element on top and light it!
The video below will give you a better idea.
Permanent Ammo Can Heater
If you’re looking for the best permanent DIY off grid heating options, then ammo can heaters are definitely my top recommendation. These are cheap, easy to build, and extremely effective. But the best thing about these heaters is that there are so many ways to fuel them!
The design of these heaters features an intake and exhaust that never enter your home or RV. On the bottom, the intake pulls in fresh air that allows the heat source inside the ammo can to burn, but the exhaust is vented straight outside.
So, how does it keep you warm?
There will be another pipe or two that are installed horizontally through the ammo can. These pipes pull cool air from the floor of your room. Inside the ammo can, the flame is heating up the air as it comes through the pipes, so it’s quite warm when it exits the other side.
Check out the two videos below for a visual of how this heater works. You can also see two different designs fueled by different heat sources to get an idea of just how versatile this type of heater can be.
Always Have a Backup Heat Source
In off grid living, preparation is the name of the game. If one heat source goes out and you don’t have a backup, you could be in big trouble.
As such, it’s best to always keep at least two heating devices handy in your off grid dwelling.
Furthermore, relying on two devices to heat your off grid home is often the best bet, as this can allow you to be more efficient.
For example, you can use a solar air heater to help supply warmth during the day and use propane at night, reducing the amount of propane you have to use to keep the house warm.
It’s hard to beat the old school off grid heat source of fire. Wood is so readily available that wood stoves and fireplaces are the most obvious choice for off grid heating in many situations.