The Off-Grid Dream – the Realities

Going off-grid is your dream, but how do you proceed? Where do you begin? First you need to come to grips with the realities of going off-grid. We’ve lived the off-grid dream for 41 years beginning in northern Maine at our first homestead, then in the bush of northern Saskatchewan where we built an off-grid homestead so remote the only way in or out was by float plane and now here in Nova Scotia where we’re building our third and final homestead. Our experience has shown that to be successful anyone considering severing the electrical cord needs to give careful thought to the following questions. Let’s discuss the off-grid dream – the realities.

Kitchen Work by Kerosene Lantern

Kitchen Work by Kerosene Lantern

Questions to Ponder

How spartan a lifestyle are you willing to lead or do you expect to continue with your current lifestyle giving up as few conveniences as possible? How complex do you want your energy system to be? (a hybrid system of sun, wind or water or a single generating source) What is your budget?

Contrary to popular belief, free energy from sun, wind or water is a fantasy. The more complex the system or the bigger the system, the more up front expense there is. Granted the bigger your set up, the more energy you generate and the more things you can power, but are all those gizmo’s really necessary? That’s why determining what you want to power and what you don’t need is so important. At a minimum you’ll need to come up with an off-grid solution to the following.

1. Water

2. Lighting

3. Heating and cooking

4. Waste disposal

5. Food storage (as in frig/freezer or not)

6. Laundry

Unless you think about these 6 necessities ahead of time and come up with a viable plan to implement, you lessen your chances of success when you take the plunge and go off-grid. Stumbling around in the dark, hauling drinking water from a nearby town and making a daily food run for perishables will get old in a hurry. So please take the time to formulate a game plan before you’re faced with the reality of no water, lights, refrigerator or heat.

Without a doubt there are as many solutions to each of these issues as there are people who have unplugged and are living the dream. As such there’s no right or wrong answer. Below is a synopsis of solutions we’ve come up with through the years. What has worked for us may or may not be practical for you. What is important is to match your solutions to your goals and circumstances.

Our Off-Grid Solutions

Maine Solar Panels

Maine Solar Panels

In Maine, where we homesteaded for 20 years, we had 4 small solar panels, 2 of which were homemade, along with an inadequate battery bank. We were chronically short of power. As a result, we lived with a hand pump for water and used pails to lug the water to wherever it was needed: sink, laundry tubs or bath tub. All hot water for bathing, dishes and laundry was heated in kettles set atop one of our wood stoves. We heated with wood and I used an antique wood cook stove year round for all cooking, canning and baking. Because we couldn’t power a refrigerator or freezer I had to can any garden produce that couldn’t be stored in our root cellar.

Hand Water Pump in Maine

Hand Water Pump in Maine

We had a grey water leach field that the tub and sink drained into and an outhouse instead of an indoor toilet (a real treat to use at -20 F). The house was wired for 12V lights but we had to rely on kerosene lanterns most of the time in winter. While the lanterns gave enough illumination to maneuver around the house, the light was poor quality and precluded doing anything that required good light.

Initially I did laundry by hand using a scrub board until I smartened up and began using a plumber’s plunger as my “agitator”. When I acquired an old hand crank wringer I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Eventually we “modernized” and began using an old electric wringer washing machine. But that had to be powered by a gas generator. Yes I could have cheated by going to a laundromat but would I have really been living off-grid by relying on water and power at that commercial establishment? By the way, I NEVER used a dryer relying instead on the outdoor clothesline in summer and wooden clothes rack set up in the house in winter.

Northern Maine had plenty of cold in the winter which we took took full advantage of by using the great outdoors as our fridge/freezer but come warm weather we had no safe means to store perishables. Eventually we bought a small propane fridge that fit under the kitchen counter which was nice and certainly made for safer food storage but made us dependent on the propane company for refrigeration. So bottom line even though we were off-grid, we were still dependent on energy companies-kerosene for lights, propane for refrigeration and gasoline for the generator.

When we decided to move, we upped our game and installed a bigger energy system. In Saskatchewan we had a hybrid system of solar and wind. Here in Nova Scotia we are strictly solar powered. To give you an idea of our progression, in Maine our pitiful system was 200 watts, in Saskatchewan it was 800 watts and now we have 3200 watts.

Wind and Solar in Saskatchewan

Wind and Solar in Saskatchewan

3200 Watt Solar Array Nova Scotia

3200 Watt Solar Array Nova Scotia

We now have adequate lighting, a fridge/freezer in the kitchen, 2 chest freezers that are full of garden produce (which saves me from having to can everything), an electrically powered piston pump for water along with pressure tank so we have running water at sinks and shower, an indoor composting toilet with grey water draining into a septic tank (our local building code prohibited a grey water leach field) and I can run the wringer washer off the electrical system. As I did in Maine, I use a solar clothes dryer in summer to dry the laundry (outdoor clothesline) and in winter I use wooden clothes racks set up in the house. I still use a wood cookstove for all cooking, canning and baking and the cookstove still heats our domestic hot water by a thermosiphon loop. It goes without saying that we still heat the house with wood.

Wood Stove for Heat/Wringer Washer

Wood Stove for Heat/Wringer Washer

Final Thoughts

Our progression over time from a simple system to a more elaborate one illustrates 2 points. First you can start with a small, simple, relatively inexpensive set up and upgrade as finances allow. Second an off-grid lifestyle can be spartan with inconveniences and hardships or can be one of relative comfort and ease. You’ll have to determine what is right for you.

Initial Wiring of New System

Initial Wiring of New System

Undoubtedly there are many reason to pursue an off-grid lifestyle: the desire to be free of electric, oil, propane and gas companies along with their ever increasing costs, the desire to live green, power reliability, the desire to be as self-reliant as possible and provide your own energy needs or the freedom to be able to settle anywhere even if it’s miles from the nearest utilities. For us it’s all of the above. Good luck in your off-grid journey.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to The Off-Grid Dream – the Realities

  1. Margy says:

    The wringer washer reminds me of grandma’s. They didn’t live off the grid, but in a rural area by the time I was old enough to remember things. My grandma always said I was born a generation too late based on my interests. It may have been more like two generations in some cases, but I do love the modern telecommunication options. I guess I like to take the best of all worlds to create my own best world. – Margy

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Hi Margy. I’m sorry for the late reply. I never received a notice that anybody had commented. That’s the beautiful thing about technology. We can pick and choose what we wish to incorporate and like you, the communication options open up the world to us. But, a wringer washer still can’t be beat. 🙂

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