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Transitioning To Live Off Grid With Little Or No Money

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: March 6, 2020
Transitioning To Live Off Grid With Little Or No Money

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While I was at Prepper Camp I was interviewed by an NPR station. They were determined to have me tell them that going off-grid would really make a big difference in the climate. They didn’t like it when I told them that it is not that simple. There are environmental costs to everything. The way things balance out, in the end, depends a lot on the choices people make and how they go about going off-grid.

I don’t think they ever aired it. Sorry, but they wanted me to make definitive statements about something that is not that simple so they could back up their own political agenda. I don’t like it when people try to do that regardless if I disagree or agree with them.

The plus side to this is that it got me thinking more about the changes in lifestyle that people must make if they want to cut the cord from the utility companies. The good thing about some of these things is that they don’t all cost a lot.

Even if you don’t plan on making the leap to going off-grid for quite some time, you can start making lifestyle changes that will make it easier when the time comes.

This will also allow you to get an idea of what it might be like at least a little bit before you spend a lot of time, money, and labor on going off-grid.

Some things that I am going to discuss such as changing your heating system, I mention because while it is definitely a larger expense, it may be something you have been considering already or you may find that you have to unexpectedly. If this is you and you dream of being off-grid one day, then making the right choice when it comes to your heating unit now, could save you more money later when you take the plunge into going off-grid.

There are many different things you can do to transition to live off grid with little or no money. A lot of living off grid is changing some of your habits and the way you think about power consumption.

solar panel sun energy

Learn how to do without air conditioning now.

For some people, the deal breaker in going off-grid is air conditioning. It takes a lot of electricity and while you can buy a lot of solar panels, battery storage, and an inverter, that is going to make it financially unfeasible for most people.

There are things you can do to help with cooling but there is nothing that is going to take the place of air conditioning. I don’ t know of anyone that is off-grid that uses a standard air conditioner.

Matt and I have a few window air conditioning units that we rarely use. We mostly have them in case we have to host others that are not used to going without it and to keep upstairs bearable when it is extremely hot. Last summer we used a single-window unit for a month. It saves a lot of money to do without it. We work outside a lot. Even if I am writing, I do it on the patio in the summer.

You can start off by just turning your air conditioner to 75 instead of 70 or something like that. There is no rule saying you have to go off AC cold turkey.

Fact: Propane is heavily used by a lot of people that are off-grid. There are costs to this, including environmental ones.

Start hanging your clothes out to dry or purchase a propane clothes dryer the next time you have to replace your dryer.

Something that a lot of off-grid people don’t always talk about is how much they actually rely on natural gas or propane for things. The alternative is to get used to using a clothesline for all your clothing. There are things that you can get to help out with drying clothes. I have a spin dryer I used to wring out the hand washing that I have to do. It works really well and runs on so little power that it is appropriate for an off-grid system.

Consider your overall power consumption and find ways to cut back.

Power needs vary by the person and how much time there is actually someone at home using power. If there is no one in your house for 8-10 hours per day than you are probably using less than someone that is home most of the time. Computers and cell phones are more efficient than they used to be.

Computer Choices Matter

Laptops and tablets burn less power than desktops.

Some of the newer laptops and Chromebooks can be charged via USB. For those that have not heard of USB-C, it is the latest way of charging up laptops, iPhones, and tablets. It is revolutionary in a way because it means that at some point you probably won’t have to worry about having a ton of different chargers for various devices. No more having to wait for a laptop charger to arrive in the mail because yours quit working.

You can get 12V chargers for laptops on Amazon too.

Check your TV power consumption. You may be shocked.

amazon product

Large computer monitors are a good solution for television needs. They cost a little more than Smart TVs but they are easier on your eyes and don’t spy as much.

While older flat-screen TVs may have a stunning picture and sound, you may be surprised how much power they are burning. Matt and I were given an older TV that worked great but it was a bit too big for our house. We used it anyway but discovered that it burned literally 10 times the power of a lot of modern televisions. In fact, it burned as much power as leaving on every single light in our home at once! This can really add up throughout a home, especially in those that have multiple screens.

Turn off things you are not using

Who isn’t guilty of leaving TVs, computers, speakers, and lights on? While these habits can cost you money when you are tied into the grid, they can cause some real trouble when you are off-grid. If you have power stored up in batteries and don’t get a lot of sun for a few days, leaving things on can deplete the power you have to get by on and that may leave you in the dark quite literally or drain your batteries enough that they are actually damaged.

Get a small power center and solar panel and start using them for some needs.

Small power centers are good to have for portable power storage during emergencies anyway but if you use them and a panel for some of your energy needs during regular times, this can help you get in the habit of balancing your power consumption out and just being more conscientious.

Read the experiences of others that have gone off-grid, especially those that did it without spending thousands of dollars and using professional contractors for everything.

People sometimes assume that going off-grid or getting set up to run at least part of their home on solar is going to cost them a fortune. Like anything home-related, hiring a firm to do it for you is going to cost a lot more. Also, keep in mind that a lot of those quotes are for people that want to go with solar power but make none of the lifestyle changes that I have talked about in this post.

Start out with a smaller solar array and wean yourself off the grid as you can afford it.

Matt and I have not talked about it with a lot of people but the way things are going, our plan is to at some point be completely off-grid. Smart meters and smart appliances are not things we are particularly happy about. Our power company recently made everyone get a smart meter or pay an additional $15 per month and a $150 fee per meter! If you have several electrical services on a place that is a lot of money. I don’t like the idea of appliances that can be turned on and off at the whim of the power company either.

We have solar lighting and some 12-volt outlets. This is what we could do when we were building the house. Now that we are a few years down the road, we are going to save the money up for some more panels and batteries until we reach the point where we feel comfortable having the service cut off. You don’t have to do everything at once, especially if you are doing the work yourself and not trying to get in a big company that wants to take care of the whole project in one go.

Hot Water

Propane is yet again the popular choice for going off-grid. An on-demand propane hot water heater is the easiest option. You can also use solar heat collection to help out. This can reduce how much your on-demand has to heat your water if you are trying to conserve propane.

Heating Your Home Off-Grid

amazon product

Obviously wood heat is an option for heating your home off-grid. Natural gas and propane are your back up heat options. Installing a wood stove or furnace is a step towards going off-grid. Matt and I are in the position where we put in an electric furnace to use as back up heat when we are not using wood. To those that think they can just use a woods stove, I will say this. You need some type of backup beyond wood. There may be times when you feel bad, are sick, or need to be away from home and don’t want your pipes to burst.

If a home gets really cold it can take quite a while to get all that mass up to temperature again even if you have a really nice fire for many hours. Even if you just decide to have some kerosene back up heaters for just in case, have something.

Matt and I got tired of getting up multiple times each night to stoke a fire sometimes too. Working all day and then falling asleep and not waking up to stoke the fire results in an unpleasantly cold home in the mornings and that can make it harder to be motivated and get going.

So if you dream of going off-grid and the time comes for a new furnace or heat system in your home, consider going with a different method so that it is easier for you to transition later on. Matt and I are going to need to spend some money on a propane furnace for back up before we cut the cord from the power company.

Propane tanks and delivery are a definite cause for concern. A truck can’t make it up my road to fill a tank. That means we are going to have to use tanks in the 20 lb-100 lb range and have them filled in town and then roll them off the truck for use at our place.

Get your kids on board with it too. The sooner they learn to change their lifestyle, the better.

Suddenly throwing kids and teens into an off-grid situation can be problematic. If you have raised your kids with unlimited electricity you need to make sure to explain things to them well when going off-grid. If they don’t fully understand how things are going to work or the consequences of not being more aware of power consumption, don’t be surprised when conflicts arise.

Let’s consider the following: Your kid has a big powerful gaming computer they use during their recreation time. Now I think it would be an awful idea to just tell a kid during good times “hey guess what you got to give up your hobby”. Instead, figure out what it would cost to convert their computer to be more efficient on 12V power. Of course, if you are using a 110V inverter and have some extra power, it may not be that big of a deal.

Think about internet options now.

I live where regular internet service is not possible. Those that are really far out when they go off-grid may find it hard to adjust to different levels of internet service.

If part of your property can get service you may be able to relay a signal to other parts, including your home. Matt and I live on a mountain so sending signals can be tricky. Those that live in flatter areas may experience less trouble. Trees and other obstructions can make it harder for signals to get where they need to go.

Sattelite and radio internet is available in many areas but tends to have higher costs. Cell phones have made it a little easier to get internet because if you have 4G service, you can get some service that way but it is going to be costly.

What about other renewable energy like wind or hydro?

If you live in some areas you might be able to get some or even all of your power from wind or hydroelectric sources. For most people, this is not a realistic option. In some areas, you cannot even legally do hydroelectric because you don’t own the rights. Wind power can work for some but it requires nice steady and reliable wind. Here are a few links to Backdoor Survival posts that go into more detail on wind and hydro.

Best Hydro Options For The Practical Homestead

Best Home Wind Turbines To Consider

Our Decision To Transition To Off-Grid and Why We Chose To Be On The Grid In the First Place

I have had people assume that Matt and I live off-grid but we do not. I want to explain why we chose to be on the regular electric power grid but have now made the decision to transition to off-grid.

For those that are not aware of the backstory, we started out on our property in a tent and then lived in an older camper. There was no running water at first and there was no power. It cost less than $200 and a day’s work to get a temporary light pole put in so we had some electricity to use. At the time solar panels were more than double the cost they are now. We were both around 25 years old and had just moved back from Alaska after working there for a few years after college. We needed to get started fast and without spending much money.

When we finally got around to building the house, Matt planned in some 12-volt outlets and we decided to make all the wired in lights run on 12V. The bought two 230 watt solar panels and a Morningstar MPPT Charge Controller that we could use if we wanted to expand the system later. For us, solar was a supplement.

Now things have changed. The power companies have insisted that everyone have a smart meter or pay a lot of extra fees. The price of grid power goes up regularly and solar panels are less expensive.

Neither of us has any desire for smart appliances. Our TV is a 32″ computer monitor. Sure it cost more than a Smart TV but that is because the monitor doesn’t track things and sell information like a Smart TV.

I don’t like the idea of the power company being able to control my appliances and even my heat remotely. The Biggers household is not going to be a computer-controlled or utility company controlled house.

Our transition to off-grid is going to take some time. While it is not as expensive as it once would have been, it is still not cheap. Luckily we can do this a little at a time. Here is what we figured out we need. This is a rough list at the moment but it gives us something to go on.

  • 4 Solar Panels capable of producing 7.5 amps each
  • Purchase large inverter so we can continue to use some 110V power
  • Purchase more deep cycle batteries for power storage
  • Replace electric furnace with a propane furnace
  • Replace hot water heater with a propane on-demand water heater
  • Add propane dryer at a later time

At the moment we have laundry appliances at our other place. Having two sets at two houses that are close together for just three people’s laundry needs didn’t make sense in the past. The propane washer and dryer are probably going to be the last thing we purchase as we transition to off-grid.

We do know that it will be better to buy all the panels at once due to shipping costs and possible discounts for multiple purchases so that is what we will do at some point.

While it may take a few years for the system to pay for itself, it will be worth it to have more control over our utilities and not be subject to the increasing costs of grid-tied power.

What are your biggest challenges to going off-grid? Have you actually added up what it would cost?

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9 Responses to “Transitioning To Live Off Grid With Little Or No Money”

  1. I would like to look into a instant hot water tank less heater , does anyone have some ideas as to what are the ones to look at. ? And how hard would it be to convert to one from a regular hot water tank . Thanks .

  2. Robinson, you idea of a solar water heater is a good one. I’ve watched numerous videos on how to construct them but have not yet made the attempt. I’m still interested in the idea as heating water from the sun is not only a prepping option but one that just makes good sense at any time. Saving money on the electric bill is always a good idea.
    My water is heated from October thru April by an outside wood furnace. It still relies heavily on electricity to power the water pump, fan motor and the inside fan motor in the HVAC unit that pushes heat through the house. My next upgrade being planned is to support those items by using solar power. In the event of a power outage, I would still have heat in my home and heated water if my water pump were also solar powered. We rely so much on electricity that it requires a lot of thought to develop a plan to live without it. Best to tackle one step at a time. Samantha shared some great ideas on how she and her husband are moving in this direction.

  3. Excellent article. In preparing for any SHTF scenario, is it wise to base one’s livelihood on the use of propane? What happens when the tank runs out and the propane company shuts down from lack of electrical power? Propane is nice ( I used it for 40 yrs) but it is not a replenishable energy source unless the company it is purchased from remains open and in business. Or is there another way of acquiring propane that I am not aware of?
    It seems practical for those who have not begun prepping or have not purchased property upon which they hope someday to live, to consider what energy sources may be available to them. While wind power may be abundant in some areas of the country, it is not sufficient in many other areas to be of much value. There is more than elevation also to be considered. Hydro power may also be great to incorporate into your plan but you must live near a water source that is perfectly situated in order to benefit from it if you desire it to be more than a drinking source. Such things must be well thought out by those desiring to purchase a self-sustaining piece of property to begin their homestead or one that provides for them in the event of SHTF.

  4. Please remember that while a propane (gas) clothes dryer MAY be more economical, they still require a 120 VAC connection to operate. Possibly some of the heat wasted thru the vent could be recovered?
    In the “old days” before we could afford a clothes dryer, Mom would hang most clothes outside to dry. Our “good” clothes were dried on a wooden rack inside. We still do this today.

  5. You can run AC off-grid, there are many folks running mini-split systems off solar and battery banks here in Arizona. Search Youtube you will find tutorials and examples. It is not cheap.
    I have an evaporative (swamp) cooler set up which requires less power and works great in our dry environment.

  6. Make sure you are solving the correct problem when you decide to go “off-grid.” In other words, if you dive into a bunch of solutions to configure your property and install equipment, you might find you wasted a whole lot of time and resources. And maybe forgot the most important stuff! Economic collapse? Food Shortage? Civil War? Banking lockup? Unemployed or disabled? Those all have somewhat different solutions, at least until you think through them and select a strategy that will work best for you.

    In our case, we chose to be “Grid Independent” because of weather. Not Climate Change, just weather. We live on a mountain top about 7,000 ft. In the space of 6 months we had a 28 degree below zero freak storm, then a forest fire that wiped out many of the homes in our area, and the fires burned up to our fence line. On top of that the utility company couldn’t keep our power on for more than 3-4 days in a row because of high winds.

    We took our time, and opted for REDUNDANCY, particularly with respect to energy, food, and water. We built an underground Dome to use as a storm shelter, and it requires zero heating or cooling. It stays 70 degrees (+/- 2) year around. On a retirement income, we slowly installed solar panels, wind generation, battery backup, and propane backup to everything. We put in raised gardens, a hydroponic barn, a greenhouse, and a hydrostacker farm to grow approximately 12 times our annual food needs, then supplemented that with food storage (freeze drying and canning). Counting the water well and other improvements like the windmill to pump our water, it took two people about 5 years to accomplish, just going slow and steady.

    Regardless of which Climate Change, Economic Collapse, SHTF (etc) scenario you consider your greatest threat, getting some sort of a storm shelter or basement constructed should be one of your top priorities – assuming you are Bugging In. The vast majority of catastrophic scenarios (human or weather) will prevent you from living above ground. So a robust shelter first, then supply it with provisions and configure it with equipment. Then the usual progression from protecting yourself to communicating and trading with others.

    The most lethal problem you will face is the one that is almost always overlooked by 99% of prepper & survival sites: Being able to breathe clean air! Again the vast majority of SHTF scenarios will have toxic, high temperature, or radioactive air. So you’ll need a way to filter and scrub the air in your home/shelter. When those conditions manifest, it will be too late to try and develop a solution. If you don’t address that problem up front, things probably won’t end well.

  7. Interesting article. An admirable goal is not only to go off grid, but to try and minimize your use of fossil fuels. The less we rely on power plants the better, obviously. But relying less on fossil fuels in also obviously better for the planet and makes prepping and survival more of a realistic possibility, since society and the environment we rely on will be more stable the more we mitigate the effects of climate change. So minimizing the use of propane is a good idea. I also have trouble getting propane, in the winter. Other ways to increase the likelihood of success off-grid is to live in a smaller, more energy efficient home, and to avoid having to many kids. Internet is also a problem for me. But I’m at the point where I’m trying to get away from the internet. It’s a terrible thing to have to rely on for anything.

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