The Grid

The Grid

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A lot of people think that “the Grid” means the interaction between human beings in our society. If that were the case, then going off grid is a ridiculous concept. Who wants to live in complete isolation from all other people?

Over the past two years, I should have have been collecting quotes from people who tell me that they could never consider off grid living because they love technology, or they are completely befuddled that we could have lived off-grid for several years while still using computers and the internet. Plenty of people think that should not be possible.

It’s time to clear up some misconceptions and set some definitions!

A lot of people think that “the Grid” means the interaction between human beings in our society. If that were the case, then going off grid is a ridiculous concept. Who wants to live in complete isolation from all other people?

I’m an extrovert, so definitely not me! It is normal and healthy to want interaction with other people.

The Grid actually refers to the power grid. If you can remember the Eastern Seaboard’s Blackout in 2003, you know that our electrical system is an intricate mesh in which actions in one station can affect power hundreds of miles away. There are far too many problems with the power grid for me to deal with today!

Few people today refer to simply the electrical grid, but I think it is important to remember that the electrical grid – that is, electrical power supplied by the public network of plants, stations, wiring and so much more – is at the heart of “the grid”.

At its simplest, public electricity is “the grid”.

When people talking about going off-the-grid, though, they rarely mean simply public electricity. Let us then define the extended grid as public utilities in any form – public electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, communication (mail, phone, internet).

Sometimes, depending on where a person lives, these can be very difficult, or even impossible, to unhook from!

The first step to going off the grid for most people is going to be electrical power. This rarely means eliminating electrical power in the home, because electricity is a very useful tool.

Instead, going off grid power means generating your own electrical power through:

However, it is true that drastic cut backs in electricity usage are almost always necessary. Few people have the $100,000 or so that would be required to power a typical North American household with renewable energy sources. This is why many people who choose to live off grid will live in tiny houses or at least relatively small houses. Sustainable living and an off-grid life go well together.

The average household uses 30-50 kWh per day. Our off-grid home, with six people in it, uses about 2 kWh daily. Since we create our own energy with solar power, we are constantly aware of our usage.

This tends to be location-based.

A person living in a city is going to find it practically impossible to disconnect from public water and sewage. No city planner is going to approve a septic tank or outhouse in your back yard, nor will they allow you to dig a well in the hopes of finding water.

On the other hand, rural residents often have no option other than a private well and septic tank.

Or even, depending on the region, an outhouse!

They are not connected to parts of the extended grid out of necessity, but they are still generally connected to the power grid and communication grid.

This does not include communication as long as you are, in any way, involved with human society.

We tried it and quickly found that it was impossible.

Even the Amish, considered by many to be the epitome of off-grid, use the mail service and telephones (although they won’t have a telephone in their homes).

If you are looking to disconnect only from the power grid, that can usually be accomplished anywhere, but most people who want to go completely off-grid are going to move to a rural area.

Be sure to check all building codes and bylaws, though. Sometimes an existing building can be occupied, even if it is not connected to the grid, while a new build would not be approved unless it is connected to the public power grid.

Rural areas generally allow or require private septic and water, but again, it is important to know your local bylaws and building codes.

Our rural retreat is completely off-grid, except for communication and the occasional garbage drop off at the bottom of the road, about ten miles away.

Our property is five miles up a really bad dirt road.

We have a private well. That is normal for our region.

Our home is powered by a very small solar array, and we heat with a wood stove.

The one “powered” item is an old propane stove. We did have a propane fridge, but it stopped working and we’re not replacing it. Read about our experiences living without a fridge for three years.

We do not have garbage pick up – we have been given permission to drop off our garbage at the bottom of the road. Half the time, we miss our garbage day, but that’s not an issue because we generate a relatively small amount.

Septic is a touchy issue – we bought the place with the understanding that there was a working septic system. Turns out it was a couple of 45 gallon drums that had been buried in the backyard and never emptied during the past thirty years.

While we were getting organized to replace it with a proper system, winter hit. Hard.

During that harsh winter, our septic failed completely. Amazingly, it has not been as bad as we thought it might be, but we’ll be happy when it gets fixed.

In the summer of 2015, we will be having a gray water system and a composting toilet installed.
Our long-term goal is to minimize garbage enough that we no longer need to use the garbage drop-off. That goal might be a long way off, though.

When I was thirteen, my grandfather told me that I would never be able to have a mountain homestead like the one in which he grew up. That was because, he said, communication, power and access to medical assistance are kind of important.

He was right.

I would not want to live anywhere that I could not communicate with other people, run lights at the very least and have access to medical assistance.

During our first year on the homestead, we huddled behind the house with our cell phone, trying desperately to find a signal while blowing on our fingers to keep them warm. I can remember being terrified of an accident happening that would require prompt medical care on one of those days when we couldn’t find a signal anywhere. And, while I do enjoy candles, sometimes you still need to do dishes after sundown.

Things are very different today, two years into our off-grid homesteading adventure.

Cell phones – We first tried to live without any phones, but it became clear we couldn’t do that for safety reasons.

The best price we could get for putting in a landline was $15,000.

We decided we didn’t want it that badly. Cell phone technology means that we can live where we want and still communicate with the world. This would not have been possible when I was a teenager.

Cell phone booster – I love it, love it, love it.

This is fabulous for anyone who lives in a cell “dead zone”. It seemed expensive, and we hummed and hawed, but I’m so happy we spent the money on it. We installed it on the back of the house, at a spot where we usually found a signal (if I were standing on my toes and facing the right direction!), and we now have wonderful phone service in the house.

This is part of the cell phone technology, making it possible for phone service to reach places where it could not in the past.

As a note – having the cell phones and the booster means that we can access 911. We live in a province that has air ambulance, and the local fire departments have 4 wheel drive ambulances.

With four young children in our home, communication is vital for safety.

Satellite internet – For far too long, I bucked against this, certain that it would be outlandishly expensive for far too little bandwidth. But after talking with every other internet provider and pleading for them to service this area, I finally realized it wasn’t going to happen. There are some places where you just can’t get regular internet.

I am so happy that we finally caved in and got the satellite. We have 50 GB of data transfer per month, which is not much compared to the unlimited packages we could get in town. And when the rain is coming down very heavy (which happens fairly regularly since we’re in Nova Scotia), we lose our signal. But most of the time, it works perfectly.

Laptops – Of course, laptops use much less power than desktops. We use them sometimes to watch videos, too. No – we don’t have Netflix or anything like that, simply because our satellite connection doesn’t stream very well. Having the laptops, and having them connected to the internet, is enough!

LED lights – This was the first bit of technology that changed our life up here.

Going truly old school was never really an option since I have a severe allergic reaction to lamp oil and kerosene.

Our small solar array is not enough to power regular lights. An LED strip on the ceiling is unobtrusive and allowed us to light entire rooms. There’s nothing like a year without whole-room lighting to make you realize how important it is.

Eventually we’ll change the light strip for better quality LED lights, but for now, these work well and use just a trickle of electricity.

Solar panels – These and the related technologies allow us to have electricity in a place where it would not have been possible a few decades ago.

With the price of renewables dropping, this is becoming affordable for everyone. Solar panels are not a stand-alone item – there’s a whole system of inverters, batteries and more. Home Depot, and many other building supply outlets, make it easy to put together a small system one for 400 watts. (We managed on a 160 watt system for our first year and have upgraded to a positively decadent 910 watt system!)

And we are using so LITTLE of the amazing technology that now makes it possible for people to disconnect from the grid. We will be adding our composting toilet this summer, and a very modern wood cookstove.

So there you have it – it is quite possible to live off-grid AND still use technology. In fact, technology makes it possible to live off-grid and have a good life.

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Brought to you from the wacky chaos of our home in rural Nova Scotia, Canada! When I’m not prepping or cooking or gardening or writing about it all, I’m homeschooling our four children. Autism, OCD, ADHD – it’s a bowl of alphabet soup at our house. Don’t expect perfection. Keep your sense of humour. Keep it simple, stay prepared, and most of all, have fun.

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