Living off the grid, also known as homesteading, means being disconnected from the power grid and sometimes other public utilities (such as water and sewage) as well.
This seems like a daunting task, but if you’ve ever spent time camping or at a cottage, it may not be so farfetched for you. Living off the grid doesn’t necessarily mean living without electricity—many folks find other power sources to help them maintain the comforts of modern living while bypassing municipal services.
People may choose to live off the grid for a variety of reasons:
- To be self-reliant and autonomous
- To be a bit further removed from society
- To decrease their environmental footprint
…or, perhaps, they’re the type of people who are preparing for a zombie apocalypse!
Alternatively, in a remote location, it might be more cost-effective to install a stand-alone power system instead of running power lines in order to connect to the grid.
In any case, we can all learn a thing or two about living in more self-sufficient ways and reducing our impact on the planet. Many of the seven power options below can be incorporated into homes that are connected to the grid, too. However, we first need to consider some safety components that are commonly required within various types of renewable energy systems.
A Handful of Essential Safety Components
When using renewable energy systems, there are several important components that are necessary for safety purposes.
Batteries and a charge controller are necessary for storing electricity. The battery itself stores the electricity, while the charge controller regulates the flow so that the battery isn’t overcharged. This is essential to extending the life of the battery.
This is important at times when your power system of choice isn’t able to generate electricity, such as on cloudy days or days without enough wind. Simple systems will involve connecting the energy-generating source directly to an appliance, such as a heater, but adding a battery and a charge controller will allow you to store some of that energy and use it more efficiently.
When we produce electricity by using renewable energy systems, the current that’s produced is referred to as direct current (or DC) power. However, most electricity-powered devices require alternating current (AC) power, so we need to convert the power from DC to AC by using a power controller such as an inverter.
The power controller components of a system also help regulate the voltage and power cycles, so that you don’t fry your devices—have you ever fallen victim to a power surge killing your laptop? Or have you tried to use an American-made hair dryer or flat iron in Europe? If so, then you likely know what can happen when you don’t have the proper adapters and protection!
A power inverter, a type of power conditioning equipment, specifically changes the current from DC to AC and allows for a safe connection to the grid if you choose to make one. It helps condition the electricity to match that of the grid or the needs of the appliance it’s connected to. Aside from the home, small power inverters are also available for vehicles and other small power-generating devices.
Safety equipment is also crucial when it comes to your ability to maintain your renewable energy systems, especially if you’re in a remote location. This equipment will protect both your system and the people around the system. Safety disconnects are particularly vital to protecting your system from a power surge arising from lightning—or even a power surge that comes from the grid, if you’re connected to it.
Grounding equipment literally connects your system to the ground, as an “escape route” for extra electricity when the system gets overloaded; for example, during a power surge from a lightning strike. Think of a balloon: It has a limited capacity, and if we try to blow extra air into the balloon, it’ll just explode! Adding a small hole to the balloon allows for the overflow of air to escape without the balloon exploding, and this is sort of how grounding equipment works, too.
Surge protection for your power outlets will also help protect your devices in the event of a power surge, so you’ll be unlikely to end up with a fried laptop after all!
Finally, meters and instrumentation will help measure your renewable energy system’s components in order to make sure they’re continuing to work safely and efficiently. If you’re connected to the grid, you’ll also need a meter to measure the electricity you use from your own energy source in comparison to that of the grid.
Additionally, if you share your excess energy with the grid, a special meter will allow you to measure the amount used by the grid against the amount of energy you use from the grid, for balancing purposes. For example, if you use energy from the grid, you’ll have a positive reading, and if the grid uses your energy, that produces a negative reading (or deducts from your positive reading).
Fire: Humankind’s First Energy Source
While this isn’t a power source in terms of electricity, it’s a very important energy source to those who live off the grid. Fire is an excellent tool to be used for heat, cooking and even community and entertainment.
A wood-burning stove is a major centerpiece for an off-the-grid lifestyle. Mainly, one of these is an effective heat source that will keep a home warm during cooler seasons; furthermore, it’ll easily replace an electric or gas stovetop when you need to cook or boil water in a kettle. The radiant heat from a wood-burning stove can also help you with drying clothes that you’ve hung up inside on cold or wet days.
Some forms of controlled fire outside, such as a charcoal barbecue, a fire pit or an underground oven (sometimes called the earth oven method) are also effective alternatives to the electric or gas stove. These are especially useful in warmer weather, when lighting a wood-burning stove inside would just make your home too hot.
These forms of fire also provide opportunities for entertainment or connection—there’s just something special about gathering around a fire with marshmallows, or coming together for a barbecue or pig roast in front of an underground oven!
Last but not least, candles and lanterns can provide you with fire-based light when you have no electricity for whatever reason.
Wind Turbines: The Possibility for Rebates
In the simplest terms, a wind turbine involves blades that catch on the wind and spin a rotor, which powers a generator and creates electricity!
Modern turbines can be horizontal-axis types, the kind we typically see in fields, or vertical-axis types. The latter type is perhaps less recognizable, but these come with the advantage of being omnidirectional, so they don’t need to be adjusted to capture the wind. Small, 100-kilowatt wind turbines are typically best for residential use, as opposed to the larger ones used on wind farms.
The main drawback with wind power is that wind isn’t dependable. It varies across continents, and even day-to-day, depending on the weather patterns. While limited amounts of wind power can be stored in batteries for later use, it’s important to have a contingency plan in place if you rely on electricity from a wind turbine.
For homes that are on the grid, there are government programs in various areas that provide incentives for utilizing green energy sources, and there may be opportunities to earn rebates if you share your wind power with the grid.
Water Turbines: Ideal Next to Moving Water
Much like wind turbines, the blades of these turbines catch on moving water, which then spins each turbine’s rotor and powers a generator. The most common example of this is a hydropower dam that drops water onto massive turbines and generates hydropower for whole communities.
Water turbines for off-grid homes are obviously smaller, and are unfortunately limited to homes that are near moving bodies of water. Water is more reliable than wind, but a certain amount of kinetic force is required to spin the turbines, and it’s hard to find enough moving water to create that force in certain locations.
Watermills and windmills are some of the oldest forms of renewable energy, though they weren’t initially used to produce electricity. Instead, they were used for other forms of work, such as grinding up grains into flour.
Solar Power: Popular and Readily Available
These days, solar power is increasingly popular, and the available ways to harness solar power are becoming more diverse.
Solar panels are arguably one of the most common and readily available forms of renewable energy. They can be costly to set up, but with green living gaining traction, governments will often offer rebates and incentives for green energy systems such as these.
Solar panels work due to photovoltaic cells that capture the light from the sun and turn it into electric energy. As with the energy produced by wind turbines, this energy can be stored in batteries for later use, and there can be kickbacks for sharing excess energy with the grid if you happen to be connected to it.
Solar water heaters will also make use of the sun’s power to heat water for your home! These come in many different configurations, and some may be more effective than others, depending on where your home is situated. Regardless, living off the grid doesn’t have to mean boiling water to have a nice warm bath!
Finally, using a solar cooker is a cool and interesting way to cook food by using solar power. The idea is that the heat from the sun is magnified by the cooker’s reflective and conductive materials, and then concentrated within its compact space, so it can heat food to safe temperatures.
Geothermal Energy: Reduces Fossil Fuel Consumption
This is a less common, yet effective way to regulate the temperature of your home. The theory behind geothermal energy is that the Earth, below the frost line, has a constant and reliable temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, we can take advantage of this to keep our homes at a comfortable temperature, without having to burn fossil fuels.
Water is pumped through piping in the ground, and circulated back to a geothermal unit in the home, which essentially replaces both the furnace and air conditioning unit. The geothermal unit then uses the temperate water to heat or cool the air, which is circulated through the home in ducts.
Unfortunately, geothermal systems have a larger cost upfront than some other types of renewable energy. However, in the long run, the savings will pay off. Plus, you can’t argue with the importance of reducing fossil fuel consumption!
Power Inverters for Vehicles: Ideal for Charging Small Devices
Some homesteaders who use vehicles have been known to use power inverters in their cars to charge smaller devices (such as cell phones, laptops and tablets) while they run errands.
This is a super-efficient way to make use of a vehicle. Cars are sort of like large generators, and each one charges their own battery as they run, so you can take advantage of this by simultaneously using the battery as a power source for your small devices.
If you’re a homesteader, you probably won’t use your devices very often, and won’t need a lot of battery life in them—you’ll probably be busy with other aspects of homesteading life, such as maintaining crops or animals, emptying the composting toilet, cooking and cleaning, and other home projects.
Sewage and Greywater: Avoiding the Municipal Systems
While these technically aren’t power systems, some people who are living off the grid also disconnect from other municipal systems, such as those used for water and sewage.
Well water is an alternative to a municipal water system that will give you safe and fresh drinking water. There are important maintenance tasks and regular tests for well water that must be completed in order to ensure that it remains safe for drinking. Many people who live on the grid in traditional homes also use well water, particularly if they live in more rural communities or remote homes.
Greywater is the runoff from showers, sinks and such that’s not drinkable, but doesn’t contain sewage. Many homesteaders have developed creative ways of collecting greywater to be used for watering gardens, washing up, cleaning vehicles and more. Greywater can also be used to “flush” a toilet.
Composting toilets are really interesting devices, as they’re able to process sewage by composting it, and they’ll also help you avoid adding waste to the sewage system. They do require maintenance, which will include periodically emptying the toilet bowl.
Final Thoughts on Off-Grid Living
Off grid-living is a more flexible, feasible practice than most people initially think. There’s an incredible amount of diversity within the community of people who decide to live off the grid. It’s possible to enjoy most—if not all—of the comforts of modern living while remaining disconnected from the power grid and other municipal services.
Read more about renewable energy for both on- and off-grid living by visiting 5 Types of Renewable Energy All Homeowners Should Investigate»