How to live off-the-grid: A practical guide towards empowerment

Do you sometimes feel frustrated about environmental policy? About slow developments? About companies and governments green washing their actions? Well I am. I am tired of feeling fooled by institutions that have a say in our future. There is no time for playing fast and loose with it so I would prefer not to play along. Being constantly disappointed about an issue you are concerned with is frustrating, and there are two ways out of frustration: resignation or empowerment.

It would be betraying oneself if one chose to resign. Instead let’s follow the path of empowerment and see where it leads us. For many the first big step towards empowerment is moving out. We realize that we are actually independent individuals: it turns out to be easier and necessary to make independent choices in one’s own lifestyle.

If we choose an environmentally-conscious lifestyle, we will be confronted with two very personal questions:

“How can I reduce my adverse impact on the environment?”

“Where is the limit?”

There are many such perceived limitations; personal, financial, governmental, etc. But on our way to empowerment we will ignore them. How can a person that consciously chooses an environmentally-friendly lifestyle become independent from products and services that rely on environment-degrading practices? In theory, it means to bend our freedom of choice as consumer to the extreme and become autonomous producers. In practice, this could mean to live off-the-grid. This lifestyle implies not being connected to the mainstream infrastructure and services provided by public utilities.

What it means to go off-the-grid in five steps:
  1. Electricity

Maybe the most obvious step is the cut with power utilities. There are three sustainable electricity sources that could replace their necessity: water, wind, and solar energy. For all of them the location and the weather need to be taken into consideration. A water turbine with a micro hydro generator can deliver constant electricity, if a reliable flowing water source is nearby. For the intermittent energy sources, photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines, it may be necessary to include a battery system to store the excess energy for later consumption. Alternatively, you could be compensated for your surplus energy by connecting your generator to the grid, government. However, strictly speaking this would not be off-the-grid. The liberation from the electricity grid is also the origin of the particular expression, which then expanded onto other areas of life as described in the next steps.

  1. Water

There are two main ways to provide your home with water independently from municipality services. You could decide to dig or drill a private water well of which a pump draws groundwater to your home, if permitted. A second less extensive option is rainwater harvesting which entails the collection and storage of (rain) water in a cistern system (Figure 1). The water tank could be placed above ground or underground. Ideally, you bury the cistern in an elevated position underground, such that the water head pressure eliminates the need for a pump and freezing temperatures do not become a problem. Again, the location’s weather needs to be taken into consideration, as well as the topography, nearby sources of pollution, and the presence of aquifers and surface waters.

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Figure 1: Schematic of a rainwater harvesting system with a underground cistern (main tank)
  1. Heat

Heating possibly is the most difficult aspect to tackle. It does not only refer to a warm house, but it is also necessary for your water use and cooking. In many typical off-grid-homes you will find propane gas tanks that need to be refilled regularly. It is handy as it is used for heating water and space, and for cooking. The downside is it being a by-product of petroleum and natural gas. Instead, for potable water heating a solar water heater can be used if the climate allows. If not so, at least a tankless water heater will heat your water on demand more efficiently than traditional storage water heaters. However, its energy source would be of electric nature or propane.

In the case of heating your house with propane, you can greatly reduce your propane consumption with insulation. Even more so with integrative construction techniques: the so-called passive solar construction blocks and moves heat of the natural surrounding by working with the sun, shadow, albedo, and wind (Figure 2). You can completely avoid the use of propane with geothermal heat pumps, making use of the constant temperature of the earth, or thermosiphons, using passive heat convection of gas and fluids without the necessity of a pump. Alternatively, fireplaces and firewood-burning stoves can not only keep your home space warm, but can also be used for cooking. A rocket stove is one of the cleanest and most sustainable examples, as it burns tree branches in a surprisingly efficient fashion.

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Figure 2: Many aspects can be considered in order to reduce the necessity for heating/cooling
  1. Food

Abandoning the food industry can lead to growing own vegetables and fruits. You can even go as far as to raise chickens and goats for having a supply of eggs and milk. You decide what you want to produce and to eat. Your yield is dependent  on the location’s climate, but also crucially on your water supply and possibly on your compost.

  1. Waste

Here is where your own little circle economy closes with recycling and compost. You will have to deal with gray water, human wastes, and trash wastes. It is indispensable to have a septic tank system in which the collected waste water is separated into layers by settling and anaerobic processes (Figure 3). After the primary treatment it is led to a distant drain field where it is biologically filtered. Also, you can use your gray water to support your food system by reusing it for watering your plants. Human waste can be dealt with  composting toilets. If designed properly, composting toilets can support your heating system for water and space. Non-compostable trash wastes such as plastic can be either completely avoided, reused for something, or they will have to end up in a landfill. This can be an own little landfill or you will have to transport it to the nearest landfill.

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Figure 3: Schematic of a septic tank with an outlet to the drainfield

After having followed all these steps, you will be pretty much self-sufficient. This guide is to illustrate the potential extreme of taking matters into one’s own hands, i.e. empowerment. On the other end of the spectrum lies resignation. Although there is no universal definition for empowerment, we can link it to terms like: self-determination, autonomy, social responsibility. But personal empowerment also has negative connotations: egoism, isolation, solitude. However, the way to empowerment is not necessarily a lonely one, especially considering the efforts behind the five steps.

Collective empowerment is based on people’s common interests leading to collective action in order to achieve shared objectives. Off-the-grid communities exemplify this breaking of solitude and silence by learning together and helping each other, exchanging a variability of resources on a small, local scale. By internally doing so, they are externally influencing institutions that have a say in our future. This achievement is a shared goal and is the product of their collective empowerment (Boehm and Staples 2014).

Empowerment can also be defined as a process, during which people step by step regain independent power over their choices (Boehm and Staples 2014). Ideally, they do it together, because it is easier, more effective, and it goes hand in hand with less frustration, more inspiration and trust among each other.  More importantly, released from the frustration caused by other institutions, it comes with new hope for a reasonable change.

References

Boehm A, Staples L. Empowerment: The Point of View of Consumers. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. 2004;85(2):270–280. doi: 10.1606/1044-3894.314

Clark J, Charles C. (2008). How living off-the-grid works. [podcast] Stuff you should know. Available at: https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-living-off-the-grid-works.htm [Accessed 18 Mar. 2018].

5 thoughts on “How to live off-the-grid: A practical guide towards empowerment

  1. Very cool, Agnes! I like the way you frame personal self-reliance as a positive movement towards a more sustainable world. Maybe we should all go live in the forest for a while – Thoreau would have liked that :). There is loads of resources about self-reliance in food, energy, water etc. on the internet, check out this website: https://waldenlabs.com/. And even though not everyone needs to go build their own clay house, it is nice to fantasise a bit. Signing up for a community supported agriculture or building some own furniture can foster a self-reliant mindset and feedback into more and more sustainable choices…

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  2. To be honest, when I first read your blog my first reaction was “I bet people only do this when they live in some sort of magical oasis”. I was curious about where in the world these communities exist, so I googled off-the-grid communities. Of course I was wrong and learned that there are even communities in rainy England and cold Canada! (Although the England one does burn wood to keep themselves warm etc). After that I had a two thoughts; firstly, maybe people should be encouraged to live off-the-grid seasonally. For example I can imagine it being eassier over the summer. Secondly, I actually think this lifestyle can be hyped up by allowing people from outside the community to stay off-the-grid for a week or so. I truly think there could be a market for this! Perhaps such an experience would inspire people to change some of their habits. My point is, I wouldn’t mind experiencing it for a couple of days (even though I don’t think I’ll be able to commit fully to the lifestyle), what about you?

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  3. @judithnuria: Yes, you can find such communities all over the world, and the great thing is that they all face different challenges for being off-the-grid, be it due to regulations, money, or climate. Thus, they all offer different solutions to deal with such problems and many share their approaches not only with other communities, but also with “outsiders”. I am pretty sure that if you contacted such a community, they wouldn’t mind to accommodate you for a while, expecting from you to help in some way in exchange. This is basically the idea of the platforms “WWOOF” and “workaway”, of which you certainly have heard already. Hence, you could say it already exists some sort of market for it. I personally did WWOOF at an off-the-grid house in Catalonia for six weeks (and can totally recommend it). So I totally agree with your idea of living in such a way temporally in order to experience these ways of thinking. However, the reasons and implications of living off-the-grid only seasonally are not so straightforward to me. An off-the-grid house requires a lot of maintenance and effort, so when deciding for this lifestyle, convenience is not your first criteria. Also, would it imply that people put resources into two homes, of which one would still be on-the-grid, such that you’re never actually off-the-grid? I would be glad if you could elaborate on your first thought a bit more to get a better understanding of what you meant.
    Regarding your last question, I really loved the off-the-grid experience and would like to experience something similar somewhere else in order to get inspired by different approaches. But I am certainly not yet at the stage of empowerment where I would commit to it fully.

    If you want to get some idea about recent trends in that matter and what impacts a large-scale off-the-grid-movement may have on policy, economy, and utility companies, you could read the following article of The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/apr/11/power-energy-companies

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  4. Very nice approach to fight climate change, pollution, etc.. I am just a bit skeptical about living off the grid, because I assume that in the future we can not all live off the grid, as that would require massive de-globalisation and I just don’t see that happening. I understand that some people might be interested in reducing their own impact on the earth, but in the long terms I am doubtful if this would be the right solution. Wouldn’t you have more impact staying on the grid by inspiring other people to reduce their impact or fighting for better environmental policies?

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  5. @auctamara: I think it is difficult to evaluate what approach would have more impact- I also don’t think it matters too much since it is a very personal and complicated decision about how to best deal with environmental problems and climate change, corresponding to the complexity of these issues. As we have once discussed in ECS 100, environmental problems are complex and “wicked” problems that require several “clumsy” solutions. That would mean for environmental problems there is no right or wrong solution, nor one single ideal solution. I personally still believe that this is true. Going off-the-grid is only one of many creative forms of collective mitigation, it doesn’t exclude other ways of mitigation or fighting for better environmental policies. Thus, it is not about aiming for everyone going off-the-grid, they merely contribute in their own way to the required combination of clumsy solutions.
    Still, why actually can we not all live off-the-grid? I find it an interesting thought experiment you’re bringing up. Unfortunately my knowledge about the functioning of the globalised economy is not sufficient to understand what massive de-globalisation could possibly imply for the current economic and hierarchical structure. Maybe someone is able to envision it?

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