There’s no doubt that living off grid is eco-friendly. But is it really a practical solution for most of us?
A few years ago, I decided it was time to leave the big city – that being London, in my case – and put my money where my mouth is, in terms of sustainable living.
I had launched Eluxe in 2013, but apart from buying more sustainable clothing and organic cosmetics, I felt that my lifestyle really hadn’t changed much. I was still going to the local supermarket and buying loads of produce wrapped in plastic. I was still living in an energy-leaking converted Victorian house with other flats below me. I had no green space, no control over my food, water, or energy, and despite my best intentions, I frequently gave in to the social pressure of consumption, buying new clothes, makeup or household items I didn’t need, just because I saw them and was tempted.
I knew it was time for a change, so when the opportunity arose to move to rural Peru, I took it.
Today, I live in a rented house with its own food garden. It’s not completely off grid, but we do have a septic tank (rather than being connected to state sewage lines), we use gas tanks for hot water (there’s no gas pipeline here) and the possibility for solar energy is there should we need it. The nearest market is around 20 minutes away by bus, and all it sells is basically food. I haven’t bought new clothes in years. My plan is to buy my own land and create a grey water recycling system, install solar energy panels, and plant a food garden for all my basic needs.
With political and economic changes becoming increasingly intense around the world, it seems more people are talking about wanting to live more independently from the state. They’d prefer to rely on themselves to ensure their water, energy, food and gas supplies are steady. Others are simply concerned about reducing their environmental footprint. But is living off grid really living the dream?
There are definitely some pros and cons to off grid living. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. You don’t need to go totally off-grid for energy-efficiency
I’m lucky that my husband is an architect – he told me as long as there’s reliable infrastructure where your house is, there’s no need to go completely off grid, although having ‘spare’ solar energy is not a bad option in case of blackouts. He also told me that most new builds have already taken on board the latest environmental regulations for insulation, sustainable materials, and energy efficiency, and of course, when we build our own home, we will apply all of these factors.
If you’re already a homeowner, you can consider making some additions to your home, such as setting up solar panels, water recycling systems or more efficient insulation systems. If you’re not great at DIY, be sure you look for reputable architecture firms in the UK or wherever you’re located to help you install such systems correctly. It’s a fact that environmentally-conscious homes can exist, even in the middle of towns.
2. Self-sufficient gardens are possible, even in towns
Food security is becoming increasingly important to people as shortages are predicted after the global lockdowns that have been implemented recently. I’m lucky enough to have my own garden, but to be honest, I’m not a great food grower – yet. This takes know-how and practice. While some things I’ve planted have done really well (Swiss chard, kale, lettuce, beets), others (squash, strawberries) have kind of failed.
It’s important that you learn how to grow plants while having your own garden is still a ‘luxury’ rather than a necessity – but you can do this is the city, too, so long as you have some green space (which I didn’t, unfortunately).
As James Strawbridge, a sustainable living expert, explains, even an urban garden can grow an incredible amount of food. You can grow a lot indoors during the winter, in a conservatory, or by using a glass bell to protect small plants from the cold. Keeping an eye out for foraging opportunities in towns (think: dandelions for jelly, tea and leaves for salad; nettles for soup, mushrooms, chestnuts, etc) can help you
3. Off grid land is way cheaper
Here’s a big benefit of off grid living: if you’re planning to buy your own plot and build your own totally off grid house, you should know that land that’s not connected to the grid or water system will be much cheaper. It just makes sense – connecting to the grid costs money, and if you’re not using those services, land that’s further out of the system will obviously come with a lower price. You’ll also save money on energy and water bills, too.
That being said, your start up costs, such as buying and installing off-grid systems like PV arrays and water treatment equipment can be expensive initially, but ultimately, you’ll be saving money in the long run.
4. You’ll need a backup
My husband was right: it makes sense to use the grid and use solar energy as a backup if that fails. But even if you’re totally off grid, you’ll need to have some kind of plan B, because no energy source is perfect. You should invest in a diesel or biofuel generator for those times when the sun may not be shining so strongly, for example.
5. You’ll have to get handy
Assuming you’re living far from the nearest town, you’ll probably need to learn how to maintain and troubleshoot your own equipment. What if something goes wrong with your solar panels or water treatment systems? If there’s no expert nearby, you’ll need to learn how to deal with any problems yourself. The local plumber or electrician in remote areas may not be familiar with such new and specialised technologies.
6. You may not be allowed to
Surprisingly, living off the grid can actually be against the law in some places. Problems may arise if overly restrictive city and county ordinances and zoning restrictions impair off grid living, and make it illegal to do certain things on or with your own property. It’s essential that you check the regulations within your county or municipality before you decide to raise livestock, produce your own power, or even build a greenhouse.
7. You can still live a modern life
There’s a misconception that off grid living means going back to the Stone Age. But that’s not true at all! You can still have all the modcons of the 21st century, from huge flat screen TVs and smart devices to heated swimming pools and microwave ovens. It’s just that how you get the energy for these items will be differently achieved. And once you become aware of how energy intensive many of these conveniences are, it’s quite likely you’ll choose to live more minimalistically anyway.
So…is off grid living for you?
Living off-grid can teach us to build more sustainably, take a more ethical and responsible approach to managing our households, and be more self-sufficient wherever possible. That being said, there are very good reasons why we have national and regional utilities – it can make sense from an economic, engineering and even environmental perspective to share and pool our resources as a community.
Living off the grid offers the perfect solution for those who aim for total self-sufficiency, and who are willing to put in the hard work required for technical maintenance. But if simply saving energy and living a greener life are your objectives, there are plenty of ways to do that without having to take yourself completely off the grid.