Ever consider living off grid? Tens of thousands of people of people dream of escaping the rat race pace and dangers of today’s society in order to live where and how they want to live. The opportunity to wake up to the sight of majestic mountains, a crystal clear lake or a white sandy beach licked by turquoise waters peaks the interest of survivalist, nature lovers and those who just want to live not burden of crushing debt. Living off grid could offer many the opportunity to fulfill their dreams, yet very few actually seriously try.
Why would living off grid be so difficult that only a mere handful of dreamers attempt it? To be perfectly honest, completely cutting yourself off from the luxuries of modern life, they don’t feel like luxuries until you don’t have them, is not an easy task. It requires meticulous planning, a burning desire to succeed, knowledge and the ability to adapt that knowledge and of course money. Yes, living off grid requires an initial capital investment, how much depends on the person, but if you can view it as an investment, it won’t hurt quite as much. Remember the saying “It takes money to make money.”
For those genuinely interested in exploring what it takes for living off grid we’re going to explore methods, available technology (it increases yearly), the pros & cons of living off grid and how to overcome them. In other words, we’re going to lay out in-depth information which will allow you to begin making a strategic plan on how to make living off grid possible for you and your family.
Let’s start by making sure everybody is on the same page as far as what living off grid means, as different people have different concepts. Some want to specify or tailor their off grid experience to their own needs or desires, like eliminating reliance on the electrical grid, but not water supply, while others may want to be completely self sufficient. We will cover A to Z offering the information needed for limited off grid living to complete self reliance.
Topics: For Living Off Grid
Providing heat for your homestead
What type of off grid shelter (home) to build (popular options)
How to store and pressurize your water supply
How to dispose and maintain waste
How to grow your own food
First things First:
The first thing you’ll have to do is acquire some land on which to build or park your shelter. Many people are so concerned about other living off the grid issues they completely overlook this issue until later where it could ruin the best laid plans. Number one, it is quite possibly the single most costly item you’ll need to buy. Land, even scrub land is not cheap. Why not? Ever hear the saying “they don’t make it anymore.”?
Plus, whatever land you buy could drastically affect the type of shelter you can build. Natural elements could dictate what kind of water system, sewer system, foundation requirements, off grid power sources and many more building requirements. Locate and purchase your piece of paradise before committing money for anything else. You can always resell it if plans change or if money is not an issue, hold onto it for investment.
Next First Things First:
The traditional first thing to do is investigate the type of shelter you want to live in. This can range from a traditional Tee Pee, you’d be surprise at what modern Tee Pees offer, to a more luxurious log home. There is a newer craze of using shipping containers and mobile “little houses” which in my opinion are equal to an RV built with 2x4s instead of smaller dimension lumber.
I’m going to throw my 2 cents in here. The little house does offer you the ability to design your own unique style, but unless that is an important factor, why would you change proven and reliable systems a quality RV offers? True, the RV probably will not endure as long as a miniature house, but if you tire of the off grid life you have a better chance of selling the RV than the “little house.” Just something to think about.
Regardless of which style or type of shelter you finally decide on there must be one common denominator … it must be small. Large sprawling mansions, which have been the standard the past 30 years, are energy consuming monsters. You’ll want to keep your energy and heating requirements as low as possible, saving money and reducing your carbon footprint. In short; smaller and more energy efficient is the way to go.
Beginning to Wean yourself off the grid
Whatever provoked your interest to live off grid, that great weekend at an isolated cabin, or just an overwhelming desire to get out from under debt and away from people, it’s a good idea to test drive the lifestyle first. Meaning? Begin weaning yourself from the luxury of unlimited energy.
Consider your normal energy consumption. Computers, televisions, radios, electric stove, refrigerator, lights, hairdryer, curling iron the list could go on and on. Do you leave lights on in rooms nobody is in? Have the TV on but not be watching it? The point I’m trying to get across is the change of mental attitude which will be required to move off grid. I’m not telling you to begin throwing computers and TVs away, but there are ways to begin experiencing what it may be like to live off grid.
For instance, an electric dryer, gas too for that matter, requires a lot of energy. Set a goal of two weeks in which you will hang your clothes on an outside clothesline instead of using a dryer.
That 2nd refrigerator you have in the basement or in the garage where you store beer, soda, bottled water and perhaps some leftovers. Disconnect it. You’ll now have to limit the amount of stored beverages, to fit into 1 refrigerator, or figure out some other method for cold beverages. You’ll immediately feel a few examples of off grid living.
It is imperative you do a comprehensive energy evaluation of your home. There are devises which measure energy usage, such as the P3 P4400 Kilowatt electricity usage meter, of each devise. You’ll know what devises consume the most energy, which will help you prioritize what is essential and what is not. It’ll also be invaluable in helping you size the number and size of solar panels or wind turbine you’ll need.
These are all effective exercises for preparing to live off grid and to make the transition as smooth as possible. Should you decide to drop the plan of living off grid you still have identified areas where you can save large sums of money by adjusting your energy consumption.
What are my Power Options for Living Off Grid
There are three fundamental methods for producing off grid power and they all have their own unique set of pros and cons. However, they all three have one thing in common. They all derive power from the natural resources that surround us on a daily basis. We just need to be smart enough to create and utilize the technology required to harness these powers of nature for our own use. Let’s exam Sun, Wind and Water power.
Solar Panels (sun)
Ask the general public what does off grid energy source means to them, and the majority will say “solar power”. Ask them how it works and you’ll get an answer like, “You buy some solar panels, install them on the roof, run an electrical cord to the breaker box and wallah, you have electricity,”
Well, obviously it’s simply not that easy.
First of all you’ll need sunlight and lots and lots of it. Living in Alaska where the sun is absent for months at a time will cause an issue, or living in Seattle where a near permanent cloud bank restricts the sun on a normal basis will also be ruled out. Using Solar energy for power in these types of environments are not feasible.
Luckily you live 30 miles outside Phoenix and sunshine is not an issue, there’s plenty of it. However, even with the abundance of sunlight solar power can not deliver a consistent amount of power. There is nighttime and you’ll produce less energy in the morning and late afternoon than when the sun is at its apex.
You will need to store the excess energy produced during APEX production for usage when no energy is being produced and that will require a bank of batteries. We’ll get more in-depth on batteries later, but for now it’s important you know you’ll need them, size and amount to be determined.
A quick review:
Proven technology which works;
No moving parts once installed therefore, low maintenance costs
Ability to change the size of the system to meet your needs
Proven to work great where sun is abundant
Confined usage to sunny environments only
Requires a battery system to store excess energy
Initial installation can be quite expensive especially if all work contracted out
Does require a certain amount of DIY electrical knowledge
Wind Turbines: (wind)
Wind power has become a large contributing factor to providing living off grid energy needs. However, just like the challenges solar power has, wind does not provide a constant energy source, therefore a bank of batteries will be required to store excess energy when its produced.
There isn’t a place on earth absent of wind, but some regions are more prone to experience wind on a daily basis than others. Should you live in one of these regions, such as Texas prairie, great, but it’s not a requirement to live in a windy area.
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What is a requirement is the assessment of the local surrounding area. Depending on their proximity to your house, hills, trees and other buildings can negatively affect wind flow for your usage. You can nearly always overcome these obstacles by installing your turbine higher off the ground creating a clear wind profile.
However, taller support structures cost more, added material, and possibly worse yet, as turbines do require normal maintenance, you’ll be required to climb higher. If fear of heights is no problem, fine, but if you are leery of heights you may want to reconsider your choice.
Speaking of maintenance, turbines do consist of rotating mechanical devises, and anytime something moves it will require maintenance and will periodically breakdown requiring repairs. This will be an ongoing expense unless you plan on performing maintenance yourself, which is not quite as easy as one may expect, there is a lot more technology involved than meets the eye. If you are not mechanically and/or technically inclined, wind turbines may be a bad choice.
Wind Turbine Pros:
Large selection of sizing options
Proven and established technology
Works extremely well in windy regions
Wind Turbine Cons:
Efficiency largely depends on location
Requires a battery system
Amount of moving parts requires regular maintenance and the ability to repair broken parts
Under the proper conditions a Micro-hydro generator is as close to living connected to the grid while living off grid as is possible. Everyone has seen, at least in pictures, a water wheel powering a milling station, water flowing over the paddles constantly turning them. That’s the real people. Water wheels were employed to power the required energy to grind corn into meal long before electricity was ever invented.
Water turbines, although much smaller than water wheels, use the same principle of water turning a turbine which creates electrical power which you harness, through electrical wires, to supply electricity to your home.
A huge advantage of this system is the creation of constant power. With solar and wind power you will normally begin each morning with an energy deficit, but there is no interruption of power with a water turbine. In many cases this eliminates the need for a bank of batteries, but even if you still have a bank, the batteries are always fully charged.
This sounds like the answer to living off grid. What’s the catch? Ah yes, the downside.
In order to operate your micro-hydro generator you’ll require a steady and reliable flow of natural water. Such as rivers, large streams, creeks, as stagnate water will not suffice. The water must be moving in order to turn the turbine blades in order to produce electricity. A huge pond is worthless for our use.
Therefore, just locating a reliable source of flowing water is a problem. Properties with a water source like this is hard to find for sale, and if it is, it’ll command a super premium price tag pricing most buyers out of the market. Locating an existing off grid house is another possibility, but again, few and far between and expensive.
Let’s say you find the ideal property. Do your home work before plopping down a hunk of cash. How reliable is the water source?
If it’s supplied by mountain snowfall melt, what if its a low snowfall year-round?
Does the stream flow continuously or does it historically dry up to a trickle during the hot summer months?
What about a severe drought. Will that leave me high and dry?
Water Turbine Pros:
Constant power which may eliminate the need for a battery bank
Can be found anywhere
Hard to find
Expensive when found
Vulnerable to severe drought or other weather conditions
Requires moving parts which require maintenance and repairs
Those are your three main living off grid energy sources. Solar, Wind Turbines & Micro-hydro generators.
Living Off Grid Battery Systems
Currently the deep cycle battery bank is your best bet for living off grid. It’s an established system which has proven capable of effectively storing your excess energy until usage is required. The main issue is safety as locating the battery bank inside the shelter can be problematic. Batteries emit dangerous and toxic fumes which are combustible and can make you ill, additionally the risk of acid leakage is always present.
Another drawback is lifespan. Chemical based batteries, regardless of quality, only have so many loading and unloading cycles available before breaking down. There are programs available which teach the proper recharging techniques and how to bring dead batteries back to life.
Once you recover from the sticker shock of the original expense of buying enough batteries for your needs, it will be a reoccurring expense as batteries expire their useful life span. This may not be the most difficult challenge, when the SHTF battery replacement will become an issue of supply and demand. You may not be able to stop by your Battery Plus store and pick up a replacement.
Check these other blogs for more in-depth explanation of batteries and what to look for before buying.
Hybrid living off the grid Heating Systems
Unless you live in San Diego, Hawaii or other temperate climate regions you will have to provide heat for your home, whether it be occasionally or a 3 to 6 month time span. The logical answer would seem to be electric baseboard heat. They are much more energy efficient and safe compared to models made 10 years ago, and we have seen how to create methods of creating electricity.
Unfortunately this is not a viable option under normal circumstances. To convert electrical power to a heat producing element requires a tremendous amount of energy making the cost vs benefit ratio totally unbalanced. In other words it takes a large amount of electric to produce a small amount of heat.
In order to store that much energy you would be required to maintain a massive battery bank and unless you have a micro-hydro turbine as your energy source, you probably couldn’t make and store enough power produced strictly from solar or wind sources. There’s no need to argue schematics of can or can’t it be done. Yes, it can be done, but is the cost worth it? I seriously doubt it.
Heating with Wood
If access to abundant firewood is available on your property, that would be my first method of heating. Technically it’s a renewable energy source and in some cases thinning older larger trees out will enhance the growth and health of younger trees.
As with everything involving survival, there are trade-offs. Cutting, splitting and stacking firewood is no easy chore and its a never ending job, because green wood does not burn efficiently you’ll have to cut next year’s wood this year in order for it to season. That cutting a year ahead of time results in a never ending assembly line type schedule of constantly needing to cut and split firewood.
There are options. You could buy firewood already cut and split, at least maybe for the first year to allow you a head start on cutting for next year. Do Not buy those bundles you see in front of convenience stores for $3 for 4 sticks of wood. You’ll end up paying $700 – $800 dollars for a cord of wood instead of $100 to $150 a cord from a landscape place or a logger.
Another advantage to wood is if gasoline and oil were to be scarce or non-existent for the chainsaw, you simply bring out your sharpened ax. Won’t that be a lot of hard work? Damn straight, but you won’t freeze to death, cutting it or burning it.
Next question is what to burn the wood in? I’ll tell you what Not to burn it in… a fireplace. 90% of the heat created by burning wood in an open fireplace goes straight up the chimney and out of the house. It’s probably the worse heat producing method of burning wood outside of an open campfire outside.
A wood burning stove is the best heating method available for using wood for your heat source. There is a vast array of energy efficient heat producing wood stoves available. The advanced technology in mass building of wood burning stoves is unbelievable, as it maximizes the burning process, using less wood for more heat. Short on space inside your cabin, simply install the wood burning stove outside and pipe the heat into the house.
Geothermal Heating System
Geothermal heating systems have always been a very reliable and efficient means of providing heat for houses. However, it was expensive and not particularly a DIY operation as it required machinery and plumbing skills. However, in recent years advancement in technology has brought geothermal heating into the main stream and out of the fringes. It requires @ 1/3 the energy it requires to operate baseboard electric heaters.
Basically the system moves water through a piping system that is buried beneath the ground. The constant temperature of the earth heats the water as it passes through it thus creating warmth. The electrical requirements are only used to pump the water through the piping and moving air through the use of small fans.
The actual functions of the system are rather technical and will covered in additional posts, but for now its important to know this is a very good option to use for heating your home.
Compost Water Heater
Another option, which if set up correctly and under the right circumstances, can perform quite well as a home heating source. Living off grid requires you review all options and this is one of the unique ones.
The operating theory behind this system is to use the heat created by fermenting compost to heat piping that contains water and send it through the home, essentially the same operating procedure as geothermal heating.
If you have ever composted or been there when someone turns over the compost, you can feel and see the heat created. This only real downside of this method is you must tend the compost and continually add new organic materials. This can include wood chips, which should be plentiful because you’re chopping firewood, grass clippings, leaves, and if you are raising livestock, manure.
Living Off Grid Water Systems
Returning to the trying out the living off grid life style, water in terms of surviving, is much more important than electrical power for lighting or heating. We all need to conserve water, but you are going off grid, therefore its crucial for you to begin altering your attitude.
Are you the type who sings in the shower? Stop that and concentrate on getting clean and the water turned off. Shower every day? Do you really need to? I’m not advocating dismissing personal hygiene, I’m asking if sitting all day watching TV demands a shower to clean yourself up. Wash dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher.
While making your attitude adjustment towards water, water should be of the utmost importance when looking to purchase property for your living off grid house. If your proposed property does not have water … think long and hard about buying it. If you don’t have access to a river, lake, pond, spring or stream that would leave you looking for a source of water should the SHTF. A very bad situation to place yourself in.
Water System One: The first method of obtaining water is to go get it at the source and carry it back to your shelter. This is normal in most 3rd world countries where infrastructure prohibits pumping water long distances, but I assure you … you’re not going to like doing it. It’s time consuming hard labor. This method of obtaining water should be reserved for emergency situation only.
I have read other articles that go into great detail of setting up a gravity based water collection system that are great. The only issue is … to find the perfect circumstances to employ this method is nearly impossible. In short … you must find a water source, like an underground spring which pours a stream of water out of a rock ledge, that must be located above the shelter’s elevation in order to use gravity to feed head pressure … blah, blah, blah. To waste time explaining how to set this system up is like telling you about how I’m going to spend my 100 million dollar lottery winnings.
Drilling a Well: In reality the only method of obtaining a reliable source of water in close proximity to the house is to have a well drilled. This of course is expensive, $15,000 to $30,000 depending on location.
How to: It takes professional equipment and know how to drill a well. A large-scale truck mounted drill is used to drill through the earth until the drill hits the underground water table. This depth varies from site to site. For instance the water table in Maine may be 50 feet, but in Arizona its 250 feet.
The deeper the water table the more expensive to drill, plus the more casement required. The casement, steel or PVC prevents the well walls from caving in after the drill is removed from the hole. A water pump, with attached electrical controls, is lowered into the bottom of the well, which will pump water to the surface.
You’re not close to being done.
The pump must be electrically controlled, telling it when to turn on and off, the water must be pumped to a pressurized storage tank, which pushes the water to the house, a filtration system will be installed between the storage tank and the house.
Well water, although completely safe to drink, will contain hard materials like calcium and lime, which will eventually clog the plumbing pipes and will leave your dishes and sinks looking dirty. That’s the reason for the filtration system.
It doesn’t make the cost of drilling a well any easier to digest, but as you can see, there is a lot involved.
Cistern: Installing an underground cistern is another option for collecting and providing water. If the cistern can be located above the house elevation, a gravity feed supply can be utilized, if not you’ll require a pump.
Rainwater Collection: If you live in an area that has historically high rainfall through out the year, you can use water collection methods to capture the rainwater for usage. I would only use this method as a supplement source because we know how fickle the weather can be. A sudden dry period could leave you hurting.
Living off grid Waste Disposal
Living off grid doesn’t end waste disposal issues, it makes them more of a problem. You can divide waste management into 3 basic categories: (1) Human waste (2) Gray water waste and (3) Trash waste
Human Waste is priority for waste management and installing a septic tank is the best method for containing the waste. The traditional concrete constructed septic tank although being the best method, still has a few drawbacks. First, they are expensive. The concrete units themselves are competitively priced, but heavy machinery must be used to dig the hole in which to set the tank, and trenches must be dug for sewer pipes and a leech field.
Evaluating the situation. There are other options than a full blown septic tank system. One or two people don’t require a full blown septic system. Returning to our ancestors we can always revert to the old fashion outhouse. Simply dig a hole, construct a simple building over it and there you go … an outhouse.
If venturing out into the darkness or facing the elements is not your style, try a composting toilet. It uses little to no water and turns human waste into compost, which can be used for fertilizer or fuel.
You can also construct a miniature DIY septic tank system consisting of two plastic or metal 50 gallon barrels in sequence, to handle human waste.
Gray Water is simply any water that does not contain solid human waste. In other words water originating in the shower, sink, washing machine, etc. This water can be be piped together and drained outside and away from the house. Since it;s actually good quality water, although not particularly drinkable, it can used to irrigate gardens, trees, or flower beds.
Living off grid is not easy, especially in the original stages. It requires extensive research and planning, but can obviously be accomplished with hard work.
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