Lessons From Off-Grid Living
Lesson: Vary the ways you heat water. About 60 percent of our hot water comes from our solar hot water system. During cloudy days in late fall and early winter, neither of our systems produces enough hot water for us, so we rely on our woodstove. We always have large kettles of water on the woodstove to keep about 10 gallons of hot water on demand. During winter, we fill large stockpots with water and heat them up on our woodstove for baths. We bathe in a cast-iron claw-foot tub that absorbs the water’s heat and radiates it back into the bathroom throughout the night.
Smart Food Storage
We eventually worked up the nerve to purchase a freezer to store some of the bounty from our garden. We’ve reduced the freezer’s run time by putting it in our unheated basement, which stays at about 32 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. We’ve mastered growing vegetables that store well, such as carrots, onions, potatoes, squash and sweet potatoes. During summer, we run a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and supply 50 families with a weekly box of vegetables from our garden.
Lesson: Upgrade to energy-efficient appliances. Thanks to improved energy-efficiency standards, a large modern fridge is much more efficient than a small older unit, so we upgraded to a new model.
Lesson: Build a root cellar for electricity-free food storage. We have a cistern below our kitchen, which we use as a root cellar. The cistern is cool but never freezes, and it has a high level of humidity, which is optimal for storing our garden vegetables. We put up a significant portion of staple crops this way and continue to experiment to find vegetable varieties that keep well.
Well Water and Water Pumps
We supplement water from our 50-foot-deep drilled well with water from a shallower dug well near our main garden. We use a small, solar-powered DC pump to fill up rain barrels. The solar pump also runs a drip irrigation system that we move throughout the gardens as needed.
Lesson: Pump your water in large batches. Pumping water requires a lot of power, and the biggest surge occurs when the pump first clicks on, so filling two water tanks at a time makes sense. Our cistern contains two 30-gallon water tanks that are pressurized by the deep-well pump in our drilled well.
When folks move to an off-grid, rural homestead, they often end up burning a lot of fossil fuels (and spending a lot of money) driving to and from town in an inefficient farm truck. You may want to ride a bicycle, but time, long distances, considerable physical strain and the amount of cargo you’ll need to haul will be limiting factors. Electric cars are becoming more available, but they’re still quite expensive.
Lesson: Go electric on two wheels. We have an electric bicycle with a lithium battery that charges in about three hours when connected to solar power. This marvelous machine allows me to ride the 8 miles to town without having to pedal the entire way. While I can’t haul loads that weigh more than about 50 pounds, I’ve made many trips with a good amount in tow.
Today, off-grid living is no longer a huge ordeal. We’ve had many challenges over our 20 years, but times have changed — technology is better and more affordable, and you can easily find information to master whatever off-grid skills you need. Size your energy systems properly and be mindful of checking your batteries regularly, and you can say goodbye to increasing utility bills and frequent blackouts that accompany extreme weather events. You, too, can enjoy a more secure and sustainable, grid-free lifestyle.
Daily Energy Consumption on the Mather Homestead
Our total daily energy consumption is 5,025 watt-hours, or about 5 kilowatt-hours. Compare this with the average U.S. home’s 30 kilowatt-hours per day. We have enough battery storage capacity to run our household for approximately three days if no sun or wind can power our systems.
Refrigerator: 1,000 watt-hours
Freezer: 1,000 watt-hours
Lights: 500 watt-hours
Washing machine: 1,000 watt-hours (4 loads per week)
Water pump: 250 watt-hours (1,000 watts for 1/4 hr)
Two laptops: 560 watt-hours (20 watts each for 14 hrs)
Satellite Internet dish: 280 watt-hours (20 watts for 14 hrs)
Radio: 105 watt-hours (15 watts for 7 hrs)
Television: 330 watt-hours (110 watts for 3 hrs)
Cam Mather homesteads on 150 wooded acres in Ontario, where he and his wife, Michelle, run a 50-member CSA program and a publishing business, all powered by sun and wind.