The idea of "going green" has swept through Western culture pretty quickly. The ideas of conservation and helping the environment started with niche groups, but now permeate the core principals of major corporations. But individuals are still on the cutting edge of conservation. Some have already made the switch to going off the grid, and many more are considering the alternative energy lifestyle. So how exactly do you accomplish living off the grid?
Cut the Electric Cord
First, let's define "going off the grid." This typically means that you don't rely on the main power grid for your electricity, but it also includes completely disconnecting from water and the sewer as well. Yeah, it's a big step. For a beginner, the first action to make this happen is to establish your power source. According to TIME, most American homes need around 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity every year and the best way to achieve it is to combine solar and wind power sources.
Obviously, you need to live in an area that is conducive to one or, preferably, both of these options. Many off the grid homeowners build their homes from scratch to ensure optimal energy efficiency. For example, they position the home and windows to take advantage of solar heat during the winter, and they build with energy efficient materials. When the sun isn't shining, many off the grid homeowners use wind power to supplement the electricity. However, systems like this may not come cheap. The off the grid lifestyle may require you to invest tens of thousands of dollars in initial systems.
If you're successful in capturing energy from the sun or wind, then you'll need to think about how to store it. The electricity can be stored in DC batteries and then converted to AC power when you need it. Some off the grid homeowners use propane-fueled generators to recharge the batteries if they haven't been able to tap into the sun or wind in a while.
Water, Water Everywhere
Electricity is only one part of going off the grid. You may need to supply your own water and waste system, too. According to the Groundwater Foundation, 17 million households get their water from a well, so it is possible. To do this, you can pay a company to have a well drilled on your property. A pump is then installed that automatically pumps the water out of the well when you need it. If you go this route, plan on spending $3,000 to $15,000 to have a well dug and a pump installed.
Some people also use cisterns to collect fresh rainwater. Many cisterns collect the water that runs off of your roof and places it in the cistern for later use. Obviously, you would need to live in an area that has significant rainwater to supplement your water source with this option. Then there's the waste management.
To get rid of your wastewater and not have to pay for it, you'll need a septic tank. The tank will break down the waste and a system of pipes will distribute the waste away from the house and into the soil. Many homes out in the country use this system and it can be a very effective way to dispose of wastewater.
Heating the Home and Water
Aside from electricity sources, water supply and wastewater management, you'll need to consider how to heat your home. We mentioned building the home to take advantage of solar heat, but fireplaces and efficient insulation will obviously help as well. Some homeowners use propane to heat the hot water and for cooking. This might not be as sustainable as other sources, but it will allow you to separate yourself from the power grid. Other alternatives such as solar hot water systems are available.
The Bottom Line
Many people who go off the grid make gradual steps to energy self-sufficiency. It starts with conservation and then snowballs into alternative energy sources. If you're just getting started, or thinking about going off the grid, consider the monetary costs involved as well as the comfort sacrifices you may need to make.