Lessons in efficiency from living off the grid

Phantom Screens / August 3, 2016

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Many people fantasize about retreating into nature and living off the land. With growing environmental concerns surrounding sustainability and energy use comes a greater consciousness about the effects that human actions are having on the world around us. Housing design has changed significantly as a result of this increased sensitivity to environmental factors. The LEED Certification system, which rates a home’s environmental impact on a numerical scale, is one of the most well-known of these efforts. However, beyond this rubric, homeowners are growing increasingly interested in the “off the grid” movement, which seeks to construct self-sustaining homes.

Living off the grid

The term “off the grid” refers to a style of living that is independent of any corporate or state-sponsored utilities. Off-the-grid homes are self-sustaining in that they are not only able to provide all their own electricity, but also source and filter their own water, and dispose of their own waste. Such houses are most often found in remote areas of the country where there are not a large number of building codes that dictate how a house must be built and operated.

While living completely independent of all modern energy services may seem like a little too much for you, there are ways to integrate some of the principles of off-the-grid living without having to completely rough it.


Electrical energy usage is one of the first things to address when attempting to move off the grid. Living without municipal utilities forces you to examine just how much energy your home consumes on a daily basis. The sun is one of the most common renewable energy sources on which off-the-grid homes choose to capitalize. Solar energy from photovoltaic cells allows individuals to power their homes without paying for utilities. However, the hardware itself often presents some pretty substantial upfront costs. Even if you don’t go all the way and start harvesting electricity from the sun, there are a few principles that you can apply to everyday electricity use.

  • Beware of background use: Many appliances consume electricity even when you aren’t using them. The power that it requires to keep an appliance in standby can often be a huge drain on resources. To mitigate this effect, use power strips that can be turned on and off. These will allow you to cut off electricity to your appliances when they are not in use, eliminating the unnecessary increase in electricity bills.
  • Use one appliance at a time: Those who rely on solar energy know the value of only using one appliance at a time. Doing so conserves the limited resources that are available to them, especially on cloudy days. Running many appliances at once creates a substantially higher drain on resources.
  • Add a woodstove: Burning wood is actually a quite effective alternative to electricity when it comes to heating a home. While the entire burden of home heating doesn’t have to reduce to wood burning, a stove or two can greatly diminish your reliance on more wasteful climate control systems.
  • Natural ventilation: Large windows with retractable screens are better for the environment than HVAC systems. They can be opened and closed as needed to allow for the natural ventilation of a room, while the screen acts as a protector against bugs and the sun.

Water collection

Living off the grid demands that homes source and filter their own water. Drinkable water is usually obtained through a private well while gray water systems such as rain catchments are good for landscaping and other water needs. Add a rainwater catcher to your home to reduce your reliance on city water while maintaining your gardens.