How Living Off the Grid Works


This sight definitely makes a case for going off the grid. See more nuclear power pictures.
Peter Essick/Getty Images

Around the same time each month, millions of Americans go to their mailboxes seeking the comforts of a handwritten letter or their favorite magazine only to be greeted by white envelopes with miniature cellophane windows. We're all familiar with these mailers -- power, water, gas and telephone bills, all conspiring to take your hard-earned money. For most people, paying utility bills is a tiresome and frustrating task. What if there was a way to get out from under the thumb of public utilities and produce your own sustainable energy? Well, there is. Going "off-grid" is becoming an increasingly popular choice for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint, assert their independence and avoid reliance on fossil fuels.

­"The grid" is a common name for the power grid -- the linked system that delivers electricity to the masses. A typical house is connected to power, natural gas, water and telephone lines. Going off the grid means shunning these public utilities in favor of creating your own energy. Some homeowners choose to be partially off the grid by supplying their own electricity and ditching their phone line, while relying on the convenience of city water and sewage. Others choose to live completely off-grid by digging wells or using a cistern system to collect water. A septic tank takes care of the sewage and, just like that, no more water bill either.

­It's impossible to get an accurate count of exactly how many people in the United States live off-grid, but in 2006, Home Power magazine estimated that more than 180,000 homes were supplying their own power. Another 27,000 homes use solar and wind energy to offset their grid-connected life [source: USA Today]. The back-to-the-land movement accounts for some of these numbers, but more people in developed urban areas are looking to get off the grid as well. For most, it's a good way to be friendly to the environment. For others, it's a relief not to rely on overworked utility companies to meet their needs.

In this article, we'll cover what it takes to go off-grid. We'll learn about solar and wind power and how you can get your water from above or below. We'll also look at the lifestyle changes that come with living off the grid.

Solar and Wind Energy

Installing solar panels means not having unsightly power lines strung to your home.
Installing solar panels means not having unsightly power lines strung to your home.
©iStockphoto.com/Markus Gann

The first thing you need to do to go off the grid is to rid yourself of dependence on electricity from your power company. The most common way to do so is by using the sun and the wind to provide your power. Neither concept is new, but more people are turning to these constant power sources to help offset or replace their reliance on electricity fueled by burning coal. You can read in detail about solar and wind energy in the articles How Solar Cells Work and How Wind Power Works -- but we'll explain the general concept here.

Residential homes that use solar power typically have photovoltaic (PV) solar panels located on the roof or near the house. These panels contain cells made up of silicon semiconductors. When the sun's light hits the panel, these semiconductors collect the energy and knock electrons loose so they can flow freely. An electric field in the panel then takes these electrons and forces them to flow in one direction, creating an electrical direct current (DC). The DC is then passed through an inverter that simply converts this DC into the alternating current (AC) that your home uses.

Wind power works in a similar fashion. A typical residential wind turbine looks like an airplane propeller sitting atop a 50 to 120-foot tower. When the wind blows, the blades start moving and spin a shaft that leads from the hub of the rotor to a generator. The generator takes the energy produced from the rotation and turns it into electricity. Like solar cells, the energy created by wind turbines is converted into usable AC power with an inverter.

Many people pair their solar and wind energy with traditional power to create a hybrid system that will reduce their bills. In these cases, the energy created is stored by the utility company. If the energy you produce is greater than your consumption, 40 states actually allow you to sell your electricity back to the utility company. However, to go off the grid, you need to cut ties with the power company altogether. In this case, the energy you create is stored in a system of batteries as DC power and converted to AC power as you need it. The battery system is typically located in a garage or shed near the power source.

Wind power is the cleanest and cheapest energy technology in the world. The average cost per kilowatt hour for coal-burning electricity was 10.4 cents in 2006 [source: Energy Information Administration]. Wind energy can be generated for a scant three cents per hour in optimum conditions [source: Earth Policy Institute]. Add to this that there are no greenhouse emissions produced, and it's no wonder that wind power is growing so fast.

In the next section, we'll see how you can ditch your water and sewer services to get you off the grid.

Water and Sewer Off Grid

A typical septic tank system configuration.
A typical septic tank system configuration.
HSW 2008

Now that you're getting your power from the sun and wind, it's time to get yourself off the city water and sewer line. The great thing about water is that it's everywhere -- it runs beneath your feet as groundwater and falls from the sky as rain. You can tap into both of these sources in order to go off the grid. According to the EPA, roughly 15 percent of homes in the United States get their water on their own, so there's no reason why you can't be one of them.

There are more than 17 million homes in the United States that get their water from private wells [source: The Groundwater Foundation]. The principle is simple -- a hole is dug or drilled deep into the ground and a pump draws out the water. There are many regulations that apply to private wells, so you should only use a licensed well driller. It's easy for harmful contaminants to leak into your well if it's not installed properly. The cost of a private well ranges from $3,000 to $15,000, depending on how deep you need to go. The deeper the well, the more likely you'll find clean water. Install a filter for better-tasting water. Another benefit of a private well is that you'll be able to avoid local watering restrictions during periods of drought.

Another way you can provide your own water is by harvesting the rain with a cistern. A cistern is basically a tank that holds water. Home cistern systems have large aboveground or underground tanks made from concrete, steel or fiberglass. The water from your rain gutters is channeled into the cistern and then pumped back into your home as you need it. If your cistern is above ground and higher than your faucets, you can use the weight of the water as pressure to get it into your home. Belowground cisterns require a pump to get the water to you, much like a well. If you want a cistern, you need to live in an area that gets enough rain. If you live near a major source of pollution, like a major expressway or factory, then you should avoid going with a cistern. If you want drinkable water, it's best to have a metal or clay roof because it's cleaner than a shingled one. Shingled roofs can be used, but they require a pre-filtering system before the water is deposited into the tank. If you're interested in harvesting rainwater, consult your local green building professional.

The best way to get off the grid's sewer line is to install a septic system. A septic system is basically a large metal tank that collects and releases your wastewater. Bacteria in the tank break everything down causing it to separate naturally into a top scum layer, bottom sludge layer and middle liquid layer. As new wastewater flows in, the liquid in the tank flows out into a series of buried perforated pipes that release the water over distance into a drain field. Soil acts as a biological filter, keeping the harmful bacteria buried beneath the ground until it's eventually absorbed as nutrients. The tank should be emptied and serviced by a professional once a year. You can read more about septic tanks in the article How Sewer and Septic Systems Work.

In the next section, we'll look at what you may to need to augment your solar, wind and water systems.

Augmenting Home Energy

Wood burning stoves are a great way to warm your tootsies.
Wood burning stoves are a great way to warm your tootsies.
Chris Clinton/Getty Images

If you go off the grid, you'll most likely need a few other things in place to ensure that you stay warm, cool and have plenty of water. Many people use propane as their source of gas. You can go all electric with your water heater and range, but that will use a great deal of your manufactured energy. Whole-house propane tanks are basically large versions of the ones that you use for your gas grill. The propane is fed into your house by pipes, just like your natural gas line, and the tank is refilled as you need it by a propane service.

Another option for heating your water is to go with a tankless water heater. For your off-grid goal, you'll need to buy a propane or electric tankless unit. They make natural gas versions as well, but you'll be on the grid. Tankless heaters don't store and heat water, they heat it on demand as you need it. You can read more about them in How Tankless Water Heaters Work. If you really want to go green, then you should look into a solar water heater. In this system, the sun's heat is harnessed and used to warm your water. You can learn more about solar heaters in the article How to Choose a New Water Heater.

Most people that choose to go off the grid also have a backup generator, just in case the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine for long stretches. These generators run on propane, natural gas, gasoline or biodiesel fuel and are only used if absolutely necessary. They can be rigged to kick in automatically if the battery power supply drops to a certain level.

Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves can help offset the energy it takes to heat your home. In fact, most homes that are off the grid depend on burning wood as their primary heat source. Electric and gas furnaces simply require too much fuel to keep a house warm on their own. You can even cook on top of wood-burning stoves. Super-insulation, which counts on airtight construction and additional layers of foam insulation, is an efficient way to maintain your home's temperature.

Another building technique that many people off the grid use is passive solar construction. Passive solar building is a design technique that uses the wind, sun and natural surroundings to heat and cool the home. There are several ways to block and remove heat, including shading through landscaping, using a dark exterior paint, installing a radiant barrier in the roof rafters and good old-fashioned insulation. Another way is through thermal siphoning, the process of removing heat through controlled airflow. Opening the lower windows on the breezy side of your house and the upper windows on the opposite side creates a vacuum that draws out the hot air.

In the next section, we'll see what kinds of lifestyle changes go along with living off the grid.

Off-the-grid Lifestyle

Open a Post Office Box if you're unable to receive mail off the grid.
Open a Post Office Box if you're unable to receive mail off the grid.
©iStockphoto.com/Jaimie D. Travis

You're excited about going off the grid now, right? You're set to get your solar panels and septic tank. You have the well driller booked and you're ready to say no to utility bills. Before you follow through on all these moves, you need to think about the lifestyle changes that come with going off the grid.

Even with solar and wind power, you'll still need to limit your use of electricity. Most people interested in living off the grid do so at least in part to live a greener life, so conserving power goes hand-in-hand with this decision. With adequate solar and wind systems, you should be able to operate most of your electric appliances and gadgets, but not necessarily at the same time. If you're using a hair dryer, avoid using the microwave. If you fire up the blender, unplug your space heater. Major electricity users like washing machines should be operated at night, when your other power needs are minimal. True disciples of the back-to-land movement wouldn't use a washer and dryer anyway. Washing clothes by hand and using a clothesline is a rustic alternative.

The same goes for your water use. With a cistern system, in periods of little rain you might need to let the dishes pile up for a couple of days or limit your toilet flushes. Some people go so far as to turn off the shower water while they lather or wash their hair. Collecting additional non-potable water in rain barrels is a great way to water plants, wash dishes and keep your pets hydrated without dipping into your well or cistern.

Energy Star appliances are the most efficient on the market and a good way to save money on your bills. Look for the yellow stickers on the appliances when you buy them and compare the ratings. In addition to saving energy, the government offers rebates on Energy Star appliances, so you'll be saving money as well. You should­ also switch your light bulbs to the energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs.

If you truly "drop out" and go off the grid in a rural area, you'll likely have no mail or garbage service available. Most people will welcome the lack of junk mail, and since you won't have any utility bills, you won't be getting any cellophane window envelopes either. You can send anything you need from a post office and even maintain a P.O. Box if you want to receive mail.

Not having garbage pickup is another consideration. This can be readily solved by recycling and composting. If you're smart in what kinds of products you purchase, you can eliminate a great deal of potential garbage as well. Grow your own vegetables or raise some chickens and goats for milk and eggs. Avoiding packaged foods will greatly reduce the amount of paper and plastic waste you need to get rid of. All your organic food waste and even some paper products can be composted and fed back into your soil. Most recycling centers also have Dumpsters for your non-recyclables. You can read more about composting and recycling in the articles How Composting Works and How Recycling Works.

You can learn more about energy conservation and other home-related stuff in the articles on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

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