Help me ground my fantasy in reality with regards to off the grid living...
February 24, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

How do I live off-the-grid...

I have a dream to eventually build an "off-the-grid" home in an out of the way area somewhere in the United States. I have many questions. Please either destroy this dream with logic, or put me on the long path to achieving it.

This Les Stroud documentary is more or less the model of what I would hope to achieve. Something like The Field Lab is also something I would consider. I am also aware of the Earthship movement but have not really looked into them. My questions are as follows:

-Can I realistically create an off-the-grid compound for $250,000? If not, might anyone have ballpark estimates of the costs involved?

-What are good starting-out resources to learn about off-the-grid stuff like electricity, water, etc? I would imagine I'd need a composting toilet, solar / wind for power...a well or rainwater collection for water and some sort of graywater recycling / redistribution system. I am particularly interested in learning more about solar energy and solar devices but I know absolutely nothing about circuitry or how electricity works...perhaps a primer on that would help? Where can I start?

-Where to build? Ideally I would like to live in Idaho, Wyoming or Montana...

-Is this even feasible? Is it even feasible given the state of technology to create an off-the-grid homestead that would be self-sustaining? I am quite willing to put the work in and am interested in the lifestyle....but I don't think I have a solid understanding of just what the day-to-day tasks involve. Would be interested in hearing from anyone who lives this way...

Thanks!
posted by jnnla to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's totally feasible for about 1/5 of your stated cost. Having said that, "self sustaining" in fact means that YOU will be doing all the work. The tone of your post suggests that you, yourself, have none of the required knowledge or skills to run a farm or build or maintain machinery, nor are you tapped into a community that can help you. I'd strongly suggest your first move is to meet some folks, work on some homesteads and consider moving somewhere that you will be amongst a community of homesteaders. A few subscriptions to homesteading magazines and a class or two in small engine maintenance is a good place to start. You may hate the lifestyle
posted by fshgrl at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2012


You might also want to read about John Wells, who went from NYC fashion photographer to living off the grid in the Southwest. Covered here on the Blue a ways back.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2012


You should go read this illuminating comment about the reality of farm work (because if you really want to live off the grid, you will, I assume, need to grow/raise much of your own food).
posted by rtha at 2:36 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Totally doable for the money. The real challenge is in the time, commitment to learn and live through the frustrations, lack of amenities and setbacks. A couple things to think about as you get into this venture:

* Why specifically off the grid? There may be "net-zero" approaches that are arguably equally good or better for the environment than buying all the batteries etc. you'll need to be totally cut loose.
* How remote do you want to be? Typically you see these sorts of things in very out of the way places, but there is no reason that is necessary. Energy consumption from vehicles can quickly the consumption of the building the occupants live in.
* Are you enamored by the alternative lifestyle aspect of it or the environmental goodness aspect, or both? Environmental thoughtfulness doesn't need to mean living with all the challenges of off the grid existence. On the flip side, innovation comes from folks willing to live on the edge and test out new ideas.

You can live off the grid in any climate or location if you are willing to supplement with combustion (like a wood stove). Somewhere with more temperate days and lots of sun will make it a whole lot easier. Air conditioning is tough so if you go somewhere hot and humid you'll have to learn to live with sticky.
posted by meinvt at 2:38 PM on February 24, 2012


I research this from time to time and one thing that's come up in occasionally is that some of the alternate building methods (earthship, rammed earth, earth-filled tires, etc) run into issues with the local building inspectors, so depending on where you want to live, you may have to research the local code (building/waste) as well.

The website for the Chispito wind generator is a great jumping-off point for alternative energy and other things. Mother Earth News also features homesteading articles as well. For growing food, take a look at some of the permaculture sites out there also.
posted by jquinby at 2:53 PM on February 24, 2012


It's a whole lot easier in a climate that doesn't include blizzards, below-zero temperatures and a short growing season.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:18 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here are some folks doing it on a shoestring in Nowheresville, Montana.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:42 PM on February 24, 2012


In 2005 my husband and I took a bunch of cash and left the country I am from, went to the subtropical country he is from and bought a 20 acre property - the land was 10 minutes drive from the nearest fuel station, 30 minutes drive from the nearest small town, 1 hour from the nearest town of 50,000. The neighbors were similar sustainability/outcast types, had lived there 17 years and were starved for companionship and someone to be nosy about. We started building a strawbale house with rainwater catchment, solar panels, solar hot water, composting toilet, veggie gardens, the works. The cost of building way outstripped the cash we had available, which was about what you've got.

Within 18 months I was depressed, 70 lbs overweight, lonely, unhappy, frustrated and broke. It didn't take long to sell the property and move to the nearest town of 50,000. Not long after that I left my marriage and the country and came back to the country I'm from.

I wouldn't recommend it.
posted by thrasher at 3:54 PM on February 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Like any other projects, if you're truly interested in this, start small.

Mother Earth News (just picked up a copy and loved it) had an interview article with famous homesteaders on how they got started. Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, authors of Making It and Urban Homestead (which are very informative imho), stated that they started because they simply wanted great tasting tomatoes.

To answer your question - yes, it's highly possible to live off the grid completely. The question I think you should ask is however, how much are you willing to pay in terms of labor, headache, reduced standard of living, etc? To produce 10% of your food and energy might be easy and doable with a weekend project. Doubling that might require more than double the effort. To do it a hundred percent might be prohibitively labor intensive (in less than ideal locations where you can't grow all your food for example)
posted by 7life at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Check your MeFi mail.

Also:

Backwoods Home Magazine

As some others here can, I can speak to the heating issue. If you decide on a wood stove, be prepared to take shipment of an 18-wheeler's-worth of logs. Once you've found a place for them, you'll need to have the chainsaw equipment (saw, spare chains, protective gear) to cut the logs down to rounds. Then, using a splitter or an ax, you'll need to split the rounds into pieces small enough for the stove (don't forget splitting even further for kindling). Find a place to stack it all. Let it dry under a loose tarp for a year. Stock your ricks and burn 18 hours a day, every day for months on end. While you are doing everything else on your homestead, of course.

On our small farm, we collect rainwater in 250-gallon (iirc) plastic containers and it has been a great help in really dry weather. The downside of this arrangement is that the watering cans only fill so fast, and require MANY, MANY trips.

You have a bunch to learn about fencing, too, to keep critters in and out, as well as about the raising, care, and processing of livestock. I always recommend the Storey Publishing books about whatever kind of animal you want to raise--and furthermore that you read the book BEFORE you get the animal and not, ahem, after it's in the pen.

Something you can learn to do now is canning, for which I recommend this starter kit (purchased here it's expensive--maybe keep an eye out for individual pieces on freecycle/craigslist/thrift shops). Contact your local/area ag extension and ask whether they have canning classes, or, heck, any classes on gardening and/or preserving. You could also take a crack at seed saving and container gardening.

I want everything on the Cool Tools homesteading page. Failing that, I love my 5-gallon buckets, zip ties, hog panels, post-hole digger...the tool list is endless. I assume you'd want to look into biodiesel for powering the larger machines?

That doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the true off-grid existence, but if it's giving you pause, it should. That life is not for the faint-hearted. Post-flood, I was without electricity for three or four days and it was somewhat difficult--I wouldn't want it to be a permanent state of affairs because, frankly, I couldn't manage everything I have to do without the help of electricity. Still, by asking this tentative question, you're making a step forward. My suggestions:

1. Read, read, read. I'll have a look through my shelves.
2. Join online communities where off-grid/homesteading are discussed.
3. Incorporate more independent living into your daily life now. Can you hang laundry out to dry? Make your own bread? Can tomatoes for sauces and salsa? Grow herbs? Save seeds? Run a compost pile? Sew? Hook up a small device to a solar panel? Make your own yogurt or butter? Build a raised-bed garden and grow your own vegetables? Get your water tested? Bake? Repair tires/small engines? Take all the classes you can from your local vo-tech/community college/ag extension *while you're still within range of these resources.*

Do not let the romance of off-grid overwhelm your skills, time, health and wallet. As noted above--if you've done your homework, go live off-grid for a short period. It may not be your thing.

And then again, it may be.

Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:40 PM on February 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


I recommend reading The Good Life and everything else the Nearings wrote.
posted by fritley at 4:45 PM on February 24, 2012


A compound? As in a bunch of buildings for your entire extended family/like minded folks/religious cult to live and work in? $250,000 might be cutting it kind of close.

For a normal size house, as long as you don't spend to much on land that should be far more than you need. Depending on the amenities you want in your house, $10,000 to $50,000 plus land and well should be plenty if you are doing most of the work yourself.

On location, zoning is a big big deal for these types of houses. Also be aware of any restrictive covenants on the land. These restrictions are a big reason for why there are clusters of these types of homes in certain areas. Also, thrasher points out a lot of social issues linked to location above -- you don't have to be in a place like that, I know 3 people with off-the-grid homes who are not.

Wells can be very expensive, the deeper they go the more they cost. Water in some areas may need additional treatment to drink. Some people bring water in to avoid these costs. As for composting toilets, the original composting toilet is the outhouse, and it will cost a lot less than buying a composting toilet. I have seen one homebuilt composting toilet, sawdust and a bucket that needed to be taken out periodically.

All this is assuming you mean off-the-grid in the sense of utilities. I don't know anyone who grows all their own food.

If you want to do this the easy way, head to Taos (and by this I mean near Taos, they are not in town) and buy an Earthship. Some of the earthship folks do conferences and workshops, so you might want to visit that area anyhow.

The big issue I've seen that keeps people who hope to do this from doing it is the necessity of living within commuting distance of jobs, or at least not too far from a town (you'll need to at least go to the hardware store), and it only gets more problematic with larger groups of people. Some go partly off-grid to start with, gradually adding composting toilet, farming, etc. Land is often cheaper if there is no electric line out to it, but such places are remote.

Check out WWOOFing, look for places that are doing as close to what you want to do as you can get, then go volunteer there and see what the life is like. Winter and summer both. You'll learn a lot about how to do it, and if you want to.
posted by yohko at 4:50 PM on February 24, 2012


One more thing in case it isn't obvious, you might have a tough time getting internet access or even phone in some areas. Cell service isn't available in a lot of areas, and satellite internet is expensive and probably very slow compared to what you are used to.
posted by yohko at 5:06 PM on February 24, 2012


If you're interested in having a low footprint, there are a lot of good arguments for living in the city instead of remotely. "Urban homesteading" might be one search term to use.

If you're interested in the remote self-sufficiency of it all, look really hard at your current life. I had a house in the woods and toyed with going completely off the grid. But you have to really enjoy social isolation and endless physical labor.

I slowly adapted my lifestyle while I still lived in the city. Eventually I made the move to the woods. I was still on the electric grid. I designed my own super-efficient, passive-solar house and did a lot of the finishing of it, kept ducks, had a huge vegetable garden, cut and split my own firewood, hung laundry in the sun, caught rainwater, etc. etc. etc.

I loved the self-sufficiency and emotional and physical strength I developed. I liked the challenge of solving real-world, 3D problems with whatever I had on hand. However:

- It was isolating as heck, even though I was only 15 minutes from town. I like being alone but it was too much alone time.
- If I wanted a social life or just some chocolate, I had to drive, which more than cancelled out the planet-saving aspects of my lifestyle.
- The few times I got sick things rapidly disintegrated. You need constant physical health just for everyday things like keeping the house warm, protecting the crops from a sudden frost, feeding the chickens, or cutting up the tree that fell across your driveway and trapped you in your place.
- It was hard to get people to come out (and again, I was only 15 minutes from town). For example, if I ever needed in-home nursing care, it would be hard and probably expensive to find someone willing to drive "so far" out into "the boonies."
- It depressed my income. I make far more money sitting on my butt in front of a computer than I could ever save by weeding my carrot bed. I actually enjoy both activities, but I wanted to save for retirement, so I chose to spend more time at the computer.

Now I live a simple, low-impact life in a tropical city. I don't need heat, though some AC would be nice. I don't have a car. My electric use is extremely low. And because it's the "third world," I still get to jerry-rig stuff if I want to. Unlike in the woods, there are all sorts of nice people around and I can walk to almost everything I need. The country has a good supply of petroleum, so I like to think that peak oil will have less of a hit here, at least during my lifetime.

If you do go ahead, research the impact your decisions might have on the resale value of your property. For example, when I was building, no one could get a mortgage for a house that had a greywater system and composting toilet, and the county had so many requirements for the greywater system that it would have cost thousands of dollars to build, so I ended up with a more conventional septic system. I didn't need the mortgage, but a future buyer very probably would.

Now that I'm selling the house I'm being told that no one can get a mortgage for a house that doesn't have "central heat," which is defined as a modern heat source connected to a thermostat.

In addition to all the good publications mentioned above, you might look at Countryside and Small Stock Journal, if it's still in publication.
posted by ceiba at 6:00 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


How far off-the-grid do you want to go? Simply off the power grid? Or, completely no-phone, no-internet, no-car, no-job, no-retirement, no-healthcare, home-schooling, raise-all-my-own-food-and-cut-my-own-firewood off-the-grid?
posted by Ardiril at 6:08 PM on February 24, 2012


Can you start small? I have always wanted to live that kind of life, but right now I live in a small city on a 6000 square foot lot.

I have 4 chickens and a large garden, and with two kids and cats, it's overwhelming at times. The year I was pregnant with my second son, I felt like total butt just going outside in the heat so my garden totally went to crap. I had to put on my boots and trudge through 3 feet of snow to feed the chickens a week after giving birth and a day after having gallbladder surgery, because it needed to be done and my husband was working.

Every year I expand a little, this year I'm adding a few dwarf fruit trees, raspberry and cherries, and trying watermelon. I figure if we ever do get a big ol' farm I'll have already had the experience of chickening and gardening down for years.
posted by kpht at 7:42 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Attach yourself to an Amish community and live semi-Amish (perhaps fully Amish eventually). Work with them and see how they do things. You could learn a lot from them and, depending on your skills, maybe offer something to them.
posted by pracowity at 10:25 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I live in Skagit County, north of Seattle about 60 miles. One of my friends lives off-grid. She and her husband bought an existing house that already had a gas stove and water heater, well water, septic system, and wood stove heating. This particular set-up is common to homes in any rural area.

Then all they had to do was cut the phone line, never had cable strung out to their property, and installed a solar system with batteries. Bam: the off-grid house of your dreams for the cost of, oh I would guess about $250k (most of which was the cost of the house itself).

The only real down side to this set-up is that they have to budget their power usage. They don't have a washer/dryer or any small electronics you might be used to, like microwave, toaster, hair dryer, etc. And at night they have to choose whether to use the computer or watch some DVDs, because there isn't enough juice to do both.
posted by ErikaB at 11:05 PM on February 24, 2012


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