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minimal enough for you?

To date most efforts at living the simple life,  off the grid seem to be an exercise in minimalism — doing without  amenities most people take for granted.

No wonder the off-grid movement has trouble attracting adherents. The biggest appeal seems to be to those who want a simple life away from the restrictions imposed by living in communities.

Freedom is the keynote in many of the articles and books dealing with going off-grid.

Unfortunately this is only a dream for many. A dream they will never be able to realize. Sometimes it is simply a question of differing values by each partner and more often it becomes a question of economics.

A good friend of mine would love to do what I have done, but says he must live within a 15 minutes drive of a hospital given his medical condition.

Several of my friends are now living single because their wives preferred the convenience and perceived glamor of big city life to the tranquil solitude found in the outback. Oh well different strokes for different folks.

However living off-grid need not be a life of deprivation and doing without amenities. My wife’s uncle lives off-grid of necessity rather than choice. He lives on the family homestead but because the power utility company wanted too much money to run a power line several miles out to his place, he opted to stay off the grid. Mind you, he has a big screen TV and satellite recievers ,a jacussi tub in the huge bathroom and the kitchen has every imaginable convenience appliance.

When you visit his house you would not be able to tell this is not a typical suburban home near the city.

His brother runs a fishing resort that is also off-grid. Until a couple of years ago they relied on a radio telephone for talking to the outside world. Cell phone and satellite TV and internet acess only became a reality a couple of years ago.

Although the fishing camp cabins are somewhat rustic their own home looks like a typical town house.

All it takes is money and that is really the stumbling block to going off-grid. It cost more compared to living near the grid and being connected, when you have to provide your own water, sanitation, heat, and light, not to mention still get food from somewhere.

I repeatedly hear that it cost less to live off-grid compared to living on the grid. That is only true if you chose to do without. Living in the rural outback does mean you are not tempted by as many things. Its been months since I last had a pizza. However my wife loves to cook and experiment so that is not a real hardship. The only movies I see are played on my 13” TV and DVD player. We pick up DVDs when we go into town once a month. Going for a fast food treat is not an option since the nearest fast food outlet is 65 kilometers away. That does save money.

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In a town you take services like water, sewer, and snow plowing of the streets for granted. Out in the country you must provide it yourself and it usually costs more.

Drilling a well can cost as much as $100 per foot of depth. Shallow wells often get contaminated by surface water percolating down and you need to install water treatment equipment to compensate.

Sanitation can become expensive if you install a code compliant septic system. Even the composting toilets are not exactly cheap compared to the $200 you pay for just a toilet and piping to connect to the municipal sewer. If you live in snow country you need a snow blower or plow if you intend to clear more than a few feet of path away from the house.

This is not intended as a diatribe against trying to go off-grid but a call for more realistic goals and recognition that if we want to appeal to a larger segment of the population than we have so far managed to get interested. Going off-grid in comfort takes planning and some innovative thinking.

It means having more than just one tiny light for evening use. Kerosene and Coleman type lanterns give a nice ambience but they do rely on refined petroleum fuels. Candles also give a romantic glow but really doesn’t work as a good reading light.

Except when you are building new or just purchasing a property it is financially dificult to amortize the considerable cost of a large solar installation with a mortgage over 25 – 30 years.

If you are located outside the sun belt it will take more panel area than the marketing hype would lead you to expect . Higher latitudes means a longer path through light absorbing atmosphere.

Where I live at latitude 54 far from a coast where ocean current moderate the climate it gets extremely cold.

I’m told a solar panel will only deliver 50% of the rated output compared to the industry rating which is based on solar insolation at a test site in southern latitudes and up high in the desert at an elevation several thousand feet above sea level. Which would explain why so few solar installations up here meet expectations. Furthermore, in winter we barely get 8 hours od daylight never mind usable sunlight hours. If we are lucky, a clear sunny winter day gives us 4 usable sunlight hours. The first two and last two hours do not give a usable output from the solar panel even if you use a sophisticated MPPT controller.

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The reality is you can expect to need supplemental power generation and this usually means some kind of engine driven generator. The trick is to find a generator system that gives you the most bang for the buck. It goes beyond just getting a fuel efficient genset or using CCF light bulbs.

It involves scheduling tasks to make the best use of available energy sources.

Deep well submerged pumps tend to need lots of power. Especially when starting up. I have seen surges of 7 kilowatts at start but only 2.5 watts once its running. That suggest you design a system that does not require the pressure pump to start every time you open a tap. Pumping water into a resevoir or cistern once every few days means less demand from your well pump.

You may have to run the genset in order to get enough power to start and run the pump so plan on doing it while charging the battery bank.

Most households will have an average electrical load of less than 2 kilowatts. Some may be less than 1 kilowatts. Inverters and batteries are at the moment the most practical and readily available method of storing up energy for later use.

I realize this sounds extravagant to minimalists accustomed to daily use of only 40 watt hours or less. But this is precisely why the movement has not caught on as well as you might expect. The average person want’s to be able to live almost normally. They would like to be able to watch a movie in the evening. There must be accomodations for allowing one person to work /play in one area and have a second area for use by another person. In a family setting the children need to have their own space complete with reading lights etc. Several of my friends home school their children but this requires either a phone line or a sat link for the internet. That also takes electrical power.

If children are not accomodated in an off-grid arrangement it really puts a strain on the living arrangement. Infants and toddlers seem to generate more laundry with attendant greater water use.

Many of the existing off-grid stories I have seen deal with retired couples or young people, either single or just starting out before children arrive. This is fine but a good off-grid home needs to accomodate a growing family so electrical power needs to accomodate this has to be part of the overall plan.

My wife grew up in an off-grid home, but few people today are willing to put up with such conditions. These are the people we need to convince to switch to off-grid living.

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