Whenever we set ourselves a goal to “go off grid”, whether the grid means electricity, water, food, or something else, we face a task that is in all probability high unlikely to be accomplished, and maybe impossible, at least at in the short-term. When we finally face that reality we usually become discouraged and just give up or file it along with our other pipe dreams. I have been there. I have also been learning an important principle – a little is better than nothing.
We must stop thinking in terms of “getting off the grid” and more in terms of gaining some measure of independence, no matter how small and then go from there. At first glance, this idea seems ludicrous. After all, if we are still attached and dependent on an electric grid, food supply grid, etc., we are still dependent on them. That is true, however, we must consider the level of dependence as well. When we account for that factor, we begin to see that any measure of independence, no matter how small, will not only lead to greater independence in the future (progress toward our goal), but also vastly increases our security by decreasing our dependence while increasing our independence. Sounds confusing doesn’t it? Allow me to bring some clarity with a few examples.
Getting off the electric grid
I have some acquaintances who have gone completely off grid electricity wise. They have a lot of problems they wouldn’t have if they were on the grid. In both cases, they were too far from the nearest power pole to be worthwhile paying for a line to come in. This being the case, they made the right decision in my opinion. Since I have had the goal of going off grid for many years, it just has not happened – partly due to the high cost, and in retrospect, by staying on grid I have avoided the myriad of problems of going off grid.
While being attached to the grid has many advantages, there are also considerable risks, namely the real possibility of losing power for an extended period of time. Recently an area nearby lost their power for three weeks due to an ice storm. The threats of decaying infrastructure, solar discharges, and even a possible EMT event could result in a total loss of power for not just weeks, but possibly even months.
So if going off grid has its own problems, yet staying on grid has its risks, what is a person to do? Simple – stay on grid, but have a backup system in place. Start small, and add to it as time and money permit. I plan on starting with a system that will provide lighting and power for small kitchen appliances. Such a system can be built for less than $1000, including the solar panels. Refrigeration can be maintained for a few weeks via a generator. Longer term, I’ll either do without, or use solar if I can upgrade before an outage happens.
To see the advantages of this hybrid approach, consider:
- Until an outage occurs, I still have all the blessings of ample and inexpensive grid power
- When an outage occurs, my home will still be illuminated as if nothing happened – as long as the problem persists
- I can still prepare food by virtue of power to the kitchen (sans the fridge)
- I can still keep foods frozen for the first few weeks with stored fuel. A small chest freezer is possible with more solar panels for long-term frozen food storage
With such an approach, I could live comfortably with an extended power outage of any length, yet avoid all the problems with trying to go off grid. Not only do I have the best of both worlds, but such a simple hybrid approach can be accomplished with very little money and time.
Providing Fresh WaterI have a situation that is really not that uncommon when it comes to fresh, potable water. Water is in short supply in our part of the country, and therefore public water lines are readily available. I have a few options for pumping my own ground water, but none of them are easy or cheap. To go off the grid would be an expensive proposition and may require dependence on the power grid for drinking water. Becoming dependent on the electric grid for water is worse than being dependent on the municipality for the same. What to do?
A hybrid approach again comes to the rescue. In my situation, I plan to build a cistern and capture water running off my roof. That will not provide enough water for all my household needs, but it will provide some – even as much as half. The rest I can pump from some far away springs during the warmer months and supplement with utility water during the winter months. What does that complex system get me? Backup in case of disasters. Widespread power outages could also cause water outages. Crumbling infrastructure could result in the loss of potable water for an extended period. It happens all the time around the country. If an outage is for an extended period of time, by simply scaling back our water usage, we can get along fine on just the water we can supply. There is a big difference in what we want or need during good times and what we can manage with during bad times.
A simple hybrid water system like I described requires only:
- Cistern – a big water tank
- Whole house water filter (needed anyway for municipal water)
- Small DC water pump to provide pressure – can be solar-powered
This system has the same aspects as the hybrid power system – no disadvantages, yet ample provision for long and short term disruptions.
Providing Your Own Food
Of all the examples I have cited, none are more complex in their prospects for self-reliance than your food supply. I cover many of these aspects in this article series. While many believe that having a garden is equivalent to being self-sufficient, the sad truth is otherwise. Even for those having a vegetarian or even a vegan diet, vegetables supply only a fraction of their food needs. Grains are the true staples of most peoples’ diet. Grain is truly the “bread of life”. While having demolished the illusion of gardens supplying our principle food supply, on the other hand, I do not diminish their important value in the hybrid approach.
While it would be difficult to sustain life comfortably on just a garden alone, if one were starving, any vegetables that could be had would be truly a treasure. Not only that, but the skills needed to grow a modest garden could be parlayed into the ability to grow substantially more if needed.
An alternative to the garden for city dwellers could be patio growing containers and hydroponic systems. Any modest means of food production would have immeasurable value not so much as a provision but as a comfort and a hope for a better future in tough times.
For those with land, even modest holdings, the means to produce meat, eggs and dairy are also available. Even an acre or two could be used to convert otherwise worthless grass into enough milk to sustain the life of two or three with no other means of food production.
Provide your own technologyWhile technology is hardly a necessary item, nonetheless it forms a significant part of modern life. The hybrid approach also has value in this realm as well. While we can’t provide our own cell phones yet, we can break free from likes of the juggernaut of Microsoft and Apple as far as software is concerned. Linux and open source software are real, honest to goodness alternatives to closed systems. In almost all cases, you can perform the same tasks using software that is not only free of monetary cost, but is free from controlling interests as well.
The open source movement is leading us into not just software freedom as well, but freedom in other areas such as electronic hardware and the arts, via Creative Commons as opposed to copyright and patents. The development of open source 3D printing even promises to usher in the freedom to simply download a design, modify it to meet your needs and “print it” using a desktop printer. The latter is no longer science fiction, but is available today.
It is folly to attempt to go completely off the grid, at least at first. An all or nothing approach leads only to wistful daydreaming. It is far better to start where you are and do as much as you can.
I look back now at the years I spent when I lived in the suburbs wishing I could have chickens for their meat and eggs, but was stymied by oppressive zoning regulations. I have now learned how I could have raised all the chickens I wanted clandestinely using bottomless pens. You too can raise your own food, generate your own electricity, harvest and store your own water, and gain mastery of your own technology by ceasing wishful thinking and instead exercising your creativity in order to overcome whatever obstacles bar your way. That is our dream for you here at ProvideYourOwn. Only you can make it true.