What does living “off the grid” mean?
Usually when people say they are living “off the grid” they mean that, very simply, their home doesn’t get its electricity from the power lines. Instead, they’re living without electricity, or generating their own. However, the term is sometimes used to mean something broader. “Living off the grid” can imply that you’re self-sufficient in other ways, too: For example, you may be getting your water from a well, and heating your home with a woodstove. Being completely off grid would make you completely independent of the utility companies!
Back to electricity, though, whether or not you want to be “on the grid” is an important distinction to make if you’re shopping for a wind turbine or solar-electric panels. An off-grid system requires some extra equipment. You’ll generally need a battery bank for storage, or maybe a diesel or gas generator to provide backup power. In contrast, a grid-tied system uses the electric grid for storage and backup. You send power to the grid when you’re producing more electricity than you need, and draw power from the grid when you’re not producing enough.
There are benefits and drawbacks either way. Grid-tied systems are usually cheaper to buy and simpler to operate, but on the other hand, an off-grid system allows you to be completely energy independent. For example, during a blackout, power might be out to your entire neighborhood while, at your off-grid home, the lights are still on.
For some firsthand details about off-grid systems, check out this article from a couple in Ontario who are working to become truly energy independent. For an example of a grid-tied system, take a look at this article about a simple solar-electric system here in Topeka, Kan.
To learn more about the "off the grid" lifestyle, check out Living Off Grid: A Digital Resource for Modern Homesteading, a CD with more than 100 MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles about modern homesteading.
— Megan Phelps, senior associate editor
Got questions? Get answers from experts. Our experts can give you answers and resources on all kinds of wiser living topics. E-mail your questions to AskOurExperts@MotherEarthNews.com.