Nowadays with the advent of digital communications, rather than handwritten notes from family and friends, the sound of the letterbox creaking often only testifies to another sealed white envelope addressed to the bill payer. Through the convenient modern lifestyle supplemented by fridges, lighting, thermostats, drinking water on tap and flushable toilets, your electricity, gas, water, and sewage providers have acquired a captivated audience, all struck around the same time of the month by the total owed at the bottom of the letter. Collectively forming ‘the grid’ these public utilities provided by private companies power the framework for our contemporary ways of living, costing the average UK household £1500 a year in essential amenities.
Instead of paying for the luxury to live in these modern times, you could disconnect. Going off the grid allows you to live independently from the utility boards so integrated into our lives. Off-grid comes in a unique variety of lifestyles, from full self-sufficiency complete with a smallholding to the ultra high-tech and digitally advanced, with everything in-between. The common factor between all of them is the capacity to generate their own power, supply their own water, and operate their own sewage system. Far from the crunchy granola types who convert any four-walled structure into an abode, living in an off-grid dwelling gives you a level of autonomy that cannot be achieved in a traditional building. In the comfortable security of today, disconnecting from the public supply might sound like a scene from the apocalypse, shirking the cosy amenities of Netflix, takeaways, and flushable toilets in favour of spoon whittling, organic ‘herb’ gardens and wiping with leaves. But off-grid living can often mean a house that is far more technologically equipped than any standard home being built today.
Traditional houses require a limited amount of upkeep in comparison to those responsible for their own energy and resources, but such a privilege is paid for. The cost to put yourself on the grid from an independently built house, or even taking on an already connected home over a lifetime can rack up more than the cost of a Maserati GranTurismo, or a Tesla Model X if we’re talking sustainability. From electricity to water, living on the grid makes the cost of living far more than it has to be, over £100 a month for the most basic utilities. Perhaps the conservative idea of getting on the property ladder and signing up for a lifetime of bills may not be the practical notion your parents encouraged you to think it is. With energy prices in a constant upward course and the cost of buildings sky-rocketing, it may work out cheaper to build your own and run it for free, shunning the traditionalists by driving through town in the latest Tesla innovation.
Often, homes off the grid are seen as hippie and hipster retreats or naturalist communities, where people forage for berries and grow their own wheat. Though that could be the case for some grid-less lifestyles, an off-grid building just doesn’t use the public supply of resources, and the technologies to produce your own is often far more high-tech than any regular house. With the rapid advancement of renewable technologies making free energy ever more efficient, the idea of paying for power provided by someone else seems to pale in comparison. The other, more sensitive subjects of sewage makes off-grid living less appealing, but becoming entirely self-sufficient needn’t hark back to the days of chamber pots and outside lavvies. Off-grid living doesn’t have to mean a minimalist or primitive lifestyle, you can choose not to get electricity or running water in your house, but with free energy and water, you may as well plan for an enormous system to power a walk-in fridge, underfloor heating, tumble dryer, and a personal computer gaming system. Off-grid homes are essentially the same as those on-grid, just with cheaper, more efficient, and cleaner power.
In an off-grid house, your means to watching Netflix and cooking a meal needn’t be by powering the smart TV via a hooked up static bike and peddling your way through an episode of Suits or angling a contraption of mirrors to cook a pizza. Solar, wind, biomass boilers, wood burners, and geothermal energy all provide sufficient means to power your house. Though initial setup costs are high, they all offer free if not incredibly low running fees throughout a lifetime. And it’s only getting cheaper to implement them; over the last 8 years, the cost of installing a 4kW solar system has dropped 65% from £20’000 to £7’000 and is predicted to continue to decrease by 10% each year from now. The same drop in costs is happening across all renewable energies, though at a lesser rate. With new, innovative technologies like Tesla’s Solar Roof that kits out the entire roof with photovoltaic absorbing tiles, soon the whole roof could become your own personal energy board. Such roof technologies can even include a UV powered system that runs (independently sourced) water through gel lined pipes heated by the sun to provide steaming water in an instant. Warmth can even be tapped from underneath your feet, using ground-source heat to warm the room. Infamous green energy ‘blackouts’ needn’t have you stockpiling candles to light the powerless nights while crocheting hand warmers; batteries can store the energy when you’re not using it in the daytime to send in when you need it at night. Even if you don’t opt for Elon Musks integrated Powerwall installed to your house, designs like the futuristic sounding EasyGrid 3000, 5000, and 10000 offer solar power storage complete with an app to tell you runtime, energy available, inputs and outputs from your tablet. With your own personal energy production system, you could even remain partially hooked up to the grid and be paid for the privilege. Though not entirely off-grid in the truest sense, excess clean energy generated by the house could be sold back to the grid under a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) and pay off the power-generation installation costs even faster. The technologies required to take a house off grid often require lifestyle shifts to accommodate, from ensuring there’s a seasoned stack of logs ready to burn to regularly checking the energy metre to make sure you don’t over spend. But in exchange for such new habits, you can enjoy the increased level of independence that comes with it.
Once your home is absorbing and converting the free energy sources around you, other modern luxuries like drinking water, washing dishes, and having a bath off the grid shouldn’t have you tethered to the local utility either. Without a line to the water supply board, the invaluable resource that is water flowing freely from above and below can be hooked up to the home with the right equipment. Investing in water tanks, buckets and cisterns aimed into by gutters on any available surface will provide you with much of the water that’s already at your disposal, and can even be enhanced by designing harvesting into the living space like the stepped or bowl-shaped roofs in Bermuda and Iran respectively. More reliable on-site water sources can include a well, stream, tank, or lake that must be pumped, with clean energy, to the house. Water is one of the most tricky off-grid options to get right, failing to find water after an expensive borehole operation, and with the country at risk of global warming induced drought, the much-needed rain even in the UK may not be available when most needed. There is also the expensive and unavoidable quest to filter and treat the water once found, from costly desalinisation methods to entire hydroponic farms. If off-grid drinking water doesn’t sound palatable, such sourced water can be used as grey water – not drinkable – for almost every other requirement, from flushing loos to showering and washing clothes. In the UK, the water that is sent to us from the grid for such uses is all the same; what we use to flush the toilet is the same as what we drink. The extra treatment that water goes through to be drinkable is not necessary to pour down the plug hole, wasting valuable resources that will only be treated again after a flush.
Which brings us to the most sensitive off-grid topic; the outcome of your home cooked, free energy meal and safely treated water. Though distasteful to discuss, on-grid sewage treatment can rack up a costly price, but with independent houses not connected to a sewerage system, it doesn’t force modern off-gridders to dig and squat. A more traditional method can be maintained by installing a septic tank, a large metal container that allows for the collection and release of wastewater from your plug holes and drains. Naturally broken down and sterilised by bacteria inside, the resulting liquid is flowed out into a field nearby, where the soil biologically filters the effluent into nutrients. You can even have your waste diverted into a lake with a reed bed that will sanitise the waste naturally for you. Though using a septic tank still requires the work of professionals on call to service and empty every year, it’s still technically off the grid. If requiring the paid work of others doesn’t fit the off-grid repertoire, there are various types of dry toilets that neutralise waste using sawdust. A composting toilet allows you to harness the power of poo as ‘humanure’ by putting the stuff to use as organic matter in compost.
With all the latest gadgets and systems, all you need now is a place to put them. Traditional buildings are not generally made with high levels of energy efficiency in mind, so loose much of the hard-earned heat through the walls and roofs due to poor insulation. Eco homes, on the other hand, are designed to be so well insulated that much of the time there’s no need for extra heating, further saving on energy expenditure. With this in mind, it’s often far cheaper in the long run to build an off-grid home from scratch, designed to accommodate perfectly for the necessities, systems and technologies that go with off-grid living. There is a massive variety of eco homes suited to your needs that are designed with off-grid capabilities, with jaunty names like the EarthShip, Wikihouse and Passivhaus that all offer complete freedom to design and build your perfect grid-less abode.
Typically, due to the environmentally beneficial aspects of living in a clean energy home, the materials used to build one are often either recycled or sourced locally. The Earthship is perhaps the most ‘environmentalist’ idea of a grid-less abode. Made from repurposed waste materials and products like plastic bottles filled with washed up plastic debris or post-use tyres filled with sand for insulated building blocks. With wattle and daub style cement-like mixtures to bring it all together, Earthship’s are some of the most environmentally sustainable buildings out there by refusing to require any extra processing for the materials used. But the finished look, along with the bold name, can often be too close to the stereotypical idea of an eco-home, making the goal of going off-grid more like going off the map. For the more modern off-gridder, the German eco-home accreditation Passivhaus is the most contemporary setting for off-grid lifestyles. A meticulous voluntary standard, certificated homes have exceptional energy efficiency and insulation quality. Though these are one of the most ecologically benign buildings, the original goal was much more practical: American builders seeking refuge from rising oil prices built incredibly efficient houses that consumed little to no energy by utilising the free heat from the sun and designing the building to absorb as much as possible. By reaching passive house standards, most conventional heating systems are not required, and what is can be topped up with clean energy captured by clean power generators. With careful design, these buildings can maintain much of their own heat, losing less than 0.5°C of heat in the dead of winter, while still allowing fresh air in. Many companies offer effectively flat-packed buildings that meet Passivhaus standards, that can be put up by a small team for as little as £80’000 for a 6 bedroom house. If you’re after something more uniquely designed, the Wikihouse plan provides 3D design software in which you can create your perfect house with off-grid specifications which will too come to you ready to build in jigsaw-assembly fashion.
From open-source design software to accredited architects and builders, the resources, technologies and means are there to support an independent lifestyle. With the outstanding majority of our lives being dictated by work schedules, private company balance sheets and other extraneous demands, taking your house off-grid allows at least your home life an element of respite from the always-on pressure of modern living. There are ways you can implement off-grid methods in your grid-hooked home to reduce reliance or even practice for the switch. Installing a wood burning appliances like a traditional stove or fireplace can massively reduce electricity usage and bills, and heat can be redirected to heat the home and dry clothes.
For some, disconnecting from the grid can provide levels of autonomy and freedom of finances and bills that are all too unimaginable by today’s societies standards. For others, the cheaper cost of living is just a bonus. As global warming creeps further into our language and living environments, conducting a life that doesn’t rely on many of the contributors to that threat, from the burning off fossil fuels to power your toaster to destroying marine habitats with waste-water outlets every time you flush, living a life off grid can offer a level of quiet comfort from the oncoming storms. From a grid-less standpoint, other sustainable living avenues can open up into full self-sufficiency, like denouncing supermarkets low ethical standards for farmers, crop management and high street landscapes, by growing and producing your own food. Taking the shift from power sufficiency to self-sufficiency brings its own new responsibilities and joys. After sticking it to the grid and then supermarkets, being confident that what you eat is free of pesticides, packaging and antibiotics can provide so much more than more money in the bank. That is if you can stomach being your own butcher too. Such an adjustment can offer a fresh point of view on the waste that is produced by our contemporary lifestyles, from the pointless packaging to the massively consumptive habits of transport and delivery. Living off the grid can transfer a more self-sufficient attitude that takes into account the ecosystem services that are readily available at our disposal, if only we respect the whole system enough to allow it to thrive.
That being said, with the ability of humans to harm pretty much anything they touch, living off the grid Enid Blyton style in a forest far far away can actually do more harm than if they’d just stayed living with the rest of civilisation. Wildlife can be irreparably disrupted by the presence of humans no matter how hard we try, from the wood chopping and burning for the log burner, to the tapping of ancient underground water sources or natural springs that other animals are dependent on. Though not reliant on corporation utilities and perhaps wasting less, human impact cannot always be assuaged by a well-meaning idea. But such a move can give people a more rounded view of how dependent each fraction of the ecosystem is on each other, knowledge that cannot be gained by holing up in our own human-made concrete societies.
Living off the grid can be cheap; if you go into the wild with a tent and a backpack, hunt and forage for food and warm yourself with gathered wood. But in the contemporary setting, a more cost-effective lifestyle can often be pricey. In most cases purchasing land, planning permission, building and investing in grid-less technologies can set you back a fair way. In the UK, off-grid living still requires you to pay council tax and most of the others, but once the setup is complete, the vast majority of living costs are already accounted for. Without a hook up to the mains, independent houses are absolved from power-loss concerns if the grid gets damaged by extreme weather, predicted to only get worse as the climate changes. And with global warming becoming one of the most discussed threats on the horizon, a cleanly powered home can have you sleeping easy in a naturally temperature controlled abode, offsetting over a tonne of carbon dioxide each year through a solar panel set up alone. Disconnecting from public utilities can come with its own lifestyle challenges. To live comfortably, your lifestyle will have to become more energy conservative, sometimes that could merely mean doing electricity fuelled activities in the daytime when the sun is up; washing your clothes and hoovering in the daytime that could become tricky on a full-time work schedule. But in the middle of winter when the sun just isn’t there, it could mean investing in a generator to keep the lights on. If closer to self-sufficiency, off-grid living can be costly in time and effort; using log burning fires and cookers often mean you must source, chop and season the wood, and growing your own food means you’re responsible for the weeding, mulching and harvesting. And that composting toilet won’t empty itself. But for all the lifestyle adaptations along the way, the payoff is far higher than paying someone else for the privilege to live. From stability to true control over your home to never seeing a bill again, all those adaptations may just be worth it.