Off-Grid questions

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Home Sweet Home

Every now and again, I get an email with some great questions, this evening I received such an email from a new ‘net friend, Marcy. She has recently taken the plunge to live completely off-grid. She is starting out in a rather primitive way, much like we did. I found her questions very good and decided I would post the email exchange here. Thanks Marcy, enjoy!


Just had a couple questions for you about your off-grid living experience.

How much solar energy do you produce? How many solar panels & batteries?

How are you keeping food cold? Do you have an electric or propane fridge?

Do you have TV? Are you able to use your computer from home or do you have to go elsewhere to use it?

Do you have a well? Cistern?

Any tips you can give me?

Thanks so much! Have a blessed New Year!


Hi Marcy, thanks for writing, I love answering questions. :) Our electric system is pretty small by most standards. We have 4-55 watt Siemens solar panels, and we have 4 sets of 45 watt Harbor Freight solar panel kits, you can do the math. On the Siemens panels, we have those running through a Xantrex C35 charge controller, that keeps the batteries from getting over charged. Next that goes to 4 Trojan Deep Cycle batteries, I believe 2 are 130 amp hours and 2 are 120 amp hours. That is one system, on the Harbor Freight kits, they come with their own charge controllers, they aren’t recommended though because they are known to fail, running the risk of overcharging your batteries, but we use them for now. The 4 sets of 45 watt HF kits run through their own charge controllers to 2 Interstate deep cycle batteries, I believe they are 125 amp hour batteries. We keep the two systems separate, not for any particular reason, it’s just how they got set up. We use the first bank of batteries for the main power systems in the house. As I said, we don’t run much, a few CFL bulbs (the ones that came with the HF kit) and a few LED light bulbs, we also run a 12 volt water pump, a radio, a laptop computer, an external set of computer speakers on occasion. On the second bank of batteries, it’s mainly for backup, but we do use them for lights, a radio (the same one as mentioned before), Bob’s mp3 player and external computer speakers (the same ones as mentioned before). Bob does run the cement mixer from our main system from time to time, but if he has a lot of cement to mix, he uses a generator. Oh, sometimes, when the mood hits, we run the vacuum on the one piece of carpet in the main room, LOL! We have a dorm sized fridge, don’t use it much, we also have a small fridge that came out of a small RV, it runs on electric or propane, haven’t hooked it up to see if it works, gotta clean the things up before I would even consider bringing it in the house. We don’t really do much in the way of foods that need to be kept cold, our neighbor lets us use his fridge and freezer, we try real hard not to take advantage of his generosity. We recently acquired a smallish chest freezer, the idea is to convert it into a fridge , but right now it’s down at my neighbor’s house, storing all the frozen stuff from his freezer inside, he needed the cooler space because his family was coming out for Christmas and bringing lots of food, we weren’t using the chest freezer yet, so for now, it’s not in service for us. Right now, it gets cold enough, especially overnight that we just put our foods outside, mainly leftovers and things we only buy in the winter, we put them outside on the deck, it’s protected from animals, it gets and generally stays cold enough to keep leftover and other foods plenty cold enough. We just try not to buy things that need real refrigeration, don’t buy freezer stuff, or if I do buy something that would need refrigeration we just consume it immediately. Of course it’s just the two of us, no kids or any other family members living here, we can do this with no problems, it just take a bit of a different mindset and planning to make it work. It’s pretty much second nature now. We don’t have a TV, gave it to our neighbor (same one), where we live we couldn’t get a TV signal, too many mountains surrounding us for a signal to get through, then they changed to all digital, I refuse to PAY to watch TV, any time I want to watch TV I can go to my neighbor’s house and watch all I want, I rarely do it, I don’t miss it, didn’t watch much before so it’s not a big change for me. I do, however, watch the few TV shows I like on the internet, most networks stream their shows, especially the more popular ones, it’s great because I get to watch the shows when I want to, don’t have to plan around what show is coming on that night… I did this before we moved out here, I used to work 2 jobs, I didn’t have time to watch TV, I was usually at work anyhow, so I started watching TV shows on the internet, no big change for me there. When we first moved out here, the only internet option was satellite, it’s expensive to set up, expensive to use and they meter your bandwidth, since I like to watch streaming videos, streaming radio and other bandwidth hogging activities, that was not an option for us. I all but gave up the internet, I would check my email at my friend’s house but it wasn’t something I wanted to do for a long term thing. Fortunately we got wireless internet out here, it’s a microwave system, we have an antenna on the house to send and receive the signal. It is fast, inexpensive and most importantly they don’t meter the bandwidth, they don’t care how much I use, I quickly decided it was worth the monthly expense to have, it’s one of the very few bills we have, since I make a little money on line, it’s worth it to have. We don’t have a well, wished we could, they are EXPENSIVE to drill, our neighbor has a well that we use, we have water tanks that we fill, right now the one we use for drinking is a 300 gallon tank, we only fill it about half full, don’t want to tax the deck it’s sitting on and don’t want to tax my neighbor’s well. We have a 1550 gallon black poly tank up the mountain from us, we don’t have it plumbed yet, once that is plumbed, we will start getting water delivered from the local water service, 1100 gallons is $50 delivered, that should last us at least a month or more. We also have a community well that is free to the property owners out here, just have to get set up to go get the water and deliver it ourselves, until then it’s cheap enough to have it delivered. We also collect rain water from the roof, we have a rainy season, lasts a month to two months, rains nearly everyday during that time, the rest of the year is very little rain. We have old metal water tanks to hold the rain water, we use that for the garden and building (concrete) purposes. Get good shoes/boots, for both of you, get good ones, you don’t want your footwear failing you. For winter, have good wool socks, we use thermal underwear and quilted coveralls to keep warm, don’t want to burn up too much wood too quickly, we keep the house just warm enough to keep the pipes and water pump from freezing, we don’t try too hard to keep it toasty warm. Good clothes, good footwear, don’t skimp, it’s no savings if you buy something cheap that lasts only a season or less. Advice, document your life, especially this beginning, it’s great fun to go back and see how far you have come, take lots of pix if you can. Learn to do as much for yourselves as you possibly can, the more you can do yourself, the more independent you will truly be. Try to do as many things as you can by hand, the less you rely on electricity, electrical appliances, and such, the better you are, use hand tools, it takes longer, it’s harder, but at least for us, it has worked in the long run. I am always on the look for kitchen gadgets that are hand operated, I do as much as I can the “old fashioned” way, I don’t even use a microwave any more. It’s funny, we bought a small, low wattage microwave before we moved out here. We have been here 2 years and just now dug it out to use. Turns out that the microwave doesn’t like the inverter, has to do with square or modified sine waves, the “computer” inside needs a more expensive pure sine wave inverter to work right, it’s the timer part of the computer, so it’s basically useless to us. The microwave where I work is an older, dial operated microwave, lower wattage, no computer timer chips, it’s either on or off, the dial is a mechanical timer. I asked my boss if I could trade her old microwave for our new one, she said OK, I still haven’t done it because I have no real need for the thing, I will probably go ahead and do it, just because the one we have is truly a waste for us and my boss could use the new one. Do you live in a community that is off-grid? One thing I would I say, this is awful but the truth, be careful who you talk to about your lifestyle. There are those nosy, busybodies out there who think it’s their God given duty to turn people in to code enforcement for real or perceived code violations. We have a few people out here who have turned people in about septic systems (or lack of), also people I know have been turned in to CPS because they thought the children weren’t living up to their standards (living off-grid, no running water and such) even though those children were living a better life off-grid than they would have been living in town with all the garbage they have to deal with there. This is especially true if you are using non-commercial composting toilets (think: Jenkins Humanure), or if you are using a gorilla septic systems… also, don’t discuss your food stores or your weapons, in a SHTF situation, you don’t want people remembering the conversation you may have had with them about your stuff, or remembering what they may have seen in your pantry. It’s something I have to remind myself of on a daily basis, trust no one completely, trust very few. It’s human nature to want to brag or show off what you have done, what you have achieved, but it’s also human nature to do what is necessary to survive too, you don’t want that turned against you in a SHTF situation. Another thing not to discuss is your property tax, especially if yours are very low right now, any improvements on your property will eventually result in higher taxes, if someone who is paying though the nose for their property tax finds out that you are paying very little may feel the need to call the tax assessor’s office, after all it’s only fair that you pay as much as they do, doesn’t matter that it will not make their taxes lower, they will feel GOOD about making sure you are paying your “fair amount”… :( When people ask me about my taxes, I give evasive answers, I say “too much”, I never say how much I’m paying, especially if I know they are paying a lot more than I am, besides it’s no ones business how much you pay. Another area where you want to keep your privacy is on your blog about your location, unless you don’t mind total strangers showing up on your doorstep…”Hi, I read about you online and thought I would track you down to meet you…”, I keep my exact and even inexact location private, I say the state where I live and the general area, just keeps the psycho stalkers away. :) Another piece of advice, don’t give up, you will go through some bumps in the road, there will be times when you will wonder what on Earth made you want to do this, when you are sitting there with your inverter buzzing because you have had a few cloudy days and you have little or no power, when you are craving a ____________ (fill in the blank, for me it’s my favorite fast food restaurant) it’s easy to wish you had your old life back, but remember when you are sitting there with the only lights on in your neighborhood because of a blackout, when you check your mail and find NO utility bills month after month, it’s soooooo worth it! The freedom is priceless, the independence is priceless, it also places responsibility squarely in your lap, if something doesn’t work, you can’t just call up the local utility company to fix the problem, BUT it is so worth it to have the freedom. Don’t forget, every now and again, thank your hubby for the things he does, let him know that you love your off-grid life. It’s human nature for men to want to give their wives the best, you don’t want your man thinking that you might be unhappy living with less than you can be just because you poop in a bucket and cook on a wood stove and take spit baths… make sure he knows that you are proud of everything he does for you and that you wouldn’t have things any other way. Let him know that while you might miss the mall/WalMart/_____________ (fill in the blank), you are happy and better off without those things. Men need their egos stroked every now and again, you should give him something to beat his chest about while grunting, think Tim the Toolman and a caveman… :) I’m sure I have given you lots of fodder to chew over, maybe some things you already knew about, maybe some things you haven’t even considered. If you have more questions, or need something clarified, feel free to write, I enjoy living this life and I enjoy teaching other’s what I have gone through. Wretha Click here for Marcy’s blog.

14 Responses

  1. Thanks for clearing that up Wretha, I guess I’m the type that would love to be “off-grid” in the Matrix sense, as I really dislike Big Brother!

  2. I am at a bit of a loss here as my understanding was that “off-grid” meant that “Big Brother” could not watch you, however all the people that claim to be living “off-grid” are emailing this blog, and therefore are being watched by Big Brother.

    Surely the best way to be “off-grid” is to find a place in an isolated area, as far away as possible from the spying eyes of those every intrusive CCTV eyes, cut up your credit cards, through away your mobile, smash your netbook/laptop/PDA/PC into a million pieces and live off the land…….only then will you be “off-grid”!

    1. Hi Chris, it’s true that the words “off-grid” mean different things to different people. In my case, and probably the people who are writing here, off-grid means living without being hooked up to the utility grid, usually referring to electricity, it can also include any other utility service, water, gas, phone… We generate all of our own power using solar panels, we heat with wood, haul in water and such, we are very much modern day pioneers. I get my internet from a wireless service. I AM in a somewhat isolated area, there are few people out here. We aren’t “hiding” from anyone, Big Brother included, I do enjoy having more freedom (from spying eyes) than I did when living in the city, it would be folly to think that where I am now, I could be completely hidden from Big Brother.

  3. Fred,

    Maybe you need to start submitting articles here–sounds like you’re quite the expert!

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. My hubby and I will be retiring soon (I hope) and I’ve been planning for the past several years on how we can live as sustainably as possible, to include searching for a piece of property with a home with a lot of potential. I’m constantly on the lookout for green alternatives that will save us big bucks in the long run.


  4. Interesting qestions and responses. Having lived for several years in a passive solar/active solar (hot water)/fireplace heated home twenty years ago I would strongly suggest everyone thinking of going “off-grid” to purchase and carefully read “The Renewable Energy Handbook” by William H. Kemp-published in 2005.
    It’s not overly technical so it should meet most people’s needs. Virtually every question asked on this web site is covered in detail in that book.

    I am surprised hot water heating (30% of most home’s energy) is not discussed in the questions or the answers. The home I built and designied used the back of the fireplace during the winter and active solar during the summer to heat the water. This was for a family of four (two adults and two children) and saved a chunk of change.
    A custom designed mild steel steel (iron) fireplace with external air source with a plenum area behind the fireplace is required. The plenum area connected to the back up gas furnace fan (and thermostat). If I had not been so lazy and got up earlier enough every morning in the winter I would not have used any gas!

    Yes, I know a wood stove, is more efficient than a fireplace but I like (and my wife) the fireplace appearance. With the external air source that entered through the front floor of the fireplace we could completely close the glass doors and stop all drafts that are created by fireplaces.

    To be environmentally carbon (i.e. carbon dioxide ) neutral, I would also suggest everyone, if possible, use 100% biodiesal or anaerobic digestor created methane where fuel other than wood is required. This should definitely be used in any back up generator.

    Personally, for transportation, I am looking at the electric/biodiesal XR3 from Riley. It’s a three wheeled small vehicle that suppsedly get 200 m/gal depending on how you calculate it. Lets not forget about the impact of gasoline or natural gas use on air pollution.

    Everything I have read, unless you are in the deep south or a desert you will need a small stream or high tide with a microturbine to be truely “off-grid”. The reasons are discussed in detail in Kemp’s book.

    My career has been water treatment so if you have any specfic questions about water well design, reuse or drinking water treatment please contact me.

    Good luck everyone.

    1. Thanks Fred for your detailed comment, there are lots of things not discussed in this post, it was merely a Q&A from one of my readers. Go back and read the rest of my articles, my hubby and I live 100% off-grid, have done so full time since Dec 07, our place is somewhat primitive, we do have hot water though, we use an on demand, propane fired tankless water heater, it works great. Your hot water system wouldn’t work well for us, we live in the desert and don’t need wood heat all the time, just during the coldest months, and then usually only at night and on cloudy days. Even though we live in the desert, we are 100% off-grid, we have no utilities at our place, we generate all of our electricity with solar panels, store it in deep cycle batteries, we haul our water, use propane to cook and heat water. We do have internet, but even that’s wireless. Our phone is an internet phone, so no phone pole either.

      When we drive, which is not very often and not very far, we have a 69 VW Beetle, it works great out here in the high desert mountain roads, most of the other people drive so called better cars, newer, more expensive cars, their vehicles are torn up by the dirt roads out here, so even though it’s gasoline powered, it’s still a bargain for us to operate, the parts are readily available and cheap, we can work on it ourselves instead of having to take it to a dealership…

      Might pick your brain later about wells though, our ground water out here is great, but drilling a well is expensive, my neighbor’s well went to 400 feet, but static for him is 200, that’s still pretty far for DIY drilling. We use a Berkey Light water purifier, it works great, it’s gravity fed, no power needed, the water directly from a well is fine to drink, but if you store it in a tank (which we do) I prefer running it through the Berkey Light before drinking it or cooking with it.

  5. Very nice post. Thanks for all the info. I’m curious to know more about the wireless internet microwave system you spoke of. I’ve never heard of such a thing. We will be moving to the mountains in a few years and it can be difficult to get internet in the mountain tops. I know satellite internet is not cheap especially when we do not intend to have satellite TV.

    1. Heather, thanks for writing, all I can say to you is when you move to your location in the mountains, ask around (the locals) to see what they use, find out what’s available and the price of each service, find out how happy the locals are with what they are using, it isn’t a good thing to get a great deal on something you will not be happy with in the long run. Don’t worry about researching this until closer to the time when you are going to move, internet companies and deals come and go, chances are there will be options available to you then that don’t exist now.

      I don’t have satellite TV or internet, but everyone else who lives out here does, from what I understand the internet and TV satellite systems are two separate systems, you don’t get deals or breaks just because you have both, though this may be different where you live.


  6. Wretha,

    I think I asked this once of you, but have you considered using the night sky for freezing water to keep food cold/frozen? On clear nights, you can concentrate the night sky using a reflective cone or even a solar oven with a concentrator on water to make ice. You can even use this principle with refrigerant at night (ie expose a refrigerator coil to the night sky using a concentrator, which will cool the refrigerant in the line exposed, causing the colder refrigerant to drop into the refrigerator/freezer to either cool or even freeze what’s there. This is based in part on the “Four-Mile Island Ice Box” I mentioned before as well as what I’ve read at HomePower magazine and various websites on “solar cooling”.

    Keep writing–I love your stuff!


    1. Thanks TheMajor’sLady, I have heard of these things, haven’t considered using it though, might be something to look at later. We don’t really need a freezer, but using a chest freezer as a refrigerator is something we can use and it is on the “to do” list.

      Glad you like reading my stuff, I enjoy writing, never though I’d have such a great audience when I first started. :)


  7. This is great. Excellent advice.

    I am fairly new to this and I am starting small, but I have many of the same issues. Unfortunately, I cannot go completely off-grid (at least, yet). What my intent is would be to become as self-sufficient as possible and make the final leap a bit later (depending on the SHTF situations that seem to be very near at hand).

    I take a slightly different tact. I want to make sure I can power my deep freeze (I live in the SE USA) and provide some other small current devices like a PC and LED lights, etc. It is full of last year’s garden veggies now. And the temp is too warm to just sit stuff outside. Problem is that freezers take a lot of power.

    But, eventually, I want to go completely off-grid. Knowing that I am not totally reliant on TVA makes me feel good.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. BuelahMan, thanks for your reply, don’t worry about the fact that you can’t go 100% off-grid now, just keep heading in the right direction and you’ll get there. As far as a deep freeze goes, yes they do take a lot of power, it’s possible to have enough solar power to run a freezer, but I would suggest going toward other ways of preserving food, dehydrating and canning come to mind, both methods can be done with little to no power. The problem with relying on technology (freezers) to keep your food is how much loss would you have if something happened to your freezer? Whether it was the freezer that failed or your system to keep it running (off-grid or on the grid). It’s just too risky, at least for me it would be.

      Keep up the good work, I visited your site, very interesting indeed! :)


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