What It’s Like Living Off-Grid
In the summer of 1980, my wife, three-month old son and I moved “off-grid”. We loved living in San Francisco but wanted to live a simpler, more independent lifestyle…Posted Jun 9, 2009
In the summer of 1980, my wife, three-month old son and I moved “off-grid”. We loved living in San Francisco but wanted to live a simpler, more independent lifestyle, and so we bought a small cabin with land on a rural island in the Pacific Northwest. Since there were no services to the island, our home had no electricity. Residents of the island had to create their own electricity or do without.
Now here I sit, almost 30 years later, with the kids grown and their rooms empty, and with some time to reflect on our experience living and raising a family off-grid. But before even considering the challenges and solutions in dealing with our energy needs over the years, one observation seems to leap out: how little things here have changed. We’ve done very little over the years to enhance our energy needs, aside from installing two solar panels last year to power the computer I’m using to write this article. (Alongside my computer on the table here is a kerosene lamp, and a candle for added light.) This lack of change is testament to the feasibility of off-grid living, and my vision for the upcoming years is to keep things pretty much the way they are.
But keeping it simple hasn’t always been simple. We had to learn alternate methods of preserving food, how to build things without power tools, how to cook on a wood stove, how to clean diapers without a washing machine, entertain ourselves without TV, and accept that many common tasks can take longer and be more difficult without electricity. Here are the main challenges we encountered in living off-grid, and how we managed with them.
The biggest difficulty we had living off-grid was, and continues to be, lighting. Our home has two small propane lamps over the cooking areas, but we use them sparingly because we have to pack in the propane tanks, and propane is expensive. Our general room lighting is by kerosene lamps, which give off marginal quality light and fumes if the wicks are not carefully trimmed. We also used candles, and are lucky we didn’t burn our place down. We arranged the furniture to make best use of available natural light from the windows. Over time, we adapted our habits to the natural light patterns in nature, e.g. you don’t stay up till midnight reading a novel.
We tried solar power for lights but found that when we need light the most, in winter, there was the least amount of solar energy available. The development of LED bulbs is promising, however, because they require much less energy. Today, we use little ‘clip-on’ book lights with small LED bulbs which are powered by rechargeable AA batteries. These are very efficient and have made things easier and safer for reading and for small task lighting. Our son Ben is installing indoor fixtures for LED area lights which we’ll be testing this winter. We also use LED headlamps when going outdoors at night.
I remember being at the dock with my wife one hot summer day and seeing a tourist sipping a drink on the deck of his yacht. My wife looked at the drink and said “Looks good!” The tourist said “Well, come aboard and I’ll fix you a drink.” “Oh” my wife said, “I was referring to the ice cubes, not the booze!”. He then proceeded to his on-board ice-maker and gave us a sack of ice. As we hurriedly rowed home before it melted, we thought it curious that his boat had more modern amenities than our home.
Life without ice, or refrigeration, takes some getting used to. No ice cream in summer, no cold beer, no easy way of dealing with food leftovers. But this is only in summer; the rest of the year we have our pantry which keeps things cool and preserved long enough for our needs. Most of the food we eat is fresh from the garden or the sea, or preserved in jars in the pantry. A few years ago I bought a half-sized used RV refrigerator which runs on propane. We use this in the hottest weeks of summer or when guests arrive; a 20-lb propane tank keeps it running for about 3 weeks. But I don’t like running this appliance with its little pilot light flame so close to our cedar house. Ideally, we would use a solar powered refrigerator, but they are very expensive.
The only way I could get my wife to participate in an off-grid lifestyle was to help her with the menial tasks which modern appliances were designed to handle. So I enthusiastically set up a cast iron bathtub out in the garden with a fire underneath, propped up an old-fashioned washboard, and started washing the baby diapers by hand. After a few sessions of this I gave up. You don`t need the details – it was too much work and they didn`t get clean enough. (Our neighbours would dye their diapers yellow to make them look a little better.) After trying a few other ideas, we settled on taking our dirty clothes to the Laundromat each time we would go off-island to the nearest town. This worked well, and was a great chance to socialize with other islanders who were doing the same thing. However, it meant we had to own more clothes, and buy more diapers, since it could be as long as a month between trips to town. Today there are very efficient mini-washers which require very little energy to run, and this is a solution for some people who live off-grid.
To our constant delight, cooking ‘off-grid’ seems to deliver the best tasting meals with relatively little work. We use an old-fashioned wood cookstove which is as easy to use as a modern gas or electric range. And besides providing an ideal cooking surface and oven, the stove also provides us with hot water via the water jacket in the firebox. The cookstove is an Elmira Oval, and it reaches 350 degrees within 20 minutes.
Our home also has a wood heater, and in winter we use this for cooking. It has a large flat top which can hold 4 or 5 saucepans. We’ve become adept at cooking on this heater, thereby saving the firewood needed for the cookstove.
For quick hot meals, or a cup of tea before the stove heats up, we have a small two-burner propane stove similar to those used for camping. We use this in the summer during fire season.
Food seems to be center of life here, and when the cook is at work there is a tangible reverence in the air. Our cookstove is at the heart of our family life – we love to hear the crackling fire and whiff the scents from the oven curling through the room. And is there any smell more wonderful than fresh baked bread?
We realize that cooking with wood is not ideal from an environmental perspective, and we look for ways to be more efficient when using the cookstove. We may prepare several meals at once, we almost always eat together, and we use only well-seasoned wood. We’ve also learned to be patient in off-grid cooking – water doesn’t boil as fast in winter.
Before we moved to our island home, an old man gave me his collection of antique hand tools, which have since been put to good use. Learning to use hand tools was fundamental to getting anything built or fixed, since we did not have a generator to run power tools. Fortunately I had the benefit of learning from an old-timer in the community who was skilled in woodworking using only simple, common hand tools. Through his example, one could see that many carpentry jobs could actually be done as fast or faster than by using power tools – as well as safer, quieter, cheaper and more satisfying. But this was not the case with all jobs. If a long board needed to be perfectly ripped or planed, I would carry it to a neighbor who lived about a mile away with a fully powered workshop.
An invaluable tool for building has been the chainsaw. Besides being essential for cutting firewood, the chainsaw is very handy for many carpentry/building tasks. All the beams and timbers used in rebuilding and adding on to our house were cut with a chainsaw. Also, there are building methods which we used, such as post and beam construction, which lend themselves more to chainsaw/hand tool methods.
There have been some downsides to being limited to hand tools. While some tasks are done quickly using hand tools, most projects do take longer without power tools, and the finished work is not as perfect. I’ve been building my 1200 sq ft home for 29 years and it’s still not done.
Living without the TV, movies and video games while raising children was not a problem. We had board games, crafts, musical instruments, books and all sorts of natural learning materials. Every night my wife would read a book out loud for an hour. Playing together in the evenings was special family time, and the kids never asked for TV.
After we had been living off-grid for seven or eight years, my father-in-law brought us a small black/white TV with a 12v battery. It felt like an intrusion at first, but the only channel we could get showed reruns of Sesame Street, which we found entertaining and instructive for our younger child. This didn’t last long however, since taking the battery to the store for recharging became too tedious. Eventually we broke down and bought a small Honda 350 generator, about the size of a toaster, but it didn’t run right. So we had it repaired and it worked a few more times then quit again for good. In retrospect, we went to a lot of work and expense, and waste, for a few Sesame Street shows.
It seems to follow that when children create their own games and play, they’re more likely to use their own imagination and develop independent thinking skills later in life. Being able to raise children with our own values, and without the distraction of electronic entertainment, was one of the main reasons we wanted to live off-grid.
Our experience living off-grid is neither unique nor stereotypical. Although our community has no electric service, different homes have different degrees of self-generated electricity. Some people have wind generators, others have solar arrays or micro-hydro runs on small streams that provide their power needs. Some residents have big TVs, washing machines, freezers, power tools and all the amenities. With recent advances in efficient appliances and technologies, “off-grid” living can be the same as living anywhere else. But for our family, we felt there was more to be learned by building things by hand, creating our own family culture, and trying to live a little more at the pace of nature. By keeping things simple, we had to rely on each other more to put food on the table and to get things done, and this helped empower the children. As young adults today, I see they are resourceful, independent and confident.
So if you are thinking of living off-grid, I suggest you start simple, and gradually ‘power up’ if needs increase. And as you evaluate future electric needs, keep in mind what you may be losing as well.
After all these years, our home is still not finished, but every board has a story to tell.
Greg Seaman, the founder and editor of Eartheasy.