Living Off the Grid – Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living [Infographic]
Going off the grid is an attractive option for those who want more self-sufficiency and less dependence on the currently established institutions. Creating a life where you are no longer dependent on the electrical grid means you produce your own power, collect or pump your own water and often grow your own food.
While this life is not for everyone, it is becoming increasingly popular as more people want to assert their independence and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Some people choose to go partially “off the grid,” still relying somewhat on the linked system that delivers electricity and water to the masses, while others prefer to be completely self-sustaining.
Ways to Live Off the Grid
There are many different reasons people choose to live off the grid. Some simply want to save money while others are preparing for the possibility of a life-altering change to our way of living. Either way, living off the grid can be a viable option if you’re looking for a radical change in lifestyle. Here are the most common ways people live off the grid.
Going completely off the grid, meaning you do not rely on the government for electricity, water, gas or septic, is called “roughing it”. This is the least expensive option and requires you to commit to significant lifestyle changes.
If you choose this option, you will likely need to build a small home on a piece of land that is basically a ‘dry cabin.” This means it will likely have no running water, plumbing or electricity. You would need to build an outhouse for sanitary needs and have a well, rainwater catchment or river nearby for drinking and bathing.
Most people who “rough it” grow their own food in their garden and build a small homestead to accommodate their families needs. You will need to do something similar if you want to be completely independent, as most people who “rough it” do.
While some people who “rough it” have a generator or solar panels that produce some electricity, many choose to forgo it all together. You could choose to rise and set with the sun and use alternative cooking and refrigeration methods as well.
Before jumping into this lifestyle, you will need to decide if you are ready to face the challenges set forth by “roughing it.”
Half-On/Half-Off the Grid
A good compromise for anyone who doesn’t want to completely “rough it” is to live half on and half off the grid. This means that you don’t rely heavily on the modern system but still use the grid when needed to live a more modern lifestyle.
For example, you may still be hooked up to the city’s electricity for cooking or lighting at night, but avoid using it during the day. You may also be hooked up to the city’s sewage system, yet use a well to pump water into your home. Every half-on, half-off lifestyle is different, and it can include many different combinations of self-reliance with moderate reliance on the grid.
Many people find that living half-on/half-off the grid allows them to live comfortably and extremely affordably. If you have children or are just testing the waters of an off-grid lifestyle, this might be a good option for you.
If you want to participate in this lifestyle, you will likely want to further your independence by growing your own food, making your own cleaning and hygiene products and raising chickens or livestock.
Modern Off-Grid Lifestyle
The modern off-grid lifestyle is probably the most popular option for living off the grid. It allows for almost all of the conveniences modern lifestyles afford, using technology to remain self-sufficient.
While this is often the most expensive option up front, it can help you cut your costs drastically in the long run. Your goal in this situation is to rely on the grid for very little or nothing.
If you decide to go off-grid in this form you will want to have a way to harness electricity. The most common way to do this is by using solar panels on your roof. Some people also choose to harness wind or water power if there is a flowing water nearby.
Many who live a modern off-grid lifestyle dig a well and attach an electric well pump to harness running water straight from the ground. Some also like to have a hand crank option, just in case the electric well Many who live a modern off-grid lifestyle dig a well and attach an electric well pump to harness running water straight from the ground. Some also like to have a hand crank option, just in case the electric well pump fails.
Your indoor bathroom can run to a septic tank instead of the sewage system (learn more about how to take care of a septic tank here). You will be able to shower and bathe normally if you are able to pump clean water into the house.
If you have a modern off-grid setup you should be able to cook normally with modern appliances. However, most people who live a modern off-grid lifestyle choose to grow their own food, make their own cleaning and bathing products and raise cattle or chickens.
Steps to Living Off the Grid
If you decide living off the grid is something you would like to do you will need to approach it as a step-by-step process to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
Decide on Your Living Space
Housing options for living off the grid are abundant, but most of them include downsizing in one form or another. Not only will downsizing allow for a smaller house and simpler life, but living in a smaller house will allow you to use less energy and resources.
Tiny houses are a popular option for those who live a minimalist lifestyle or don’t have a large family. A tiny home can run on very minimal energy and still give you a comfortable place to eat, sleep and cook. Most are even outfitted with little bathrooms.
Tiny homes can come in many different forms, from high-tech prefabricated models like those featured in Rise or built by WheelHaus to small, bare-bones “dry sheds.” You can even purchase tiny homes on Amazon!
For a more DIY approach, you can choose to build a small log cabin, an Earthship or a yurt. You can really go as fancy or minimal as you want, but there are tons of benefits to keeping your home small. A small home allows you to get off the grid faster and remain ready in case of an emergency situation.
Those who need a more spacious home can choose to build a spacious cabin or multi-room farmhouse. These are more practical for people who are doing the half-on, half-off lifestyle or modern off-grid, as it’s difficult to rough it with a large house to maintain.
Larger homes are more costly to build and maintain, but if you can afford it there are some absolutely stunning options available. If you are handy and can build your own off the grid farmhouse, it can be an option to keep larger homes affordable.
Once you have your house built or purchased, make sure you have a way to harvest water. As we mentioned before, harvesting water will likely involve drilling a well and setting up a system to bring the running water to your house. Another option is to harvest rainwater in large catchment containers to provide water for you and your family.
You will need to set up a septic system to deal with your waste unless you are going to “rough it” with an outhouse.
Setting up a way to harness electricity is a crucial step to living off the grid. The three most popular options are solar panels, a wind turbine, or a hydroelectric power generator. They each have their pros and cons.
- Solar Panels: Solar power is one of the most popular and widely available options when it comes to off-grid energy. This option harnesses the sun’s energy by photovoltaic solar panels plus an inverter and batteries to store it. Since sunlight is a renewable resource, solar panels create an abundance of energy and they require very little maintenance. The major downside to solar panels is the initial cost, which can be quite high. Depending on the size of your house, it can also take a large number of solar panels to power the entire living area.
- Wind Turbines: If you live in an area that has a high average wind speed, generating electricity from residential-sized wind turbines is another great option for off-grid energy. A 400-watt wind turbine is big enough to power a few appliances, a 900-watt turbine should be enough for a tiny house or small cabin and a 10,000-watt turbine should be enough to power a larger dwelling. The biggest downside to a wind turbine is the need for a constant breeze. While the sun is likely to shine almost every day, the wind can be more fickle. If the wind doesn’t blow, energy is not generated. Wind turbines also have moving parts which means they require more maintenance than solar panels.
- Micro-hydro Electricity: One of the lesser-known off-grid energy systems, micro-hydro electricity uses a source or running water, like a stream or small waterfall, to generate electricity. The energy caused by water flowing from a higher elevation to a lower elevation turns a turbine and creates electricity.
This can be one of the most cost-effective options and it can power between 10 and 100 times more power than solar or wind for the same monetary investment. If the water source is constantly flowing you can have an energy system that runs 24 hours a day, year-round.
The main downside is that you need a source of running water on your property to have a micro-hydro electricity system.
Grow Your Own Food
Growing your own food can be one of the easiest ways to become independent from the system. While there are some initial costs upfront and some investment of time required, it can be extremely rewarding to eat food you have grown yourself.
You will need to buy seeds, fertilizer, mulch, gardening tools and anything else needed to set up a large garden. If you live in a dry area you will need a way to water the plants. Depending on the size of your family you will need to assess how large of a garden you need.
You can also choose to have a small farm with chickens and cattle to have meat available to eat.
Living Off the Grid Costs and Savings
If you choose to live off the grid you will likely have some initial costs and investments to ensure you’re able to live comfortably. Even if you are “roughing it” you are likely to have a few things to purchase upfront.
If you’re lucky you will already have a house, land and maybe a well which will cut costs significantly, however, we’ve outlined the costs as if you were starting from scratch below.
You will want to purchase some rural land to live on, and it’s very helpful if that land has a river or stream running through it. If it doesn’t, you will need to build a well and/or rainwater catchment. You will need to build a simple, cabin style house as well, or purchase a tiny home. Depending on where you’re located and the off-grid lifestyle you choose this can set you back $100k or more.
Choices for Harnessing Electricity
Solar panels, a wind turbine, or a hydroelectric power generator are the three most popular options for harnessing electricity. Solar panel technology is improving all the time, making it more affordable than ever to purchase these for your house.
- Solar Panels: $11,000 – $15,000
The average cost for solar panels varies by location, and some states offer tax credits. Most homeowners pay between $2.71 and $3.57 per watt to install solar and the average gross cost before tax credits is $18,840. Depending on the size of your home and the number of tax credits you’re allowed, you will likely end up paying between $11,380 to $14,990 for solar panels.
- Wind Turbines: $4,000 – $30,000
If you are opting for a wind turbine, you will need to live in a wide open space with plenty of wind. The purchase and installation of a wind turbine large enough to power a home costs around $30,000 on average. You can get small turbines for as low as $4,000, though, so depending on your energy usage it could be cheaper than solar panels.
- Hydro Powered Electricity: $20,000 to $100,000
If you are lucky enough to live near running water, a hydro-powered system can be a great, lower cost option. The home to ranch scale hydro systems can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 for the equipment, but installation can vary greatly depending on the water resources available, distance to it and energy needs of your house. A fully-installed system can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 or more.
Water and Septic
If you want to have running water on the property you will need to drill a well and an electric pump. The cost to drill a well is about $1,500 to $12,000 depending on the depth required.
After the well is drilled you will need to install a pump and underground piping to take the water to your house. This can add anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 to the cost. This brings the typical cost for drilling a well and setting up a private water delivery system to $3,500 to $20,000, depending on your situation.
A water catchment tank to collect rainwater is a cheaper option that will set you back between $3,000 and $5,000.
The average cost to install a 1,000-gallon septic tank (enough for a three bedroom house) is between $600 and $1000. You may also have to buy some building permits and replacement parts as needed which can raise the cost a bit.
Growing Your Own Food
The initial investment for starting a garden can be anywhere from $200 to $500, but it can produce endless amounts of food once started.
If you are meat eaters it can be handy to have some chickens or cattle as well, but the costs will vary depending on what kind of meat you want and how large your family is. The Elliott Homestead does a great job of breaking down the costs to feed a family meat for a year.
Savings from Living Off the Grid
Once you have paid down the initial investments, the savings from living off the grid can be significant. While people who live in conventional homes pay monthly for using things like water, electricity and waste disposal, people who live fully off the grid will pay nothing or very little monthly.
The average home spends anywhere from $150 to $500 a month on electricity, or $1,800 to $6,000 a year. Water and waste can cost $60 a month on average or $720 a year. Natural gas will set you back $82 a month or $984 a year. All together bills, not including rent or mortgage, average out to about $5,604 per year for the average family. That’s a hefty savings!
The cost of building a home off the grid can cost a fraction of what homes in the city cost. With the average home price sitting at around $350,000 and rising every year, alternative living can mean significant savings.
Depending on the way you want to live, the price for most off-grid homes and land is anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000. If you take into account the fact that most people spend an additional $70,000 on off-grid upgrades, you are still sitting below the national home price average and will not need to pay monthly bills.
If you can grow your own food and raise your own livestock you can expect to have very low monthly overheads.
Once you decide to live off the grid, be prepared for a large commitment. However, the rewards can be immense. Aside from the monetary benefits, people living off-the-grid enjoy a more self-sufficient lifestyle, independent from the state.
Lowering your carbon footprint and living a naturally healthier lifestyle is also something you can look forward to if you are living off the grid. Because you are growing and raising your own food, you know exactly what is going into your body.
If you choose an off the grid lifestyle today you will have security in the future should anything happen to the food and water supply or electrical grid. Once the initial costs are paid off, you will no longer have to worry about monthly bills and may be able to work part-time or work on your homestead exclusively.
If this lifestyle is for you, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences you ever choose!