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January 20, 2015

So You Want to Live Off-the-Grid?

Barbarian Home, Krieg It Yourself

solar panels off grid

As part of my 2015 blog redesign / revamp, I’m deleting a few old columns from the site and adding a few more. (I’ll also be posting more often, too, which I know you guys are super keen on!) One of the new columns is called Barbarian Home, and it is about living closer to the land, getting in touch with your primal side, and making the space you live in a little more badass. Sometimes it may include DIY and how-to posts from things we’ve done here on our land, other times it might be general musings on the nature of humankind, or just pretty pictures of treehouses.

Today, I’m talking about living off-the-grid. When the Cantankerous Drummer Husband and I were first talking about building a house, one of the subjects we both brought-up was generating our own power. We’re both fiercely independent people in our own ways, and the idea of not being beholden to a utility company has a huge appeal. 5+ years on, we’ve just finished our first year living in our off-grid home, and we are loving the lifestyle, and absolutely do not regret the decision at all.

If you’re longing to live off-grid, then here’s a little primer.

Why Off-Grid Power?

I probably don’t have to wax lyrical about the benefits of renewable ways of harnessing energy, since it’s pretty much an established fact that the issue is an important part of the future of humanity, not to mention the reduction of energy costs. In New Zealand, adding solar panels to your roof is guaranteed to increase your home’s valuation, and all over the world schemes are being set up to incentivise the ordinary household to “go green” with solar.

But disconnecting from the grid completely is still seen as a bit “sandely and raisiney”. The off-grinders are outliers, weirdos, and people who subsist purely on sunlight and mung beans. That view is slowly being changed as more and more people are choosing to live outside of the national grid. Here are some reasons you might want to go off grid:

It’s political: You don’t want to be part of a system that’s operated or subsidised by a government you don’t agree with.

It’s ecological: The truth is that huge, nationwide power grids are woefully inefficient, so inefficient they just don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Yet these grids are controlled by governments and huge corporation that pour millions of dollars into trying to make them run more effectively, rather than looking for an alternative solution. The best way to generate energy is through small, localised grids, but now that we HAVE the super grids, we can’t exactly get rid of them easily. Many off-grinders are desperate to become apart from a system they see as technologically and environmentally ridiculous.

It’s philosophical: You want to be independent and live off the land.

It’s preparing for disaster: When the zombie apocalypse comes, you’ll still be able to cook, heat and defend your castle, while most other people are dying horribly.

It’s cheaper: This isn’t commonly the case, but in some circumstances an off-grid setup, even an expensive one, will cost you less than hooking in to mains power. This is mainly true for remote homesteads and houses on islands where services cost a lot to reach the property. Even spending $100k on a solar system can be a bargain when simply digging the trench for the power cable to your home will cost you $120k.

Our reasoning was a combination of all of the above reasons. We heard about the idea when we first started going out and it’s appealed to both of us ever since. There’s a great book by British journalist Nick Rosen called Off the Grid: Inside the movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in America. In Off the Grid, the author travels throughout the US visiting different people and communities that lived off-the-grid. It’s not a technical guide to off-grid living, it’s a look at the humans behind the “movement” and their different reasons and motivations.

What I loved about this book was that it kind of dispels the romantic aspects associated with off-grid living – the Walrenesque picture of “the man alone”, that it’s some kind of modern pastoral ideal. The portraits painted of the people the author visited weren’t always flattering or particularly envious, but it really hammered home the point that all people, no matter their race, class or social standing, can live independently and thrive. Although I think reading that book might turn many off the idea of living off-grid, it was actually what cemented in my mind that this was something I wanted to do for myself.

Advantages to Off-Grid Living

 

solar panels off grid

Water droplets on our panels.

1. No power bill: We had one whopping great big bill to install the panels and the batteries, but now they’re here, we don’t have any more bills. Ever.

2. Responsible power usage: When you’re thinking about how to generate what you need from the land around you, you need to think very carefully about how to use every resource responsibly. You prioritise what’s important in your life and match that with your desire to lower your carbon footprint and be a more responsible consumer. You think carefully about how to build your home to reduce the need for excessive energy usage. There are certain things we can’t do or have because of living off-grid, but none of those things are a loss to me because I find a lot of joy in being able to live in this simpler way.

3. No power cuts: Where we live, the power cuts out quite regularly – last year it happened around 8-10 times – once for three full days. Because we are quite rural, the power companies will deal with our problems last, meaning that everyone out here is fending for themselves. Neighbours have lost expensive appliances and equipment to the surges created by the cuts.

We aren’t affected by these problems. It’s kind of hard not to feel smug when we’re sitting inside watching a DVD with all our lights on, looking out on a darkened, stormy valley.

4. Independence: There’s nothing like knowing that you are in charge of your own power. You are in control. You are your own meter reader and utility company. You can’t get hit by price hikes, and you don’t have to feel as if you’re contributing to the profits of companies whose policies you don’t agree with.

Also, living off-grid opens you up to be able to live in more remote locales without having to lose some of the modern conveniences, like being able to pull a cold beer out of the refrigerator or watch the latest episode of Vikings on your laptop.

5. You become more aware: Every decision you make about your home and lifestyle comes with a new kind of awareness. You can’t just go out and buy brand-new gadgets, and sometimes you have to think of lo-tech workarounds for problems. I like the way this additional level of awareness causes us to continually evaluate our lifestyle and move further away from the modern, hyper-consumor ideal.

6. People will think you’re awesome: You will meet a lot of people who are fascinated by the concept of off-grid living. Prepare to spend a lot of evenings talking about your system with other enthusiasts, and meeting a lot of interesting characters.

Disadvantages to Off-Grid Living

And while I often make out that it’s all rainbows and sunshine, there are some disadvantages to this lifestyle that you need to be aware of:

1. There’s a high upfront-cost: Sure, solar panels have come down significantly in price, but the panels themselves and 1/3-1/2 the cost of your system. The batteries and inverter will set you back a pretty penny.

2. People won’t get it: You’ve seen the light, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the world has. Be prepared for family and friends to be derisive or even hostile towards your decision.

3. Living off-grid doesn’t improve house value: This will depend on the setup and location of the home, but generally, because home buyers don’t want to “bother” with the hassle of living off-grid, having an off-grid home can actually decrease the value of your property.

4. You’ll need to perform monitoring and maintenance: Again, this will depend on your system – lead-acid battery systems will require maintenance to extend the life of the batteries. We opted for a more expensive lithium ion battery system (over the standard deep cycle) that requires very little maintenance. We still have to monitor the system, though – as 3 days of no sunlight will see us draining our batteries down to unsafe levels. You have to be aware of your usage so you know when you need to turn on the generator. Since we don’t have a monitoring unit hooked up in our house yet, this does mean hiking down to the battery shed with a torch in the middle of a storm.

5. You have to conserve power: It’s much more cost-effective to reduce energy consumption than to add to your system, so living off-grid means you need to be careful about conserving energy. If your dream lifestyle includes air conditioning, 20 hours of gaming on a power-hungry PC, electric heating, a super-fancy electronic oven, or standing in front of the fridge with the door open for half an hour, than this is not the lifestyle for you.

6. You may not be eligible for subsidies, rebates and other incentives. Often, these will apply only to grid-tied systems – but check all the laws in your state/country before going ahead – if there’s free money to be had for getting off-grid, you should get on that! You also won’t be able to sell power back to the grid.

Figure Out What You Need to be Happy

installing solar off grid panels

Putting up the wooden frame.

It is much, much cheaper to get rid of a few appliances than it is to buy and maintain a larger battery bank. So before you go off-grid, it’s important to consider what appliances you’re going to keep, and what you may want to get rid of or alter your use of. In an off-grid system, you will generally:

  • Cook with gas or wood instead of electricity.
  • Heat water with solar heating, or with gas.
  • Go without a dryer, dishwasher, electric heater or air conditioning system.
  • Live with minimal refrigeration (although freezers are OK).
  • Heat with wood or gas instead of electricity.
  • Get rid of those electric blankets.
  • Avoid excessive hours of TV watching.
  • Switch from using a PC to a laptop, which can be charged.

Some people may see some of these things as disadvantages, and that’s OK. That might mean off-grid living isn’t for you. But remember, just because you have to live without an appliance, doesn’t mean you miss out. Cooking and heating water with gas is no different. Houses designed with passive principles will be comfortable to live in during all types of weather. We have one refrigerator and a deep freezer that suffices for our needs. Sitting in front of a fire is cozy and inviting, a hot water bottle is a real treat, and too much TV rots your brain, anyway.

Also, think about your off-grid system as part of the wider picture of your home. It seems little point to me to go off-grid with power while also being tied to other civil grids. We have a worm farm for recycling our toilet waste, use composting to break down much of our rubbish, and we harvest rainwater. The only “grid” we’re connected to is the internet via cable.

Perform An Energy Audit

Any company designing an off-grid system for you will ask for an energy audit. This will determine the size and configuration of your system. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can start approaching companies for a quote.

Go through every room in your house, locate the appliances, and find the number of watts of KW of each. Usually you will find this number on the labels on the back or base of an appliance, or sometimes, like with our fridge, there’s a label on the front with the KW usage. Don’t forget to also note of your smaller appliances – your iron, your home-brew warming pad, your electric cake mixer.

Next to each appliance on your list, write the number of hours each day / week or month you would use the device. So maybe TV is three hours a day, fridge is 24/7, and the cake mixer is only 3 minutes a week. Only do this for appliances you intend to use in your off-grid home (for example, don’t include your electric oven if you intend to cook with gas).

When you’ve created the audit for every appliance in your home you intend to use, you can give this to any solar supplier and they can design a system to meet your needs. The energy audit can also help you identify areas of your power usage where you can cut back or change habits. For example, switching to a laptop for gaming can mean a significant decrease in your power usage.

Getting Off-Grid in Your Area

For many people, disconnecting from the gird once you’re on it is a difficult task. Plus, the infrastructure of living on grid has already been set up – so your house might not be a passive solar home that can live without cooline in summer and heating in winter.

For these reasons, most people who go off-grid do so when they build a new home. This is what we did, and it’s much easier this way. Before you begin planning your home, read up on the rules and regulations for your area and make sure you’re able to live off-grid, and start thinking about how you want to do it.

An off-grid system has three main components – the solar panels, hydro or wind turbine that generates the power, the inverter, and the batteries that store the power. At each part of the process you need to figure out which of the thousands of options is right for you. We chose solar because our site is very sunny and exposed, solar panels have no moving parts (our neighbour has a wind turbine that’s been broken for months and he can’t get it down to inspect it), and the panels have come down in price so much that it was the cheaper option. On your site, wind or hydro might be better suited.

Remember you can also add to an off-grid system if you need more power. If we add to ours in a few years, we’d probably add a wind turbine, but because wind generation is more unreliable (the sun comes out every day, but the wind doesn’t blow every day!) I’m glad we chose solar for our main generation.

Find An Expert You Can Trust

solar panels1

Installing our solar panels with our neighbour Carlos.

One of the biggest shocks for us when we started seriously hunting around for a solar package was just how much opinions of experts differed. Even though we’d done our audit and sent the same information to each company, we received a variety of quotes – from $25,000 right up to $150,000, from 8 panels right up to 32 panels. Each company believed their system was the best and if you told them you’d talked to such-and-such, they could spout off a hundred reasons why such-and-such was wrong, and your system was going to fall apart or catch on fire and you were going to die a horrible fiery death and did you really want that?

We found that solar companies fell into two categories, smaller outfits that sold systems to lo-fi hippies, and larger companies with slick websites who sold to rich yuppies. We’re kind of in the middle – we’re not rich by any means, but we wanted to have computers and recording equipment and power tools and a big freezer for all our meat. We were often too big for the little companies, and too small for the bigger companies. In the end, our neighbour, Carlos (who turns himself into a human tesla coil for a living) designed our system for us and helped us put it together. He did an amazing job and we got exactly what we wanted for an excellent price.

Understand as Much as You Can Yourselves

If you don’t have a neighbour who is a human tesla coil, you will need to find a place to source all your gear. This means you will need to talk to many companies like the ones I described above. You will hear a lot of bullshit. You will be pushed into buying more than you need. You will be told a ton of conflicting information. It is vital that you have a basic idea of what you want and understand how the system works before you start, otherwise, you aren’t going to be able to sift through all that information to figure out what you really need.

This is a huge, important purchase. You could be spending more on this than you do on a car, and it has to last for 20 years or more. Take the time to really get to grips with what you need and how it works before you set out.

Practice Off-Grid Living

solar panel battery shed

The shed that holds our batteries (it’s now painted green).

When we purchased our land and our off-grid dreams were suddenly looking like a concrete reality, we got serious about preparing for lifestyle changes. For the two years before we moved in to our home, we “practiced” living an off-grid lifestyle, to make sure the habits were ingrained and that we were happy with the lifestyle changes.

The changes we made were simple:

Become a light-ninja. Pounce on every left-on light.

Turn everything off at the wall. Don’t let vampire appliances suck extra energy when you’re not using them.

Stop heating water. Cold-wash all your clothes unless they are really filthy. It takes more energy to heat the water. I also used the eco-setting on the dishwasher, although having a dishwasher on an off-grid system is unlikely, anyway.

Look for non-electrical entertainment. We unplugged our TV aerial. Now, we only use our TV for watching movies. It’s given us so much more free time.

Heat and cool without using energy. Not many NZ houses have air con / heat pumps – it’s not a standard thing here, although it is becoming more common. You can’t have these in an off-grid home. In summer, open a window and use a fan in the room you’re in. Go outside in the breeze, and go for a swim to cool off. Design your house so that it can be passively heated and cooled. In winter, use gas or wood to create warmth, and insulate your home so that the heat stays inside. Get a blanket if you’re cold instead of turning on a heater or lighting a fire. And drink some hot chocolate.

When you live off-grid, most of these changes are things you have to do in order to conserve power. Make them part of your life early so you don’t feel as though you’re making this huge lifestyle change. Figure out if you can live in this way before you start wiring up the solar panels.

An added bonus of practicing off-grid living is that by turning off all the appliances, your power bill goes down significantly, giving you more money in the hand each month to save towards your solar panels!

See what other people have done

One of the most valuable things we did was go and visit a friend of my Dad who lives off-grid in a beautiful cedar home in Hawke’s Bay. Even though his lifestyle is different to ours, talking to him about what worked and didn’t work helped us to figure out some of our own preferences. For example, after seeing his composting toilet, I decided I definitely wanted one, and CDH decided he definitely did NOT want one. If you visit our house, you will probably be very pleased to know who won that discussion.

We frequently invite friends and acquaintances up to have a look at what we’ve done, and will freely offer any advice we can. We didn’t do everything right on our build, but it’s good to think that others might learn from our successes and our failures. This is one of the most important pieces of advice I can give – go and see what other’s have done. You will learn more from 10 minutes talking with an off-grid homeowner than 10 hours talking to system installers.

Just Do It

solar panels view

Bliss.

At at end of the day, you can think and plan and debate the costs in your head until you go mental, but at some point you’ve just got to decide that off-grid is important to you, and that you’re going to do it. At one point during our build we were debating dropping the solar, and I’m so glad we decided to keep it. It gives me a real sense of pride to look out at those panels and know that we’re independently producing what we need to survive.

Off-Grid Resources

Off the Grid: Inside the movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in America. by Nick Rosen. Not a guide on how to live off-grid, but a look at the psychology of why.

Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building and Living Well in Less than 400 Square Feet, by Ryan Mitchell. Not strictly about off-grid living, but more about learning to live simply and be satisfied with less. Plus, OMOGOD tiny house porn.

DIY Solar Projects – How to Put the Sun to Work in Your Home, by Eric Smith. Want to go crazy and make your own solar PV panels? This book shows you how, and much more besides.

Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader, by Philip Ackerman-Leist. This book challenges traditional ideas about homesteading (lifestyle blocks here in NZ), through both the author’s experiences and his conversations with other homesteaders and off-gridders.

Off-Grid.net. A huge resource site created by the author of Off the Grid – there are tons of stories and tutorials on everything from converting freezers to fridges and surviving winter in off-grid camper vans. There are also some video interviews on Nick’s youtube channel.

15 Beautiful Off-Grid Homes We’d Like to Live in, on Flavorwire. I’m hoping in a few years my home might appear on a list like this :)

Lots more great book recommendations in this excellent article from the LA Times.

Do you, or are you thinking about, living off-grid? Share your opinions and advice in the comments.

In other news, my new novel is NOW AVAILABLE AS A PAPERBACK! You can buy The Sunken (Engine Ward) (Volume 1) from Amazon today!

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One Comment on “So You Want to Live Off-the-Grid?

J. David Cox
January 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Stef…you write a bit like me! Same topics, anyway. Book: OUR LIFE OFF the GRID and blog: offthegridhomes.org. We’re in BC., Canada. Good onnya!
Welcome to the madness!

Comments are closed.