Living Off the Grid

Let’s not kid ourselves. Living entirely off-grid calls for a massive lifestyle change that most of us are not willing to undertake. But I’m not suggesting you go off-grid now; I’m saying that there may come a day when the grid goes off-line whether you like it or not. What will you do then?

By surviving “off the grid” I mean simply the ability to sustain good living conditions without public utilities like electricity, gas, and water. I’m not talking about complete isolation from any economic activity, and I’m not even talking about complete self-sustainability in terms of food, clothing, and materials. That’s a whole other matter that involves the development of a “private economy,” which I’ll blog about another day.

I call this article “living off the grid” not because I’m making the switch, but because I’ve studied what it will take to adjust my life if the switch comes against my will, and have put some of those contingencies into play.

Alternatives to the Electric Utility

If the grid collapses indefinitely, you’ll need a backup electric supply or you’ll need to live without electricity. For me, and I suspect most of you, living entirely without electricity would be quite a shock. :) Here at SNO Command we use about 2400 kWh per month, and in August it’s typically 3850 kWh. That’s a lot. Doing entirely without would require a drastic adjustment.

Just consider what happens if we have no electricity whatsoever:

  1. No phone/internet. As recently as ten years ago I had a phone that was actually connected to the wall, and when the electricity went out we still had the phone because it was powered by the phone line itself. I don’t even know if we have that device anymore. Now we use wireless handsets, and the base is powered by electricity. When the power goes off, we have no phone or internet.
  2. No fridge/freezer. We have two refrigerators (plus a little dorm-room model) and a chest-type freezer. All of them are full of food. If the power goes off, we’ll be boiling and canning food for days just to keep it from spoiling. Note: keep canning supplies on-hand and bone up on other food preservation methods. We stock a few hundred pounds of salt just in case.
  3. No computer. I earn my living with a computer. I get all my news by computer. Seventy-five percent of my communications are by computer. All of my documents and records are on the computer. Man, if we lose electricity for long, I’m in deep yogurt.
  4. No pool. We can definitely do without the pool, but once we lose power the water will turn into a stagnant mess. We’ll have to siphon it out because it takes power to run the pump to drain it.
  5. No running water. When I was a kid we lived in a house without electricity or running water. We drew water from a well just off the back porch, but here my alternate water supply is a spring in the hills. I’m in the process of developing that resource so we have running water down here without power, but it’s a fairly slow, expensive process. See Emergency Water Supply.
  6. No lights. This one sounds simple, but let me tell you something; you’re used to just walking into a room and flipping a switch. I bet very few of my readers have actually lived without electricity, as I did for awhile as a child. Even if you have flashlights, candles, and lanterns, your house will be darker at night. You’ll find yourself going to bed and rising earlier.
  7. No oven. We have a dual-fuel range with gas on the top and an electric convection oven. If we lose electricity we can still light the stove with a match or lighter, but the only oven we’ll have available is a wood-fired oven outside. That’s OK in the winter, but baking bread in the summer will be pretty miserable.
  8. No TV. I won’t miss it much because we use our TV so little, but I know some people who will frankly be depressed if they lose their TV. Watch out for people wandering around the neighborhood in a TV withdrawal daze, wondering what to do with their newly-discovered lives.

If the grid goes down you can either 1) adapt to life without electricity or 2) run an independent source of electricity. For the latter, your choices are generator powered by fossil fuel, solar power, or wind power. In the case of solar or wind power you’ll need to house a bulky and expensive bank of batteries to get you through the night and cloudy days. Your investment, regardless whether it runs on fossil fuels or renewable sources, will be in the tens of thousands of dollars to provide the amount of electricity you currently use, so it’s pretty much given that you’ll have to cut your consumption.

Alternative Water Supplies

This one is not optional. The alternative water supply is something you absolutely must have in place immediately. You can stock a certain amount of water to keep you alive for a short time, but developing a permanent water supply takes time and money. In a Big Crunch situation the resources may not be available, so you should go ahead and develop your backup water supply. In the chaos following an economic meltdown, pipes, cisterns, filters, and pumping supplies may be hard to get. Again, see Emergency Water Supply for details.

Alternative Heating

The easiest alternative I know is wood heat. You can find good wood heaters for a few hundred dollars, or even cheaper if you buy them used. I can’t think of a good reason not to have one, even if you don’t have it installed right now. You can always store it in its crate in the garage, and break it out if and when the bottom drops out of the economy.

The most efficient wood stoves use a catalytic combustor. This is a honeycomb device that the combustion gases pass through before going up the chimney. Normally, the gases emitted by wood burn at around 1000-1200 degrees F, but a catalytic combustor provides a chemical reaction that allows them to burn at lower temperatures. Without a catalytic combustor, to burn the wood most efficiently, and to generate the least creosote in your chimney, you have to run your wood stove at maximum temperature. Your house would be a sauna. The catalytic combustor allows you to run the stove at a lower setting and still extract all the heat energy available from the wood, all while reducing the amount of dangerous creosote accumulation in the chimney.

Something else to consider in a wood stove is the thermal mass or heat capacity of the materials the stove is made from. Think of heat capacity as resistance to temperature fluctuations. For example, if you put a pound of copper on your stove and turn on the burner, it will heat up quickly — it has a low thermal mass — and when you turn off the heat, it will cool quickly. But if you put a pound of water on your stove and turn on the burner, it will heat up much more slowly — it has a high thermal mass, a large heat capacity. When you turn it off, the water will stay warm for a long time.

So the pound of copper takes less heat input to reach a high temperature, and the pound of water takes much more heat input to reach the same temperature. The water has a high heat capacity, and the copper has a low heat capacity.

A wood stove with a large heat capacity will stay warm long after the fire dies down. A tin lizzie made of thin metal has a small heat capacity and will cool off as soon as the fire dies.

Stoves made of cast iron have higher heat capacities than rolled steel stoves. Often they are made with firebrick linings which increase the heat capacity even more.

The wood stoves with the highest heat capacities I know of are made of soapstone, like the ones made by Woodstock Soapstone Company. I’ve been heating my home with the Fireview model for over a decade, and have never had a problem. I have a hydronic heating system, but some years I never even fire it up, depending on how much work I put into cutting, chopping, splitting, and stacking firewood.

Alternative Cooling

This one is tough. Air conditioning technology has allowed us to build houses that are basically ovens, and then cool the air inside. Natural cooling techniques rely primarily on ventilation; large pipes buried deep in the ground take in outside air, cool it underground, and pipe it into the house by convection. Using this or any similar method requires a major redesign of your house. Before mechanical air conditioning, people just tolerated heat, I guess.

One interesting new (or perhaps very old) technology is the Hybrid Solar House. It also relies on ventilation, but accomplishes it without the long buried pipe. I’ve spoken with a builder who specializes in this type of home construction, and he tells me that they work best in Northern climates — hot and humid climates will still require an air conditioner to dry the air, but the unit is about one-sixth the size you normally install for a given amount of square-footage.

A practical note: people who suffer from seasonal allergies will need some sort of filtration system if they install a natural cooling system. My early Spring allergies are debilitating, so just opening the windows at night is not an option.

Conclusion

It’s important to develop a survival plan for living entirely off-grid not because it delivers a higher standard of living, but because if the Big Crunch comes you won’t be able to rely on the conveniences of common utilities. When I spend money developing the infrastructure for off-grid living, I don’t think of it as money spent and gone, like the money spent on a fancy dinner out. That money is gone. But when I spend money on an alternate water supply I’m simply transferring money from the bank account and putting it into an asset that will remain for as long as I maintain it, just like real estate, gold, or business equipment. It’s a good investment.

If you have questions or comments, be sure to visit the Discussion Forum. (For enhanced security, a separate password-protected registration is required).

~SnoMan

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