Living Off the Grid: The Easy Guide + Dos & Don’ts [2021]

Canva-Off-grid-House-in-the-Forest-NZ

Living off the grid has become a popular lifestyle choice and there is a thriving, global, community of people living without relying on public utilities and municipal services.

People choose to live off-grid for many reasons and everyone’s off-grid life looks a little different. Some are fully off the grid, others partially so. Some are in remote locations, others are in urban suburbs.

Whatever you’re aiming for, if you’re nursing the dream of living a different kind of life, one that is more sustainable and self-sufficient, off-grid living is for you!

In this guide, we’re covering that living off-grid means, the pros and cons of living off the grid, and the essentials that you need to know to make a success of your off-grid dreams!

Let’s dive right in!

Contents

What Does Living Off-Grid Mean?

Living off the grid refers to homes or communities that are not connected to municipal services. Traditionally, living off-grid referred specifically to being independent of the power grid and generating your own electricity, usually with solar or a combination of alternative power sources. However, the term has grown to include independence from all public utilities, including gas, potable water, sewer and waste/refuse collection.

Living off the grid can be individual homes within a grid-connected community or properties that are located outside of urban areas. Remote locations are more frequently off-grid, as public utilities and municipal services may not be available in the area.

Living off the grid - Free image from Canva of a remote homestead in the woods

Living off the grid may be by necessity, in areas where access to the grid is limited by capacity or location. It may also be by choice and more and more people choose to live a more sustainable and eco-friendlier lifestyle.

Self-sufficiency, homesteading, and living off the grid have become popular options. These were once seen as fringe, alternative lifestyles, but they’re now more common than ever and there is a thriving global community of people choosing to live life differently.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of living off the grid and then dive into the essentials for off-grid success:

The Benefits of Living Off the Grid

The benefits of living off-grid go far beyond just saving money on utilities. While it can be a challenging and labor-intensive lifestyle, it can also be incredibly rewarding, both personally and financially.

So, what are the benefits of living off the grid?

1. Independence from Municipal Services

Living off-grid means that you’re not reliant on services from your municipality and can manage your own resources as needed. This is especially great in places where utilities are expensive and/or unreliable. If you’re living in a remote or rural setting, services tend to be prone to disruptions, which can take some time to be resolved and leave you without power or water.

2. Low-impact, Clean Energy

living off-grid generally relies on using renewable resources. This means that your power (unless you’re using a fuel-burning generator) is renewable, clean energy. Not only are you eliminating the emissions from fossil fuel-generated electricity, but you’re also eliminating all the environmental impacts associated with the infrastructure that brings that electricity to your home.

3. Environmentally Responsible Water

relying on water from local sources like streams, rivers, boreholes, and rainwater harvesting reduces the amount of water that is lost in transit to your property, negates the environmental impacts of large-scale water treatment.

Living off the grid - free image from canva of a home vegetable garden being irrigated from a hose and sprinkler setup

It also helps you recycle water back into your immediate surroundings, where it can serve a second purpose like watering gardens, and feeding back into the water table without polluting the environment.

4. Choosing Your Ideal Location 

Living off-grid allows you to choose just about any location to live, even places that are remote and do not have municipal services. You can even live off-grid on the move if you have the right setup.

5. Living a Sustainable Lifestyle

Going off the grid is inherently eco-friendly. It cuts out a huge part of your carbon footprint, relies on sustainable resources, forces you to be more conservative with the resources you use, and overall facilitates the switch to a more self-sufficient way of life.

6. Huge Cost Savings

Living off-grid means no utility bills! Over time, that is a huge cost saving. Many places also require lower taxes and levies on properties that do not require municipal services, which will save you more money. While the initial outlay to get your off-grid setup established can be high, it will pay for itself over time. If you’re in a remote location, your off-grid setup can be comparable or even cheaper than having municipal services extended to your property.

7. Learning and Developing Your Life Skills

When you move off the grid, there is so much you need to know to be able to do it successfully. When you’re using municipal services, you don’t really need to know too much about how they all work, where they come from and where they go after you have used them. Living off-grid requires you to know all of this and more. You will learn everything from wiring an electrical system to servicing water pumps and how to manage your wastewater safely!

As you can see, there are some great benefits to living off the grid! That said, let’s look at some of the drawbacks and challenges you will face:

The Disadvantages of Living Off the Grid

The disadvantages of living off-grid vary depending on where you’re located, what natural resources are available to you, the skills you have at your disposal, and how much physical work you’re prepared to do.

Let’s look at some of the challenges and drawbacks to consider when moving off the grid in more detail:

What are the disadvantages of living off-grid?

1. High Initial Investment Cost

If you’re setting up an off-grid home from scratch, the initial investment can be quite high. If you’re able to move off-grid gradually, one aspect at a time, you can do the move in increments that are more manageable but generally, the initial cost is high. The biggest costs will be buying the equipment you will need and the installation/construction needed to get your systems up and running.

2. Maintenance, Maintenance, and More Maintenance

Once your power, water, and wastewater systems are in place there will be constant, ongoing maintenance for just about every part of every system. Many people underestimate how much work goes into this and how much they will need to know – you will need to learn to be a plumber, electrician, and mechanic on the fly if you want to keep everything running smoothly.

Living off the grid - free image from canva of a man fixing machinery on a farm

3. Steep Learning Curves

When you need to work out how to fix something in your solar system before all the food in your fridge goes bad, you have to learn a lot – fast! No matter how much you know in theory, there will always be unexpected hitches that need to be overcome quickly. If you have help accessible to you, you can call in an expert and have them fix things but if cost or location limit your options, you need to be prepared to learn and learn quickly!

4. Large Space Requirements

This will vary a lot depending on the types of systems you use but the amount of space needed for water storage, septic tanks, water treatment, solar panels, pumps, battery banks, etc. can be quite a challenge if you’re confined to a smaller space.

5. Permissions and Permits

in some locations, you will need permission from the local authorities to manage your power, water, and waste independently. Depending on where you are, this can be a lengthy and/or costly process. You may also need assessments done to get the permits approved. Things like boreholes and septic tanks may need groundwater and soil assessments to ensure their safety and suitability for the location. Water use from surface water resources may also need water quality testing etc.

As you can see, the main challenges you will face are the cost and time it takes to get an off-grid home set up and the ongoing maintenance needed to keep it running.

If you’re prepared to do the leg work, it is well worth it and will pay for itself in the long run.

You can also go off the grid in stages, to make it more manageable in terms of cost and effort. This is a lifestyle that requires a certain level of commitment so sometimes it is better to move into it gradually and see if you can manage it long term before you jump straight into the deep end!

7 Essential Items to Have for Living Off the Grid

When it comes to living off the grid, you need to consider which services you won’t be getting from your municipality and how you will provide them for yourself.

Whether you’re going completely or partially off-grid, you will need some or all of the following:

  1. A Suitably Sized Solar Setup and Backup Power

A good solar system will be the right size and capacity to power your home. At a minimum, you will need:

In some situations, solar alone won’t be enough to meet all your energy requirements year-round. If you need to reduce your energy requirements, you can supplement with gas or burn wood for cooking, space heating, and water heating.

living off the grid - wood burning stove

Solar ovens and solar water heaters are other great ways to use solar without relying on your solar electricity.

Some may also choose to have a backup generator to power essential appliances if the system goes down or needs maintenance.

  1. Water Filtration and Treatment for Your Drinking Water

No matter where you’re getting your water from, it is essential to make sure that it is clean and safe to drink. There are loads of ways to handle this, including home water quality test kits and water filtration systems.

Living off the grid - reverse osmosis water filter system

You can always go old school and boil or bleach your drinking water, but there are less cumbersome ways of treating your drinking water, such as reverse osmosis water filtration and/or ultraviolet (UV) water treatment kits that you can install and maintain yourself.

  1. A Greywater Recycling or Treatment System

Wastewater is the water we have already used and need to dispose of. It is generally separated into grey-water (soapy water from showers, hand basins, kitchen sinks, laundry etc.) and black water (water from toilets that has been contaminated with human waste).

Greywater can be handled in several ways but the most common are greywater recycling for gardening and greywater treatment using a reed bed or permaculture setup.

Check out this great video by Bryce Langston at Living Big In A Tiny House on handling your greywater:

YouTube video
  1. Eco-friendly Toilets

When you’re off-grid, the toilets you choose will often depend on where you’re located. Water-flushed toilets that drain into a septic tank and soakaway are the most popular option. To make this eco-friendlier, you can choose a design that conserves water.

This type of toilet is not always a suitable option and if you’re looking for something that uses little or no water, you can look at composting toilets and pit latrines.

Composting toilets are generally better than a pit latrine as they minimize the risk of groundwater pollution but they do require a bit more management and maintenance.

  1. A Comprehensive Tool Kit

Living off-grid requires a lot of hands-on maintenance. It is worth investing in the tools and equipment that you will need! This can be a bit costly but it is an essential component.

living off the grid - tool kit hung on a display board

You can also buy some great tools and hardware second-hand, which cuts the cost down and is a more environmentally friendly approach to stocking up your tool kit.

  1. Internet and Access to Information

We cannot stress this enough – having access to the internet and some reliable sources of information will make all the difference to your off-grid life! There isn’t much you can’t learn on YouTube and off-grid and homesteading forums.

Often, the quickest way to solve a problem will be to hop online and google it or ask a question in a group or forum. So, investing in your internet access and devices is an essential, if counter-intuitive, part of living off the grid!

  1. A Support System and a Community to Be a Part Of

While living off-grid is certainly having a moment and becoming a more popular lifestyle choice, it is still far from the norm!

Your family and friends might love and support you wholeheartedly, but they won’t always be able to fully understand or relate to your off-grid life and the highs and lows you will face.

Finding a group of like-minded people, in person or online, can be a really great way to establish a support system and get that sense of community that makes this human experience worth having.

Facebook groups, internet forums, YouTube channels, local meetups, and community initiatives are all great places to find people who are on a similar journey and who can share their experiences and advice with you.

Off-Grid Living Checklist: 6 Dos & Don’ts for Success and Satisfaction

Living off-grid is likely to be one of the most incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging experiences you will ever have.

Here is a checklist of the pitfalls you’re most likely to encounter on your off-gird journey, and what to do instead:

  1. Don’t: Wait Until You Encounter a Problem to Learn How to Fix It

You know the basics, right? Maybe you have had a professional spec and install your system and you’re confident that some YouTube tutorials will help you fix anything problems that arrive on the fly.

The thing is, it takes time to identify where the problem is and what component is failing. Then it takes time (and usually electricity and internet) to work out how to fix it. If it’s late afternoon and your power is off – you’re most likely not going to have any of those things!

Do: Learn About Solar Power Systems and Have a Backup Plan

We can’t stress this enough – learn how your system works! And have a fallback. This can be a generator, battery bank, or a non-electrical solution (like gas) to tide you over.

Learning about your solar power system and how each component works, how they talk to each other, and how to identify where your problem is. Do this ahead of time, ideally before you even go off-grid!

  1. Don’t: Over Romanticize Your Off-Grid Life

If you’re going off-grid, it’s usually because you have a vision of what your off-grid life will be like. Hold this vision close to your heart and pursue it relentlessly… But don’t forget to factor in all the practicalities!

Living off the grid means you have to be, build and maintain your own ‘grid’ – which is a lot less pretty and a lot more practical than most people’s dream life!

Do: Learn About Off-Grid Life and Connect with People Living the Dream Before You Start

Joining groups and forums on off-grid living, homesteading, self-sufficiency, and gardening, or permaculture is a great way to see what this life really looks like.

These groups tend to be very forthcoming with the realities (most are quite proud of their achievements and what they’ve overcome in doing so) of off-grid life. They’re a great place to get some inspiration and share in the joys and simple pleasures that people encounter every day when living off the grid.

Bonus: They’re a great place to find support, encouragement, and a sense of community in your off-grid journey!

  1. Don’t: Underestimate the Cost of Living Off the Grid

While you will definitely save money on your utilities (and in some places, rates and taxes), the other, not-so-obvious costs can rack up quickly!

Some of the hidden costs you’re likely to encounter are:

  • Higher home-owners insurance
  • Insurance to cover your solar power system and equipment
  • Gas/propane if you’re using it and transportation to get it
  • Firewood if you have to buy it
  • Generator maintenance and fuel
  • Wear and tear on vehicles if you’re in a remote setting
  • Maintenance and labor costs for all your systems
  • Shipping/transportation costs to a remote location

Your costs will also be higher when temperatures are extreme and you need heating or cooling. Space heating and cooling can rack up costs quickly, especially in more extreme climates.

Do: Factor All Your Costs, and Seasonal Fluctuations, into Your Budget

Do some thorough research into the costs of living off the grid in your specific location. Find out from others in the area what is available locally and how much it costs.

Budget carefully and have a cushion to fall back on when you encounter unexpected costs like a broken generator or storm damage to your solar panels. Keep adding to your emergency savings as you go. Future you will thank you for it!

Thinking ahead and getting a realistic idea of the costs before you jump in will make all the difference and reduce your stress levels immensely. Freeing you up to enjoy the experience and work on the most rewarding parts of your off-grid dream!  

  1. Don’t: Take on More than You Can Physically Handle

Living off the grid is a surprisingly physical lifestyle. Being strong and fit enough to handle the demands of everyday life is something many people don’t consider when they first make the move. Don’t worry – you will develop those muscles quickly! But it takes a bit of time and can be really exhausting in the beginning.

If you have any existing health issues or injuries, take those into account too. Back problems, a bad knee, or shoulder can be seriously limiting when you need to carry firewood or climb a ladder to work on your solar system.

Living off the grid - free image from Canva of a young woman chopping wood with an axe

Do: Assess and Build Your Strength and Wellness Ahead of Time  

If you work a desk job and don’t do much in the way of physical activity – now is the time to change that! Building some strength and endurance ahead of time will make a huge difference to your initial experience. That said, living off the grid will use muscles you never knew you had! But it will be so worth it too.

Assessing and doing all you can to heal any injuries is also a good idea. If you’re not able to do that, think of ways to get around it and take some of the strain off you physically. Even just buying a wheelbarrow can make a huge difference!

  1. Don’t: Go it Alone and Try to Make it All Work Without Support

The desire to be self-sufficient and independent is often a key aspect of living off-grid and part of the appeal. However, it’s important to pace yourself here and understand that it is a process. Getting to the point where you’re doing it all, by yourself, takes time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to ask for advice or get help.

Do: Network and Find People Who Can Advise and Help You – And Return the Favor

This plays a huge role in successfully living off-grid. The community, online and in-person, is a key part of your journey. Whether it’s asking for help with a mechanical problem, advice on when to plant those tomatoes, or how to better insulate your home – your community is where the answers are most readily found!

If someone else has a problem you can help with – help them. Be part of the community and give as much (or more) as you take!

Not only will this help you build your repertoire of skills and knowledge, but it will also help you find friends and be part of an encouraging space.

Celebrating your wins with people who really understand the value of a hot shower, a finally running generator, or even just a perfect loaf of homemade bread is such a rewarding part of this journey!

  1. Don’t: Forget to Remember Your Dream

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and rhythm of living off the grid. There is always a lot to be done, and it’s easy to become immersed in that and lose sight of the dream. Some days you will be so busy Doing-the-Things that you can’t stop and enjoy them.

Do: Make a Conscious Habit of Stopping to Appreciate and Savor the Day-to-Day Wins

When you decided to go off-grid, you had a dream and a vision of what it would look like, how you would feel, and who you would be. No matter how busy you get or how hard you work, take time to stop and relish your progress.

Sometimes it will be the joyful pride of a task accomplished or a milestone met. Sometimes it will hit you out of nowhere, and you will find yourself smiling as you wash the dirt off your hands. No matter when or why those moments happen – stop and savor them. That’s what living your dream feels like.   

Final Thoughts on Living Off-Grid

Living off the grid is both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. Preparing and planning your off-grid life ahead of time is the key to making a successful transition!

In this guide, we have looked at the benefits, the challenges, the essential things you will need, and a checklist of pitfalls and solutions you need to make it work.

Where does your off-grid journey begin, and where will you go?

References and Useful Resources

An Off-Grid Life: Off-Grid Costs

Greywater Action: About Greywater Reuse

Off-Grid Energy Australia:  The Pros and Cons of Going Off the Grid

Outdoor Happens: 9 Best Off-Grid Toilet Options for Your Homestead, Camper, or RV

SustainabilityX: Ways To Make Off-Grid Living More Sustainable

Unbound Solar: How to Size a Solar System: Step-by-Step

Frequently Asked Questions

What does living off the grid mean?

Living off the grid refers to homes or communities that are not connected to municipal services. Traditionally, living off-grid referred specifically to being independent of the power grid and generating your own electricity, usually with solar or a combination of alternative power sources. However, the term has grown to include independence from all public utilities, including gas, potable water, sewer and waste/refuse collection. Check the full guide for more on living off-grid.

Is living off-grid expensive?

Yes and no. Living off the grid means you're not using and paying for public utilities like electricity, gas, water and sewerage so you will save a lot of money there. Some areas also have lower property taxes and levies for off-grid homes. However, you will spend more on things like home insurance and fuel. The initial investment can also be quite high. Read the full guide for more info on the costs of living off-grid.

What are the essential items to have if you want to live off the grid?

Depending on if you will be completely or partially off the grid, you will need:
1. Solar power system - with panels, charge controller, inverter, and batteries.
2. Back up power solution, such as a generator
3. Water filtration to make clean drinking water
4. Greywater reuse or filtration system
5. Eco-friendly toilets
6. Access to the internet and information on living off-grid
7. A support system and a community to help you on your journey
8. Tools and equipment to maintain your power, water, etc. systems
Check out the full guide to learn more about the essentials for living off the grid.

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