Once the domain of hardy pioneers, remote island communities and a smattering of back-to-the land beatniks, more people are now becoming interested in living ‘off the grid’ as a way of cutting back on bills and giving themselves more control over the utilities that sustain them.
The concept of off grid living means different things to different people and can be seen as being on a sliding scale. All of us, to some extent, rely on the services provided by the modern world, with very few people truly willing to become completely independent of services such as medical care and the internet. So, for most people, off-grid means having your own means of providing basic utilities such as water, electricity and heating.
People opt to go off-grid for a variety of reasons; some practical, some more idealistic. For many, it’s about regaining control of the basics of life, while for others it’s to allow them to live more self-sufficiently and to reduce their impact on the environment. Others do it out of necessity, especially if they live far from civilization (perhaps, in a Swedish log cabin or out in the American Rockies). Some just want to get away from everyone else - there can be many reasons to go off grid! While it can often be a lot of work setting up the systems to provide your home with water, electricity and heating, for those that make the effort it’s usually worth it.
Since many began to work at home in 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis, and having seen supermarket shelves empty as shoppers bought out stores faster than new produce could be delivered, some people have begun to experiment with growing their own food at home. While it would be impractical to hold down a job and at the same time produce all of your own food, most opt for providing some of the basics, such as tomatoes, potatoes, salad greens and onions. This adds up to the first steps of going fully self-sufficient, and for a lot of people this small taste has inspired bolder dreams of becoming more autonomous.
It’s true that most off-grid properties are located in rural locations, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Depending on where you live, it can sometimes be as simple as disconnecting all your utilities and installing your own ones. However, with most people living in towns and cities, it’s likely that urban properties will need to comply with more local ordinances than rural ones, especially when it comes to dealing with sewage and wastewater, so there are immediate limitations to consider. Of course, even if you do manage to disconnect all services, you’ll still need to pay local taxes and there may be other obligatory payments such as buildings insurance, but you’ll no longer have to pay for the main utilities.
On the other hand, if you live in the countryside or a quiet part of suburbia and your property has some land around it, there’s likely nothing to stop you from going fully off-grid. There are many books written on how to do this, as well as numerous YouTube channels to follow. One of the most well-known books is the 1976 classic by John Seymour The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency – which was said to have inspired the light-hearted BBC comedy series The Good Life about a couple attempting to live self-reliantly in suburban London. Being off grid in the countryside will give you considerably more scope to do things such as growing your own food and fuel, as well as keeping animals and setting up alternative energy systems like wind turbine.
But it doesn’t really matter whether you live in the town or the countryside, there’s always something you can do to disconnect yourself from paid utilities in some way. In fact, there are plenty of examples of people living in rented apartments who have set up solar panels on walls and balconies, grown their own salad vegetables in window containers or by used indoor hydroponic systems – generally making the best of the restrained conditions available to them.
It’s really up to you to decide the extent that you want to be autonomous from the centrally provided utility systems and strike out on your own, but these are some of the systems that you could look into for providing your needs.
One of the most common ways of generating your own electricity is to fit solar photovoltaic (or PV) panels onto your property. PV panels contain small semiconducting silicon crystals that are arranged into a circuit. When sunlight strikes them, they create an electrical charge, which is then converted into usable electricity via an inverter, or else stored in a system of batteries. An entire solar system setup features the panels, the batteries, the inverter and the cables, and it’ll usually require an expert to set it up for you unless you’re comfortable dealing with the sometimes-complex calculations involved.
Batteries traditionally have been heavy lead-acid ones, but more recently lithium batteries have become available on the market and they take up only a fraction of the space. Most houses you see with PV panels on the roof are still connected to the grid instead of batteries, and the householders benefit from selling the excess energy they produce to the utility company. This can mean some months they’ll get a cheque from the company rather than a bill, but it’s not technically off-grid.
However, one drawback of solar PV electricity is that it works far better in sunny countries than cloudy ones. So, while an array of solar panels might be comfortably able to produce enough energy for a typical household throughout most of the year in – say – Spain, the same system would produce a whole lot less electricity in cloudy Britain.
A way around this is to supplement the solar power generation with something we have a lot of in Britain – wind. Small wind turbines can easily be fixed to your roof, just so long as there’s a free flow of air that isn’t impeded by other structures such as other buildings or trees, and they can be bought quite affordably.
In rainy Britain, providing yourself with water is not much of an issue compared to drier countries, but you’ll still need a system in place to collect and store it. This can be as simple as filling up water butts or IBC containers (Intermediate Bulk Containers – large, caged, plastic containers used for storing liquids), but if you plan to drink the water, you’ll need to make sure the plastic is composed of food grade quality. The containers can be filled using rain runoff from your roof, but make sure you assess your annual water needs to make sure you have enough capacity for the drier summer months.
Storage is one thing, but you’ll also need to purify any drinking water and pump it to where it’s needed. There are many filters on the market which will ensure the water will already be mostly clean and free of residue by the time it reaches your tanks. From there, you may need to add chemicals to kill any remaining pathogens or else use another method such as UV lighting or ozone treatment to make it drinkable. Either an electric pump or a gravity fed system will be needed to ensure your clean water comes of out the taps at a decent pressure.
There’s no end to what could be said for producing your own food, and for most people the chances of doing everything themselves are vanishingly small. At present, a vast interconnected web of food producers, logistics firms and retailers put the food on our plates and opting out of this system completely is just not realistic for the majority of people.
That said, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your reliance on external suppliers, providing yourself not just with healthy, nutritious food, but also giving you the security of knowing where it comes from. This can be as simple as planting a few fruit trees and nut bushes, putting some raised beds in for annual vegetables or erecting a greenhouse of polytunnel. This last option allows you to extend the growing season by a few weeks each year, convincing your plants that they’re somewhere a few hundred miles to the south.
If you want to go down the route of keeping animals, the easiest ones to keep are chickens or ducks. Not only will you get eggs from them, but meat eaters will also get the occasional Sunday roast. Rabbits are another good meat species, while some people set up ponds (or convert swimming pools) to keep a type of fast-growing fish called a tilapia. Keeping bees in hives is another great way of getting food in the form of honey and is an enjoyable and absorbing pastime.
There are myriad ways of producing your own food, but it all takes time to learn. Probably the best way of doing so is the permaculture method, which focuses on working with the systems of nature rather than against them. Online courses and books are widely available to teach you how.
Wastewater and sewerage
What goes in must come out, and many off-gridders have invented ingenious solutions for the problems of dealing with waste. The easiest thing to do would be to bury a septic tank which is periodically emptied, but in some ways this isn’t really true to the nature of off-gridding, as you’ll still be reliant on a diesel-powered truck turning up to take away your waste.
Instead, a composting toilet allows you to ‘close the loop’ and make use of the so-called humanure we naturally produce. This isn’t as stinky as it sounds, and plenty of sawdust or a similar material deals with the problem nobody likes to think about. The waste is broken down by microorganisms, and within a year it’s pure, rich soil that you can sprinkle around your fruit trees or dig into your raised beds. Of course, this method really is more suitable to off-gridders out in the countryside rather than those living in flats!
For less volatile wastes, such as bathwater and washing up water, it can simply be drained onto the land away from the property as long as there’s nothing toxic in it. Some off-gridders set up reed-bed filtration systems, which is a fancy of way of saying a system of ponds filled with reeds that filter all the impurities out and leave you with pure water again.
The ultimate way to heat your home for little or no charge is to use passive solar heating. This simply means large windows that face the sun, combined with thick insulation that traps the heat indoors. Some houses are designed to make use of thermal mass, that is, heavy building materials such as stone which retain heat for many hours after they have been warmed.
The most popular way of keeping cosy is to buy a woodstove and heat with firewood that you’ve grown. You can grow your own trees to provide fuel for the stove – which can also be used for cooking – with willow being a popular fast-growing wood that’ll be ready in as few as three years after planting. Hot water can be obtained either by heating on your woodstove or by fitting a solar-powered vacuum-sealed water heater on the roof.
The possibilities are endless, when it comes to living the off-grid life, and it can be a satisfying way of giving yourself the reassurance that you’re not relying on some distant utility company or food conglomerate to provide your daily needs. But, when it comes to setting up your property, it can often be more complex and costly to retrofit a grid-tied property than it is to start from scratch. If you go down the self-build route, you can design your home to be as off-grid as you like, knowing that any extra expenditure up-front will reap dividends in the longer term in the form of money savings.
Another option is to purchase an older property that may never have been connected to the grid in the first place. While such properties are thin on the ground in the UK, continental Europe has many, and a lot of them are for sale at very low prices indeed. It’s common for people to buy such properties in Spain, Portugal, France or Italy, and renovate them in such a way as to be as self-sustaining as the owners want. This can be a fun and rewarding way of getting your dream off-grid property up and running for minimum cost.
If you do decide to go down this route, make sure you use a reputable currency provider such as Currency Solutions when transferring money abroad. This way you’ll have more money to spend on setting up your fruit orchard, buying solar panels, investing in a chicken run or whatever it is you plan to do in your new off-grid lifestyle!
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