The term “off-grid” likely portrays a wide variety of extremes. From total subsistence living to a temporary social media detox. In its simplicity, off-grid living simply means not being connected to utilities, especially the electrical grid. Since the dawn of the industrial age, modern conveniences have been marketed as the best way to free up our time, giving us time to enjoy the finer things in life. However, after living most of my life on the grid, one of the most common replies from almost anyone is they just don’t have time despite the many modern conveniences available to them. As the homesteading movement has picked up momentum in recent years, a lot of people are choosing to leave the hustle and bustle of modern life seeking a simpler lifestyle. As a result, the off-grid lifestyle is also gaining traction. So why live off-grid? Let’s explore the variances of off-grid living to find out.
Basic Definition of Off-Grid Living
In its simplest terms, living off-grid is a separation from society’s public utilities and social systems. Most of the time this refers to the electrical grid and utility companies. For many, this also includes the food system and education system. People even in urban areas may use some aspects of off-grid living. Many people have their own wells and are not dependent on the local municipalities for fresh water. Others have their own septic system rather than depend on a waste management company for sewage disposal. These areas of self-sufficiency are common and well-known. Neither are considered unusual or even considered an aspect of off-grid living.
For some, living in remote areas dictates the need to adopt an off-grid lifestyle. Access to the local power grid is simply not available. People living in extremely rural areas know that they are responsible for their own power, food supply, and water supply. Many choose to live very primitively, which allows them to live even smaller, reducing their environmental impact and cost of living even further.
Still many, are choosing to live somewhere in the middle. At our off-grid homestead, we have chosen to live an off-grid sustainable lifestyle. While we have access to “the grid” we have chosen to build our homestead completely independent of the electric grid and other municipalities. While we aren’t choosing to live primitively, we are responsible for sourcing our own electricity and water sources to facilitate the way of life we have chosen.
People’s reasons for living off-grid are as varied as the different ways they live. Among the top reasons are independence, smaller environmental impact, financial freedom, and peaceful living. These top four reasons commonly intertwine providing additional benefits.
Off-grid living means independence. Growing up, my daddy used to say, “When you pay the bills, you make the rules,” This statement certainly applies to those dependent on the grid. The companies that provide the initial investment or “pay the bills” make the rules when it comes to the resources that we have access to.
During the pandemic, we saw the impacts of dependence on the food system. At 50 years old, I had never seen grocery stores empty. While we had a surplus of food, it was still scary to come to the realization that the systems we had come to rely on were failing us. Across the county, people faced limited quantities of basic necessities, despite the family size. A limit of 4 cans of soup may not be a problem to a couple, but to a family of 5, that same 4 cans of soup won’t meet their needs.
The same can be said of energy rationing. Forced blackouts and brownouts that limit available energy are utilized when the electrical system is being strained. While conservation is always the right thing to do, these limitations don’t take into consideration the specific needs of the individual despite the validity of the need or want.
Decreased Environmental Impact
Some choose an off-grid lifestyle to create a smaller environmental impact and reduce their carbon footprint. By choosing one’s own renewable energy sources, we minimize the impact we have on the environment. Depending on where you live and available resources, you can create your own electricity with wind energy or solar energy. One of the side benefits of off-grid living is your increased awareness of energy consumption. While increased utility bills may make you aware of your energy costs, it’s not always a catalyst to change your energy use. The energy is still unlimited despite the increased expense. When living off-grid, each appliance or electrical device is evaluated to determine its merit for use. Our off-grid solar system doesn’t store an unlimited amount of energy, so we have to be mindful of how we use the energy we can store.
Many people choose an off-grid lifestyle for the financial freedom it provides. Living with a reduced footprint, reduced energy consumption, and costs combined with living more intentionally regarding your resources leads to a reduced cost of living. It took seven years for us to make the jump to move to our homestead full-time. The main reason we waited was to pay off our debts so that we could start our off-grid lifestyle debt-free. Unfortunately, circumstances rushed our plans, but living smaller and being intentional regarding our expenses allows us to live this lifestyle.
One of the biggest expenses for any homesteader is property. Philip purchased our land long before we planned to retire to our off-grid homestead. This allowed us to completely pay off the land long before we made the transition to full-time homesteading.
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While an off-grid homesteading lifestyle is hard work one of the greatest benefits is the peaceful living it provides. You certainly can live off-grid in an urban area, many people do. You can also homestead in an urban area, as we did for many years. However, even though we only live about 15 minutes outside of our small town, the peacefulness of living in a rural area is so refreshing. I no longer hear the buzz of vehicles 24/7. I hear the sounds of nature and the sounds of the farm all around me. We work in rhythm with the seasons and we reap the benefits of a slower pace of life that reduces stress.
The downside is that an off-grid lifestyle can be isolating and lonely. This life is certainly not for everyone and many don’t understand the allure. The work on the farm will mean long work days to ensure success. The trade-off for organically grown foods you grow yourself means many long hours of farming and preserving the harvest. The reward of sitting down to a meal grown completely on your farm is incredibly fullfilling, but you have to determine if the cost is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of Off-Grid Living
As with any lifestyle choices, you need to weigh the pros and cons of the lifestyle that you choose. One of the biggest considerations if you choose to live off the grid is how you will power your lifestyle? We all have the same basic needs: food, water, shelter, and warmth. How will you provide those elements for your family off the grid? What power source will you use? Think about what type of water source do you have available? What are your waste disposal plans? How will you grow and raise your food? Most importantly, what is your backup plan? When you choose to live off-grid, you are responsible when systems fail, and trust me they will fail at the most inconvenient time!
Always have a
Count the Cost
How will you pay for the equipment? One of the biggest cons of living off the grid is that solar panels and wind turbines are expensive. While these renewable resources will pay for themselves over time, the upfront investment can be overwhelming. We sold our home which allowed us to make the initial equipment investment. You can successfully build a solar system slowly, adding components as you can afford them, however, you have to be willing to live within the power limitations that a smaller solar system will provide. We quickly learned that our battery bank was large enough for daily power, but did not provide enough reserve power when weather conditions were not optimal for powering our solar system.
Your average electricity bills can help determine your budget. Solar panels have a lifespan of about 25 years while our batteries have about a 15-year lifespan. If our equipment needed to be replaced in just 15 years, that means our initial $18,000 investment divided over 15 years costs us $1200 a year. Compare that to your annual electric bill to determine if it’s a feasible option. Please note: Your electrical needs may be greater than ours, therefore your equipment needs would be greater than ours as well. I know many off-grid families who live on much smaller solar systems than we do. Many choose to make significant lifestyle changes to make it possible to live using less energy. Always make specific comparisons realistic to your electrical needs.
For water, a well is a popular option, but you may be surprised how expensive it can be to install a well. A well’s cost is determined by the depth needed to drill to reach the water in addition to the type of well and drilling method. An average well just 250 feet deep can cost between $3500 and $15000 to install. There are no guarantees to the water you will find and it’s quality.
An off-grid lifestyle undoubtedly means you will need to invest a lot of sweat equity! One of the best ways to save money is to do many of the projects yourself. For most of us, that means projects might take a little longer (or a lot longer) than could be done professionally. The advantage is you have a clear understanding of the systems you are building. Remember you need to maintain the systems you build as well, so understanding how they work will pay off in the long run.
Growing and raising enough food for your family will certainly include a lot of effort. Planning, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, and preserving all take a lot of time and effort. The sweet reward is sitting down to a meal that you grew yourself!
When it comes to food, even on a small urban homestead you can grow surprising amounts of food in small spaces. If you are in the homestead dreaming stage, start a vegetable garden now. Raise the chickens in your backyard for both meat and eggs. This is your classroom where you learn the skills you need to provide food for yourself. The best part of practicing before you are dependent on the food you raise is that mistakes won’t cost you so dearly. A failed crop, won’t mean that you won’t have enough food for the winter. Be realistic about what you can grow! What do you like to eat and what is practical in your growing zone? Make those things your staple products!
Creature Comforts: Heat
For many homesteaders, wood heat is the most efficient way to heat their homes. Even if you purchase wood and have it delivered there is an increased amount of sweat equity to keep your home toasty warm. If you take that a step further by harvesting downed wood on your property, the trade-off of free fuel is hauling, cutting, splitting, and drying the wood.
As a homesteader, embrace the attitude of a lifetime learner. Even in areas that you are proficient in, like gardening, you can learn new methods to increase your yields or make you a more efficient gardener. We are fortunate to live in a time where many of the basic life skills almost lost by previous generations have made a comeback! There are lots of ways to learn these skills, through books, YouTube, and social media.
Our Choice: Building an Off-Grid Homestead
One of the deciding factors for us when it came to choosing to power our homestead with solar power was that the cost of bringing grid power to our farm was very expensive. The estimate was over $20,000 plus multiple expenses of underground conduit and trench work. Furthermore, we would have had to pay licensed contractors to do the tree work on the easements across our neighbor’s land. While Philip is a tree surgeon by trade, licensed in Florida, he is not licensed in Kentucky.
All of that additional expense significantly increased the cost of bringing grid power to our farm. Additionally, we would have the monthly energy bills associated with using grid power. While we have invested a significant amount into our solar system, about $18,000, the system is ours and won’t incur additional monthly expenses. We were responsible for the installation and for its continued maintenance as it ages. We always have to remember we are responsible for our own power outages and our backup plan!
Water is Life on the Farm
Water is life on the farm! After talking to our neighbors and a local well driller we opted to use rainwater harvesting to supply our water. Rainwater harvesting is a feasible option for many off-grid homesteads, though it can be a difficult mindset for Americans to embrace. Be aware that the local regulations regarding rainwater harvesting vary from state to state, be sure to check your state ordinance to determine if it’s right for you.
Like the solar power system, you will need a way to store the water you harvest. Since we prepared for years to make our off-grid homesteading dream a reality, we have a collection of water cisterns in a variety of sizes from about 1500 gallons to 450 gallons. If every cistern is in use we can store over 5000 gallons of potable drinking water. We bought all of our cistern tanks used. It’s important to question the previous contents of any cistern tanks you intend to use for fresh water. Pass on any that have questionable or unknown histories.
I can’t emphasize enough, have a backup plan! Since we have just moved to the homestead full-time, our rainwater harvesting system is not yet in place. However, we can purchase and transport water that we buy in bulk in town. We use a 450-gallon cistern tank that can be transported in the back of the truck or we prefer the trailer. It’s surprisingly cost-efficient and is our backup plan for all of our water needs during drought conditions. Our pond is also a part of our backup plan when it comes to water on the farm.
While we have grown and raised our own food for years, now that we are full-time on the homestead, we will be increasing our food production to include not only our own food but also that of our animals. As urban homesteaders, we spent years growing gardens that supplemented our food supply. Now that we are full-time, our food production will greatly increase. While there will always be some items we can’t grow, we buy in bulk when we can to reduce food costs.
For us, it’s been easy to transition to raising our own meat. For years we have raised about 90% of all of our meat even living in a suburban neighborhood. We process all of our own meat from field to table. This adds significant savings to your meat costs by learning to process your own meat.
An Independent, Self Sufficient Homestead
Living off-grid is challenging! It requires a lot of time, energy, and know-how. Understanding your why, combined with perseverance and a bit of stubbornness will help you endure when the challenges come. For us, the freedom, independence, satisfaction, and fulfillment brought by a hard day’s work invested in your own goals, ambitions, and future make it all worthwhile.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.