Off-grid is just the way we live, so I tend not to think about it at all, let alone how it’s different.
When I am struck by how living off-grid is different, however, is when I’m at someone’s else’s house, and I turn on the tap, and hot water comes out. That startles me. It’s that easy to just wash a dish?! I’ve already forgotten.
Definitely, there are many ways to live off-grid that preserve many or most conveniences. You can still have hot running water and plugs in the walls, but it has to be accomplished differently. That’s not our way. We prefer it to be really hard (joking).
We are on the very primitive end of the off-grid spectrum, partly because we are just getting started out here.
It’s a work-in-progress for us, trying to find a balance between livable convenience and dependence (on fuel/complex systems).
There’s a reason why ready electricity has become so pervasive it’s practically assumed to be a human right:
Electricity is damn convenient.
Nearly everything runs on it. Rarely does anyone think of having a home without electricity presumed to be part of it, just there, in the walls. You’re really in trouble if you get so hard up they turn the power off- wow.
Other life supporting systems of the house depend on it – running water, heat, sump pumps. And almost all the lifestyle supporting systems require power – fridge, stove, lights, freezer, telephone, tv, computer, tools. Farm and industry absolutely depends on electricity, to water and milk livestock, run machines.
I had to sit here and think about that list just now – What are all the things assumed essential in modern life? – because we live without plugs in the walls and that presumption of electricity. I forgot “lights” at first.
That means a compromise for every single thing. It has to be done without or had from a different source.
Different power sources:
Mostly, batteries – stored potential electricity – are our number one alternative source. Lights, phones, computers, the internet, all run off batteries. These get charged off our solar panels, or the generator, or when they are plugged in other places in the world. Rechargeable batteries are in constant rotation (Eneloops rock).
Tools other than cordless, like a table saw, need the amperage only the generator can supply. Turning on the generator is a minor event. It starts with one of us announcing the forthcoming use of the generator: “I need to vacuum/charge my computer/make some cuts”. Then all the things, and their associated wires, must be gathered up and plugged in in the charging area, to take advantage of the time that the generator is on. Plans are made: “Well if you’re going to have it on anyway, then I should vacuum, and transfer some files to my (AC dependent) external hard drive. ” It’s not a bad thing, to have to turn on the genny once in awhile. Every few days, it runs for an hour or two, maybe less. We can go a long time without it during periods of sun.
So far so good. We watch movies on our rechargeable laptops, don’t stint on the internet, use only cell phones and battery lowered lights.
Water and Electricity
Everything to do with water is where we get into the afore-mentioned primitive nature of our situation. Water is heavy. It takes a lot of energy to move it from place to place. Exactly how much energy is quickly forgotten when it’s being done by cheap and readily available electricity, and quickly remembered once you start moving it around by hand.
First, pump it up out of the ground, an essential job usually done by friendly neighbourhood electrons. Because lifting water through the air with a pump is an onerous job, rainfall is very abundant here, and the well usually goes dry briefly at the end of summer, I’ve become a nut about catching rainwater. There are more elegant ways to do it, but I’m at stage 1- buckets and barrels. This is not a good look. Buckets everywhere. And it’s work- cleaning the buckets so the water stays clean, storing and readying them, filtering the water. But less work, to catch water off a steel roof than carry it across a field. In the winter, this turns to clean snow and ice collection, and melting.
We people use a lot of water. Drinking, preparing food, washing the things, washing ourselves. The chickens consume a lot of water. Pigs, even more. Cows drink huge quantities, transforming so much of it to milk. When you are intimately involved with all the water that you use, because you catch, hold, transport, pump, heat, or melt every drop, you use one hell of a lot less than when it just flows past you from tap to drain while your mind wanders.
The other aspect of electricity and water is the hot water heater, which is generally forgotten in the basement until the bottom rusts out and it empties on the floor and you become glad you are renting, or wish you were. Hot water an option with a flick of the wrist. On-demand propane is an awesome alternative to that hot water heating behemoth, and the usual choice for the off-grid life. We have an ideal one that we use for showers, but it is not yet integrated into daily life. By that I mean, hanging it on a tree by the well, and one person showers while the other pumps, is not “well-integrated”.
I am definitely looking forward to moving up to stage 2 or 3 vis a vis water and hot water – more sophisticated water collection and supply – gravity feed, or solar, low volt pumps, and truly on-demand hot water. It won’t be hard to get more sophisticated than buckets, but this bit of convenience requires an investment of work we have not yet had time for.
At the moment we are doing without only the fridge and freezer. While this means we have no problems with a superfluity of old half full condiment bottles cluttering a fridge, the lack of refrigeration in the summer is sort of tedious and I am very much looking forward to a root cellar. And a neighbour has given us a nook of space in his freezer. That’s where the pesto is.
What are the costs of living like this?
Energy is a requirement for us furless people. We need structures, warmth, to cook our food, and we’ve decided we like to communicate. All of which require energy these days. Our dependency on energy is immutable, but living off-grid, the dependency is shifted some from electricity to other. Chiefly wood. Our heat is 100% wood. Next, propane, to cook, and to create electricity with the generator.
Our not-the-hydro-bill costs are fuel – a small amount of gasoline for the chainsaw to cut the firewood, infrastructure costs- the genny, the panels, charge controllers, batteries in the bank (these are all made elsewhere with energy from other sources), and propane.
Our propane costs, for cooking, water heating, and powering the generator, have averaged less than $35 a month. I think that’s ok.
If we had to, we could live without these things too- go back to the axe and Swede saw, walk to someone’s house if we want to talk to them, but that would make life very, very different. We would really no longer be living in the world the way it is now. It would be hard to get a job, let alone show up to it, and communication with anyone outside of a 5 mile radius would be impossible, not least because you’d be too busy at home making candles. That’s an extremity I’m really not interested in. For a modest price, we can still mostly participate in the wide, evolving world. Using less energy, from different sources, we still have the opportunity to get outraged at the Oscars and watch cat videos.
It’s amazing to think that not so long ago – all of that energy, for shelter, water, food, and communication, was ALL accomplished by the metabolism of food to physical energy. Everything was made with hands – carried and chopped and hewn and grown and harvested, and communication was face to face. First the harnessing of steam, then electricity and fossil fuels, and everything has changed, including the world, to the degree that the planet looks different from space.
Now, we think of the cost of physical movement and work as “time”.
Time is one of the costs of our off-grid life. To do the dishes, I have to boil water first. Every morning, I heat up water for the hens and move wood around. I spend time messing around with things, daily, that many people never do. That time is freed for them. The electricity is in the wall and water in the tap.
There’s a lot of complexity behind the scenes required to deliver water to a tap- a different application of time, in my opinion. Time to build and maintain the delivery system throughout house, property and municipality, time to build and maintain the grid that creates and sends the energy from dam to meter, time spent working to pay the bill for both those things…
Comparing it, would some of us be better off to just carry the water?
The advantages are short and sweet.
No power bill.
The power never goes out.
No in the wall wiring, therefore zero risk of bad wiring, old wiring, or short circuits causing fires.
Quiet. There is no ever present electric hum of appliances.
No poles, no wires looping through the scenery.
One less drop of energy consumed from coal or hydroelectric infrastructure.
Some might say there is no electromagnetic radiation from the constant movement of electrons through wires.
No power bill. Ever.