Beginner’s Guide to Off-Grid Living
By Courtni Wisenbaker-Scheel
Being environmentally friendly and going green are hallmarks of our society today. What used to be reserved for a tiny portion of the population due to financial restrictions has now become a multi-million dollar industry that is accessible on some level for virtually everyone. It is this accessibility that is allowing people the opportunity to sever ties with traditional energy and water supply sources. If you are interested in transitioning your home to being off-grid, here are a few tips to help you get started.
Plan Your Budget
Going off grid will definitely save you money in the long run. However, getting there has the potential to cost you a pretty penny, especially if you need to hire a contractor for each major renovation. Try to keep your transition as economical as possible by handling smaller projects yourself. If you don’t already have the know-how, many home improvement stores and community colleges now offer classes that can give you the skills you need to make these changes confidently. The non-profit Solar Living Institute in Northern California offers a number of courses on off-grid and sustainable living.
Regardless of the degree to which you go off-grid, home ownership always has expenses associated with it. It’s usually wise to include a path to become completely debt free before or in conjunction with going off-grid.
Location is Key
It’s nearly impossible to live off-grid within a city due to the fact that most homes don’t have enough land to provide you with the necessary resources. So when it comes time to look for property, our friends at Home Improvement Leads suggest finding one that will allow you ample amounts of sunlight year round and has sufficient acreage to accommodate a well and septic tank. Similarly, when you are ready to build your dream home, make sure to take its location on the land and orientation to the sun into consideration so as to maximize your energy generation.
Switch to Solar
Whether you’re converting your current home or starting from scratch, solar power is the ideal way to power any off-grid home. The average American home uses 10,000 kilowatt-hours every year, but through energy-saving strategies, many households can cut their consumption dramatically. Examine your current needs by looking through your previous electric bills, paying equal attention to your average monthly wattage as well as peak times like holiday seasons. From there you will be able to determine how large of a solar system you will need.
Installing solar panels isn’t as complicated as many assume. However, since this will be your power source, it’s important to make sure it is installed correctly — not to mention there are certain incentives that a homeowner is only eligible for if a certified contractor performs the installation. The market is now laced with contractors who have not been properly trained in photovoltaic installations. Save yourself the headache by finding the right contractor for the job the first time. Our advice: get a NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners)-certified PV installer for the job – or become certified yourself with solar installation courses from the Solar Living Institute.
Dig for Water
Though most households tap into a city’s water supply, millions of Americans use groundwater reserves to meet their water needs. Digging a well is a definite must if you are hoping to become a completely off-grid family. You can expect to spend between $15 and $40 per drilled foot depending upon soil conditions and topography, with most wells costing between $3,000 and $15,000.
You can also choose to collect rainwater that would otherwise just run off your roof by installing cisterns or a rainwater catchment system. These holding tanks can either be installed above ground or underground, each having their own pros and cons. If you have it in your budget — and live in an area that gets enough rainfall to warrant the expense — these water storage systems offer you a sustainable and reliable backup supply of water so that you never have to worry about water shortages.
Plant Your Garden
Energy and water are usually the only components people think of when they talk about taking their family off-grid, but having a tenable food supply is just as important. Organic gardening will not only save your family money, it will also help cut down on the massive environmental impact from commercial harvesting and transporting of produce. If you’ve never cultivated a garden before, start small with no more than eight different types of plants. Talk to your neighbors or your local garden center to find out what plants will grow well in your particular climate, keeping in mind specific harvest times and whether you plan on eating them fresh or canning and preserving them.
Learn about Livestock
Raising livestock may be a bridge too far for some, but for those willing to take on the challenge, the rewards can be substantial. Not only can your animals provide you with a constant food source, they also have the potential to earn you a little extra income, too. Hands down, the easiest animal to raise are chickens, since they require minimal amount of land and feed. Plus, a mature hen will lay an egg a day, making breakfasts a cinch!
Regardless of where you are in your journey to go off-grid, every step counts in helping ease the burden on the world’s valuable resources and your wallet. Take it one step at a time and you’ll be fully off-grid in no time. One invaluable resource great for getting you thinking about all the questions you’ll need to address when getting off-grid (not to mention many of the answers) is John Schaeffer’s seminal work, the Solar Living Sourcebook. Now in its 14th edition, it goes into great depth on all the topics covered here, plus many others.