Off-grid living. Those words often conjure up visions of people like Grizzly Adams, living off the land in a one-room log cabin with their bear bestie Ben, completely cut off from civilization. For some, that sounds like heaven — for others, not so much. The beauty of off-grid living is that it can look like whatever you want it to look like, from a tiny house deep in the woods to a dream home just off the beaten path — the sky’s the limit. Beards and bears are optional.
Going “off-grid” simply means not being connected to one or more of the utility companies providing electricity, gas, water or sewer. Off-grid living can also include practicing self-sustaining activities such as growing your own food and raising your own animals. For some, living off-grid also means zero internet, land lines or cell phones — except for emergencies.
Living off grid is not as simple as it sounds. I know; I’ve been doing it for years.
The good news is that it’s also not as difficult as one may think. As more of us develop a desire to leave a smaller footprint on Mother Earth, off-grid living is becoming more appealing and socially acceptable. Rural cities and counties are slowly coming on board by issuing permits and creating regulations in favor of off-grid living, making it easier to go off-grid without moving too far from civilization.
Two of the biggest challenges facing those wanting to go off-grid are obtaining land and financing. Finding a piece of land without HOAs and CCRs, in an area that allows wells, septic systems and the option to use alternative power sources such as solar, wind and hydro, is a challenge and requires a lot of research, leg work and tenacity.
Financing can be just as challenging. Most banks and credit unions will not finance lots larger than five to 10 acres or off-grid projects, unless you have a substantial down payment. There are some businesses that specialize in off-grid financing — mainly solar homes — but each has their own set of rules.
One business I looked into would finance building a home powered only by solar, but you could not have a well. You had to hook up to city or county water. I have yet to find any financial institution that will loan money in order to finish off-grid homes or projects already started. My suggestion is this; start from scratch with a great team versus trying to self-build, unless you plan on financing the project yourself.
With the perfect place found and money in pocket, you now need to visit your local government resource for water rights, records, applications and forms, as well as information on well drilling.
With the perfect place found and money in pocket, you now need to visit WaterRights.Utah.gov for water rights, records, applications and forms, as well as information on well drilling.
Next, become friends with the wonderful people at your local Health, Planning and Zoning, and Building Departments. These are the people you will be spending a lot of time with over the course of your project. They will be the ones issuing permits, reviewing, inspecting and approving everything you do; from your well, septic system, off-grid systems and residential plans, to building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and fire. For those lucky enough to live in Wasatch County, Wasatch.Utah.gov is a great place to start.
Speaking of water and permits, did you know that it is no longer illegal to harvest rain water in Utah? Senate Bill 322, passed in 2010, allows for the legal harvesting of rainwater in Utah. You can now install a rainwater harvesting system, above or below ground, and use the water on the same parcel. You may harvest up to 2,500 gallons per parcel. If you have more than two containers, or any one container stores in excess of 100 gallons you will need to register your system with the Utah Division of Water Rights. Registration is free. For more information, see this pdf from Utah State University about rainwater harvesting in Utah.
Harnessing Nature’s Power
Deciding how you’re going to go off-grid is the fun part.
Electricity generated from running water is one of the most affordable and best off-grid power sources. It runs 24/7. Unfortunately, year-round or seasonal streams are hard to come by on most private properties. If you are lucky enough to have a babbling brook, there are two ways you can get power: a turbine in the natural channel of water (these are usually prohibited) or a dammed water flow that feeds into a turbine. Your stream can only be dammed if you have sufficient elevation difference between where the water enters and leaves your property. Even with sufficient elevation, there may be local restrictions on damming due to water rights of farmers and ranchers who are downstream.
Wind is a clean, reliable and surprisingly affordable source of electricity that is becoming more popular for off-grid living. How much wind does one need? Well, that depends on how much wind you can capture — and how much you capture depends on how high your windmill is, which leads to many more questions about wind energy. The “Small Wind Electric Systems Utah Consumer’s Guide” published by the U.S. Department of Energy is a great resource for answering such questions.
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding wind energy, noise and safety. Before you find a neighbor acting out a scene from Don Quixote against your giant windmill, arm yourself with the facts to dismiss him or her by reading “10 Wind Energy Myths” by the National Renewable Energy Lab.
With technology moving faster than an anemometer can measure the wind, options for solar power are increasing every year. Today you have the choice of solar panels on an array, panels on your roof or even roof tiles resembling ordinary shingles embedded with the highest-efficiency photovoltaic cells. You can have large lead-acid batteries that require a charge controller, an inverter and a room of their own, or small lithium-ion batteries with the controller and inverter included — all packaged nicely together in a box the size of a large screen TV.
The number of solar panels you will need depends on a number of factors, like your electricity usage, geographic location, the physical location of your array and which direction your roof faces. If you choose to have solar panels on your roof, visit SolarSimplified.org to learn about fire codes and how they relate to solar roof panels.
Concerning fire, it’s a good idea — and in some areas it is required — to have water storage, a fire hydrant and a sprinkler system in place to protect your off-grid investment. There are several different options for off-grid water storage. You can draw from an abundant, year-round spring, creek, aquifer or pond, but those are rarely available. The most common water storage option is a water tank. To learn more about water storage for your off-grid project go to off-grid.net. If you decide you’d like to give off-grid living a try, or want to implement some off-grid practices to your on-grid home, the most important thing is to enjoy the journey amidst all the researching, planning, permits and inspections. Take time to admire your hard work and relish in the fact that your small footprint will leave a lasting impression on future generations of beard growers and bears.