Living Off the Grid and Thriving!

Although their adjustment to living off the grid wasn't always easy, this Ontario family is successfully generating its own power and growing its own food.
By Cam Mather
February/March 2010
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Michelle and Cam are living off the grid entirely at Sunflower Farm, their homestead in Eastern Ontario.
PHOTO: CAM MATHER
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More than a decade ago, my wife, Michelle, and I moved from a busy suburban street to 150 acres in the Ontario bush, where our nearest neighbors are three miles away. Ditto for the nearest utility pole. We'd transitioned to living off the grid with little knowledge about renewable energy — or electricity, for that matter — and had to quickly put into practice our home-schooling mantra of “lifelong learning.”

To say that the learning curve was steep is an understatement. Back then, there were no good books on the subject of renewable energy for homes, and the information you could find was pieced together by pioneers who were learning as they went along. Consulting with any local electrician was a waste of time, so we learned by the seat of our pants. Luckily, we developed a network of helpful and skilled friends along the way. We came to realize that the more things we learned to do ourselves, the more independent we would become, which is the theme of the book I’ve just written, Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.

As we begin to experience the converging challenges of resource depletion, climate change, and the ongoing financial crisis, we need to make ourselves more resilient to shocks to the system.

If you do decide to go off the grid, generating your own electricity from the sun and wind provides an incredible sense of well-being — not only from a sense of independence, but also from the realization that you aren’t using any electricity that comes from coal. Powering your home with renewable energy is a huge step toward reducing your carbon footprint. We started with a fairly small solar-electric system that the previous owners of our home had installed, and we’ve steadily added more panels. As we learned more about peak oil, we were determined to reduce our use of nonrenewable fossil fuels for both cooking and powering our gasoline generator; there are times when there isn’t enough sunlight or wind to charge our off-grid batteries, so we use a fossil fuel-powered generator as a backup.

Wonderful Wind, Super Solar

When we moved in, there was an old wind turbine on a 60-foot tower on our property, but several years ago we decided to replace it with a new Bergey 1-kilowatt turbine on a 100-foot tower. We are surrounded by forests (not optimal for wind generation), so putting up a 100-foot tower set the turbine about 30 feet above the trees to capture some of the stronger winds. We decided to film the installation process and sell a video of it via our publishing company, Aztext. I’m a visual learner, and if I could have watched a video of the process of putting all the pieces of our off-the-grid system together, it would have made our efforts go more smoothly.

The new turbine required us to upgrade our battery bank from a 12-volt to a 24-volt system, so we also upgraded our inverter and added more solar panels. In the previous year, we ran our backup generator about 15 times. In the year after we put up the turbine and added solar panels, we ran the generator just twice. This means that, on many days, we now have extra electricity to use for cooking, offsetting our propane use.

Most people who move off grid just move onto propane, substituting propane for all their major heat loads, such as cooking and heating water. We already heat with wood cut sustainably from our property, so using the electric stove helps reduce our propane use as well.

The biggest drop in our propane consumption came when we installed our solar hot water system. It uses solar energy to heat water we use for washing and bathing, and should offset about 60 percent of water heating costs. For most people, this should be the first solar panel they put on their roof, because the payback is much faster than that of photovoltaics. There’s nothing nicer on a cold winter evening than soaking in a bath with water that was heated all day by the sun. After the system is paid for, there are no additional costs, and there are no carbon dioxide emissions created by the energy that heats the water. It’s an incredible, guilt-free luxury.

Many utilities now offer incentives to integrate renewable energy technologies, and with faster paybacks on your investment, you can take the savings from these systems and pay down debt. This was one of our keys to being able to move where we did. We scrimped, saved, and paid off our old mortgage before we left the city. Financial independence allows you to capitalize on the opportunities that will present themselves in the future.

Generous Gardens

Living off the grid is just one way of becoming independent, but even if you are connected, you can still make yourself more self-reliant. The final step on our path to independence was creating a vegetable garden. We have sandy soil, but discovered that the area around the old barn foundation had good topsoil. I started by turning over pieces of sod to create the garden, but eventually got smart and purchased rotten hay that I spread on the areas where I wanted to expand the garden. The hay killed the grass, and as it rotted, it added organic matter to the soil. After six to nine months with the hay on the soil, I could rototill the hay in and be ready to plant.

Most people have a sense that the money they spend on food continues to go up, and even though Americans only spend about 10 percent of their income on food (versus up to 90 percent in other parts of the world!), the percentage continues to rise.

We continue to increase the amount of space we devote to potatoes in our garden. The United Nations declared 2008 the “Year of the Potato” because potatoes provide exceptional nutrition and are a rugged plant that grows well in most places.

We have a neighbor who keeps us supplied with extra horse manure to supplement the garden, but there’s no reason you can’t do just as well in the city. Most municipalities now have pickup for grass clippings and leaves, which are a fantastic source of free organic material. You just need a wheelbarrow on the night before garbage day to retrieve some for composting.

Last year, after upgrading our electrical system, we added a new 10-cubic-foot freezer, which is a big step for someone living off the grid. Luckily our basement isn’t heated, so the freezer is in a very cool environment and doesn’t consume much electricity. Over the winter, when we’re making less electricity from the sun, the basement is so cool that the freezer rarely turns on.

As we’ve upgraded our system, we’ve moved more of our cooking requirements to our free homemade electricity. It started with an electric kettle and toaster. Then we added a convection toaster oven, and recently an induction burner, which uses significantly less electricity than a typical resistance electric burner. There’s something extremely liberating about cooking your food without a bill from a utility or a grocery store.

Peace of Mind

As I look to the future I see a more carbon-constrained world, especially as several billion people in China and India get off their bikes and into cars, so this year we purchased an electric bike. Its lithium-ion battery gets me into town and back on a single charge, without any pedaling. It helps us offset one of most country dwellers’ biggest carbon contributors: their personal transportation.

Learning to live off the grid has been a tremendously challenging experience. I would never pretend there haven’t been times of extreme frustration and anxiety. But getting over the speed bumps makes the times when things run smoothly all the more gratifying. On a cold winter night with a full moon, it’s wonderful to skate on the pond and look back at the house to see the light beaming from the windows, using electricity that was created during the day by the sun or by the wind. The house is warm, heated by wood cut from our property and burned in an EPA-certified woodstove that ensures minimal emissions. And there’s no feeling like pulling a wagon full of vegetables from the garden late in the summer, knowing that much of it will be stored in our root cellar or freezer and will keep our stomachs full all winter.

A few generations ago, this is how many Americans lived. Today, most of us have traded our independence to pay someone else to keep our homes warm, keep our lights, on and keep our stomachs full. I think this is becoming an increasingly unstable proposition.

The technology exists for us to reduce our impact on the planet, and at the same time make us more independent and resilient to the shocks coming our way — and you don’t have to live in the country to do it. Don’t wait. Pick up a shovel and get started on a garden. Pick up a phone and call a solar dealer. Pick up that stack of credit card bills and vow to pay them off and stay out of debt. The rewards are infinite. Peace of mind comes from independence.


Purchase Cam Mather’s book, Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.


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Post a comment below.

 

holler19
8/28/2013 7:53:38 AM
Article is OK, but the contention in the first few paragraphs that there was no information out there 10 years ago for people trying to live off the grid is just not true. My husband and I were part of the homesteader movement back in the 70's. While we did have electricity, some of our friends didn't. There were a lot of articles and books written on homesteading without power. There were do it yourself wind turbines, solar hot water heaters, passive solar greenhouse heat for your home, methane digesters using animal and human waste to produce bio gas for cooking, etc. I applaud younger people continuing this trend, but don't try to act like you invented the ideas. I have Mother Earth News in print from the first volume on for about 12 years. I intend to get them out, brush off the dust and return to that life when I retire in a couple years. Right now we still heat entirely with wood from our property, have a huge garden. passive solar greenhouse, and window solar collectors. We stopped raising animals when we both got good full time jobs in endeavors that were environmentally friendly, but I see rabbits, goats and chickens in our future again!

Belinda Brewster
4/8/2013 11:27:56 AM
This was a great story. I learned some new things from your article, and motivation to continue making my own home self-reliant. Thank you for taking the time to write this article.

Wendy Galbraith
4/7/2013 4:53:15 PM
I think the next big change will be to STOP using drinkable water to flush our toilets!!

P ESAINKO
10/28/2011 3:10:43 PM
If you yearn to live off the grid, learn in town, cut energy use and return 'waste' to those who can use it-- bacteria, foragers, recyclers,... With cities a growing fad for now ten thousand years and counting, most of us are in town or near it. Jeavons long since proved a small family (a sound size, as we near ten billion) survive on 4000sqft garden space-- no need for hundreds of acres. We are near Shock time, not the negatives we're fed to raise anxiety and provoke obedience to what powers be, but a positive Shock. We are now to learn what kindergarten tried to teach us-- sharing. Each season brings a new prelude— Arab Spring; in summer Madrid and European Indignant revolts; in Fall Occupy Wall St goes worldwide… how many do you need?

Katherine Tyler
6/15/2011 1:05:43 AM
To Lorna and others looking for reasonably priced land: Try West Virginia. Most of WV is zone 5 or 6, with mild summers and lots of rain for your garden. My husband and I were able to purchase a 4 bedroom ranch on 36 acres for $135,000 back when housing prices were much higher than they are now. If you have a home based business, retirement income, or other income, you can live on very little here. Granted, 36 acres isn't the same as 150 acres, (mentioned in the article), but for us, it works. We have a large garden, pastures for horses that provide lawnmowing and fertilizing services, and our own well and septic system. We're not off grid yet, but are slowly becoming more independent by using our woodstove for heat and cooking in the winter, (with wood cut from our own land), canning and preserving fruits, vegetables, and berries, and learning what "wild" plants here are edible.

Mariana
6/14/2011 1:49:58 PM
The metals and synthetic materials used to make batteries, solar panels, even gardening tools - where did they come from? Most industrial extraction and production processes are enormously polluting and often inhumane to workers. Even if you personally live off-grid with solar/wind-powered electricity, you still rely on these processes indirectly. Of course it's great to live off-grid, and certainly it reduces one's personal carbon footprint, but there is only so much we can do on an individual level. We need systemic change at the national and international level, changes of paradigm and policy.

Dale Haverty_2
3/16/2011 10:52:11 AM
I have the same concerns that many others do. Living off the grid requires a sizeable investment for solar panels, wind generators, etc. Not having such resources, I have moved in that direction one step at a time. A family garden is the first practical step. You can have a garden at minimal cost anywhere-there are numerous "google spots" telling you how. I use rain barrels attached to the downspouts on the house and garage, to provide water for livestock, and water for the garden and flowers. We have four hens to provide fresh eggs. We have a wood stove to provide heat if the power goes off. We can and freeze a lot of vegetables. Our next step will be a solar hot water heater. There are many ways to move toward a more sustainable environment without having to invest a lot of money. Think about it and enjoy.

SteveR
3/3/2010 11:33:41 PM
You're preaching to the converted but beyond that, this article has nothing of substance in it. So you can live off grid - well of course you can. As you pointed out this is the way we all lived once. What it seems like to me is that people interested in making the move back (who have realized that they have become dependent on heat, light and food being provided by others) are looking for steps to reduce the addiction ( just look at the questions generated). Unfortunately this article leaves me hopelessly unsatisfied and just stinks of being a poor ad for your book. There are plenty of other sources where people are willing to freely share accumulated knowledge.

Brett Schaapveld
2/13/2010 7:31:07 PM
I too intend to move off the grid someday. Self sustainability has been a dream of mine for at least 25 years. Thank you for your insight and wisdom in this article. I look forward to reading your book.

Lorna_1
1/24/2010 10:21:09 AM
I too am curious about what it costs to start an off-the-grid self-sustaining homesteading life. My husband and I are currently debt-free! and saving $$ to buy land and live such a life, but it seems that anything over one acre is out of our price range (we should have close to 200K to start our lives when we return to North America). We are young-ish and hard working, but it still takes money to make ends meet, so it seems. We plan to run our own business (not much income expected for the first few years or so) and I would like to sell produce and eggs from the homestead. . . but the question remains, how much to get started with everything you need? And if anyone knows of some good cheap land in a zone 4-5 growing area, I'd love to hear about it!

ROY FRITZ
1/23/2010 12:58:21 AM
It seems that it is nice that you can buy a large plot of land. So in order for a person to do the off grid living you need to be able to buy your land and have a income enough to buy what you want. So doing it the hard way is out of the question or is it the question? With a good pair bare hands and a good work ethic may not be enough by todays standards. So what is needed to live off grid? What is the dollar amount needed to begian your off grid life?

Ken W
1/20/2010 10:03:57 PM
I think you could save time and money on your garden by getting "The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book" by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence. Use old hay (leaves, grass, wood chips) to mulch year round to keep moisture, prevent weeds/bugs, and plant without tilling or digging up the ground. Use hay to keep potatoes, carrots, beets, etc. in the ground for retrieval all winter long. Ruth Stout was a very clever woman. Very nice place you have - a lot of us are envious.








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