Low-Tech Off-Grid Living

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by Ani, Survival Blog:

I’m writing this article early in the morning during a power failure. I’ve only lived in this house for six months but this is not the first power failure I’ve experienced here. Previously I house-sat in this town and experienced a long duration power failure complete with four days or so of no cell service either. I got on my phone and looked up the outage map and realized that my town and a couple of adjacent towns have a significant outage, definitely due to the high winds of last night. The electric utility will begin mobilizing the line crews when it’s light out. Might be a while due to how many customers are without power, our rural and wooded nature and that the wind is still blowing quite well. Meanwhile, the woodstove is burning, I’ve got some tea candles lit and strategically placed small solar outdoor lights, stood up in canning jars, are lending some light around the house as needed. As always, when the power is out, the house, without the ever-present audible hum, at least to me, of the grid powered appliances and lights, is blessedly tranquil and quiet. Plus, the light of the candles always makes me feel at peace in a way that any electric light, no matter where on the color spectrum it falls, cannot.

So why, knowing how frequent the power failures, even during “normal times” are here don’t I have a generator? Why don’t I invest in a PV system? All good questions. Recent articles and comments on SB revealed different trains of thought regarding the use of alternative power systems and generators during power failures or prolonged outages. It was clear that there is a big gap in the outlook between some of the posters and an inability to comprehend why others think as they do. I figured I’d explore this subject further here. This won’t be a “how-to” article, at least not in the sense of complete prescriptive measures and equipment lists although I will throw out some ideas for many categories. Maybe that will come later. It’s just meant to provoke thought, challenge thinking and hopefully generate some good (but civil) discussion.

I should state at the outset that I’m not adverse to technology per se, or to alternative energy. In fact, I lived completely off-grid with a PV/wind system for nearly two decades so I’m pretty well versed in living with alternative energy. It’s also true that when the big ice-storm hit in the late 1990s, my home was the only one that had power as usual during the four days that my neighbors went without power. So yes, having my own power supply not dependent on the grid was handy to be sure.

ON-GRID OR OFF-GRID?

When I went house-hunting in early 2020 I was open to either being on or off the grid. I could see pros and cons of either arrangement. It wasn’t a factor in which house I chose as I knew I could live successfully in either situation, come what may. I honestly didn’t feel that my survival depended on one or the other. I ended up with a house tied to the grid with conventional appliances. I have to admit it’s been fun using an electric dehydrator. I’d say that’s been the number one benefit of living with grid power.! I also know how to do without it again if need be.

So why do I not feel anymore that to be truly self-sufficient and prepared for emergencies such as long-term grid failure, that having either a generator with large fuel stores and/or an alternative energy system is required? What has changed my thinking on this?

I guess firstly that living with an alternative energy system opened my eyes up to how dependent these systems are on the technology that produces them including mining, manufacturing, transportation and all the rest. I don’t for a minute think that any of these products (PV panels, inverters, battery banks, wind generators, etc.) would be produced using alternative energy. They are all dependent, somewhat ironically, on a stable supply of grid power. Add to this their distribution and shipping. All of this is totally dependent on the grid staying up, fossil fuels, marketing, shipping, financial transactions et cetera all functioning well. A generator is likewise dependent on a stable fuel supply as well as necessary parts(and know-how) to keep it running.

My own system was quite simple and assembled using the bare minimum of components. Still, I experienced a failure of the wind gen and separate lightning strikes took out two system components (charge controller and battery bank voltmeter). I was able to get these replaced as the system of manufacturing, shipping et cetera was still functioning as usual. Had it not been my system would have ceased to operate. Could I just store extra components? I suppose. But how many? Store a complete extra system? Two extra systems? Three? And what of the battery bank? I replaced it several times during my tenure there. Should I store two extra sets of batteries? Three? At some point, unless things returned to an adequate level of normal in the outside world such that system components were to be available, my off-grid system would no longer operate. And then what? I guess I decided that I’d be better off exploring the “and then what” piece of this and choosing to live this way from the get-go should grid power fail. That’s really the crux of what I’m going to discuss in the rest of this article.

So what’s “and then what”? How does one live this way? What choices need to be made to successfully live without any grid-power or back-up alternative energy and/or generator power? The overall answer to this I think is “it depends”. It depends on your budget. It depends on where you live. Your family structure. It depends on how you are willing to live and what comforts you choose to live without. I’m writing this as someone living in the far north of the US where heating is a big concern. AC is definitely not an issue, at least for me, although it always surprises me to see how many people here are acquiring AC these days and becoming dependent on it.

OTHER LIGHTING AND COOKING ALTERNATIVES

I’d also add the caveat that I’m classifying what I’d use in a prolonged power outage into several categories. Some are items that are simple, can be stockpiled, but would eventually wear out and not be replaceable should the grid stay down for years. Items like this would be batteries, solar lights, candles (paraffin), kerosene/lamp oil, propane for the cook-stove, etc. Thus flashlights, headlamps and other battery-powered items would work until such time that the bulbs failed, batteries ran out or they just expired. While I’m stockpiling a reasonable supply of items such as batteries, flashlights, tea candles, and the like, I don’t for a minute assume that I can stockpile enough to last forever. Or, that in the case of items such as batteries, that they could remain viable for many years.

During the run-up to Y2K I knew some people that were frantically trying to buy enough “stuff” to last them forever. Unless their lives were foreshortened, and they were all then only in their early 40’s, that seemed like a fool’s errand to me. It’s sort of like trying to stockpile enough food to last you and your family the rest of your lives. The reality is that while you might well be able to put aside a year or two or more of food, eventually the supply would run out. You’d need to be able to produce your own food should the system stay down. Same thing with water storage. It seems to me it would be best to stockpile some food to get you through the immediate crunch/crisis situation but having access to land, tools, seeds, know-how, and so forth is of paramount importance. And having a tested means to secure water supplies once the supply runs out is critical. No way you’re gonna store enough water to last for a lifetime!

An in-between category would include items such as canners (water bath and pressure) and canning jars. The water bath canners will last indefinitely if properly cared for. The pressure canners depend on keeping the gauges functional and seals, if any, in good condition. Canning jars can last indefinitely if cared for. The lids are the most vulnerable piece of this. Stockpiling an ample supply of lids, reusing them as much as possible and also purchasing lids that are meant to be reused will go a long way towards prolonging the use of canning as a food preservation tool. Eventually however, should production not resume, this too would go away as a viable option. I’d include it though as it’s viable, in my opinion, if used thoughtfully, for many years given ample preparation and supplies stored properly.

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