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  • Sarita Harbour

OFF GRID LIVING FOR BEGINNERS: A HOW TO GUIDE



Ever gazed out your window and yearned for a life without the stresses of modern civilization?  This is exactly what I was doing eleven years ago. As it turns out, those dreams turned into this very site about off grid living for beginners.


Living off grid is more than leaving behind power bills. And it goes beyond avoiding rush hour traffic or long lines. It's about self-reliance and making peace with nature and seasonal living. And learning to tap solar energy and rainwater harvesting techniques. It's about living intentionally.


Now, you might wonder how feasible it really is to go off-grid. I mean, could we all trade our city's water supply for natural springs? The truth is that pursuing an off grid lifestyle is only possible but increasingly popular. 


We bought our off grid home almost 11 years ago. And today, living off the grid is a lifestyle choice that's gaining traction in 2023. It signifies a self-sufficient and sustainable way of life, disconnected from public utilities like electricity, water supply, and sewerage.


An off-grid living starter guide would tell you this is about more than just surviving without modern conveniences. It's about living sustainably by reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources and making the most of what nature provides.


SUSTAINABLE LIFE THROUGH SELF-SUFFICIENCY




For many people (including me), the appeal of an off grid life lies in being self-sufficient. This means pursuing activities like growing your own food.


It means deciding the best way to generate your own power through renewable sources like solar or wind energy. It requires managing waste effectively via composting off grid toilets or septic systems. All while conserving natural resources.


THE COMMITMENT REQUIRED FOR OFF-GRID LIVING


An off grid, sustainable lifestyle requires commitment. And this shift towards a sustainable lifestyle demands not only physical effort but also mental strength. Learning new skills and getting comfortable troubleshooting becomes crucial here.


You'll need to master everything from calculating the initial cost of moving to configuring your new solar system.


FACING CHALLENGES HEAD-ON


Living off-the-grid presents unique challenges at every step of the way. And also, all off-grid homes are different, and so are their challenges.


In our case, we bought a house already off the grid with several aging systems. To continue generating our own electricity, we've had to upgrade our solar panels, battery banks, and diesel generators. We also dealt with a devastating generator shed fire several years ago.


Some other challenges can range from adjusting to power outages during cloudy days if you're reliant on solar or on days without wind if you depend on wind turbines and wind power.


Using a rainwater harvest set up for your water supply? You could deal with water shortages if there's a dry spell for an extended period.


You may even have questions about local laws on land use and construction methods, which need clear answers before leaping into this new lifestyle work for you.


LIVING CLOSE TO NATURE


When you leave the bustle of city life, prepare yourself for significant lifestyle changes. Essentially, "off-grid" is more than simply stepping away from mainstream society.


It's about changing the pace of your life and often looking for ways to reduce your carbon footprint. You learn to respect nature and understand the rhythms of growing seasons, water cycles, and solar energy production. And you may be more likely to start making choices to reduce your environmental impact in the long run.


CHOOSING YOUR OFF-GRID LOCATION


One of the most important things to decide when moving off the grid is your location. Depending on climate, geographical features, and your specific needs, you might find yourself in a completely new region, state, or province.


Take time to research off grid homes and the type of home that will help you meet your basic needs. Do you want a large, luxurious off grid home? Or do you prefer a small home?


Look at a tiny house, a cob house, a yurt, an Earthship and a log cabin, for starters. Look at the cost of moving off the grid for EACH potential property. From local laws to water sources and renewable energy potential, there's a lot to consider.


Our own off grid cabin is in a remote location in the Canadian subarctic. It's a great place in many ways, and we're fortunate that we can pump clean water directly from our lake and enjoy our off grid toilets with a septic tank that gets pumped out twice a year. 


Our solar panels generate 100% of our power from April through mid-September. The rest of the year, we supplement with a diesel generator and our Tesla 2 powerwall.


EVALUATING POTENTIAL LOCATIONS


The first step towards buying land for your grid life involves understanding the local laws in each potential area. Some regions and local authorities may have strict local regulations on power grids and water supply that can impact your back-to-the-land dreams, and your ability to live self-sufficiently on your own land.


One option could be rural areas where such restrictions are less stringent than in urban areas. However, remember that easy access to city services might be an issue here, too. You want to be included in essential services or emergency help if needed.


Natural resources also play a major role when you're choosing a site for off-grid living. Water source availability is crucial - think about rainwater collection systems or access to natural water bodies like streams or wells. 


When scouting for a potential homestead, remember how appropriate the land is for cultivating food during various seasons.


A place with long winters would limit your growing season, yet temperate climates offer more flexibility when choosing what crops you'd like to grow throughout the year. I'm still on a quest to learn more about setting up effective irrigation systems for maintaining homegrown produce year-round.


If you plan on using solar panels as your primary method of generating electricity, check the sun exposure of the location. Remember, south-facing slopes usually provide the best conditions for solar energy generation. However, try to cross-check data with neighbors, the previous owners, or official weather stats.


Finally, think about your own preferences and lifestyle. Some people prefer the quiet of the countryside while others need more social interaction that a small town can provide. The right location for you should not only support your off-grid goals but also make this new lifestyle work for you.


HARNESSING SOLAR POWER FOR OFF-GRID LIVING



Solar power is a great option to generate energy when living off the grid. A key task in off grid living for beginners involves forecasting your energy consumption. Before you need to depend on solar power for off-grid living, you need a good handle on your household's energy requirements and the associated expenses.


CALCULATING YOUR ENERGY NEEDS


To get started with solar panels and battery storage systems in an off-grid setting, first calculate your average monthly electricity usage. Accurately assessing your energy needs will help you calculate the number of solar panels required.


The more accurately you gauge your energy requirements, the better equipped you'll be to maximize the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of your solar power system.


UNDERSTANDING SOLAR POWER COSTS


Solar power is often synonymous with sustainable living, and sustainable technologies like solar have made living off-the-grid much more accessible. Yet it's still all too easy to spend an arm and a leg to "live the simple life."


Your initial costs might seem high. However, remember that these systems can work for years without depending on fossil fuels or suffering from frequent power outages. So, the right systems can be worth every penny spent.


BATTERY STORAGE FOR SOLAR POWER


Another factor influencing grid solar cost is battery storage solutions. You'll need a way to store the wind or solar energy generated for later.


Until recently, we depended on a battery bank system for off grid energy storage. Now we use a Tesla 2 powerwall. We need this for night-time energy and on cloudy days when sun exposure isn't optimal.

And as we live at 62 degrees north, we only get about four hours of daylight during the winter. So we must use our diesel generator daily to fill our Powerwall with enough energy to run our off grid in floor heating and propane boiler system.


Now, I do not love our dependence on diesel. Yet we'll keep using it until I can find a more environmentally friendly backup option to supplement our solar system.


Now, we do have a massive wood stove, but during winter months, the temperatures here regularly drop down to -40 and colder. So the in-floor heating is definitely required.


Note: Choosing a reputable installer who provides quality service can prevent future issues leading to additional expenses. We learned THAT lesson the hard way.


Basically, using solar energy as a power source helps give you freedom from mainstream society's electrical grid. At the same time, it provides an environmentally friendly way of life.


So whether it's about breaking free from the rat race or aiming at sustainable development - consider adding solar panels to your own home.


ESTABLISHING OFF-GRID WATER SYSTEMS



One key to living an off-grid life is setting up a reliable water system. Collecting, storing, and purifying your own drinking water is absolutely crucial for survival. 


We're lucky to live on a lake and have a natural water source right in our own backyard. And by the way, it tastes a million times better than city water.


Our submersible water pump runs year-round to provide our family with running water, even when it's -40F or colder.


​And it's a good idea to have a backup plan for water too. 


A few years back, we had to replace our 35-year-old submersible water pump when Dan and the boys inadvertently snapped the line holding it in place while maneuvering our boat out from our dock. We had to wait two weeks for a new one to be shipped. During that time, we bathed in the lake and hauled water, just like in pioneer days.


RAINWATER HARVESTING TECHNIQUES


To start small with your off-grid water systems, consider rainwater harvesting techniques. This method collects rainwater from large surfaces like roofs or specially designed collection areas.


You'll need a way to direct the flow of rain into storage tanks. These can be as simple as barrels or more complex cisterns, depending on your needs and local laws concerning water collection.


A good quality pump will let you distribute collected rainwater throughout your home or property for irrigation, cleaning tasks, and even potable drinking if adequately filtered.


NATURAL WATER SOURCES: STREAMS & WELLS


If you're lucky enough to access natural sources of clean, fresh water, such as streams or wells on your land, these are also good options. A well-designed system could give yo unlimited access to high-quality groundwater right at the source without needing complicated water filtering and treatments.


PURIFICATION METHODS


No matter how pure it looks initially, always remember that untreated surface waters carry potential health risks. This is mainly due to bacteria/viruses naturally present. So, prioritize getting access to clean water once you've established your water supply system.


Some standard purification methods include boiling using solar hot heaters (an eco-friendly alternative), water filtration units installed directly onto taps/faucets inside homes, plus UV sterilization devices. These are all excellent options, providing additional peace of mind while living off-grid.


In our house, we've been using a Big Berkey water filter for the past five years, and we absolutely love it.


Setting up a robust system to gather, store and cleanse your own water is more than just handy. It's critical for a self-reliant off-grid lifestyle. 


WASTE MANAGEMENT IN OFF-GRID LIVING


If you're serious about off-grid living, managing waste efficiently is a key aspect. It's more manageable than it seems. Composting toilets and compost piles can make a huge difference in eliminating your waste. 


THE MAGIC OF COMPOSTING TOILETS


Composting toilets are an eco-friendly alternative to conventional septic systems. They use peat moss or sawdust to decompose human waste into nutrient-rich compost.


A composting toilet saves water and avoids the need to get rid of black water. It also gives back by providing rich soil for your garden. It uses less energy and significantly reduces our reliance on external services, contributing towards self-sufficiency.


Now, this isn't just theoretical talk; we use composting toilets at our cabin in northern Ontario. Yes, this is a newish homestead project and backup plan that we're working on after dealing with the pandemic situation, wildfire evacuations, and the general state of the world.


It's still early days, though. Dan and I think of it as our retirement project.


SETTING UP A COMPOST PILE


If you live far from the power grid and city life, you'll need to change your habits regarding waste disposal. So, it may be wise to learn to embrace composting. 


 Apart from toilet wastes, food scraps and yard trimmings can be turned into compost, too. Setting up a backyard compost pile requires minimal effort yet yields excellent returns in reducing landfill contributions and improving soil health.


First, make sure you balance green (kitchen scraps) and brown materials (dead leaves). Layer them alternatively in your pile - nature will take care of the rest.


AN INTRODUCTION TO HUMANURE COMPOSTING


"Humanure" might sound strange initially, but bear with me here. Humanure is essentially human feces used as a plant nutrient source. The key is safe processing via composting methods, as outlined in Joseph Jenkins' book "The Humanure Handbook." In short – poop happens, so why not put it to good use?


BUILDING SUSTAINABLE STRUCTURES FOR OFF-GRID LIVING



For some people interested in living off the grid, building a new home is the best option. After all, for an efficient off-grid life, the design and materials of your home can have a major impact on both energy efficiency and cost.


A well-designed structure is absolutely crucial for an efficient off-grid life. Your building choice might be a tiny home or maybe even a refurbished shipping container.


The options are as varied as the people choosing this lifestyle work. But remember, start small. Smaller-scale homes cost less and also help maximize energy use efficiently.


SELECTING BUILDING MATERIALS


Using sustainable materials in your building can really improve its environmental footprint and longevity. For example, reclaimed wood is more than just environmentally friendly; it's sturdy, too. It offers durability without draining more resources from our planet.


Rammed earth walls provide excellent insulation, which helps maintain indoor temperatures despite outside weather changes. And straw bales are another natural material with excellent insulating properties.


DESIGNING YOUR OFF GRID HOME


A thoughtfully designed off grid home maximizes natural light, reducing reliance on artificial lighting during daylight hours so you don't need to use much power. And this reduces your solar cost.


Tip: the position of windows plays an important role in heating or cooling your house depending upon seasonality. So remember to factor that in while planning the layout of your off grid home.


Remember to use elements like rainwater catchment areas, septic system space and renewable energy sources right at the construction stage of your home. It's easier than trying to retrofit your home later.

Sustainable structures are smart structures designed to help you live off-grid efficiently and comfortably.


Remember, this lifestyle is about aligning your habits and preferences with the environment, not conflicting with it.


GROWING YOUR OWN FOOD YEAR-ROUND



Living off-grid means taking control of your food supply. A year-round garden is a great option to ensure this. So how can you begin to make an off-grid food supply a reality?


PLANNING YOUR GARDEN


To live off-grid, understanding the local growing season is absolutely crucial for planning your garden. It would help if you considered what crops thrive in each season.


Planning your garden isn't just about planting summer tomatoes or winter cabbages. Think also about herbs, roots, and leafy greens that withstand various climates.


Your choice of plants will impact the quality and also the cost efficiency of your meals throughout the year. Here's a helpful plan for gardening all year round.


MAINTAINING YOUR GARDEN


The secret to maintaining an abundant harvest lies in proper care and timely interventions.

For example, pests may seem like tiny threats, but they can decimate a crop overnight if left unchecked. Use natural methods such as companion planting or organic pesticides instead of harsh chemicals that might harm your soil health over time.


Adequate watering is another aspect often overlooked by beginners living off-the-grid. Setting up rainwater collection systems could be a lifesaver during dry spells.


Whether you're trying to escape from the rat race into an idyllic cabin nestled deep in the woods or you want to live more sustainably in your suburban home, plant a vegetable garden, indoors or outdoors. A year-round garden is not just possible but also rewarding. For example, we grow beans indoors with grow lights right through the winter.


With careful planning and regular maintenance, you can enjoy fresh produce right from your backyard garden, no matter the season.


OFF-GRID LIVING CLOTHING AND PRODUCTS


The journey towards an off-grid life demands not only the right mindset but also the appropriate gear. To ensure comfort, safety, and functionality in your daily tasks, choose the right clothing, footware and products to do the job.



DRESSING FOR OFF-GRID LIFE


Selecting suitable clothing for living off-the-grid means thinking about the weather conditions, your physical activity levels, and the durability of materials. Remember to opt for quality over quantity to make sure your clothes can withstand harsh outdoor conditions while keeping you comfortable.


Choose merino wool or synthetic materials for cold weather they offer excellent insulation properties. And watch for our upcoming series on off grid clothing options that are also great camping and hiking clothing choices.


NECESSARY TOOLS FOR OFF-GRID TASKS


One thing I know for sure, you'll need reliable tools to help with various chores around your off grid homestead. And you'll use them for everything from building structures to gardening work and other homestead projects.


A sturdy hand-powered saw becomes indispensable when working with timber; a multi-tool pocket knife proves handy in numerous situations; durable gloves protect hands during hard labor; and a high-quality headlamp ensures visibility after sunset.


Not gonna lie. Your new home away from the city's water supply will require some major lifestyle adjustments.

Shifting to a sustainable life involves changes like using composting toilets instead of conventional flush systems or cooking meals on wood-burning stoves rather than electric ranges.


However, living a more self-reliant life doesn't necessarily mean giving up your comfort. Solar hot water heaters can provide warm showers without dependence on fossil fuels. At the same time, rainwater catchment setups serve as sustainable sources of clean drinking water.


OFF GRID LIVING FOR BEGINNERS FAQS


Got questions about living off the grid? We have answers.


HOW DO BEGINNERS LIVE OFF THE GRID?


To kickstart off-grid living, rookies should research off grid living for beginners, and sustainable lifestyles. Next, select a suitable location for an off grid home, and start adapting to solar power usage and waste management. 


HOW MUCH MONEY DO I NEED TO LIVE OFF GRID?


The cash needed for off-grid life varies widely. However, after my own experiences as an off grid homeowner and through many, many discussions with other people who live off the grid, the costs vary GREATLY. The money you'll need to live off the grid depends on land cost, housing type, and energy system setup. 


WHERE IS THE EASIEST PLACE TO LIVE OFF THE GRID?


So my experience living off the grid is in North America. Some unorganized townships in regions of Canada, such as the far north, are popular options for people interested in moving off the grid.

And my research shows that some states, such as Oregon in the US, have more lenient laws than the rest of the country, making them prime spots for an easier transition into an off-grid lifestyle.

Since I get so many questions about this, I'm actually working on a post about the best states for living off the grid. So stay tuned.


IS LIVING OFF GRID HEALTHIER?


Absolutely. People who live off the grid often report improved health due to eating more fresh food from homegrown gardens and increased physical activity outdoors, chopping wood, hauling water, gardening, etc.


OFF GRID LIVING FOR BEGINNERS


Moving to an off grid lifestyle is a journey towards self-reliance.


Location is key, considering local laws and natural resources. Solar power can fuel your lifestyle while minimizing impact on Mother Nature, and water systems are crucial in this life. From rainwater harvesting to managing waste through composting toilets, every drop counts.


Sustainable structures are more than just shelters; they embody the ethos of off-grid living. Growing your own food year-round becomes not just possible but deeply satisfying. 


When it comes to off grid living for beginners, my best advice is this. Think carefully about what your idea of grid life looks like. Think about how you want to spend your day, what your home will look like, and what's important to you and your family. These visions will help guide you to the off grid lifestyle best suited to you and your family.

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