Friday, November 15, 2013

Off Grid Living: Where To Start?

When I first started to write about this subject, I asked myself what being "off grid" meant to me. I imagine it is rather like the family ranch: no electric power (propane is used instead for the stove, oven and gas lights, and a petrol-powered generator for the electric lights), well/spring water instead of mains water (not that it could have had it anyway, as remote as it is), septic tanks for sewerage, wood stoves for heat and cooking, space for growing things, an orchard, a few animals, and the potential ability to be totally self sustaining.

I love the idea of living off grid. However, I am currently unable to (sad suburbanite is sad). I'm not the only one who think it's a good idea to know about though. In fact, I probably wouldn't be writing about this now if it wasn't for my friend Nichole suggesting the topic to me for the Blog-a-thon. So thank you, Nichole! I hope I do it justice for you.

I put out some feelers in various places, asking people what being off grid meant to them. For some, it just meant not being plugged in to the electric grid of a city. Or it meant not being part of the electric, water or sewerage grid. (In that respect, the ranch counted very much as off grid.) After that, being off grid had several levels of self reliance, and then finally, right up to the extreme opinion that being off the grid meant relying only on yourself, your land, and your hard labor, and not on the government, technology or other people. (Sometimes, those arguing for the non technology side of off gridding, do so on the internet. Hundreds of people have died from the irony!)

Nevertheless, they're all valid ways of thinking to the people thinking about them, so if you are indeed considering going off grid, then here are some things you can research when you decide just how off grid you want to be.

Power Sources
When you've decided how off grid you want to be, power will be the biggest consideration. Are you happy with having no power at all (no lights, no electric appliances, etc) or do you still want to have those but not have to rely on the city grid to keep them?

If you do decided you want power, there are a few options you can research:

Solar panels.

Solar is probably the first power source that comes to mind for off grid situations, provided you have plenty of sunny days a year, and a sunny place to install the panels, inverter and batteries. There are no moving parts, and little maintenance required once they're installed, but the system is expensive, and it can take years before you start seeing a positive return. Something you can consider is having other power for your lights and appliances, and use solar panels to keep your water cylinder powered. I know many people who have done this.

Old fashioned wind mill.


Wind power is a bit controversial right now. There are some claiming it causes harm because of low frequency sound waves, that they kill birds, that they're simply unsightly. But if you do want to use wind power, it is possible. There are different sizes of turbines, each requiring a certain tower height, and which have a specific wattage output.  Or, you can do something a little different: if you have your land and resources to work with, maybe you can build a "dutch" style windmill, like the ones they used to pump the water to reclaim land. Those work virtually silently, and they look rather stunning provided they're built well and are cared for. The old fashioned windmills might not produce as much if you are using it for electricity (it'd be great for pumping water, or grinding grain) and, like solar power, both modern and old fashioned wind turbines require wind. By all means, though, if you think you can make it work, do it!

A "turbine" in a home made hydro electric plant.
Hydroelectric (Water Power)

Less known than the other options, hydro power is created by a running source of water flowing from a high point to a low point, and turning a turbine at the bottom to create the power. It's said to be a more cost effective way of generating electricity, but does require a year round source of running water flowing at a sufficient rate to make it effective. It won't do you any good if the little creek at the bottom of the property dries up to a trickle in the summer. (The lesson here is "know your land before you invest in big projects".) Some enterprising people have built their own hydroelectric plants (such as the photo displays), so if you are handy with tools and building things, you have a good chance of putting your own together.

Petrol (Gasoline), or Propane

There are, of course, the old fossil fuel stand-bys: gasoline and propane. Gas or diesel generators are the most common (diesel powered machines tend to a little more expensive) but there are propane powered generators as well. There are also some appliances that you can buy and install that use propane, such as stoves, refrigerators, and freezers. You will have to decide what level of off gridding you want to be, and whether you want to go this route. Many people. It is probably by far the cheapest installation cost, but the price goes up eventually as you must buy fuel.

Water Sources

The most common problem Tasmanians have is water. Having land here won't necessarily guarantee you'll have potable water, if you have it at all. The water table is low, and in some places where it is high enough to be tapped, it has enough undesirable "stuff" in it to make it undrinkable (that "stuff" can vary according to area). Many here have land, but require water to be shipped in to fill big tanks that supply the house with drinkable water (hardly sustainable). Many also collect rainwater in tanks to water gardens, but even then, Tassie gets much less rain than other parts of the world.

Before you purchase any land, it is wise to look at the water options. Do you have a surface spring that you can draw from, or do you need to drill a well? You should also inquire about things like how much regional rainfall there is, and whether the creek/river on your property (should there be one) floods in the wet season.

You can (and should) consider rainwater catchment tanks, and a gray water recycling system, to cut wastage down. Always be aware of where you draw your water from though, so that you can place your septic system where it has no chance to contaminate it.

Diagram of a septic system.

Whether you like it or not, shit happens! So, you need a way to deal with it. The classic system is a septic tank, which acts like a fermentation chamber for your waste. Bacteria within the tank break down the waste and the slurry is then filtered out through the ground in a leach field, where it is purified (ideally before it reaches the ground water level). Septic tanks need care though: grease, feminine hygiene products, and other items like that disrupt the system and can clog it, and if you have a habit of cleaning with bleach, you'll have to stop: the bleach will kill off the good bacteria, you'll develop problems, and you really don't want those: septic tank companies charge a lot to pump the tanks.

Another way of dealing with your daily constitutional is through a composting toilet. There are many brands that come in with different price tags and methods of installation, and some people go and just build their own. Not only are you safely disposing of your waste with a composting toilet, you are creating fertilizer for your land. If you are interested in this method, The Humanure Handbook would be an excellent start to your research.

Gray water (unlike septic sewerage, which is called "backwater") recycling is the other sewerage consideration you need to deal with. Gray water is the stuff that results after you've washed the dishes, or had a bath, or after you've washed the clothes. There's generally some soap involved, and probably dirt, grease/oil and food waste if you aren't careful about cleaning your plates before washing up. Since soap is a kind of salt, if gray water is used directly on your garden that salt will slowly build up in the soil, causing soil life disruption and other problems for your plants. You'll need to research how you can filter your gray water to purify it for watering use; this site is as good a place as any to begin.

Food Supply

One off grid idea that a lot of people seemed agreeable about was the ability to be self sufficient (or at least self reliant) regarding food. Growing your own fruit and vegetables in the garden, pasturing animals for your meat consumption, maybe even raising fish (aquaponics systems address this quite handily) are all ways that you can achieve this freedom. It means that you can control what you eat: no pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, etc, and it means that you can reduce or eliminate entirely your food shopping bill.

I also suggest you try looking at it from the permaculture viewpoint: it teaches you how to work with the land and your animals, instead of making the land yield to your demands, which can lead to soil depletion and other issues down the road if mismanaged (which it often is, usually out of ignorance).

Gardening is also good for those who can't be fully off grid, but still want to have fresh, organic food that they've grown themselves. Speaking from the position of an "urban farmer", I love the fresh veggies I get from my yard and the allotments. It means I'm providing lots of fresh food for my family, cutting my food bill down, and I can preserve a lot of what I grow so it can be eaten later. Gardening is extremely versatile, can be done in almost any space, and has a high satisfaction rate to boot, so even if you aren't thinking about going off grid, at least think about having a garden.

A smart chopper can assist with processing large amounts of veg;
it's also a good non electric tool for the kitchen.
You should also learn about food preservation. Being off the grid tastes a lot better if it's your own canned tomatoes or home smoked bacon. For every fruit, vegetable, and animal you have, you should have a way to preserve them. Hot water and pressure canning, drying, pickling, curing and smoking will all be useful food preservation skills.

Fresh and preserved food all make good barter items, if you find you need to trade for items you don 't have.

Some people would recommend the growing of cereal crops, and if you are interested in doing so you can. Cereal crops are pretty land intensive though, needing large spaces, lots of sun, and plenty of added fertilizer. If you have animals as well, you have to consider the land needs they require, so if you need more space for your animals, your grain growing enterprise isn't going to yield very much. You are almost better off, I'd think, bartering for your flour needs (being gluten intolerant, it wouldn't be very healthy for me to eat grains anyway, so I'd opt to maximize my garden space and just leave the grains out). It's up to you.

Animal Resources

You may decide to raise livestock on your land, in order to make yourself self sufficient in meat, milk and eggs. To have a self sufficient animal herd/flock though, you need to take into account that baby animals don't just magically appear, and that you have to raise and accommodate both male and female animals, and be familiar with their mating and reproductive processes. If you are keen on rotating the animals on your paddocks, a classic example has cows and horses grazing long grass, sheep nipping along at the shorter grass after the cows, geese grazing the grass to a short turf after the sheep are through, and finally, pigs and/or chickens scratching and rooting up the land, fertilizing it, and preparing it for the next crop, for gardens, or for seeding a new paddock. An excellent book for this topic is The Practical Homestead, which covers animal rotation, crop rotation, and other handy things to know.

You should always do your research on what animals will be the best for you. There are specialized breeds for milk and meat and eggs (even lard, if you are talking about pigs), and there are dual purpose breeds, good for meat and milk, or meat and eggs, etc. If you are new to the animal department, keeping chickens is probably a good first step into the livestock keeping world. They are usually very hardy animals, will eat nearly anything, lay eggs consistently throughout their younger years, and then provide meat when they become less productive.

The humble, hand cranked egg whisk.

To be off grid, you'll need tools. The type of tools depends on how far off grid you want to be. If you're just going without power, you might keep around a wood splitter, an axe and a saw so that you can cut firewood to keep your home warm (likewise, you'd need to install a wood stove). If you are way off grid, you might need a portable saw mill to cut lumber in order to build fences, outbuildings, or even your house. You'll need tools with which to garden with, and may even require mechanized tools to work the land, especially if you are planting crops over large areas, or need animal drawn equipment.

If you just want to save power in the home, however, you can make do with a variety of small, hand powered kitchen tools, such as egg beaters, or a smart chopper, whisks, a good sharp set of knives (which, let's face it, you should have anyway), a food mill, an apple peeler/corer/slicer (which will also do potatoes and to some extent pears), a meat grinder if you are processing meat into mince for sausages, etc.

Some appliances can be replaced too. The electric stove and oven can be replaced with a gas or wood alternative, or if you're going really hardcore, simply an open hearth or bbq pit or oven. Instead of using electricity to dry your clothes, you can wash them (by hand if you like) and then hang dry on a line outside in the sun. if you wish to make or repair clothing, a treadle operated sewing machine (such as the antique Singer machines) can be a most prized possession.

If you are interested in more non electric appliances, online merchants like Lehman's have tantalizing catalogs.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am far from living off grid, but I have thought about these options for a few years now, and have been slowly learning and compiling information if one day I do indeed get to go off grid. These are just suggestions, and it's far from being a very in depth explanation of anything, but if you are truly keen on teaching yourself about it, I hope this blog has offered you some ideas to consider.

I send you off with this bit of advice: Enjoy what you do, try everything, and always do your research!


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