Having lived in our off-grid tiny house since March 2017, I have definitely learned the ins-and-outs, and the pros and cons, of off-grid living. In this article, I will give you some background and holistic advice to help you decide if off-grid living is for you.
INTRODUCTION TO OFF-GRID LIVING
What is off-grid living? Living off the grid means having a home that can meet your needs independently. It means securing/generating your own power, water, and nutrient processing (A.K.A. sewage) instead of using the grid of pipes and power lines that your municipality or city provides.
Why live off-grid? There are many reasons to go off-grid but the 3 biggest motivators are:
1) Security & Resilience: For most who go off-grid, they want to gain self-sufficiency and independence and control that which they need most – heat & water. There is pride, comfort, and security in knowing you and your family can weather uncertain times with an off-grid home.
2) Ethics & Impact: Many who go off-grid are conscientious of their foot-print. By controlling your own power, water, and nutrient systems, you aren’t contributing to the many problems our larger utility systems have. A non-exhaustive list of grid issues are: Dirty power like coal, wastage of power in power lines, fluorinated and chlorinated water, sewage systems that pollute, and the massive energy used to clean, pressure and move water and sewage. Going off grid allows you to design an ethical home in line with your desire to improve your environmental impact.
3) Convenience or Necessity: For some, they HAVE to live off-grid because they live in a remote location making it impossible or cost prohibitive to connect their home to the grid. For others, they CHOOSE to be off grid for the convenience it offers – particularly tiny homes. Being often mobile, tiny homes are limited in their utility connections. Extension cords, RV hook ups, and simple water lines are the most accessible options, but these are dependent on having a host location, are hard to winterize, and limit what you can draw (for example, you may trip an electrical breaker). To open up parking and living options, many tiny homes create off-grid capabilities.
THE REALITY OF LIVING OFF-GRID
Off-grid living brings a rosy idea to most people’s minds. No doubt you have seen the Pinterest and Hollywood “house porn” of cozy crackling wood stoves, sexy sleek solar panels, and cute houses nestled into the countryside, but behind the scenes is intelligent design, hard work, and real costs. So chase that dream home, but chase it with a shot of reality to ensure you freaking love it.
Here are my top 3 reality checks for living off-grid:
1) Cost – An off-grid home costs more up-front in exchange for savings over time. Be prepared to drop cash on these more complicated systems. Furthermore, I highly recommend to go high quality and to over-engineer your utility systems, after all, these are your lifelines for your house! This is what I did – every system is efficient, reliable, and backed-up… this way I save cash, reduce my environmental impact, and have peace of mind. The cost? My utility systems cost 3x the amount of an on-grid utility system.
2) Work – Off-grid systems are always going to have extra work. Take wood heat for example… chopping wood is basically like going to the gym, but instead you are using a sharp dumbbell. Maintenance chores are also ongoing, whether that’s brushing show off solar panels, changing filters on water cleaning systems, or checking on your batteries. For example, I just spent half a day cleaning out my water tanks with a pressure washer and shop vac, and though I only need to do this every 2 years, its another chore.
3) Education – Every house requires maintenance to best meet your needs, but an off grid system can fail if you are not prepared to do the upkeep. For mainstream utilities, the city will always be there to meet your water, heating and sewage needs. In an off-grid situation, you are the owner, manager and troubleshooter for your own utilities, so its your responsibility to prevent and/or catch something failing, or else you may not have a house! While it is empowering to take charge of managing your home, education and training is key to avoiding extra stress, unexpected bills, or mistakes.
There are many different motivations to drive the decision to live partially or fully off the grid, and it is up to each of us to decide if we value the benefits enough to make the plunge. While the realities of off grid living can seem daunting, it is possible for anyone who is interested to make it work. Those who properly invest, who understand the work involved, and who are willing take the time to learn their systems are the ones who fall in love with their off-grid home.
If you enjoyed this I will have more detailed blog posts coming up on utility systems. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter to keep following along, or you can join us for the 2.5 day crash course on how to design and build your own tiny house.
(Kenton is a passionate educator for sustainable living who lives in an off-grid tiny house in northern Alberta. Kenton runs a wide array of workshops on tiny homes, sustainable living, and edible landscaping.)