There is no wrong way to live off grid. Many self professed experts look down on those of us that have back up systems or 21st century creature comforts like flush toilets and running water. Yes…it’s true. Off grid snobbery is alive and well.
Your best resource will be talking and learning from those that have done it. You will find huge pay-offs by learning from their mistakes, and their successes. Without exception, every person I have ever met that enjoys some sort of off grid life has been eager and happy to help and teach.
True, there are magazines and books that are helpful, as well as many, many online resources and guru’s. But beware, many want to sell you something…like their book…and what they offer can mean hours of sifting through a mountain of information that may not necessarily be specific to what you want and how you want to live. It can also be difficult to understand when you are first starting out. I’m not saying don’t look to experts for specific things…like solar and wind power, best water systems, etc. but folks near where you plan to practice your lifestyle can be extremely helpful.
Not every off grid home is a rustic 10′ x 10′ cabin in the woods and not every off grid dweller sustenance hunts or bakes bread in a wood stove oven, although a great many of us do.
From where I sit, any effort we make to live a greener, healthier lifestyle is a win/win. Whether you sell your excess solar back to the grid; live by candlelight and wind power; or grow a few herbs on your apartment balcony, it helps.
Off grid living varies from person to person. Personal preferences and budget play a large role in where each of us sits on that sliding scale of self sufficiency.
For us, it was about getting older and wanting a healthier, more active lifestyle (aka forced movement). It was also about cutting costs…although after 14 years of having an off grid cabin we weren’t delusional enough to think our off grid choices and lifestyle would be cheap. Systems can be expensive. It was more about where we wanted to spend our money. But it was also about environment and location.
When we decided to make the leap to this lifestyle full time, we owned a lovely 2700 sq foot home in town with beautiful views of Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake. But every weekend, we locked the door and headed to our happy place…our cabin on one of the many lakes outside of town. Often, during the summer and winter, I would stay out at the cabin for days, or even weeks , with Ron joining me during the winter when he could drive across the frozen lake, or I’d pick him up by boat over on weekends in summer. It was our favourite place in the world to be.
Because my husband was…and still is…gainfully employed full time (I retired years ago when we sold our businesses), we couldn’t live full time at the cabin due to location. Boat access in summer and ice access in winter…but in between there were two times of year when access was impossible…freeze up and break up. That could be anywhere between six weeks and three months depending on Mother Nature’s mood that season.
Renting during those times would have been difficult. Not many people want to rent for only two months at a time, and even fewer would rent to people that have a large dog.
Cabins on the lakes outside of town that had road access came up for sale now and again but nothing we were interested in, or could afford. Besides, we loved our lake, especially the area where our cabin was, near the mouth of the river where boat traffic was mostly local cabin owners or sledders (snowmobilers) just passing by to join up to a trail that connected all of the lakes along the Ingraham Trail to town. So we lived our lives, enjoyed our cabin and dreamt of full time life at the lake.
It took us over 3 years to find a cabin we could afford…with no road access. Our hopes weren’t high to find one with road access. Because most cabins near Yellowknife were on either federal or territorial leases and not titled land, and because it had been years since any new leases were issued, most places that do come up for sale are never listed, but rather, sold by word of mouth. Demand is high. We all know someone that is looking, and so a phone call or two will usually sell a place in a matter of days if not hours. Since devolution, all leases are now held by the Territorial government and about 2 years ago there was a lottery for 22 new leases that resulted in over 900 applicants!
When we found our little piece of paradise, all those years ago, it was basically a 480 square foot of plywood box with a loft. Built atop a rock ledge, the footings were tree stumps and there wasn’t a piece of glass in the place. The windows were handmade frames with plexi-glass which swung open to screens stapled to the opening to allow for summer breezes.
A small wood stove that had seen better days was the first thing to go. We couldn’t get insurance as long as we kept the stove, so out it went. It was June so it didn’t really matter. We spent every evening and weekend over the first three weeks hauling out all the garbage and catching mice. Mickey, Minnie and their extended families had enjoyed the benefits of a single, seldom present owner and made themselves quite at home!
Our little 12 foot Crestliner left the small birchbark log “dock” each trip, loaded with everything from mattresses and old batteries to the previous owners underwear, or as we jokingly called it…our gift with purchase. We cleaned and swept and scrubbed everything in sight, twice, but only after we had filled every hole, crack and crevice with spray foam insulation and steel wool to keep the rodent population out.
The next three weeks were spent taking load after load of our own things out to the cabin; dishes, bedding, towels, mattresses, books and games. There was a small kitchen on the back of the main room that also housed the living room. Built into the bright orange counter top was a two burner propane stove top and a pail under the sink held the dirty dishwater which eventually was dumped down the hole in the outhouse.
The first order of business was water. Carrying 5 gallon pails of lake water up the hill wasn’t working for us, so we scraped together enough money to buy a small water pump, 200 feet of PVC 2″ pipe and another hundred feet of plastic fire hose. We filled four plastic garbage cans with water and we’d draw from those for our usage.
During the first few months when the lake was warm, we’d just bath in the lake after a long day of building, but as summer gave way to autumn, we decided we needed something where we could have a warmer wash. We had tried the black plastic shower bags, but they only held enough water for one person and with our long summer days the water could be scalding hot! With advice from neighbours, I found what was called a Buddy Shower Bag, which was basically a round reservoir with a cordura bag encircling it. We hung it in the trees and would heat water on the propane burner, dump it in the reservoir, climb inside the bag, pull the lever, and voila!! Warm showers!! You had to dress quickly when getting out or the mosquitos would have a feast!
That water pump and hose was the same system we used for 14 years, although we eventually changed out the plastic hose with fibre fire hose. In fact, during summer, we use the same system today at our current home. When we built an addition on the cabin 3 years after we bought the place, we put in a 250 gallon water tank and ran water lines to the tub and kitchen sink. We had cold running water which made life even easier!
Getting water to the top of our hill was easy in summer. In winter it became a real challenge. After working long days, we’d head to the cabin where my husband would roll out the sections of fire hose to connect with the PVC pipe that stopped just below the crest of the hill….often crawling through thigh high snow banks. Over the years water levels on our lake dropped considerably. We went from that 6′ piece of birch log dock to building over 160′ of dock by the time we sold the cabin 14 years after we bought it. That also meant we had to go further out to pump water and eventually we had between 300 and 350 feet of fibre hose.
Keep in mind, during winter, our temperatures can be in the -30C range, with stretches of days in the -40s. Trying to get a gas powered ice auger going in those temperatures so that you can drill a hole in over three feet of ice is a challenge. Trying to get a water pump primed and going and keeping it going is an even bigger challenge. Trying to keep over 300 feet of soft hose from freezing while pumping the water up the hill and into the tank…well, you get the picture. And of course, the second you turn that pump off….you have 300 feet of two inch hose instantly frozen solid…filled with ice. Luckily, we had bought the hose in 50′ sections so we would take it all apart and put each heavy piece in the toboggan, pull it up the hill with the snow machine and carry it into the house where we’d stuff it into the tub and wait for it to thaw before tackling the second piece. By the time it was all thawed, it was time to pump water again. And so it went.
When we bought our current home, directly across the lake from the cabin , we put in two 350 gallon water tanks, and now during winter we have a smaller tank that sits in the back of the truck. About twice a week my husband fills it at the pump station in town. This is the same place that the commercial water trucks use year round and RV owners use in summer. All he has do do now when he gets home, is thaw the hook up valve on the tank with a butane torch, make the connection, start the water pump which stays in our heated generator shed and top off our inside holding tanks. A far easier process!
There are a few people we know of that have different water systems, such as heat tape along the entire line or special submersible pumps with self draining valves, but for us, those options were both expensive and too complicated for what we wanted. Our system is simple, cost effective and easy to drain if we want to go away for any length of time. Turn on the taps, hook up the compressor and blow the lines…done in under 5 minutes.
At the cabin, we ran all of the water lines outside of the walls. There were several reasons. First, the original cabin was only 2×4 construction, as opposed to the additions we made over the years which were all 2 x 6, providing for far greater R factor in our insulation. By the time we decided to put running water in, we had renovated and added on to the whole cabin. All of the walls had been insulated, vapour barriered and covered with beautiful 4′ tongue and groove pine. We weren’t about to undo all of that work. Also, because we weren’t there all the time, we wanted easy access to frozen pipes should they occur. So we ran Pex lines from the water tank to the kitchen through our bedroom, with all of them tucked up between the walls and the ceiling, which was the best location as heat rises. Only a few times, at extremely cold temperatures, did we experience frozen lines and it was usually in the same two spots. A couple of minutes with a hair dryer was a quick fix. When we bought our current home, we ran the water lines inside the walls as in any on grid home. It was easy to do as we took most of the house back to the studs and renovated the entire place.
Life off grid not only made us more energy conscious, but we became acutely more conscious of how much water we use. Our new home has duel flush toilets that use very little water; our front load washing machine and our dishwasher are both the most energy efficient, water saving models we could find; and both of our showers have water miser shower heads. We still need to do some things differently than we would on grid. Because we are allowed to have our grey water exit onto the ground, in winter we have to let the tap run a bit when we brush our teeth. Otherwise, that wee bit of water doesn’t make it all the way out the pipe and can freeze causing a build up of ice until there is a real issue. That was a hard habit to break, as in town, we’d always turned the tap off when brushing!
There are other things to think about off grid. Because our grey water (shower, sinks, dishwater) goes onto the ground, we use only natural soaps and cleaners and never commercial drain cleaners!! We also make sure, before any dishes go in the sink or dishwasher, that they are wiped with paper towel or napkins so that food particles don’t end up as a critter attractant. Where the drains empty, we dug pits, filled them with sand and added pea gravel on top. I’ve tried to grow shrubs near them to take advantage of the water but haven’t had any luck…yet. Spring is coming and I have some new ideas, so never say never!