Tips for Living Off the Grid

A guest post by Karen

[This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win - First Prize a 10 Person Deluxe Family Survival Kit,  Second Prize an Herb Seed Bank or Third Prize a copy of Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat.  For complete rules and list of prizes see this post.]

In a busy world filled with modern conveniences and ever-evolving technology, an off-the-grid lifestyle may seem too challenging to adapt to. The truth is, it is entirely possible to live off the grid, and embracing a green lifestyle such as this can be rewarding in so many ways.

Living off the grid allows you to get away from the hustle and bustle of our hectic world, and to appreciate and enjoy the simpler things in life that come from the Earth itself. By getting back to the basics, you will save money over time, and you’ll reduce the number of carbon footprints you leave on the planet for future generations to come. If you’re thinking that an off-the-grid lifestyle might be for you, read on–here are some tips to keep in mind.

Plan Ahead

If you want your lifestyle transition to be successful, you need to take some time to research everything involved with off-the-grid living so that you can formulate a plan that will help you ease into it. For most people it’s impossible to make the change instantly–you may need to invest in some land, materials, equipment, and more to help you get started. You will also need to tie-up any loose ends that will give you the liberty to make a clean switch. Determine how extreme you want to go and start thinking about where you want to live, what your energy needs will be, what kind of power you might want to use, what things you should get rid of, and what you need to acquire in order to make the whole thing a go.

Eliminate Debt

It’s much easier to live off the grid if you get rid of your debt first. In order to discontinue utilities you’ll need to make sure all of your bills have been paid. Paying off loans and credit cards will make you more independent and going forward you can pay cash for necessities. All in all, eliminating debt eliminates ties to the outside world–if you don’t owe anyone anything, you will have less chances of being bothered.

Find Land and Establish Your Homestead

A very important decision you will need to make if you decide to live off the grid is where you will actually live. If your current residence isn’t ideal, you might need to invest in some land, and maybe even a home as well. Think carefully about where you’d like to live, taking into consideration things like weather, surrounding resources, and the likelihood of neighbors, just to name a few. If you will be working outside of the home, you should choose a location that will allow you to live off the beaten path but still maintain a reasonable commute time to work.

Take Up Some Productive Hobbies

Living off the grid is a choice to live a more self-sufficient lifestyle, and adapting some new hobbies is a great way to provide for yourself and your family while learning something new and having fun in the process. By taking up gardening you can learn how to grow your own fruits and vegetables, and sewing, knitting, or crocheting will allow you to make your own clothing, blankets, toys, and gifts. You can also learn how to make your own bath and beauty products, cleaning products, and more. New hobbies like these are both enjoyable and rewarding.

Get Some Helpful Advice

One of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of living off the grid is to ask those who have pioneered the way for you. If you know anyone who maintains this type of lifestyle, ask questions and get some suggestions. Someone who is already living this way has undoubtedly run into road-blocks at some time or other and has found a way to get around them. Discussing off-the-grid living with someone who’s been there and done that will help you weigh out the pros and cons, establish a solid plan, and transition as painlessly as possible into this unique yet age-old way of living.

Living off the grid is not for everyone. Most of us are very dependent on technology and all of the conveniences it has afforded us. If you think this type of lifestyle is right for you, make the transition gradually and thoughtfully. With some careful planning and a can-do attitude, you can certainly pull it off.

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Comments

  1. Karen,
    Even if you do not want to disconnect from the grid, these are all excellent lifestyle suggestions, that IMHO benefit anyone who heeds them.

  2. Oh boy, where to start? LOL.

    If you’re considering solar power, guess I’d first look at your monthly electric bill to see where you’re at currently. Get an average of you’re monthly kilowatt hours used per day over the course of a few months (preferably a year). Then use the following formula to get an idea of
    how much you can generate via solar:

    total wattage of panels (planned) X 4 X .8 = watt hours produced in an average day

    Divide by 1000 to get the kilowatt hours. Might try living at/under this value in your current home for a month to get an idea where you’re at and the lifestyle changes necessary. If you’re on city water, don’t forget to include an estimate of the electric to pump your own water offgrid.

    So if you’re planning on 1,000 watts of solar panels, figure on
    about 3,200 watt/hours (3.2kwh) average per day. You can make
    up the difference with a generator obviously, just add in gas/propane,
    oil, and maintenance/repair costs. We run ours about twice a week, 4 hours each, and have a spare just in case.

    If you’ll be building new, I’d strongly suggest looking into passive solar designs for your home if you plan on living in a colder climate. We found we save lots more money with our ICF/passive solar design than with the active solar component (which just isn’t cost efficient at todays solar watt/$ price versus the current cost of grid electric). We heat 2200 sq. ft. with less than 5 cords of hardwood a year in Minnesota.

    Also, while our ‘carbon footprint’ had absolutely nothing to do with our decision to move offgrid, we have found it’s an effective cover story for OPSEC purposes. Al Gore’s our hero…

    • axelsteve says:

      You will need a permit for the well if you have it done. In some places you can`t have a well.In sonoma county California a well is illegal within city limits,however the mexican phony i.d. is legal . Go figgure.

      • Also, in the MN county I live in, if you’re going to drill a well, you’ll also have to get your septic checked- which usually means upgrading. And neither is cheap at half the cost. Easiest route is to dig a hole until you hit surface water, then put in a sandpoint.
        The septic can be an outhouse- if you can handle the smell or lime it frequently.

    • Wellrounded says:

      We use the “carbon footprint” cover story all the time, works so well. People either find the subject boring or give you a pat on the back, LOL.

  3. Been working on my plans for an offgrid underground house. Will be about 13-1500 square feet , 2 bed 2 bath and one big great room for kitchen,living and etc with 2 car garage and large storage maint room at back of garage. Will be ins foam block, concrete with all the mechanicals along the back wall for ease of install and cost. With virtually noheating and cooling cost will not need any forced air system jsut air circulator and dehumidifier, will have a small solar system and backup 8-10 kw gen in mech room hooked to 1000 gal propane. Hopefully can get a solar system for under 10,ooo that will run refrig, tv and other electronics, will be gas for cooking and water heat. Depending on price of concrete think I can build for $50-75,000 without the price of solar and batteries, will do majority of the work myself exept for plumbing and electric. Will also try to put in wind system at a later date. Just need to find a property of 10-50 acres with well already there and potential other sorces of water. Figure with prop purchase etc can get the whole thing done for under $150,ooo and try to get closer to $100,000, wooded land around here is going for $800-1500/acre depending on location and what improvments are there. Just need to sell current porperty and will be on the way. Would love to put roll down security gates on the windows and doors but will probably just settle for the heavy burglar screens and the shatterproof film on the the doors. Will only have a couple windows am going to use french doors for where big windows will be so can open up the front on good days for light and air.

    • axelsteve says:

      George. What state are you in for the land prices?Don`t be specific what region for op sec reasons. I can almost afford land in that state.

      • Central midwest, level and irrigated farm land is 5000 an acre and good pasture is 2-3ooo depending. So land up in the hills is less. 100-200 miles from a major city, the big city around here is 45 miles away and 35-40,000 people. I want to sell my bigger home on the golf course and downsize and get somewhere away from even the population around here. Due to ageing population around here small farms are coming up for sale all the time. Have a small garden here but want to start bigger more variety of plantings and fruit trees also.

    • george,
      I have friends who have lived underground for more than 30 years, and although the energy costs are low, you should still plan on some amount of supplemental heat in the non-summer months. In winter the ground heat will keep things warm compared to the outside, but 55F is still pretty chilly.

      • I have, will probably do some type of fireplace or wood stove and maybe some electric baseboard if I can fit it in with the solar plans. Also plan to be heavily solar passive with orientation of the house, will not have any carpet, going to stain the concrete with dark stain and use area rugs. Am looking into some radiant floor systems also but will have to work with cost. Just have my preliminary plans done and am going to talk with architects soon. Also have a couple of friends with underground houses and can work out details with them..

        • NotHank's says:

          Sounds like a good plan. Electric heat and solar typically isn’t a good mix tho. My original plan was to add a DC resistor/heating element to provide some heat, but it got removed to save money. Figured I’d just add it later, but found I never have spare sunpower in the winter anyway – it all goes to the batts. Make sure your concrete walls/floor are joined such that the insulation encloses it all around – with no corners/edges exposed to the earth. If your floor makes up the majority of the mass for the passive solar, don’t let it touch the earth.

          Done right, passive solar is incredible. Combining the ICF insulation/airtightness and the passive solar cuts the heating requirement to maybe 25% of a stick/brick house of the same size. One of my buddies is a comm. HVAC engineer, and he can’t believe how well it works. You planning on going the whole 15-20% of the house sq. ft. in south-facing glazing for full-blown passive? Our window costs were almost 20k alone.

          • The baseboard heat will be for when the house is on the grid, plan to be grid tied but will be able to switch when ever I want. Will have a 60 foot front and will have 4 sets of french doors, they will be more flexible than windows and will be able to open them up in summer. One set will be for an eventual green house to be built for the front…The main thing is I want to be able to go off grid if I have to whenever I want and if SHTF does happen.

            • About 11%-14% south glazing? That ought to cut your heating bill significantly. Guess I’d only add to try to get high SHGC / non low-E glass if you want max heat transfer. I haven’t researched the price/availability of phase-change building materials recently, but would have loved to incorporate some when I built. Just wasn’t affordable, might be better now. That’s the future for passive solar imo. Check out BASF SmartBoard/Micronal if you’re interested. Good luck.

          • (tongue planted firmly in cheek)
            When does MN have sun in the winter?

          • I looked into this concept a while back but have put it aside because my finaces won’t allow me to go forward with it now. At the time I found that I could cut back on glazing (window) cost by using storefront glass instead of archetectural windows like are normally used in residential construction. That may or may not be the case but it’s worth looking into. Find a local glass company that does storefront glass work for shopping centers etc, and talk to them about it. They can provide
            insulated glass and lots of options. At the time I found it to be cheaper but that may not be the case now.

        • Keep in mind that unless you super insulate the floor from the earth, radiant floor systems will try to heat the ground pretty much to no avail. Baseboard electric can have the same problems. My friends’ home is 2200 Sq Ft and they heated it on less than two cords of wood per year. As they got older they replaced the wood with a propane space heater and it is still very economical. They have both heat and light gain from south facing windows and large patio doors. Some photos and a brief description can be seen here: http://www.subsurfacebuildings.com/Twenty-FiveYearsUnderOhio.html

          • The sad thing about earth sheltered, passive solar, log cabins, hay bale construction, rammed earth and many other green and energy efficient means of construction is that you can’t get them financed. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac regs (and therefore the rest of the home loan industry) will not underwrite loans for anthing other than conventional brick and mortar above ground structures.

            You would think with the mindset of the current idiots in DC they would be jumping at the chance to loan money to folks that want to get off the grid, go green or used recycled products such as shipping containers in construction but it’s not happening.

            That means if you want to build your dream alternative home you have to do it with cash or borrow the money some other way and then you can’t sell it to anyone who can’t pay cash for it.

            • charlie,
              All you have to do is help raise a few hundred thousand for TDLs re-election and he’ll get a loan guarantee all set up for you.

              Sadly, I have to agree with you. My friends had sold a house and were able to self finance, but did run into some issues when they attempted to register the house with the county after completion. There was no problem with an occupancy permit, they tax folks just didn’t have any idea how to evaluate the structure, since it was the only one in the county and only the second one in the state.

            • As much as I detest DL it goes a little deeper than that and a solution might be in sight. The problem lies in the rules and regs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who basically write the rules for almost all 30 year and most 15 or more year home loans. The solution is that those to outfits are corrupt and with any luck, after the 2012 election they will be shut down or drastically changed. The solution is going to be painful for some because we will then likely have to do what most of the western world does now and finance houses for about 10 years or less and the local banks will again hold the loans instead of packaging them for resale to investors.

    • Tigerlily says:

      George, have you looked into using earthbags instead of concrete? Depending on your soil content, you may have to purchase very little to add to them and once all is said and done they are about the equivalent of concrete. The estimates from most websites I’ve looked at say that building with them runs you about $10 per square foot for the house itself, not including any heating and cooling or electrical systems. That is our plan once we get our trailer moved onto some property. I already have the plans for the house. It will be built underground except for the south side will have a greenhouse that runs along the length of it for passive solar gain. We are also doing the work ourselves.

      • How are they for waterproofing?? I hope to be on a hill but we still get 50-75 inches of rain here a year and most of the ground drains okay. With costs right now on concrete and the forms, labor, waterproofing and etc I think i can get the walls done for 12-15,ooo. Am going to do premade trusses on the roof and super insulate it. Want metal roof but may have to do shinlges first and save up for metal unless I can get a deal..

        • Tigerlily says:

          I’m honestly not completely sure on the waterproofing, but from my understanding they are comparable to concrete. This area gets very little rain so I don’t have to plan too much for that myself. Take a look at this link if you want to do some research.
          http://earthbagplans.wordpress.com/details/
          This guy seems to be an expert from what I can tell, plus I love going through his house plans and looking at them. A couple of the more recent ones were for castles with 10 feet high walls and moats around them. One can always dream…

  4. The Prepper says:

    Which sites do folks use to find land? MD — how did you find your new piece of property?

    • The Prepper,

      http://www.landwatch.com/Tennessee_land_for_sale You can search any state.

      • Great site M.D., I was on there last week looking at 500+ acres with a silver mine on it. Hmmmmmmm, maybe an underground house??! On my own mountain to boot!

      • Wow. I just lost an hour in the land watch site. So much possibility.

        • Annie Nonymous says:

          What a gold mine!! Thanks for the pointer – I also lost an hour this morning looking around, and didn’t know there was so much available in my own back yard (this is either a good thing or a bad thing!) but it sure makes me think… if we ever had to bug from here, what possibilities of other places to bug to…

    • SrvivlSally says:

      The Prepper,
      I found a five-acre, unrestricted tract that I will not have to pay yearly taxes on once I am a resident and apply for the Homestead Exemption at http://www.ar-realestate.net and at http://www.ar-realestate.net/By_County/by_county.htm
      You may want to look into urban areas with ‘unrestricted’ included in their descriptions, because when you live on unrestricted land, you can put any type of home in that you want, once you have a septic installed. That means that you can put a shed kit together or tape cardboard boxes together and the county is not going to say anything.

  5. I’m trying to wean myself off the grid partway. I figure if I can save on electricity and maybe heat, I can put more money towards preps or towards land. I’ll be done paying for my car in a few years; providing this 2012 thing is a dud (probably) or the S doesn’t HTF by then (well maybe and maybe not), I can either then put the money on my mortgage or I can save it for land, and sell the house when I finally get the retreat set up. The house doesn’t cost me much after I collect the rent, but it’s a bit of a liability to have tenants, not only from an insurance standpoint but also from lead paint laws, the risk of people not paying rent, possibly having to deal with tenants in a SHTF situation (i.e. prepping for them and possibly against them), etc. On the other hand, the presence of tenants/roommate may help with security detail if things turn riotous. Strength in numbers, people taking watch in shifts, etc. I guess it depends on how you look at it.

    I already save a lot of money making food from scratch or preserving stuff from my garden rather than buying processed food. There are also health savings down the road, because I’m eating less GMO crap or pesticides, and generally home grown produce has more nutrients than factory grown, if you take care of your soil. The exercise from the garden also helps keep me fit.

    Another thing I do, is I do my laundry in a bucket. This reduces by a lot the amount of water I go through; also it spares my water heater a bunch of work.

    The rub is the more control you get over the process, or the more you do things by hand, the more work you have to do. This stuff cuts into my day quite a bit on top of my blogging and working. I tend to cook in large batches, and use my crock pot a lot. That helps, but I still do a lot of puttering around the house. Landlord type repairs also take time, but that’s more related to being a landlord and getting passive (ha!) income that way.

    One more thing: I can’t go off grid totally, because of the tenants and roommate. I am sure they would like to be on the grid rather than off. But if TSHTF, I’d have some electricity and I can knock up a rocket stove for heat – got the parts. (this is a project for this winter, to see if I can make it work). I could even divide my two solar panel kits and let the tenants use one, if it came down to it. For the tenants, I would rather get propane than a rocket stove for a SHTF backup. I think of it as a bit more foolproof than a homemade wood stove, especially with tenants in mind. I’d just have the tank outside on the porch in a little doghouse or mini shed type thing, and if the heat went out I could bring them the heater part and hook it up for them. (that way they don’t use up the propane on me unless it’s an emergency)

    Of course if propane became totally unavailable, then we’d be back to rocket stoves, or something. In the absence of metal furnace vent parts and with the gas cut off, I’m not sure what we’d do. Maybe cannibalize the existing parts? Build a chimney out of rocks and mud? Make a small rocket stove or 2 and use bean cans taped together for a chimney? Put the one rocket stove in the basement and run the furnace fans off the solar to blow the hot air up to us? (and keep having to run down to the basement to stoke the stove?)

    Or, give them the rocket stove and open the door between the apartments so that the heat goes up? Put a baby gate to keep their dogs off my cat (or vice versa)? Ah, the choices.

  6. I’ve developed a keen interest in solar as of late. I would love to be electrically off grudge but until I get into something in the vicinity of 650 sq feet, I won’t even attempt it. I have however cut my electricity consumption by half just by doing a few very simple things that didnot lessen our comfort. In the mean time,I plan to devote more of my free time and extra cash to experiementing with solar energy.

    • bc,
      “cut my electricity consumption by half just by doing a few very simple things”. You must know by now that you can’t make statements like these without at least a brief list, so cough it up man!!! LOL.

      • I replaced every bulb in my house with cfl,s I found that my electric water heater(which was sized to accommodate the needs of 5 people) used the second highest amount electricity I’m my house. By leaving it off 23 hours of the day and coordinating my and my wifes showers,we had hot water for showers and water that was more than adequate temperature wise,for the rest of our daily needs. That was an immediate money saver there. Finally,my wife and I realized that when we where in the house that we spent 80% of our time either in the bedroom or in the sunroom. I bought two small window units and cooled the bedroom at night and the sunroom during the day. Finally,my wife started hanging clothes to dry on a clothesline as often as was convenient. My house is all electric so last kick in the head of the electricity people will be installing the woodstove that I bought last year at a bargain. I’ve already got two cords of wood stored and plan to get more but there never seems to be enough time.

        • I forgot to add. The water will be replaced with a much smaller one whenever the old one goes.

        • bc,
          Thanks for the info, but no help here. Heat and domestic hot water are propane and we have no central air, just a couple of window units in the rooms we use the most. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

  7. That should have read off grid. My iPhone corrected me again.

  8. ..another good point that I did in preparation of going offgrid..elimination of electronics. It is easier to scale an offgrid system if you have less electronics to power. I had 2-3 PC’s running dedicated 24/7 before I went offgrid..it was easier ( and cheaper ) to go offgird by not running these. My suggestion after 3 years of being offgrid is to start SMALL and build from there..solar PV lends itself well to adding components as you go ( not batteries )..so you can be continually scaling for a larger system.

    Another suggestion to prep for going offgrid..be prepared for sacrifice!!..things ARE different..but now I don’t ever think I could go back tot he grid..it is addictive!