Designing a Suburban Off-Grid Home In 2019

James WaltonJames Walton | Oct 25, 2019

I am very much tethered to the grid. There is something to be said about the amenities but it seems that the word of the century is going to be: DISCONNECT.

We will all be faced with choices to disconnect from our phone addictions, power grids, city water, social media, big tech (if it’s possible), mainstream media and a growing list of other dependencies that once were a convenience are quickly becoming shackles!

In this article, I am going to use my own suburban home to create a plan to get off-grid effectively. Our home is around 1500 square feet and we live on just under an acre. Those are the specs and from this starting point, I will add things that I find desirable.

I hope this gives a personal perspective on designing an effective off-grid home here in the suburbs.

I will not look at this through a billionaire’s spectacles. However, I will likely make some decisions that are out of my own budget, just to make it fun and find some of the latest and greatest means and methods.

Powering the Off-Grid Home

My first consideration would be: how do I get off the grid but still provide my family with enough power that we don’t jump right to life by candlelight?

My approach is certainly going to be a many-tiered approach that draws power from as many resources as possible.

Being off the power grid is going to require batteries, gasoline, sunlight, maybe some biomass and propane, to a certain degree. I was told that propane is the dirty secret of the off-grid homesteader.

I look at the prospect of powering an off-grid home the same way I look at cheesemaking. In the early stages, it will be dull but overtime your power system will develop some real character.

Solar Power

There was a time when solar power was kind of laughable. I think it was a time before we understood the technological rocket that we were on. We couldn’t imagine solar power in the early 2000’s making the jump to what it is in 2019.

Because of the efficiency and variation of uses, solar power is a viable option for powering the off-grid home.

When I think of solar power I don’t just consider solar panels that are on the roof. I think about panels on the ground level that can be moved throughout the day.

I think about solar generators that can be charged during the day and brought indoors to power things overnight.

Solar power also encompasses smaller panel arrays that can be used with charging devices or for powering small lights in the night. Even something as simple as driveway lights that can power during the day and be brought indoors at night to help with lighting.

Solar Contractors

There is a company here in Virginia that has created systems that offset your power bill by using solar and with the money saved they create a monthly payment that you can essentially replace your monthly power bill with.

This same company can outfit you to sell power back to the grid! Its also run by a fellow prepper so that is where we would start with solar power.

Solar contractors might make you nervous but if you have someone you can trust it will make all the difference. Get referrals and read reviews or just go the DIY route.

We are used to all of our power coming from one strong current. If we make the jump off-grid we will pull power from the sun in many different ways for a myriad of uses.

Hydro Power

Because my property is decidedly suburban and I have a tiny little creek outback, you might think that hydropower is not something I would explore.

If I only concerned myself with power generation in 2020 that might be the case. I am a young guy with a young family. That means we have a lot of power left to use!

The world is changing and the weather and rain flow, in particular, are having a serious impact. So, what will that little creek look like in a decade or two? Will it dry up or will it be a small tributary of the nearby river?

While my plan would not include an investment in hydropower hardware at the moment, I would want informational resources and DIY books on the topic.

Today my little creek might be a place for the kids to play. However, like solar, hydropower will become much more efficient over that 2 decade time period. Investing in the hardware at that time will pay dividends in comparison to buying it now.

Traditional Fuel

Gasoline and propane might build on a dependency but it will be something we plan on keeping around. As I mentioned, we have lots of trees around. They fall. I also have a chainsaw and I would much rather cut those trees up with a chainsaw than any other manual set of tools.

I know people have done it in the past but I am not interested in heaving over a saw all day!

Blacksmithing is also a part of my skillset and manipulating metal off the grid is a big deal to me. Though I might explore a coke-fueled forge, it is much more likely that I keep propane on hand for my smaller forge. This would be much more efficient for small repairs like forge welds or things like broken hinges.

A gasoline stockpile is a prep that people on and off-grid should build into their plans. Unless you like the idea of spending all day at a gas station like people did after Harvey.

Though aspiring to go off-grid is admirable, my family would not look to cut all our dependency right off the bat and if we are driving a car and hoping to bugout at some point, well, we gotta have gas.

Off-Grid Temperature Control

I remember sitting up in an attic lighting the pilot on a hot water heater in May. It was the first home my wife and I rented as a young couple. The heat in that attic was overwhelming and it never crossed my mind to ask, “Do I need hot water when it’s this hot outside?”

We take the thermostat and the hot water heater for granted. Once you are off-grid that all goes away and we would need a plan or series of plans to deal with it.

Heating

The design of our off-grid home would have to include a means of heating that home at all its levels. Our fireplace would need a quality wood stove piped in.

I would make a greater investment in space heaters that could be powered by our harnessed solar power. I am not sure if I would use propane heat in the home or not. This is truly an experience thing. I don’t have any experience heating a home with propane.

Cooling

Our home is built for porch sitting and shading. It’s not bad, even in the August heat. That said, I would certainly look into some of those ice/cooler/fan DIY air conditioners.

My biggest concern in the heat would be sleep. If we can get quality sleep it will go a long way. Maybe some of you could talk about how you keep cool at night, in the summer, off-grid

I would appreciate the comments.

Hot Water

Understand that lots of what I am talking about in this article have to do with things that I have seen done or things that people I know use on a regular basis.

This is about planning and taking a suburban home and ripping it from the grid. We are also prioritizing the things that I think my family would be concerned with along the way.

Using the sun to heat our water would be a no brainer in the summer but I cannot be sure that it would be a viable option in the winter. Insulated water tanks wrapped in black tarp could draw enough sunlight on a short winter day to get us warmish water.

This would be our experiment and we may find that we need another method for dealing with hot water. Maybe heating our water with compost?

It’s interesting when you sit down and start planning how open you become to experimentation.

Mouths to Feed

For the record, you can be completely off-grid and still go to the supermarket. Your being untethered from public utilities doesn’t mean that you have to grow all of your own food…but why not go for it!?

Since this is an exercise in taking my own home off-grid, we are going to explore off-grid and self-reliant methods of food production. Some of these we already employ and others are things that are part of our future goals.

Aquaponics

Ryan Buford, the host of The Next Generation on The Prepper Broadcasting Network, has been reporting great yields and even had a guest on a few weeks back on the benefits of aquaponics.

This is not a system of food production that we employ but it sounds so good that our perfect off-grid home would have to include some form of hydro or aquaponics.

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants directly in a solution of water and minerals to feed the plants.

Aquaponics is the combination of farm raising fish and plants in the same water-based system. The waste from the fish is used to feed the plants and the fish will help keep the water toxicity down. You still need a pump and filter.

Our systems would be outdoors systems and the natural sunlight would be used to grow the food. This would likely be affected by seasonal temperatures and we would have to invest in a heater of some sort to keep the fish alive.

Or we would have to take the cold months off and shut down the system.

Water

Water is a many-tiered issue and I addressed this in my previous articles The Full Story on Water Storage.

I will try and keep this brief and you can read that article if you are interested in more on water storage for preparedness.

We would dig a well on our property. To be honest, I am not sure if its completely legal so it might have to be a covert well. I would contact zoning to talk to them about restrictions and before digging. This is a good safety practice when you live in an area like mine.

Many aspects of our preparedness are covert and some are by design while others just happen to be that way. Much of our water storage is covert but our rain barrels are in plain sight.

Moving off-grid we would likely expand into larger water cisterns that would be buried. A solar-powered pump would be installed within these cisterns to pump water into the home or to water plants.

High Yield Crops

About 90% of our food grown comes from high yield crops. I rarely grow anything that takes up a spot and produces one plant. This could be to my detriment because it keeps me from planting things like onions.

That said, I do grow walking onions because they are perennials and perennials of any kind seem to be a good investment.

Pole beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, leafy greens, zucchini, squashes of all types and melons are all high yield if you can get them going.

We would need to establish rows for things like sweet potatoes and white potatoes to bulk up the calories coming from our garden. Peanuts and popcorn might also be worth the space.

Livestock

We keep chickens and dogs on the property, currently. Though not livestock we also keep hamsters and hermit crabs.

When I started my journey with laying hens, I was told by animal control that I could keep a goat without a permit.

The Nigerian Dwarf would likely be our little dairy-producing addition.

These smaller goats produce quite a bit of milk for their size. We have a lot of wooded areas for goats to explore and clear but we would need an answer for feed in the winter and that would be one of our biggest struggles if we were trying to be as self-sufficient as possible.

In fact, feed is a big problem for most people off-grid.

Arduino: The Open Source Micro Controller

For the purposes of 100% transparency, I am only a blog and YouTube student of Arduino. I have never operated or built a system before. It sure doesn’t scare me though.

Homesteaders are using this microcontroller system to eliminate jobs around the homestead. An Arduino system can complete simple jobs but also add efficiency to daily tasks.

Arduino boards can be bought and modified by anyone in any way they see fit. That is because they are open source and licensed under the lesser general public use license.

Here are some examples of how people are using Arduino around the homestead.

  • Chicken coop door opener and closers
  • Gardening Moisture Sensor for Watering
  • Hydroponics
  • Weather Systems
  • Home Security
  • Timer for Solar Lighting Systems

If the word is foreign to you I encourage you to check out what homesteaders and preppers are doing with Arduino and also what kids are doing with it! Cool stuff.

Conclusion

Sometimes writing gives you an excuse to sit down and mull over a point you have been avoiding.

We may never find ourselves living off-grid in this home. Unless it is forced upon us. All that said, it is nice to have a plan or at least a little direction.

If you are plugged in to the grid how would you make the jump? Now is the time to sit down and write this out. We all agree on the legitimacy of a bugout plan so why not an off-grid plan?

Maybe this could be a process that you slowly work towards over the next decade. It all starts with a simple exercise just like the one we did here.

 

 

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9 Responses to “Designing a Suburban Off-Grid Home In 2019”

  1. G’day, interesting article. Electrics would need batteries supplied by solar but you can also use a wind generator and hydro. Lighting can be 12 V, washing machines etc can be used if or when you top up your batteries.
    Hot water can be through a slow combustion stove in winter and a solar hot water system during warmer months.
    I have about 40K litres of water in tanks that are fed off the roof of the house and sheds and have a pump to supply mains pressure.
    I would look at permaculture for food production there are many good books on the subject.
    If you go ahead with your ideas, good luck. I wish I had of done it.

    Reply
  2. Regarding the heating your water in the wintertime. I built a wood burning stove with a flat top to cook on, etc., and have used it to heat my water many times. You can also wrap your stove pipe with half-inch copper tubing running between two tanks and heat your water from the heat of your stove pipe as well. The water can be gravity fed from an old hot water heater tank, water down through the copper tubing into a separate insulated hot water heater for storage. Water can be fed to the upper tank with a 12V water pump from your supply source tank, and slowly gravitated down through the tubing to the holding tank, which must have a vent to keep from building pressure. Water drain can be regulated with a waterhose type on-off valve. Just crack the valve a little to allow the heated water to slowly drain into the insulated hot water heater tank. From there you can pump it to wherever you want it to go with a 12 volt water pump, though insulated pvc piping. Works for me.

    Reply
  3. And one other thing. If you’re just heating a small room, you can use a 12 volt water pump to circulate your hot water through a small radiator from a small car with a 12 volt fan blowing air through the heating fins on the radiator. If the room is half-ass insulated it will heat the room up as long as you keep hot water flowing through the radiator. The only thing you will need is firewood for the wood burning stove to keep hot water flowing to the hot water heater and from there through the radiator and back to the upper level tank to resupply the recirculated water back through the copper tubing to be reheated again. Eventually the water will evaporate off and the upper level tank will have to be resupplied with fresh water.

    Reply
  4. I’m heading toward the same goal here outside of Ft. Worth, Tx., too. I live in an area that’s considered as “county” and not within any small city, town, or incorporated area. One thing you might check on is what are your local city rules about just being off the grid. Some area towns in Florida won’t allow you to be “off grid”. Plus, check with your homeowner’s insurance company to see if they will insure you if you are off the grid without a big rate hike.

    Also, if you plan to have a outside backup, whole house, gas generator, the generator maker may not give you a warranty if they know the home is a full time off grid home… They claim their products are “supplemental power”….

    Enjoyed your article
    Bill

    Reply
  5. we lived off grid in a camper for 3 years in south dakota before i got a staph infection and went into coma during a blizzard last winter. 3 months in the hospital and another surgery just last week, having to learn to walk again and raise a toddler all at the same time has forced us to rent an apartment in town since i got out of hospital this april.
    we used a inflatable swimming pool to hold 1,900 gallons of snow melt after we filled all our barrels.
    the first winter we burned the lathing and flooring from an old house in the property. burned it in a m1958 yukon stove. it would make us open the doors at 30 below zero outside . second winter we burned propane in a unvented kozy world heater. the moisture problem was so bad we had 50 pounds of calcium chloride hanging in panty hose all over the place with buckets underneath to catch the water dripping out. calcium cholride melted too into the buckets. i saved all the liquid to dehydrate later to get calcium chloride back. this is the same chemical that is in “damp rid” but the straight chemical is used to melt ice and 50 pounds is less than $30.00.
    third winter i burned scrap i bought from a hauler that had dumpsters at a truss factory.
    i was stay at home dad while wife worked 3 12 hour shifts at the hospital. she didnt drive so i had to drive to town (16 miles 1 way) 2 times every day and back home 2 times a day.
    we heated water on the wood stove and would use a 5 gallon bucket to blend cold and hot to suit our taste and use a plastic pitcher to wet ourselves down then soap up and then rinse off. i use about 3 gallons and wife used about 5 gallons. we used the bath tub/ shower in the camper with a clear shower curtain for plenty of light. we used hughese net satelite for internet and powered it with an inverter. had 6 t105 re batteries at first + a series 27 and a series 29 marine deep cycle batteries hooked to front of the camper. we changed the bulbs to led’s . if our solar couldnt keep up we would charge with a home built generator consisting of small engine turning a car alternator. bought another 6 t105 batteries but never installed them as i got sick first.
    the only time me wife complained was when she had to do it all by herself. come home to really cold house after 12 hours at work, bumming rides both ways, cooking and feeding the baby by herself, shoveling paths to neighbors house to get water in a 4 gallon jug. kinda scary for a shy forigner in a foriegn land, so different from her native philippine islands.
    so we live in a small all electric apartment now in town close to her job.
    if going off grid, make sure that EVERYONE old enough in the household knows how everything works and what to do when it dont work!

    Reply
  6. It’s interesting that no one includes ideas about seriously reducing consumption. I grew up without a microwave, garbage disposal, TV, computers, video games, telephone, or clothes dryer. We had a 7 gallon hot water heater for a family of 5. We were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Because I grew up that way and so did most of my friends, it was just normal. So my first plan would be research ways to reduce consumption, something similar to 1940s consumption rates. Figure out that part of the plan before you purchase large solar panels or a thousand gallon propane tank. You might not actually need that much. Finally, however much you decide you need–you’ll probably need more.

    Reply
  7. Liked your article. Yes your well will have to be undisclosed to your city/county. But forgive me some chuckles about your view of solar panels 2000’s. I was actively investigating solar panels when they were first being offered in the 1980’s, study sir and read weverything you can.

    Reply
  8. Anyone – urban, suburban, or rural – considering partial or total off-grid living positively NEEDS this book:
    “The Integral Urban House: Self Reliant Living in the City” by Sim Van der Ryn and the Farallones Institute. Amazon has it, paperback, $34.95 and worth a whole lot more. (I have it too.) Don”t be concerned about the use of the words ‘urban’ and ‘city’ – we would call the house and property concerned ‘suburban’ today most likely, and a house and a half-acre are the same whether in suburbs or in city.

    The book was first published in the 70s – I forget just when. Anyone wanting to take less of the world’s diminishing resources and/or concerned about Climate Change needs it too, and this was the impetus for creating the Integral Urban House, then living in it, then writing about it. It was also the impetus for a whole bunch of people – many of whom will have died by now – buying the book. I’ve been surprised this last year or two at the little concern I see about resource-depletion and Climate Change amongst preppers. (Possibly they just don’t write about it.) It seems to me that the two – concern for the earth and for others on it – and prepping go together like the proverbial ham and eggs! Wow – over-consumption! 🙂 That’s why I hang around prepping sites, but I see troublingly little evidence about caring for resource depletion and climate change on prepper sites.

    Reply
  9. i visited the urban integral house years ago. interesting place that was very good at cycling resources for best use. i read the book from my local library. you might check there before buying. these folks were very much into low-tech solutions.
    that said, as i have moved around to various houses, one has self-built solar hot water, which did all of the summer hot water for 6 people and over half of the winter hot water plus fruit and veg garden. one has a commercial 3.5 kw photvoltaic system with garden, another has an 8 x10 foot green house, 11 feet tall that heats 2 rooms in the house, keeps salads on the table in winter, keeps the aquaculture tank warm enough for fish growth, and keeps 3 little hens warm at night plus garden. the current townhouse has a 3.2kw system w battery backup and a 400sf community garden plot. do what you can do where ever you are.

    Reply

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