Amy Suarez |

ethnography of candlelightThis site is dedicated to showing how you can live off the grid in comfort and style without costing the earth. Lighting is fairly crucial part of that. Being able to snap on the light when you come home is just as important to off-gridders as to those who are grid-connected.

Light is expensive, energy-hungry, and vital to our happiness – especially at this time of year. And there is a large degree of unanimity amongst off-gridders about what makes good lighting and how to achieve it.

When you live off-grid, electric lighting is not something you can take for granted. The means for controlling natural and artificial light and thus achieving visual comfort are not as well-established in the Unplugged community. But the off-grid aesthetic is now spreading to the plugged-in community.

So how do off-gridders light their homes to maximise the gain and minimise the cost?


The first step of course is windows. In most self-built off-grid homes a great deal of attention goes into making space for windows – both to let light in and to keep warmth in. Log homes are easy to cut window frames into. One log-home-dweller recently managed to find and fit a set of windows—including a large one which gives her a view over the surrounding hills. A few more small holes, now covered in tiny square shapes of glass, came from the logs of an old cabin
Low-Energy lights
These solutions include another technology likely to interest the urban dweller: low-energy lights. Low-energy lights are turned on in the same way as normal lights, but use much less energy and therefore cost less in grid-connected homes as well as off-grid homes.
They used to cast a rather harsh and unpleasant light, but have improved hugely in recent years. However it is often the case that the harsher light is preferable.
One couple use 3.5 watt LED lights—just like the reading lights found on airplane cabins. The spread of their luminosity is limited, but their rays are perfect for reading if aimed directly where needed. And just as vital – they use DC lighting instead of its AC counterpart.They have both AC and DC lights, but the former have been a significant source of trouble for them and are being gradually phased out from their house. The DC LEDs are much more efficient”, tey report. “AC LEDs are also available on the market but the sine wave on our inverter is too irregular for AC

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lighting. We almost started a fire once.” And while they feel “colder” because of their blueish brightness, DC LED lights are also easier on their eyes.
It took Glen and Joanne and their two young boys some time to become accustomed to the dark after they left the City and moved to their stylish straw bale, 2500-square-foot, off-grid home in the hills.. Neither of them had ever lived without the light pollution of the city.
“We couldn’t believe how black it was in the house”, Glen remembers about the first winter.
“If it was a cloudy night, you couldn’t see in front of your face.” So, one of the solutions they decided to implement to increase their visual comfort was installing self-assembled one-watt LEDs. “You couldn’t buy lights like these anywhere at the time”, Glen says, “so I bought the acrylic plastic parts and made them myself. We leave four of them on so at night we can see the house when we come back late.” The idea worked so well and consumed so little energy that Glen also put together three of them over his dining table for a hip-looking three-watt fixture. A few other lights around the house, compact fluorescents, serve as task lighting (eg, for closets, the bathroom, and the control room), but they are turned on infrequently because the most lived-in areas are often bathed in sufficient natural light.

Pools of Light

In his book Walden, Thoreau describes how he spent two years in a small cabin in the woods, where he deprived himself of many of the comforts he and his contemporaries had in the city. But instead of being painful, that Spartan lifestyle full of seeming deprivation taught him—as it teaches many contemporary off-gridders today as well—to draw contentment from the independent enjoyment of ‘simple things’.

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So it is that off-gridders have created a beautiful aesthetic of pools of light – instead of lighting an entire room evenly, they place the light where it is actually needed, so just enough spills out to allow transitions from one pool to another. Now the rest of the world is following in their footsteps.


No discussion of off-grid lighting would be complete without mention of that most romantic of all lighting – the candle. From elegant tapering candles in old brass holders to little tea-lights shimmering in the night, candles create a magical effect. But they can be dangerous. A 36-year-old died in NEw Zealand last Wednesday when his makeshift shelter was gutted by fire, believed to have been started by a candle.

Max and Suzanne Varney own the 8ha farm on Hawkestone Rd where the man had lived and worked for the past eight weeks.

Mr Varney said the man“wanted a simple life, he wanted to live off the grid,” and had made the shelter himself out of willow branches sourced from the farm in exchange for working.

Although we all agree what comfort is, the means by which we achieve it are very different.

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