Perhaps you’ve noticed listings for land during a search for your dream property that notes it’s an “off-grid parcel” or “perfect for off-grid living”?
Maybe there’s already an existing house with an off-grid system in place or even just a generator? Or the land sounds wonderful and the pictures look just like what you’ve been dreaming of but the closest power is pretty far?
What would it be like, you wonder, to truly live off-grid? And if farming is in your plans, is this even possible? Would life there feel like a never-ending power failure?
After 17 years spent living and farming off-grid, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what that’s like—the good and the not-always-so-good. I hope that sharing some of my experiences from living this will give you a better understanding of the process and arm you with the questions you need to ask yourself if you’re considering off-grid living.
Home, Sustainable Home
My adventures in off-grid life began in 1994 when I was shown a parcel of land up on a mountain in central Vermont. I’d been looking for a while, but nothing I had seen felt right. Lots of heavily (and badly) logged properties, weedy former Christmas tree farms and even worse seemed to predominate.
This parcel felt different. I liked it immediately. The real estate agent noted that there wasn’t any power to the parcel. But I was already pretty open to living off-grid, so that didn’t phase me.
Back then, the off-grid world was rather different than it is now. There weren’t any grid-tied systems that I was aware of, connected to the grid and receiving credit or payment from the electric utility for power generated.
There were only a few companies devoted to providing off-grid supplies. Off-gridders were truly off-grid.
Federal tax credits for off-grid systems didn’t exist, and there weren’t many companies involved in this field. Those of us who opted for off-grid living felt like we were joining a small club of sorts. Equipment was rather limited and expensive.
Getting off the Grid
I contacted the local electric utility to see if they’d come out and give me an estimate for hooking up to the grid just in case I wanted to. But they weren’t too interested in doing that and expected payment of several hundred dollars just to come and take a look.
Several hundred dollars was a fair amount of money in 1994. (It still is!) Given this, I decided that it was clear I was meant to live off-grid and never looked back.
I’m not going to recommend specific equipment in this article, nor will I go through install details. This information changes regularly, and other resources cover this well.
I do hope to give you a taste for how I decided on my off-grid system, what sorts of appliances and other devices I used in my home and what it was like living this way year-round. Plus, as I was moving to the land in order to farm, I’ll share what it’s been like farming off-grid.
There are a number of options available for someone who’s going to live off-grid. These include wind, PV (solar) and hydro systems for those where the intent is to generate electricity via a natural means and store it in a battery system to use later.
Some just opt to use a generator, which charges their battery bank. Others only use propane, opting for propane lights and refrigerator and even a propane heating system, instead of or in addition to wood.
One of the things you’ll need to think about is how you’ll use this property and what sort of electric-generating potential exists on the site: solar exposure, wind, running water for hydro?
How big a system will you install? Your budget also plays a big role here.
My budget was quite limited, so that dictated the size of the system. Some people choose to look at their electric utility bills and try to replicate a system that will produce that amount of power. I personally think that’s a rather wasteful (and expensive) approach, although often favored by system installers.
The only way I would suggest following that approach would be if you desired to live exactly as you did when connected to the grid while using the same appliances found in grid-tied homes. Oh, you’ll need to have tons of money to pour into that type of system!
To replicate the power consumed by even a reasonably power-frugal grid-tied person with off-grid power generation results in a large and costly off-grid infrastructure.
Looking at my own situation on this piece of land, I opted to pair a small PV system with a small wind generator. At the time, there was a brand-new, small wind generator just out which could be mounted on a metal pole and secured to an outbuilding such as a barn or shed.
The property had an awesome southern exposure, which would result in lots of power generated on sunny days. And it was high up on a mountain and often quite windy.
The wind gen was to help fill in the gaps during the winter or when the sun wasn’t shining. I didn’t have any hydro options, or I would certainly have considered using that as well.
I opted to install both AC and DC (12-volt) wiring in my house. The AC system had a circuit breaker box and the DC system had fuses for each appliance.
The majority of the house was wired for AC. This meant that ordinary small appliances—blender, coffee grinder, computer, printer, lamps, etc.—could be plugged into AC outlets and function as they did when grid-tied. The AC power was generated by having an inverter convert the DC battery bank power to AC.
An inverter, while running, uses up some power just to operate. Given the small size of my system, I didn’t want to waste power having an inverter running for long periods of time.
As well, if items need to frequently cycle on and off, such as a fridge or well pump, this would mean that the inverter needed to continually go on and off as well.
Thus, I opted to have some DC runs of wiring in my house in order to operate DC appliances such as a 12-volt well pump, ceiling fan and, later on in time, a 12-volt fridge and freezer. They ran directly off of the battery bank and no inverter was needed to operate them. I even had an outlet for a DC light bulb to use when brooding chicks.
Utilities & Appliances
I was fortunate to find a piece of land with a spring that I was able to have developed. This provided gravity flow to just below the floor of the house. Thus, the 12-volt water pump was small, located inside the house and fed the water to a small pressure tank.
A tankless, on-demand propane water heater supplied hot water.
Home heating was a critical need in the long, frigid winters. Two wood-burning stoves—one centrally located, the other only used occasionally—provided my main heat.
Back-up heat was provided by a centrally located large console propane heater vented to the outside. It was not very fuel-efficient but didn’t require any electricity, unlike other oil- or gas-heating systems. This provided heat in case I was out all day.
It also satisfied the requirements of the home insurance company.
Keep Food Cold
In the early years, I opted for an ancient (older than me!) propane fridge. Eventually, after adding a few more PV panels, I was able to install a 12-volt fridge and a 12-volt freezer.
The fridge was essentially a chest freezer with a different thermostat. It was admittedly a pain to use. It also failed after just a few years of use due to defective coolant lines. The freezer worked quite well, though.
I was fortunate to have a handy friend able to install the system. As I was building the house (with friends), the roof was designed to have a southern exposure with the proper angle to generate PV throughout the year.
I economized by using angle irons to mount the PV panels to. They worked quite well with never a problem. In fact, I’d have to say that the PV system behaved flawlessly.
The wind gen was mounted up above the barn roof on a metal pipe. It failed during its first year of operation. Evidently these wind gens were failing in high wind speed areas! I had to have it removed and sent back to have the innards exchanged for those of the next model year.
Other than that, it worked quite well and definitely generated power when the sun wasn’t shining. Looking out and seeing the little red light on its belly lit up and hearing the blades whirring away always gave me a good feeling.
For batteries, I used a bank of deep-cycle batteries, sometimes marine batteries and other times golf cart ones. They had to be checked and have water added to their cells as needed.
I kept the system simple, so besides an inverter (one that could recharge the battery bank using a generator plugged into it), there was only a charge controller (for the PV system) and a voltmeter for the battery bank.
Two separate thunderstorms took out the original charge controller and the voltmeter. Thankfully, neither cost too much to replace.
Life off the Grid
My goal was to have my house operate such that a guest could come in, turn on a light, cook a meal, use the bathroom, take a shower, etc. without needing an instruction manual. (I knew someone with an off-grid house that had a thick operations manual.)
I wanted to have the house set up so that while I needed to understand the system and its “care and feeding,” guests in my home didn’t need to know anything special other than to turn off the lights when done using them. I’d say that I succeed with this goal.
In the early years, when the system was very small, we were more limited. We still used a computer, printer, blender, VCR and TV, lights, coffee grinder, etc.. We never used any electrical appliance that generated heat (toaster, hair dryer), though.
My inverter was limited in its operating capacity for watts (and surge capacity). So I needed to use a generator to operate the washing machine or power tools.
Later on I was able to add a few more PV panels and thus switched to a 12-volt fridge and freezer. As technology became more affordable, I replaced the desktop computer with a power-frugal laptop.
Did we have enough power? That depended on the time of year.
In summer, we had plenty of power. In winter, it was more limited. November and February tended to be the worst months for power generation in my region. There were times we had to go with candlelight dinners!
My son had to learn that a cloudy day spent doing a movie marathon while I was out might mean no power that night.
If I’d had the money for a larger system, I would definitely have opted for that as well as a more powerful inverter able to handle a washing machine, microwave, etc.
Costs for PV panels and inverters have dropped significantly from what they were back then. So this won’t likely be as big an issue for someone starting out now unless they are purchasing used equipment.
I think the biggest difference to life on the grid is that when you’re off it, you always have to think about the power supply and the level of charge in the battery bank. Unless you’ve got tons of money to throw at installing a system, you’ll by necessity be more limited in your usage.
When you’re grid-connected, you can essentially use as much electricity as you want, limited only by your ability to pay the bill each month. When you’re off-grid, you’re limited by how much power is produced and stored in your battery bank.
While I sometimes had a generator available and could then recharge the battery bank using it, I didn’t opt to do this often. To my mind, that’s very wasteful of fossil fuels. A stretch of cloudy/rainy days while on a PV system means that you need to cut back your power consumption.
If using a wind gen, a stretch of calm quiet weather means that less power is being generated.
This forces you to be hyperaware of the weather. It gives new meaning to the concept of “living within one’s means.” It also means that you will become quite vigilant about turning lights off and not wasting power.
Having lived off-grid for so many years, now while living in a grid-connected home, I notice that my electric bills are always so much lower than those of others.
If you’re considering taking the plunge to living and/or farming off-grid, I support that wholeheartedly. I’m currently living in a grid-connected home but wouldn’t hesitate to return to living off-grid should I make another move to a house inaccessible to the grid.
An extra benefit of living totally off-grid is that you’ll only notice there’s a power failure when lightless neighbors come a-knocking needing water!
Sidebar: Off-Grid Farming
How does living off-grid impact farming? I think the answer to this depends a lot on what sort of farming you’re intent on doing.
Livestock of all kinds can be securely contained within fencing that doesn’t require any electricity. I used electric fence, wire and netted, energized by solar chargers. These chargers were connected to a deep-cycle battery that I recharged off my generator.
I found this to be a very workable solution.
If your intent is to have very long runs of electric fence on extensive pasturage, though, you’ll likely have to use several solar fence chargers. It’s also critical to keep the grass well trimmed that abuts the fencing. I used chicken wire for the outdoor chicken yard. This wasn’t electrified.
The use of gasoline/diesel tractors, mowers, tillers, etc. and growing hay or field crops shouldn’t be any different being off-grid. I had lights in the barn, which I used only when necessary, such as early morning/after-dark feeding or milking.
I only milked a few goats, which I did by hand. If you plan to milk a larger number of animals, you’ll want to look at milking systems that can run off a generator. Or explore how the Amish handle this.
The chicken coop wasn’t electrified so I didn’t use lights in there during the winter. Obviously, I didn’t use heated water buckets.
I was mostly a fruit and veggie farmer. The biggest challenge for me doing this off-grid was the lack of refrigeration.
Having a small system, I couldn’t operate any walk-in coolers. This necessitated harvesting leafy greens in the wee hours of the morning when they were crisp and still cool. I washed and packed them quickly, and stored them in a cool northern storage room in the house.
If your budget allows for a walk-in cooler that can be operated off-grid, that would be quite useful, but, again, it’s not a necessity. I needed to time the harvest of perishables—berries, for example—such that they were delivered to their retail buyers as soon as possible after picking and packing. I
couldn’t harvest days in advance of a farmers market. Timing of picking was critical.
For the large grow tunnels/hoop houses, I relied solely on non-mechanical ventilation, opening up the ends and rolling up the sides as required. I purchased, but never got around to installing, some window vents that were temperature controlled. These look like a good idea though, especially if you are located in an area with hot summers.
I rarely needed to use supplemental heat in the tunnels. In a few emergency low-temp situations, I utilized kerosene heaters that didn’t require electricity to operate.
Sidebar: Lessons in Living
Living and farming off-grid meant that sometimes I had to utilize simpler and more basic methods to do things. When electricity is limited, one has to be more clever about how to get a job done. It also eliminates the use of a myriad of time-saving appliances.
I found other ways to dry food, as using an electric food dehydrator wasn’t possible. When I had the gas fridge, I was able to utilize the waste heat produced by the burner to dry food in a rack set above the heat vent.
Instead of a toaster, I used a cast iron griddle on top of the stove. Coffee was made via a French press after heating the water in a kettle on the stove. Laundry was hung out to dry on a clothesline in good weather and inside on drying racks near the woodstove in more inclement weather.
Canning food on my propane kitchen stove wasn’t any different than in a grid-tied home, though. Oh yes, my propane cook-stove didn’t have electric ignition; it had old-fashioned pilot lights for the burners and oven.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.