General Question

jca's avatar

Do you know anybody who lives "off the grid" and if so, how do they do it and where do they live?

Asked by jca (29273 points ) January 20th, 2014

“Living off the grid,” meaning living autonomously, not hooked up to any public utilities, i.e. electric, sewer, gas, being totally independent of “the grid.” I have been watching a show on the Alaskan railroad, and each episode usually features a family living off the grid. In Alaska, obviously, it’s got to be terribly cold. In thinking about these people’s lives, I think about what I consider the bare minimum. I would think a shower once a week would be the bare minimum. For me, if I couldn’t take a daily shower, then every other day would be the minimum, but for the purposes of surviving living off the grid, then I would think I would need one once a week. To think about how they do it, these people living in these little cabins in the woods, going to the bathroom in an outhouse when there are many feet of snow on the ground, animals in the woods and it’s freezing, how do they do it? I would think living in a warmer climate is easier, but in the US, unless you’re in Florida, you’re going to experience some freezing weather at least a few weeks a year.

These people walk through the woods a few miles and hail the train to “town.” The train is their lifeline.

I know there is solar energy, but these people in these Alaskan cabins have fire places and a “shower house” which is like an outhouse but for a shower, and it has to be drained and disabled in the winter so the lines don’t freeze.

About a year ago, my hot water heater went and until I had a new one put in, about two days later, I had to wash my hair in the tub with cold water. The water was so cold my head hurt. I can’t imagine living off the grid.

Do you know anybody who lives off the grid? If so, where do they live and how do they do it?

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63 Answers

cookieman's avatar

If I knew them, then they wouldn’t be off the grid, would they?

JLeslie's avatar

Judi and LuckyGuy have some off the grid features in their homes I believe, I’ll send the Q to them.

I have one friend who “homestead’s” as much as she can. They have an acre if kand and she has apple trees and other crops in the summer. She jars and pickles many things as thefall approaches to last her through the winter. Her husband kills one deer a year that is butchered and they use that meat throughout the winter. They also have some solar power, but not enough to be completely off the grid. I think they use the solar for heater floors? Or, some sort of radiant heat? I don’t remember that detail well. They also have a couple wood fire places that her husband chops wood for. But, they are connected to the grid for electricity,mpossibly gas too, or that they mig have their own tank for, I don’t know that detail either. They even homeschooled their children, but the oldest one now is in public high school. He is an Engineer and works at an university and she is CPA and does some work part time. Not that it matters, but I thought I would mention it in case anyone has stereotypes of people living off the grid and homeschooling as being mountain people living in the woods, hippies, or so religious they shun the outside world.

I would love to be more off the grid, I ask Luckyguy and Judi questions all the time trying to decide what might work for me.

Another interesting tidbit. My uncle was recently in Iceland and the heat there is free, because the heat from the hot springs is sent through a central infrastructure as steam heat to the houses. I assume the residence pay some sort of tax to maintain they system, but they don’t pay heating bills per se. It made me think of the places in the US that have natural hot springs and the possibilities. In Hot Springs, AR, the water’s natural temp is 130 I think, I don’t remember exactly. You can get free spring water from the tap in the middle of main street. It’s pretty interesting.

jca's avatar

@cookieman: You couldn’t have known someone who used to live “on the grid” and now lives off the grid? You couldn’t have met someone in a town or through other friends who lives off the grid? Maybe you could be a boss who employs someone who lives off the grid – that’s not possible? People off the grid only know other people who live off the grid? They might never interact with anybody else?

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: “Off the grid” doesn’t mean having some features that are “off the grid” like a fireplace. It means totally independent of everything all at the same time – no sewer system, no electric, no gas lines. Nothing. Not having some features and having others is not off the grid.

cookieman's avatar

@jca: True enough. So ‘no’ then, I do not – to the best of my knowledge, know anyone who is off the grid.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca Well, they are way more off than most of America, they use the grid more as a back up, then as a daily thing they rely on, except for their fridge I guess. Completely off; no, I don’t know anyone. When I was in Alaska they did talk about the fact that many homes are off the grid. It’s pretty neat.

You mentioned bathing in cold water. I don’t understand why you think the water wouldn’t be heated even off the grid? They can make a fire and heat the water, or use solar. Solar is very efficient for heating water. Judi and luckyguy were explaining it to me.

jca's avatar

I am imagining that with an outhouse, in Alaska, if there are a few feet of snow on the ground and you have to go to the bathroom, you may be going in a bucket in the house and then getting rid of it when you’re able. To me, that takes a special kind of person to deal with that on a daily basis.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca The outhouse would be a drag. That would be very very hard for me. You must be right that they keep a bucket indoors for the middle of the night need to urinate, and some fresh water and a basin to wash their hands or face in the main house. Just like almost everyone did 100 years ago in rural areas of the country. They probably don’t overdrink fluids like so many Americans do today, so they don’t need to urinate as much. I think as women it seems more of a hardship, don’t you? We have to get more naked to pee. We get periods. Having a comfortable bathroom is pretty important.

jca's avatar

Then I think about how often per day I wash my hands. It’s a lot. Then I think about how often I turn on the tap – to make tea, to cook, to do dishes (and running the dishwasher – forget about it). Then think about how do you wash clothes? There was one girl who said she grew up that way – so she’s used to it. I imagine if you grew up that way, it’s easier than it would be for someone else, who, after a day or two, would be done.

creative1's avatar

I watch alot of selling Hawaii and Hawaii Life and living off grid seems to be quite a common thing to do there, I guess with the sun, winds and that they have there, there seems to be a great opportunity to get power from each of these sources.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca I am putting two dishwashers in my new home, so you are preaching to the choir. I think I could do it, but it would be hard, and more time consuming, and I would have to simplify a lot of things about my life. In the cold weather it would be very difficult, but here in FL, I think we can have most modern conveniences even off the grid.

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: I think with some money, people could install solar systems and that would help with a lot. I think with solar power, some kind of pump system could be installed for the water (just a guess). However, the people on this Alaska Railroad show live in these tiny, crappy cabins in the middle of nowhere. Really roughing it. They were talking about getting four feet of snow at a time. If you get four feet of snow, you’re not going out to the outhouse at all, not in the day, not in the night, and if you don’t have water in the house, I guess you’re totally screwed. There was another show about buying real estate in Alaska, and some of them have wires around their house to keep the bears out. I think if I were snowed in, barely subsisting, I would have a nervous breakdown.

Cupcake's avatar

My brother lived at 9000 feet altitude in the middle of nowhere Colorado. He referred to his rental house as off-the-grid. His electric was solar generated, with a backup propane generator. They had a fireplace for heat. They used a refrigerator and water heater… which were powered fine by the solar energy. I don’t know the details about their plumbing, but they did have a fully adequate bathroom (the hot water went very quickly, though). They composted and tried to reuse materials as much as possible. They carried their garbage into town (unbelievably small amounts after their smart buying, composting and reusing) and snuck it into public garbage cans. In the winter, they rode snowmobiles from the parking lot to their house as the roads were not maintained and were covered in many feet of snow. They couldn’t come home with more than could fit on the back of a snowmobile. They did use internet when they had enough extra power to use their laptop, but I don’t know those details either. They used cell phones, which didn’t have reception in the house.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I know a family that lives in one of those old, falling down farm houses that you see on a side road off a side road in Western NY. They have a well but have NO INDOOR PLUMBING. They heat with wood.
They have been living there for at least 60 years and used to be a dairy farm which closed 20–30 years ago. The remaining family subsists on donations and welfare. There is quite a bit of mental illness in the family.
People have offered to help them move but they don’t want to. Incredible.

Buttonstc's avatar

I just came across this article last week about a former Congressman who currently lives off the grid. I found it really fascinating and the article goes into a fair amount of detail about how he has arranged all this.

I don’t know him personally but I think you may find lots of interesting info germane to your question.
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http://www.off-grid.net/2014/01/05/roscoe-bartlett-sufficiency/

(EDIT: for some reason the original link I posted didn’t work. But this contains a clickable link that takes you to the full story. It was originally in Politico Magazine so just follow the link given within the story here.)
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There was also a TV program called “America Declassified” which did a segment on folks who bought a former missile silo and are converting it to off the grid living in the middle of Kansas somewhere.

I’ll see if I can find a write up about it which gives a fair amount of detail as I also found this equally fascinating. They even plan to have an entire hydroponic setup for growing veggies which would be fertilized by the water from the fish tanks (also providing food) and this is all significantly underground. After all, the original purpose of these nuclear missile silos was to counter attack as well as survive in the event of nuclear war.

Here’s some clips from the broadcast of that episode. I think you might find living there rather comfy but it costs a few million or so to buy into it :)
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http://www.travelchannel.com/tv-shows/america-declassified/episodes/million-dollar-missile-silos-escape-from-alcatraz
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DWW25921's avatar

There are folks here in West Virginia with no Electricity, wood stoves for heat and no plumbing. They live like their ancestors did when they first arrived. They cash their paychecks and bury it in the back yard.

Seek's avatar

Mothering.com has a great off the grid forum. I’m talking about women who live with their families in a yurt on property that they don’t own in the woods in Oregon. They grow their own food, they chop wood to heat their yurt, they produce their own electricity in order to power their pre-paid cell phones and pre-paid 3g routers, and their laptops.

I presume they have jobs, but I don’t know what they do.

LuckyGuy's avatar

The family I am talking about lives in Cattaraugus County in Western NY. The situation in that house is worse than terrible. Filth everywhere – like on the TV show ‘Hoarders”. The neighbors donate clothes but they end up sitting in bags unused on the collapsing porch, soaked with water and infested with mice.
A couple of years ago we helped do a massive cleanup. (I hate to say it but it was against their will. The Town was going to condemn the house unless it was cleaned up.) We made a bonfire for burnable trash and another guy brought in a backhoe and dug a deep trench to bury tons of unburnable waste. We put plexiglass on the windows to replace the broken and boarded up panels. Someone tried to kill the rats in the basement. (I won’t go into it all.)
The clean up only lasted a couple of months and soon the place was a mess again.
These people are dirt poor yet they are preyed up by every scam artist in the area: the guy who delivers frozen foods, ADT alarm system, DR equipment, Ringerhut…. “It’s only pennies a day.” They are adults but clearly they don’t have the tools to function. They are “off the grid”.
Giving money to these people is as helpful as stuffing it into a rat hole. Their chainsaw broke so we gave them a new one. It worked for a little while but stopped -“It’s all broken” They did not put oil in the gas. They did not bother to keep the chain oiler filled or keep the chain adjusted. I went over there to see if I could fix it and there was a stack of at least 12 chainsaws – at least 12! – in a pile in the barn. They run them until they break, usually within a week, due to no maintenance. We set them up; give them instructions; make sure they know what t do but it does not matter. The oiler goes dry, the blade gets dull and they smoke the bar. Frustrating. Also whoever gives them a piece of equipment is forever responsible for it. “You know that XYZ you gave me? It was no good. Only lasted an hour. It doesn’t work. Piece of junk.”
I can tell you stories about their tractor and the problems it causes… but I won’t

The other type of “off the grid” family is well off, living in a relatively new home and willing to spend $100k for an advanced solar and wind system so they can live just as comfortably as in a “normal” house. That is an admirable goal as long as comfort is not sacrificed too much.

El_Cadejo's avatar

I’ve only met one person in the US who did this. Born in a commune, no SS card or anything else really to identify him.

I met one family while in Belize however that really inspired me. They lived out in the middle of the jungle. Built their own house, grew their own food, produced their own electricity and processed their waste. When visiting them they gave us a lot of fruit that I offered them money for. They laughed at me. At first I was really confused by this and then they explained they haven’t had to use paper money in over 7 years, it’s meaningless to them, everything they can want or need was right there with them.

JLeslie's avatar

This site has off the grid homes for sale. Many have all the modern conveniences.

This site has photos of 21 amazing off the grid homes.

Off the grid does not have to mean roughing it.

zenvelo's avatar

I know of a whole community “off the grid”. It’s an island off the coast of Washington, and there are about twenty or so families there. There is no electrical service, no sewage or water delivery, no gas lines. People have their own generators, their own septic systems, and wells. Heat is mostly from wood stoves and inserts to the fireplaces. Lots of kerosene lighting at night.

They do have a school for the children, and a boat that comes out from Friday Harbor every day, weather permitting. And they do have an airstrip that will handle a small plane up to about a six seater Beechcraft.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I lived off the grid for 3 days once. After I peed on a possum in the dark I decided I had to have at least one amenity. I sawed the bottom off of a 5 gallon Rubbermaid water cooler, dug a hole, set the cooler on the hole and viola! Perfectly comfy toilet! I want to find an old toilet lid to put on it just to be a real redneck in the future.

On the 3rd day we broke down and took the 15 minute journey to the public restrooms where we showered. THAT was heaven.

geeky_mama's avatar

I have a friend from high school who is slowly working their family off the grid. They started by selling their suburban house and renting a farm.
After getting the hang of farm life they bought a farm. They already home-schooled..and are working to grow/raise all the food they need to consume on their (hobby) farm.
They are also looking into alternative energy sources (e.g. solar / wind energy). They aren’t “off the grid” yet – but have graduated to raising and slaughtering their own meat (esp. chickens).

We can, at our house, ostensibly live off the grid now. We have our own well, septic and generator and recently wired a switch that enables us to power the house from our generator (emergency generator transfer switch—which makes sure we don’t electrocute someone working on a power line elsewhere when we’re running our generator).
We’d need to keep getting diesel to power the generator—but for all intents and purposes we could power everything we need to bathe, cook & heat the house for an indefinite period without help from anyone (“off the grid”). However, we put those things in place for an emergency as opposed to a plan to not partake of services available to us.

I like that we have our own well & water supply…but I don’t feel a strong need to be entirely self-sustaining…

antimatter's avatar

I’ve met a family who lives off the grid in a bomb shelter because they believed that the world would end in 2013 because and alien told them. They grow their own food and have a borehole, but for some unknown reason they are very dirty and it’s almost the same kind of people who @LuckyGuy described. They raise a few cows and sell them off once in while.
I think they got a few chickens running around on the farm as well.

LuckyGuy's avatar

My home situation is similar to @geeky_mama ‘s .
electricity, town water, septic, oil heat, no gas hookup, 2 wood burning stoves. . Last year we got Town water and I was able to keep my well as back up. I have a generator to power the house if the electricity goes out and I have enough gasoline on hand to run it for along time.
I have an infinite supply of wood for the wood burners and can heat my house forever with it if I am not lazy.
I try to limit how much money I give to the utility companies but I like my comfort. A shower in a warm bathroom is worth the money.

YARNLADY's avatar

I know of a self-reliant community in Eastern Washington state, where dozens of people raise their own food, generate their own electricity, have theiir own water and live off the land entirely. They do have vehicles and sell produce such as food and yarn to buy gasolene and such.

I also know of an extended family of several adults and children in south west New Mexico who do a pretty good job of living off the land, but some of the adults work in construction.

KaY_Jelly's avatar

Where I live many Mennonites are self sufficient. In the summer when your driving down a dirt road it’s like children of corn if you happen to pass a mennonite family and their horse and carriage.

Sometimes they all don’t fit I guess the kids don’t ride in the carriage so there is one family that had about 12–15 kids walking through the ditch beside the carriage.

And then they are all dressed in black and the carriage is black and it’s nighttime its looks kind of ‘ominous.’ =-O

Judi's avatar

My house is completely off grid and I don’t want for anything. I have solar power with a back up generator and batteries. I have a well and a septic tank.
My shower and bathtub are to die for. I have 6 body sprays in my shower plus a handheld and two shower heads. The tub has jacuzzi jets in it.
I have a toto toilet which I call my magic potty. It’s amazing.
I live on top of a mountain and we have a community based wireless internet coop. I get my internet free because I allow them to put a repeater on the property in a remote location that I can’t see.
We have hydronic heating in our floors that is warmed by a wood fired central boiler. We have propane back up if we ever needed it.
All in all, our off grid living is very luxury. We are building a yoga building with a spectacular view. It makes me sigh every day.

Seek's avatar

^ Holy crap. A $7,000 toilet? Does it make coffee?

Judi's avatar

@Seek, no but it washes your butt and dries it for you.

JLeslie's avatar

You can get toto attachments to a regular toilet for much less. I had ne that cost me around $450, they might be more now, it had water temp control, back and front, air dry, and keep your seat warm features. It wasn’t as pretty though.

@Judi How many sq. ft. is your place? Also, the hydronic floors, how many degrees does it increase the room temp?

cookieman's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr: Sounds like just the toilet for a “holy crap”.

Judi's avatar

@JLeslie, before the yoga building I think we were around 2k square feet. The yoga building and extra bedroom are adding another 800.
The hydronic floors can pretty much make the room as warm as I want if. The water gets up to around 160 right out of the furnace. I like to keep it warm so we’re usually at 75–80.

JLeslie's avatar

@Judi I’m officially jealous :). So you can warm the whole house with just the floors? How much does a system like that cost? Does it need “electricity” to circulate the water?

Judi's avatar

Yes. It needs electricity but not much and we have tons from the solar. We just bought new batteries and filled the roof of the yoga building with more panels. The electrician is here right now trying to get the new panels fired up.
I don’t know how much the central boiler costs as it was here already when we bought the house. When we remodeled the master bedroom we put in warmboard because it was better for retrofit but it tied into the current boiler as did the yoga building.
@JLeslie, I know you and your hubby will come and visit some day. :-)

Seek's avatar

That sounds frickin’ amazing.

jca's avatar

There was an article in the NY Times about 10 years ago, about people who lived “off the grid.” I think the people featured in the article lived in Idaho or somewhere like that.

I think if I lived with solar panels and stuff like that, it might be do-able. As long as the toilet, shower and sink worked, and the house was warm, I would be ok. However, to be in a tiny shack and hauling water and “washing” with a pot of water, it would be too much roughing it for me.

@Judi: If you have electricity, your house is not “off grid.”

Judi's avatar

@jca, our electricity is NOT connected to the grid. It is OFF the grid. We generate it independent of the grid. That’s what off grid means. We make our own electricity and store it in batteries.

jca's avatar

@Judi: OK. That was not clear. You mentioned solar, but then you talked about electricity and an electrician. Thanks for clarifying.

Judi's avatar

We have lots of electricity just no power lines and no electric bill.

jca's avatar

Gotcha. Sounds very nice!

jca's avatar

I was looking at some websites last night, (not that I am looking to live off the grid, but seeing this show on Alaska was fascinating, that there are people that actually survive like this) and it seems that living in a temperate/moderate climate like southern US or US West Coast is probably way easier than living in a cold climate, like Alaska, when you’re living off the grid.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca Some of it might have to do with how much money the person has to invest in the systems and modern conveniences. I’m pretty sure @Judi gets some very cold temperatures where she is. Solar for electricity is expensive. The panels, the battery back up, easily several thousand dollars. Indoor plumbing costs money too. If someone has an outhouse, I assume they don’t have the money to bring flowing water into the home, install septic systems, etc.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Judi and her damn toilet!! Makes me LOL, everytime!

Judi's avatar

My toilet IS amazing @Dutchess_III and we took the one out of the California house before we sold it and are putting it in the yoga room. We will have two of them!

Dutchess_III's avatar

I know your toilet is amazing! And it still makes me laugh!

Dutchess_III's avatar

Funny, because I thought my 5 gallon Rubbermaid cooler toilet was just as amazing!! Plus, I can take it with me where ever I go. Bet you can’t say that!

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: I know solar panels on the roof are easily 40k. I was looking at some forum on a site about off the grid, and they said it could be a 100k investment.

These people in a shack in Alaska definitely didn’t invest 100k! I couldn’t imagine the temperature on the West Coast rivals Alaska at all. I can’t imagine. That’s what’s fascinating to me – these people subsisting on barely anything. Like I said, I would be two days with that and be like ok, when’s the train outta here? LOL

JLeslie's avatar

It just depends what part of Alaska. Certainly, parts of Alaska are incredibly cold. Anchorage and Juneau have been warmer than NY this winter most days. Junea has been in the 40’s during the day. The pacific northwest is generally mild, but up in the higher elevations it can be quite cold.

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: We get 8 inches of snow here and that’s a big storm and we take the day off. I’m in my cozy bed with the creature comforts, TV, heat, lights, stove, refrigerator, shower, toilet. I can’t imagine four feet of snow, not melting because it’s terribly cold for 5 months straight, and having to haul water or not take a shower or whatever. I guess they’re used to it.

YARNLADY's avatar

@jca It is entirely possible for self sufficient people to make and install their own solar collectors to provide power and heat. Your 100K investment pre-supposes a state of the art, professional installation.

I made my own solar oven at home using cardboard, aluminum foil and plastic. I used the easy lid plan

JLeslie's avatar

@jca My favorite place to live is Florida LOL. I like it warm all year. Southern Alaska is a temperate rainforest, it isn’t as cold as some people think. But, like I said some of Alaska is frigid cold for many many months. No matter what they have hours of darkness in the winter, which would really be difficult for me. That’s another thing if you have an outhouse, most of the day during the winter it is dark out. My guess is most people have indoor plumbing though.

I think your question in your mind is about living without modern comforts, not about living off the grid. The two sometimes interesect, but they are not necessarily synonomous.

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: You’re right, and it comes to mind even more so now that it’s winter, and I can’t imagine “roughing it” without heat, plumbing, etc. in a frigid climate, for a lifetime.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Me either @jca. Just going outside to start my car like to kill me!

Smitha's avatar

It would be a great idea of living “off the grid” just because it would definetly help me save some money, but I’m not willing to go as far as the people in this video.

Judi's avatar

My off grid living is NOTHING like that @Smitha !

SecondHandStoke's avatar

I once read about a family that “lived off the grid” in a major city.

Like the heat from your surrounding apartments isn’t leaking into yours.

A perfect metaphor for those that make such claims.

Programming note: Nobody’s impressed.

Smashley's avatar

I know lots of off gridders. Some do have access to the amenities of society, like internet and telephone, this is the future after all…

I’ve never been a fan of off-grid entirely, though I do survive without running water, and I burn wood in my home made stove in our frigid northern winters. I’m just not that much of a paranoid isolationist. I like the electric grid. Why should I spend tons of money on batteries (that will eventually wear out and be disposed of… where?) when there’s a perfectly good grid connecting us all? I’m way more about taking ownership of power production – solar on the grid. Why shouldn’t I contribute to society and move power production away from coal and natural gas? If I have more power than I need, it should go to others.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

Dumpster divers? Fuck you.

Construct a bow and arrow from materials found wild in New Jersey.

Seek's avatar

^ New Jersey has lovely deciduous forests, with great options for the aspiring bowyer or fletcher.

Ninasimon's avatar

We have a village or two in mountains where people live off the grid. They consume only what they produce, without electricity etc.. their houses are made out of clay and grass I think..

Never had a chance to take a look at it though..

SecondHandStoke's avatar

Those that truly live off the grid will not be able to let their presence known to the mainstream world.

“Experimenting” by shutting off one’s utilities in the center of a huge city center thus being able to dumpster dive and stay warm by means of the apartments that surround is NOTHING that should impress you.

Smashley's avatar

@SecondHandStoke – Dumpster diving has absolutely nothing to do with living off grid, besides the associations in your stereotypes.

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