When I first went off the grid, I underestimated how much it would change my life and reconnect me to what really matters: family, nature, and freedom. Not to mention some extra bonuses: answering to no one, no longer needing to depend on society for my basic needs and living a truly sustainable lifestyle that I can be proud of.
If you’re anything like me, once you work out a plan and implement it, you’ll find living off grid is worth every ounce of effort and investment and the most challenging and rewarding shift of a lifetime. Thankfully, it is more accessible than ever thanks to sustainable technologies like solar energy and tiny home innovations.
There are many variables that shape the way you can go about living off the grid. This blog post will help guide you through the process of figuring out how to make this lifestyle work for you, with a breakdown of all the factors to consider.
Though “off grid” technically refers to energy that is untied to the electrical grid, most people use the term more broadly to describe living in a way that is as self-sufficient as possible and not dependent on mainstream society or urban areas for their food, water, shelter, and energy.
Read on for your ultimate guide to living off grid!
How to live off the grid in 7 steps:
Find the Right Location
The wrong land will seriously impede or could even destroy your ability to live sustainably, grow your own food, and build a resilient self-sufficient lifestyle. Buying land that is affordable and meets your needs is absolutely crucial.
Finding the perfect property is the most difficult and most important part of this process. There are lots of considerations and compromises you may need to make. At its core, the perfect off grid location needs to check these boxes:
- Legal for off grid living (in regards to permits, building codes, zoning, etc.)
- Away from cities and urban areas (less restrictions and more freedom)
- Cost (don’t forget to take into account property taxes, mortgage payments, insurance, and other expenses)
- Ample resources for self sufficiency (soil, water, trees, open space)
- Proper bedrock for building structures and wastewater disposal such as a septic tank (don’t buy land that is in a wetland or is susceptible to flooding)
- A natural water source (well, spring, creek, or river)
- The opportunity to harvest passive solar design (a house with windows orientated for maximum solar gain)
- Year-round accessibility (roads, trails, driveways, etc.)
How much land do you need?
The amount of land necessary to live off grid will vary widely for every person and family but ideally 1000 sqm (quarter of an acre) or more.
First, you need to decide how you are going to make a living. Will you continue your existing job, build a remote online business, or move into agriculture as your primary source of income?
Second, ask yourself: what are the key provisions you want to harvest from your land? Vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy, meat, water, and timber are all possible yields. Of course each of these will have very different land requirements.
There are market farms that gross over $300,000 per year on 1.5 acres of vegetable production. On the other hand, there are regenerative ranchers that graze cattle and revitalize soil across hundreds of acres. There are also homesteads that grow most of their own food and harness solar energy off of less than one quarter acre.
If you need to harvest timber for heat and cooking, you may need 1 to 5 acres of forested land in addition to your food production. As you can see, the land needs for off grid living are hugely varied. Assess your needs, skills, desires, and budget to find how much land will fit your goals.
The right climate for off grid living
In the age of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, it can be difficult to understand what the weather of a specific region will be like in 5, 10, or 20 years. Nonetheless, there are still some basic guidelines
- Year-round access (or necessary equipment like snow plows to maintain access roads)
- Year-round sunlight (for solar energy)
- A growing season of at least 6 months per year (you can check the first and last frost dates for the USA on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website)
- Moderate rainfall (and ability to collect rainwater in the dry season)
Build the Smallest Home Possible
Tiny homes aren’t only cute and trendy; they are the most logical and efficient way to live off the grid. They are less intrusive on the land, require less energy, need less water, and are easier to heat. Tiny homes technically range from 60 to 500 square feet, but a small off grid house could go up to 1,000 to 1,500 square feet.
Your house obviously can be as large as you want, but it will require larger (and more expensive) electrical and heating systems. While you still want to be comfortable, consider taking a minimalist approach to your new lifestyle by getting rid of extra belongings and designing multi-functional spaces. Be sure to use vertical space, clever storage techniques, convertible features, and a simple kitchen setup.
Best Types of Off Grid Tiny Homes
There are so many options when it comes to off grid dwellings. Tiny homes can be everything from a cabin to a shipping container to a trailer or a tiny home on wheels (like my off grid school bus). They can be mobile or stationery. They can be made of eco-friendly building materials or repurposed wood. They can have wood stove heat, electrical forced air, or gas-powered heating. There is a huge diversity of options out there!
When and How You Will Build
Whatever you decide to build, take into account when and how you are building your home. Trust me, you don’t want to build an off grid cabin during a New England winter. An RV or shipping container home could be built off-site where you have a full shop and tools. A cabin or standard home, on the other hand, will probably require contractors and generators at the home site.
If You’re Short on Time
Prefab tiny homes or manufactured homes are also a great option for those with less time, money or construction skills. They are built super-efficiently in a factory environment where weather is not an issue. They can be transported to your property and placed on a prepared foundation, almost as if you drag-and-dropped your home into place.
Design for Passive Heating and Cooling
Passive solar is a commonly misunderstood phrase. As opposed to a solar electrical system, passive solar doesn’t include solar panels or batteries. It is about the design and orientation of a home. You want to keep summer heat out and winter heat in.
Solar aspect refers to how the sun moves in the sky in relation to the placement of a building. For example, green houses are typically built running north to south so that they get the maximum solar exposure through the day. Your home should be built the same way, preferably with large south-facing windows (in the northern hemisphere) or north-facing windows (in the southern hemisphere). Orientation is a free and easy way to maximize energy efficiency, so don’t overlook it at the time of building! Even just placing a home in the shade of a large tree could be a simple solution in a hot climate.
Choosing the right insulation to complement your passive solar off grid house will be fundamental to the energy efficiency of your home. The overall design combined with the right sustainable materials and thermal mass should ensure the building heats up in winter, remains cool in summer and ensure any heating you use is not lost through the walls, ceilings or floors.
You can also maximize passive heating and cooling by adding thermal mass to your off grid home design. Thermal mass is the ability of a material to absorb and hold heat. You can incorporate thermal mass into an off grid design by using materials like cob, brick, tiles, or concrete, or by building a home into a hill.
Install Off Grid Solar Power and Solar Hot Water Systems
Now we get to the sexiest part of off grid living: solar power! Solar energy is what comes to mind when most people think of living off grid, yet most folks don’t fully understand what this really means. Let’s demystify off grid solar power in plain language
First, Assess Your Energy Needs
You definitely don’t want to play the guessing game when it comes to designing your electrical system. Quantifying your daily energy use is the first step. Thankfully, this is fairly easy to do using a Kill a Watt electricity use monitor. We even rented one from our local library!
You can use this device to measure the energy use of everything from your lights to refrigerator to laptop to phone charger and beyond. Don’t forget your washer and dryer, hot water heater, cooktop (if electrical), and any other miscellaneous devices you use on a daily basis. Fortunately, there are now lots of energy-efficient alternatives to most appliances with the super high energy use (pretty much anything with a heating element). Sourcing highly efficient refrigerators or gas cooking equipment could significantly cut down on your off grid solar requirements.
How Much Does Off Grid Solar Cost?
Innovations in the solar industry have made solar more accessible to average people than ever before. But it is still a hefty investment for an entire off grid solar electrical system. It can cost anywhere from $10k (USD) (cost of the 600W off grid solar system in our 100 square foot school bus tiny home) to well over $75k (USD), depending on your electrical needs and location.
Depending on the type of home you build, you may or may not be eligible for tax deductions and government solar rebates.Tiny homes on wheels are often not eligible for solar rebates because they aren’t permanent structures.
Types of Solar Panels
There are three main types of solar panels: monocrystalline (highest efficiency, most expensive), polycrystalline (middle of the road), and thin film (lowest efficiency, cheapest cost). The efficiency explains how well a panel converts sunlight into energy.
Wattage describes how much electrical output the panel can generate in optimal conditions. Panel wattages include 100W, 250W, 400W, and sometimes more. You will obviously generate less energy on cloudy days, meaning you will need higher wattage and more solar panels in a climate like the Pacific Northwest of the U.S, and Canada, where the winter can be very foggy and rainy.
Batteries are the main thing that sets off grid solar apart from on-grid solar! Batteries are the core of an off grid solar system.
Solar panels on urban houses are usually tied to the grid, meaning their energy goes to centralized grid systems rather than being stored in their home. Then they receive credits or charges based on how much energy they generate and use. But us off gridders obviously don’t want those pesky electrical bills!
On the other hand, off grid solar holds the energy on site for year-round use, night and day. If there are power outages in a nearby town, you will not be affected because your system is independent. You are much more free and self-contained with off grid solar.
Batteries are the most expensive part of the investment and need to be carefully considered for longevity and performance. An improperly sized solar system will not have enough panels and sunshine input to fully charge the batteries, which can severely decrease the lifespan of those batteries.
The expense of your batteries depends on whether you are looking at up-front investment or lifetime cost. Obviously, lithium ion will cost the most, but they will also last longer and potentially perform better. In order of cheapest to most expensive, the types of batteries include:
- Flooded Lead Acid Batteries (cheap golf cart or car batteries have the shortest lifespan, require maintenance, and cause off-gassing fumes, meaning they need to be stored outside of the home)
- AGM Batteries (mid price point sealed gel batteries don’t off-gas and can be used inside the living space)
- Nickel Iron Batteries (mid price point and long life cycle that withstands over or under-charging)
- Lithium Ion Batteries (highest initial investment and longest lifespan, low weight, and low maintenance)
An off grid solar system is much more complicated than just panels and batteries, which is why hiring a professional solar electrician is often the best choice (be sure they specialize in off grid systems specifically as these are very different from standard on-grid systems).
There are also:
- Charge Controllers, which monitor the amount of charge going to your batteries
- Inverter, which converts DC (direct current solar energy) to AC (alternating current electricity, or standard plugs)
- Breaker Box, which distributes 120V energy to household plugs
- Battery Protection, which protects batteries from electrical surges
- Battery Monitor, to tell you how charged/how much energy you have available
- Wiring, Fuses, and Misc. Parts
Don’t get me wrong, DIY off grid solar is 100% possible (subject to local laws) and is exactly what my husband and I did for our tiny home. Many off grid solar systems are only 12 Volt (much lower than standard 120 Volt houses), so they are fairly safe to work with. The process just requires much more time, research, and patience.
You can pay an electrician to examine your completed system for safety (we got the all clear and were even offered solar jobs!) Understanding off grid solar is both exciting and daunting, but it will make it easier to be self-sufficient, keep costs low, and maintain your system over time.
Solar Hot Water Heater
Solar hot water heaters are ultra efficient, and contrary to common belief, they don’t actually need to be tied into your electrical system. They are passive solar, meaning they use the sun to warm up the water without plugging in.
Commercial vacuum tube solar hot water heaters work similarly to a thermos or a greenhouse. They absorb heat, hold it in, and warm water for showers. They’re the most expensive, but also work well on cloudy or cold days. For a cheaper option, there are also simple camping bags and DIY tankless solar hot water heaters with designs on YouTube.
Off grid living is all about having backups for your backups. Even though solar energy is very dependable, a crazy storm could come and you could wind up without sunlight for a week or more. This is where bio-diesel powered generators, gas generators, or even off grid wind turbines come into play. You can keep extra fuel or battery banks around your property. And if worse comes to worse, always have some extra firewood and candles on hand.
Off Grid Water Systems
Off grid living is a paradigm shift; you don’t just turn on the sink or the shower and magically get water. You have to set up water systems and monitor them.
A lot of people think they are resistant to water shortages because they have a well or running tap, but when their (on-grid) power goes out or a drought overtakes the region, they are out of luck. You need to take into account your water usage for drinking, irrigation, dishes, washing, and livestock, then build a solid system (with a backup plan) for attaining and storing this amount of water year round.
A well is the best option and also the most expensive. Wells can cost over $5,000 and the price increases with the depth required for drilling. This depends on the water table of your property. Fortunately, once a well is drilled it is low maintenance and tends to be a great source of healthy, mineral-rich water. Of course, you will need to test the water to know for sure.
Wells also required an off grid pump, which can be solar powered, hand powered, or a traditional electrical pump. Remember, always have backups.
Frankly, it is very hard to come by a piece of land with a spring on it. Springs are basically a natural well where fresh groundwater flows out of rocks or fissures in the Earth.
It is harder to collect springwater unless you carry jugs or install some sort of pump system, being sure not to contaminate or damage the spring. Springs are really only viable for drinking water and you will still need another source for your daily water usage.
If your land doesn’t have water rights (they are harder and harder to come by these days), rainwater harvesting is your ticket to free and abundant water resources. One square foot of roof space can capture .623 gallons of rainwater. To figure out if this is probable for your location, find out the average monthly rainfall for your area, then use a rainwater collection calculator to determine your rainwater catchment potential.
Rainwater harvesting is simple and affordable. The basic components include:
- A non-toxic roofing material
- Rainwater collection barrels or tanks
- Tank screen
- Connections to gutters or downspouts
- Water filter
- First flush diverter
- Underground pipes leading to indoor plumbing
- A pump system
- Water level indicator
After spending all that time setting up off grid water systems, you probably don’t want to just flush your water down the toilet. Waste disposal (specifically human waste) is a crucial element of the equation.
A composting toilet is typically a “dry” system, meaning there is no water in the pot. Liquid is separated from solids using a urine diverter in the front of the toilet. This allows solid waste to be broken down with peat moss, coco coir, saw dust, or ash, resulting in a no-smell sustainable solution for human waste.
Some composting toilets such as the Air Head or Nature’s Head are completely self-contained for use in mobile off grid vehicles. The separate compartments are easily removable for emptying. The liquids can be poured at the base of mature trees. The solids can be emptied into a compost pile or a trash can (fortunately, they don’t really look like poop by the time you dump them out; it is more like garden soil).
Many off grid dwellers design composting outhouses of their own, which tends to be cheaper and uses less handling. The downside is having to leave your home to go to the bathroom. A urine diverter is still the key component that makes these systems work.
Some outhouses have pits dug very deep (much like the pit toilets in forested areas) so the waste can compost in place. Be sure to keep a supply of carbonaceous material (like the peat moss or saw dust mentioned above) and read The Humanure Handbook to get a full understanding of how to safely deal with your waste in an eco-friendly way.
Septic Tank Systems
A septic tank is like an on-site sewage facility. It includes a chamber for wastewater flow and a septic drainfield (typically beneath a lawn or field) where the wastewater goes back into the soil. Not all soil types are suitable for septic systems, so you will need to consult with a septic professional. Septic systems also require much more water use, as they are typically hooked up to standard water-filled toilets.
Grow Your Own Food
At last, the most fun part! Learning to grow (or raise) your own food is the most rewarding and exciting process of going off grid. If you don’t have a “green thumb”, don’t worry. Many of the best gardeners and farmers learned by trial and error. The great thing about plants is that they are incredibly resilient, and many common vegetables even thrive off of neglect.
There are many different ways to start a garden, including:
- Raised Beds: Build wooden boxes and add topsoil and compost into the boxes for a quick start (most expensive, quickest option for smaller scale garden)
- In-Ground Beds: Establishing in-ground beds similar to a market farm will require a little more planning. Start by mowing existing grass or plants very low. Then, use a tarp to smoother weeds for 1-3 months. Remove the tarp and layer compost in rows to create raised, in-ground, permanent beds. You can also use a walk behind tractor such as a BCS to hill-up beds. Use a broadfork to loosen soil before planting.
- Lasagna Style: Turn compacted lifeless clay into a thriving garden by layering organic matter (straw, sticks, manure, compost, leaves, etc.) and building soil from the bottom up. This can be done in a raised wooden box or in-ground beds as reviewed above.
- Perennial Beds: The above methods are mostly for annual and biennial plants (require seeding every 1-2 years). Perennials such as berries, shrubs, and trees can be planted into less prepared beds that are more rich in fungal biomass (think carbon-filled materials like wood chips, leaves, or even pine needles and sawdust for specific acid-loving species).
Simple Irrigation Systems
Drip irrigation is the most water-efficient and reduces weed growth, but it does use a lot of plastic tubing. Overhead irrigation is less efficient and causes more weed issues, but it is best for germinating seeds like carrots and radishes. I prefer simple wobblers that hook up directly to a hose and can be easily moved around. Many homesteads and farms use a combination of both to achieve their production goals.
Laying hens are the best entry-level livestock for any off grid homestead. You can even raise them in urban areas (just no roosters, of course)! Hens are low-maintenance and produce lots of eggs. The key is to rotate them around with a chicken tractor or let them free range around your property.
Dairy goats, ducks, cows, and other livestock are higher maintenance but provide large quantities of food, including eggs, dairy, and meat. If you don’t have experience with animals, it is best to start small and learn as you go from local farmers and fellow off grid homesteaders.
Compost and Organic Fertility
High quality compost is the best investment you can make for your off grid garden. You can use it to mulch (suppress weeds), conserve moisture, build beds, and fertilizer your crops. Be sure that compost is thoroughly “finished” (not still hot) and has a rich color similar to 70% cacao chocolate. Not all compost is created equal and you definitely want to do your research before having a truck full of it dropped off on your property.
Raw manure is not advisable as it can carry many pathogens and weed seeds. If you cannot source quality compost, then organic approved potting soil is your next best option. Avoid bringing in topsoil if possible as you have no idea where it came from or what chemicals have been applied to it. You can build your own rich topsoil using the methods above!
There’s no denying that off grid living requires a lot of up-front investment of money, time and energy. If you are going the DIY route, that may also include your blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps that is why most people choose the easier way, living in a regular house in the city with most of their basic needs provided for by corporations and municipalities.
But at the end of the day, the investment is a worthwhile price to pay for freedom. You can sit back and enjoy a wholesome life off grid with your family knowing that you are self-sufficient and resilient to whatever lies ahead.