I grew up living off-grid and without electricity, as my parents consciously did not want to be burdened with bills. We did have a phone (which we took off the hook after 5 p.m.) and a truck, which both cost money but were used for business purposes. We used kerosene lamps and candles for light and had a woodstove for heating and cooking in the winter,and a gas stove for summer cooking.
We didn’t have regular refrigeration, running water, or a laundry machine.We hauled our water from a spring,which also doubled as a cooler for our fresh vegetables and food. For bathing, we set up a solar shower with a black tank, which was gravity fed. In the winter we heated water on the stove for doing dishes and for taking baths.
Our family’s lifestyle (four kids and parents) was very simple and unhurried. We canned and dried a lot of our own food, although we did make a trip to town to do laundry and shopping every two weeks or so. Town trips were always exciting, as I remember buying a cooler-full of perishables such as cheese, ice cream, sour cream, other dairy products, and some of the more perishable vegetables. We had our own goats and chickens for fresh dairy. On town trips we’d pick up a large block of ice and, once home, store everything in an unpowered refrigerator to keep it from spoiling.
For entertainment, every person in the family was allowed to choose one hour of TV a week, which we watched on a little four-inch screen, a 12-volt DC television hooked up to our truck battery. (To this day I rarely watch television.) In place of regular TV, we were all very much into listening to the radio, including BBC broadcasts from London, on our shortwave radio, which operated on D-cell batteries.
When I was 14, I bought a truck-mounted camper to move into myself. It was a completely self-contained home, wired for 12-volt DC, including a fan, a CB radio, lights, and a propane stove and heater. I did build a small room where the cab of the truck would have been and installed a small woodstove there in order to use less propane for heating.To supply power for the 12-volt DC system, I charged an extra battery in our truck as we drove it around. It was a hassle to constantly hook up the heavy battery in the truck, so at some point I horse-traded for a 2-watt PV module and a copy of the last free issue of Home Power magazine. I noticed that I had to charge the battery less often once I hooked up the little PV cell. I soon became obsessed with getting my hands on a larger PV module.
In the summer when I was 15, I hustled any paid work I could get, this in the poorest county of Tennessee. I picked pimiento peppers (which paid by the pound) and suckered tobacco plants (while absorbing enough tar and nicotine to make me sick). I even got a job picking rocks out of a field, but I eventually saved up the $400 or so to buy a Kyocera 45-watt module.
So, at 15 years old I legitimately went off the grid, solar powered. I couldn’t afford a charge controller and figured I would use enough power to keep from overcharging the system, but I soon destroyed my old battery. It was an old car battery, but as I learned more, I bought a deep-cycle marine battery and a charge controller. Later I learned even that wasn’t a true deep-cycle battery, but it did work for a couple of years before it failed prematurely. So, finally, on my third try, I bought the proper batteries and they lasted for eight years. Those batteries were true deep-cycle, 6-volt DC batteries wired in series for 12-volt DC.
For four years my whole system consisted of one 45-watt module, one charge controller, and two 6-volt DC batteries wired with fuses between each component. This was enough to power a DC fan, a CB radio, a shortwave radio, and lights, which were repurposed halogen taillights. Eventually I wanted to watch movies, so I bought a DC to AC inverter to power a TV and VCR, but it drained my batteries too quickly. The 300-watt inverter was only 80 percent efficient, so I lost at least 20 percent of my power in the conversion process.
At the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in Wisconsin, I bought a new 100- watt module, but ended up trading that for three used 50-watt ASE America modules. This meant I had to buy a bigger charge controller to handle my “new” modules, which I did. My system, slightly expanded, has operated as my primary power for 18 years. Although the system is still hooked up, it has not been getting proper maintenance or use since I moved to town a few years ago. Despite having off-grid electricity I found myself increasingly driving to town—but in retrospect, moving to town has made it so my travel is more “off the grid,” with walking and bicycling, even though my electricity no longer is.
Utilizing my off-the-grid mentality has resulted in my footprint being small and simple. I have an on-demand gas water heater, a solar-powered attic fan, minor passive-solar design, LED lighting, and a gas heater and stove. Everything except my fridge is on a plug strip so that it’s turned off when I’m not directly using it. When I travel even for a few days, I clean out and unplug the fridge so everything is off when I’m not there.
The fact is, everyone can start shifting his or her mentality towards off the-grid living by not wasting energy. My current energy usage is so low that for less than $2,000 dollars in investment, my on-grid home can become zero energy on an annual basis. By producing more energy than I use, I feel I will then be back to being a truly awesome off-gridder.
Aur Beck is the chief tech for Advanced Energy Solutions Group of Carterville, Illinois (www.AESsolar.com), and is a NABCEP-certified solar PV installer. I look forward everyday to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there. He has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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