During the Canadian ice storm of 1998, a friend of mine was without power for almost two weeks. With electric heat unavailable, he and his family moved into their living room and camped out around the wood-stove, ate at restaurants, and relied on friends living in town for hot showers.
For some hearty souls, such an occurrence may have been business as usual.
What does it take to live in our modern society without benefit of municipal hydro, water, and sewage utilities? Is it even possible? By that we mean is it possible to live completely off-grid and still be part of modern society, or are the two polar opposites?
Without a doubt, it is possible to live off-grid. Many people do so without choice. They may live in developing countries where utilities most of us take for granted just aren’t available. Others have chosen to live off-grid, giving up what most would consider basic modern conveniences. Either way, could these ones really be said to be living in the modern world?
If you wish to disconnect completely, it may require a marked change in your lifestyle and expectations.
Will your clock radio wake you in the morning? Will you not realize the temperature outside dropped twenty degrees overnight because your house is still warm and cozy?
Will you take a hot shower, then head downstairs to a pot of coffee already waiting while you flip a switch to turn on the stove and cook breakfast? Will it be possible to microwave your lunch, or have a roast cooking in the oven for a couple of hours?
Will you still be able to reach into your bar fridge and pull out a cold beer, then reach for the remote to turn down the lights and turn on your widescreen television and watch a movie in surround sound?
Think of all the things you do each day that require some form of energy. You’re reading this, so you obviously have Internet access, and therefore a computer. Unless you go to bed as soon as the sun goes down, you’ll need some form of lighting, probably electric, although you could use gas or oil. If the temperature outside gets much below 20 degrees Celsius, you’ll need to heat your home. (See the section below about location.) Unless you only eat raw food, you’ll need energy to cook.
What about entertainment? Books, board games, and banjos don’t take much power, but radios and televisions do. Even something as simple as a clock requires some form of energy, whether it’s a grandfather clock you wind, or a battery powered wall clock.
From where does all this energy come? Options include geothermal, wind turbines, solar thermal panels, photovoltaic cells, natural gas or propane, wood, or even bicycle-powered generators. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
Wind turbines only function when the wind blows, may be noisy, require maintenance, and necessitate some way of storing energy when the wind stops.
Solar thermal systems are great for cooking and heating water, but aren’t so effective at providing electricity unless you have a fair-sized steam turbine. And, like photovoltaic cells, they require some way to store electricity for use at night or on heavily overcast days.
If you have a ready supply of natural gas you can use it for cooking and heating and even for electricity if you invest in a fuel cell.
Wood can be used for heating and cooking, but overuse has an environmental impact in terms of soot, greenhouse gases, and desertification.
Peddle power is great if you have the physical stamina and lots of food for fuel.
Most of these systems require the ability to store excess power for use when online generation isn’t practical, such as solar energy at night, or wind power on calm days. Possibilities include pumping water into a reservoir, turning a heavy flywheel, or splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. But the most common method is old-fashioned lead-acid batteries.
The problem with lead-acid batteries — like car batteries — is that they’re expensive, heavy, bulky, require ongoing maintenance, produce dangerous gasses, are hazardous to dispose of, and don’t last forever.
For good health you should drink at least two liters of water a day. Add to this requirements for cooking, sanitation, and bathing, and you could be well above fifty liters per day.
If you have a well or a spring on your property, water may not be a problem. Of course, you’ll need some way of pumping the water unless you like hauling buckets. You’ll also need some way of making sure the water is potable.
Many rural homeowners are familiar with septic systems. Those who are can tell you they’re not maintenance free; at the very least, septic tanks need to be emptied occasionally. Would you consider yourself truly off-grid if you hired an outside firm to pump out your septic tank?
Of course, you could simply dig a latrine instead. And then another when that fills up. And so on. But make sure you don’t contaminate your water supply.
Some places are easier to live off-grid than others. Areas subject to long, cold winters will require a more dependable and robust heating system. You could combine your heating and cooking energy needs with a wood-stove, but then you’ll be expending energy to cut and transport the wood. Burning wood releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. And while timber is a renewable resource, growing a forest takes a long time. In all, depending on timber as your main energy source is hardly environmentally friendly.
If you have the option, consider moving to a location with mild winters and long summers. The increased daylight hours afford the opportunity to take advantage of solar power for general energy needs, cooking, and water heating.