What you’re looking at used to be a falling-apart shed used mostly for storing rusty yard tools and mouse droppings. The floor had rotted out, the roof leaked, and if you were standing in there when the wind blew, your hair moved. But the structure was good—the bones, as they say. It’s about 18 by 12. It’s in a semirural backyard, about 200 yards from the house, but it could well be in the middle of the woods, or on a river, miles from any place. The idea came about to restore it as a functional, self-sufficient escape, with heat and electricity. No running water, but that could be done if it was needed.
The woodstove is a Morsø 2B, a model produced by the Denmark-based foundry from 1934 to 2000. This one was on Craigslist for $240. The rotten floor was ripped up and carted away, replaced by a layer of Roxul insulation (the vermin don’t like it, nor does moisture) and this sweet tongue-in-groove pine floor from a local (well, two hours away) mill. The fire-rated bricks are from Home Depot. The angle-iron penning in the brick hearth was sold and cut by Mark & Son Metal Products in Bedford Hills, New York, for $32.
The wood for the walls was reclaimed from various houses around town. Behind the stove is a fireproof wall of rescued sheet metal that once lined the ceiling of the 1876 church that now houses contributor Richard Romanski’s woodshop. (There’s fire-rated WonderBoard behind that, separated by one-inch ceramic spacers.) The rig over on the right is the genius system from Goal Zero, which is bringing solar power to the people. Six hundred bucks, less than a day’s work. The place now runs on sun and wood and is to code and properly permitted.
The point is: You can do this. A shed, a cabin, a cottage, a shipping container—they are out there, and can sometimes be had for cheap, and you could make one into a haven where you can spend a few days away from the noise when you need to. And, sure, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, Hey, if they attack the grid, or if man, nature, or beast inflicts some other kind of craziness on the world, we’ve got a room, we’ve got electricity, and we’ve got a source of heat for warmth and cooking. And we’ll be okay.
Follow these steps, and you can go off the grid, too.
Step 1: What Kind of Off-Gridder Are You?
A look at off-grid living through two examples on the opposite end of the spectrum.
A story about how Jean and John Kiedaisch ended up off the grid—and why they've stayed there.
JOHN: We moved to this part of Vermont from Boston in 1980. Our land was on a gravel road with no utility lines. It would have cost $18,000 for the power company to connect our property to its network, so we decided to generate our own electricity with solar panels and a generator.
JEAN: One of the first things people say is, “You don’t have electricity!” We do have electricity, we just come by it a different way.
JOHN: When we first built, I had 22 golf-cart batteries wired up to produce a 12-volt system, and an inverter, which changes 12-volt DC to 120-volt AC. We used to charge the batteries with a rope-start construction generator. Imagine a lawnmower in a permanent frame with a little two-pint gas tank. When the batteries needed a charge, I’d go down, open the garage door, drag it outside. I kept a couple jerry cans of gas nearby, because you could get only an hour and a half of run. You become very aware of how much electricity you need.
JEAN: You’re in such closer communication with your house. It’s hardest in midwinter, when it’s dark and cloudy. You’re running around turning off lights in the living room because you’re in the dining room. Summer is a piece of cake. You can wash the dishes as many times you need, take showers, do laundry.
JOHN: It’s peaceful. The quietness here, 24 hours a day, is a very supportive environment. I grew up in Arizona, and I worked summers in the pine forests in the northern part of the state. That smell in the air is strong for me; I felt drawn to it. I didn’t come as a homesteader. I wasn’t going to have a cow and a bunch of chickens and pigs. But I was looking for a place to be rooted.
JEAN: It was a practical choice just as much as a philosophical one.
JOHN: We upgraded our PV system over the years, added more panels. When we first started, we had an eight-by-eight-foot square. Anybody thinking about solar these days will say that’s a cabin-size system. But we ran our entire house on it. There’s a lot more professional knowledge available today, and the technology is light-years away from what it was.
JEAN: You still need to be aware of limitation. No resource is infinite.
JOHN: Consider if that’s what you want your life to be.
JEAN: And be sure your partner agrees.
In 16 months, I relieved myself of every possession. But I still had to get away from everything else.
By Jay Byrd
I didn’t go out into the woods for a noble cause. I went out of desperation. I always had an underlying hunger for a good life, but drugs, prison, my associates, and other distractions always prevented me from reaching it. I was 50 years old and I was not good.
In 2003, I got rid of everything. I was so desperate I even shaved my head. I packed up a backpack with gear, maps, food, and books. I was by no means a survivalist, but I knew how to begin. My dad was an outdoorsman, and when I was young, he’d taught me how to take care of myself in the woods. I first headed to Coconino forest in northern Arizona. The longest you can stay there, however, is 14 days, so I continued on to the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness area. It’s very rugged. There are no vehicles—no machinery of any kind—allowed. There aren’t many trails, either, so consequently there aren’t many people. Those that do come through stay on the trails. I found my camp in an area away from the trails, with good cover and an opening to the south for sunlight. It overlooked a canyon.
My water source was a quarter-mile away. This was the perfect distance—not right next to camp, in case another hiker came looking for water, and not so far away that I’d wear myself out hauling water back. Comfortably, you need about two gallons of water a day. I’d haul water twice a week, usually five to six gallons at a time. At eight pounds per gallon, that’s nearly 50 pounds to carry. I found a nice spring where the water came out of the ground. The closer you can find water to its source, the lower your chances of getting giardia. When it rained, I collected rainwater off of my roof in five-gallon buckets.
Whenever I left camp for the main trail (or the main trail to get back to camp), I made sure to leave no path—no trace or sign that would cause my discovery. It’s good practice, spiritually, to walk wakefully, in tune and in harmony with everything around you. You’re aware of how everything flows. The sounds, the smells. How things look and feel. It becomes your disposition.
There are edible and medicinal plants in the woods, so it’s good to know that stuff. Also, a .22 Winchester can kill anything. But like I said, I’m no survivalist. I have Bic lighters and go to town once or twice a month to get food. (I got on food stamps.) Occasionally I’d walk to a forest service road and hitch a ride (it’s busiest on weekends), but I like to explore the woods, so most times I hiked the 30 miles in. It took two or three days. In snowier weather I have used snowshoes, but that’s really slow. Cross-country skis are best.
Most of my food needed to be dehydrated, since I didn’t have a refrigerator. Bear Creek brand makes an excellent base, and you can add canned meat such as chicken, tuna, or eggs. I had a friend who’d give me a ride to the trailhead where I would stash the food up trees in five-gallon buckets with lids (screw-on if possible), so that I could shuttle it all back to camp at my leisure. There are other containers that also work, but they must be hard plastic with lids to make it harder for bears to get to them.
Back at camp, I collected wood nearby using an axe and a handsaw, lashing it to a metal-frame backpack. I was in that location for five years. Although there is plenty of wood around, you can deplete an area quickly. I had fires only in the morning for coffee and breakfast, and at night for dinner. I’d clean everything as I went and burn all containers—even tin cans and foil (to get rid of food smell), before smashing them to compact them to make it easier to haul them out.
As important as it is to get rid of all food remains, you also need to clean your face and hands and brush your teeth so you don’t smell like food. I got careless a few times and brought some bears around, not to mention bugs, mice, skunks, and everything else that likes to eat.
My toilet was a spot 30 yards from camp. I would dig an eight-inch-deep hole. Once I used it I would bury everything, including the paper, and put a stick there so that I didn’t accidentally dig it up later. Sometimes I would burn the toilet paper. Or better yet, if I could find them, I’d use mullein leaves. They’re the best.
In the silence I began to adjust. To be clean, sober, and clear minded. I learned to face my demons: the memories, sorrow, pain, and fear. Over the years I read a lot of stuff: theology led to history, history led to philosophy. I would write journals to work it out in my head and listen to lectures on my iPod. I have only begun to walk upon the path, but I am on the path.
After five years in the Sycamore Wilderness, my camp was spotted by a helicopter that was looking for someone else. They arrested me for “making improvements on federal land,” fined me $60, and kicked me out of the adjacent national forests for a year. After spending the summer of ’09 hiking the Gila Wilderness area in New Mexico looking for a spot to live, I’m now caretaking 20 acres out by the Navajo rez for a friend of mine. I’ve been here ten years continuing my quest.
I harvest water off the roof of a 35-by-35-foot house and power from the sun. I have no radio and no TV, but I do have a truck so I can get to town, and a propane refrigerator, which is a beautiful thing.
Step 2: Calculate Your Energy Needs
Step 3: Picking the Right Power Source
You have three main options. Which you use depends on your environment.
Photovoltaic (PV) panels are clean, noiseless, durable, long-lived, and relatively maintenance free. For a rooftop install, west- or south-facing roofs with a pitch of 30 degrees are optimal. Project Sunroof uses Google Earth images to determine your roof size and recommend an installation setup. Don’t live in a hot, sunny place? Not a problem. PV solar production is actually most efficient in colder temps.
If you’re building a battery-based system, you’ll need an inverter for converting DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current) for use with standard outlets and appliances. In DC systems, current flows in only one direction, and at 12, 24, or 48 volts, instead of the 120 volts you’re used to in a typical home. Solar panels feed a battery bank and the bank supplies the load, whether that load is a small DC refrigerator, lights, or whatever. Generally speaking, all DC appliances, light fixtures, and bulbs are specialty products, so they’ll be more expensive than what you’ll find at a hardware store. Be aware that DC wiring and components are different from AC. Most DC systems operate at a significantly higher current, sometimes ten times the current you’d need for 120 volts AC.
Alternating current, or AC, flows in one direction, then reverses, over and over, at a certain rate called hertz. AC is the power of choice on the grid because it’s less wasteful to transform it. It can be transported around the grid at massively high voltages (and comparatively lower current) and then stepped down at a substation and then stepped down again at the power pole right outside your home. With AC, all the wiring and everything you need downstream from the inverter is pretty much what you would have in a regular house.
Solar inverters usually incorporate maximum power point tracking (MPPT), which helps you get the most power possible from your PV array. You’ll also need a charge controller to optimize battery performance. For arrays 200W and higher, a MPPT controller garners about 15 percent more energy per year than a standard controller. A system monitor will help maximize the reliability and productivity of your PV setup. Today’s high-resolution “smart” meters use machine learning to read the electronic fingerprint of your appliances in real time, so you can monitor performance and track down inefficiencies. Solar costs are at their lowest in 30 years. A system between 4kW and 8kW costs $15,000 to $29,000 on average. Do your homework on incentives and rebates. The Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) offers a 30 percent tax credit for the cost of residential installations.
To power our small OTG cabin, we used an excellent system from Goal Zero. The centerpiece is the Yeti 3000, a portable power station that charges quickly from the sun and is equipped with 3000Wh of battery storage, so whatever you’re powering will run for a while. It has a built-in MPPT, and you can monitor charge and battery use from the Yeti app, and an inverter. The 3000 also has tons of outputs, including a very handy 60W USB-C for larger devices. You just need an electrician to install the Home Integration Kit into a circuit breaker, at which point you’ll be able to power up to four circuits off the Yeti Energy Storage ecosystem.
For daily use, all of this works beautifully. Ours is hooked up to two 100W rooftop Goal Zero solar panels, as well as a 100W briefcase panel out in the yard, which we move with the sun throughout the day. Recently we went to bed one night with the battery at 54 percent. One full sunny day and part of a morning later—without much running off it except for a few lamps and a phone charger—it was fully charged.
The Yeti (Goal Zero also makes Yeti with other capacities, from 100 to 1400) is also a kind of portable generator. It’s on wheels and has a telescoping handle so you can move it from cabin to car to home. We tested it on frozen winter ground, mud, snow, and gravel and it traveled easily—useful in a power outage.
The 3000 is ideal for a cabin like this: The place sees use on the weekends and sporadically during the week. It’s an artist’s studio but could be a hunting cabin or a weekend retreat. The Yeti just lives there, soaking up sun, waiting to charge phones and light up the four LED bulbs that bring some light to the woods.
Goal Zero’s real achievement is in both power and ease of use. The rig is expensive, but if they can lower the price and keep making the power stations increasingly easier to set up and use, the gap between solar people and people who think solar isn’t for them will shrink.
If you’re lucky enough to have running water on your property, then a micro hydroelectric generator like the Scott Hydroelectric turbine is the most efficient and affordable renewable energy option. Even a small mountain stream that runs year-round is sufficient. What’s most important is the vertical drop, not the volume of water.
The U.S. Geological Survey or the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have data on your stream’s flow. You can also use the “bucket method” by damming up your stream to divert its flow into a five-gallon bucket. If it fills in one minute, you’ve got a flow of five gallons per minute. Most home models will run between $4,000 to $10,000. You’ll need a properly sized generator, battery bank, and ample piping to get from intake to turbine. The motivated DIYer with a penchant for physics could install a micro hydroelectric system on their own, but we’d recommend consulting your county engineer for advice. And be sure to your state energy office to find out how much water you’re allowed to divert from your channel.
For a typical home, you’ll need a minimum average annual wind speed of 9 mph and a turbine rated for 5 to 15 kilowatts. How do you find this information? The Department of Energy publishes Wind Resource Maps for each state. You could also obtain average wind speed information from a nearby airport, but keep in mind that airport anemometers will likely be closer to the ground than your wind turbine hub. Direct monitoring will always be your best bet, as wind strength varies significantly depending on local terrain. Wind-measurement systems start at $600 to $1,200, or you can build your own.
There are two basic tower types: guyed and freestanding. Guyed towers are less expensive and easier to install—approximately $40,000 in equipment, plus another $20,000 in shipping and installation. (Just be sure you have enough room. Your site design will need to account for a guy radius of at least one half the tower height.) Wind speeds increase with elevation, so a higher tower means more power. Even just 40 extra feet could yield 25 percent more power and only add 10 percent to the overall system cost. On average, small wind systems cost approximately $5,760 per kilowatt installed, and you could recoup your investment through utility savings within 15 to 25 years, depending on your setup.
Step 4: Find a Great Battery-Storage System
Deep-cycle batteries are central to every off-grid solar, wind, or hydroelectric system because they store the excess energy created by your renewable resource and make it available when you need it. Your storage capacity needs depend on two key factors: the amount of energy your system can generate and your home's average energy load. Ideally, you want to always have three to five days' worth of power saved. In terms of space requirements, these systems range in size from a narrow bookcase-size space for a modular system up to a laundry closet or small attic space for a bank of wired cells.
Sealed modular systems use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The Tesla Powerall's batteries each have 13.5 kilowatt-hours of capacity and can be linked with up to nine other units. This option can be used as a stand-alone energy-storage system or as a backup power supply. The Powerwall also includes electronics for managing the charging and discharging of cells, as well as an inverter for converting DC to the AC power more common in residential use. This all-in-one prepackaged solution will make it easy to retrofit your grid-connected system.
Invented in 1859, this is the oldest and most common type of rechargeable battery in use today. They are larger, heavier, and less energy-dense than newer technologies—and therefore less expensive. (They offer the highest watt-hour capacity per dollar spent over the short term.) Most of the renewable-energy equipment on the market today will work within their voltage range. To maximize their life span, they should only be discharged to about 65 percent of their capacity and be protected from the elements and direct sunlight. Many of them are also 100 percent recyclable.
Lithium-Ion (or Lithium-iron-phosphate) Batteries
Thanks to recent intense interest in electric vehicles (EV), a lot of progress has been made with this category. Relatively maintenance free, more compact, and highly efficient, these batteries offer up to 10,000 charge cycles within their life span and are at least 2.5 times more energy dense than lead acid. They can be drawn down further than lead-acid batteries without affecting their performance. The DIYer can use lithium-ion cells to create a storage solution comparable to a packaged modular system, but for a lot less money.
Step 5: Have a Backup Plan
Don’t plan on using a generator as your main energy source. It’s unlikely to be the most effective, efficient, or economical. That said, a critical component of every off-grid system is a reliable backup generator for times when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind doesn’t blow, and the stream dries up in the hot season. There are two options:
A fixed-installation generator could be installed in an outbuilding and connected directly to the electric system in your home. You want an automatic start, which will kick on when your battery bank needs recharging. Kohler’s 14-kilowatt generator has the auto-start, plus a wireless remote-start switch, so if you ever do need to turn it on, you can do it from inside your home. It runs on either natural gas or liquid propane and is no louder than a typical air-conditioning system—a crucial consideration when your property’s ambient noise skews more toward grasshoppers than garbage trucks.
If you just want a backup on hand for your most crucial needs (refrigerator, water pump, etc.), to reload a battery bank that’s been drawn down, or for use at an off-grid building site, portable generators are smaller and cheaper. Honda’s 2,200-watt generator is compact, lightweight, and can run for eight hours on a gallon of gas. Easy to toss in the back of your truck, ideal for peace of mind.
Step 6: Get the Right Gear
The two-pound head, forged from tool steel and outfitted on a 28-inch hickory handle, is great for chopping, splitting, or hammering pegs and stakes. The slighter size means you won’t mind swinging it all day.
Mount this system for a low-effort, consistent source of hot water. Vacuum tubes and copper pipes combine to heat water at a rate of 165 watts. That means it can bring five gallons of room-temperature water to 122 degrees in just four hours.
Insulated leather gloves ready for any job in any season—even the wet ones, because these are 100 percent waterproof. Forty-gram Thinsulate insulation keeps you warm in winter, but won’t overheat in summer.
Dry your clothes quickly, without an electric dryer. Just put your clothes in, crank the handle, and the water squeezes out. Clamp it right onto round or square tubs so the water doesn’t run everywhere.
The Headspin light’s magnetic connection means you can stick it to a chunk of metal in your work space, put it on a headlamp or flashlight mount, or use the bike mount for attaching it to handlebars, rails, and even walking sticks: 400 lumens, 40 hours run time.
This portable power station charges quickly from the sun and is equipped with 300Wh of battery storage. It also comes with tons of outputs so you can basically charge anything.
This 24-inch blade chews through logs and branches without the weight, noise, and fuel needs of a traditional chainsaw. Its small size means you can also use it in spaces where a classic chainsaw might not fit.
Fill the three-gallon sack with water and leave it in the sun. The solar panel, reflector panel, and insulation panel work together to heat the water up and keep it hot. Hang the bag, turn on the showerhead, and get clean.
Receives AM/FM/NOAA radio bands so you never miss the information you need. Bluetooth connectivity means you can use it to listen to your favorite tunes when you aren’t checking on the weather.
A tough, water-repellent jacket with stretch panels in the elbows, back, and sides to give you full range of motion. Rib-knit cuffs and draw-cord hem at the bottom help keep out the cold.
Charge it with the hand crank or plug the USB into one of Goal Zero’s solar panels. A 4,400-milliampere-hour battery gives you plenty of 400-lumen light, with extra power for charging phones, tablets, and whatever else you need.
Keep your veggies, pickles, and sauces ready to eat year-round. Prices vary by size; available at most grocery stores.
This 48-ounce, double-wall-insulated French press means your brew will stay hot for hours after you’ve taken your coffee off the stove. One other benefit: Coffee that’s not on the stove is also coffee that won’t get burnt.
A pack frame for hauling whatever you need, even if it doesn’t fit in a traditional bag. The lashing straps plus a freighter shelf mean that if you can handle the weight, you can carry it. Padded waist belt and shoulder straps keep you comfy.
Step 7: Consider a Woodstove
Fifteen years ago, motivated by the primal appeal of wood-fueled fire (and a little by my peculiar compulsion for chopping firewood), my wife and I replaced the gas range in our Vermont farmhouse with a wood-burning cookstove. Every day since, I rise before dawn, lay a bed of newspaper and dry scrap wood, and kindle the day’s fire. This is a necessity, considering that the stove heats our home and our water, but it has also become a comforting ritual.
As the fire takes, I tamp grounds into my little stovetop espresso maker, which sits on the cast-iron cooktop in the exact spot I’ve found to heat up the fastest. If it’s winter, I open the door to the firebox—in violation of every fire-safety code known to humankind—and warm myself while my coffee percolates and the early light filters through the windows. If it’s summer, I head outside to tend to our chickens and cattle, which takes exactly as much time as the coffee needs to brew.
The stove is our kitchen’s centerpiece. It’s our heater, our cooking range, and our boot dryer. But it’s also a reminder. I’ve found that living with our stove—tending the fire, cutting and splitting the five cords of wood we feed it annually—has meant forming a close relationship with the source of my well-being. It’s a rare, front-row view of the transformation of raw and underappreciated resource into fundamental necessity.
Step 8: Oh, And Be Sure To Build the Right Toilet
This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of Seniorhelpline. You can .