By Dave Stebbins – Living off-grid is living the dream. Enjoying all the amenities while not being dependent on the power company fires the imagination. Sunlight sparkles on glistening photovoltaic panels, and a gentle breeze powers the nearly silent wind generator. Inside the air-conditioned house, cold drinks await. There’s an NCAA basketball tournament on the 52” plasma tv. Time to settle down for another relaxing day at the off-grid homestead. The reality, of course, is much different. How to start living off the grid starts with the basics: photovoltaics, wind generators, inverters and batteries. We go into some of the more in-depth stuff, too, like peak sun hours and those pesky electrical terms: volts, amps, and watts. This is fine for those planning to be tied to the grid. But for the folks intending to live off-grid, there’s something even more important.
How to start living off the grid and sustaining that lifestyle depends more on your personality and perseverance and less on your off the grid living supplies. You will experience a paradigm shift in how you perceive energy. If not, you will likely be wasting time and money chasing a dream that makes you miserable. Certain characteristics can determine your ability to live the dream.
1. Be Willing to Learn New Skills.
Using a volt/ohm meter will help determine how well your system is performing and can diagnose problems. A willingness to learn is important, because no matter how well your system has been designed and installed, there will be problems. You can’t call the power company, you are the power company. Yes, you can call the installer, but he may not be immediately available. Meanwhile, the food in the freezer is thawing, there’s no running water and the spouse is ticked because the alarm didn’t go off, and she’s going to be late for work. A $10 meter, and knowing how to use it, enables you to figure out the problem pronto. You’ll save time, money, and aggravation.
2. Be Flexible.
After several cloudy, windless days, your use of electricity will have to be curtailed. This may involve using fewer lights and less time on the computer. You may have to postpone doing laundry. In a culture that extols the concept of you can have it all, right now, this may mean putting off a pleasure or chore until the weather improves. Yes, you can always run the gas generator, but generators are noisy, smell bad, and use fossil fuels. Cloudy weather becomes a good time to maintain tools, organize the pantry, cut and stack firewood, or clean out the barn. You can use this time to play a board game, cook and enjoy a fine stew, or maybe catch up on some reading. Cloudy, windless days can become downright enjoyable!
3. Be Observant.
Ideally, your battery state-of-charge meter is located for easy viewing in the living room or kitchen. Glancing at it several times a day will become second nature. Note slight variations in voltage, which could indicate an underperforming system or unexpected electrical load. Before hitting the sack, walk through the house, making sure everything has been shut off. Being observant can prevent system failures. Being observant can save you time and money. Being observant can save you aggravation!
4. Be Stubborn, in a Good Way.
Your friends and relatives may not always be so accepting of your lifestyle. Some folks feel anything less than a McMansion, with all the accessories, is a form of spousal and child abuse. You need to be comfortable enough with your off-grid existence to either ignore them or gently explain the advantages of your decision. Nothing helps better here than an area-wide power outage that you weren’t even aware of!
Deciding to live off-grid is not just about you. Family members will have to live with your decision. Does the spouse want an all-electric home, complete with inductive stovetops, electric clothes dryer and central air conditioning? Will she be resentful if your dream does not include these things? Divorces have resulted from less.
Stubbornness in a good way implies persistence to achieve a worthy goal. Stubbornness in a bad way implies being inflexible, selfish, and narrow-minded.
5. Be Willing to Live Lean.
Friends will delight in showing you their new big screen television, 27 cubic-foot refrigerator, and awesome Blu-ray home theater system. You may feel a little wistful, knowing these things don’t fit into your energy budget. The advantage here is that you will feel less pressure to own more stuff. You’ll carefully evaluate every new purchase. You might be able to afford it, but do you have enough energy to operate it? After thinking it over, you may decide you don’t really need the darned thing in the first place. Living lean doesn’t mean doing without, it means using, appreciating and maintaining the things you have.
6. Be Willing to Take Care of the Things you Own.
You already routinely change the oil in your car, change the filter in your furnace, and clean your weapon after coming home from the firing range. Taking care of your belongings will serve you well living in an off-grid home. Batteries need distilled water occasionally, and corrosion can develop on terminals. The leading cause of wind generator failure is loose bolts. Maintaining a wind generator involves climbing the tower or lowering a tilt-up rig to check for problems before they become catastrophic. Ultimately, maintaining your possessions will save you money. It can also bring you closer to being debt-free.
Keep in mind that wind turbines and solar panels for home applications need continual upkeep to function well.
7. Be Able to Appreciate Nature.
I don’t know if this is an actual requirement, but it sure seems to be a common thread in off-gridders. Is it because we are so dependent on the forces of nature that we learn to appreciate her? Wind, clouds, storms, fog and freezes become very relevant. You will become a keen observer of the quality of sunlight, wind speed and direction. You’ll take more than a passing interest in weather forecasts. As people have done for thousands of years, you’ll adjust your lifestyle to the weather. And you’ll grow to appreciate events that have nothing to do with energy…a beautiful sunrise, the power in a thunderstorm, a full moon, the fury of a north wind.
It’s no exaggeration to hear me describe my home as a living thing. I maintain and nurture its systems. In return, it keeps me safe and comfortable. Once you learn how to start living off the grid, you’ll discover doing so is a wonderful, life-changing event and you are joining a rich homestead heritage. Can you hack off-grid homesteading today?
Dave Stebbins is the author of the book, Relocate! 25 Great Bug Out Communities. Safe Places to Live if Bad Things Happen… Wonderful Places to Call Home if They Don’t.
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2012 and regularly vetted for accuracy.