Off-grid living has begun to grow in popularity, as the many websites, magazines, TV shows, and YouTube channels featuring the lifestyle can attest. And wherever there’s a growing body of interest, there’s a market to be had. And where there’s a market, there are folks looking to make a quick buck off of a fad. Sometimes, they come up with great ideas to suit the growing market, and everyone ends up happy. Other times, they come up with gimmicky junk that is intended to solve problems that don’t really exist (though they’ll convince you that they do). Like many things in life, you can spend a lot of money to go off-grid, but there are also cheap off-grid solutions.
The funny thing about this is that there’s nothing more ancient than the off-grid lifestyle. Before the advent of the grid as we know it (a relatively recent development that really only began in the 1860s), everyone from the richest king to the lowliest peasant technically lived off-grid in most capacities. As such, folks had pretty well figured out how to thrive without the aid of all the new contraptions that have been invented for the modern off-grid lifestyle. They had thousands of years of civilization to back them up.
So, what is the off-grid beginner supposed to do? How do you know when the old ways are best to learn or when the new innovations are worth the buy? On my increasingly off-grid homestead, we are trying to answer that question with a balance of the best of the past with the best of modern innovation. I will admit that we have a bias toward simple, manual tools (mostly because there’s less chance for something to break down). So I’d like to take our years of experimentation and show you some modern and traditional tools and ideas for your own consideration. The off-grid life comes at the cost of time or money; time to build your own systems or money to pay someone to do it for you. So, no matter how much cash you’ve got, you can likely go off-grid. I hope the comparison of these DIY cheap off-grid methods and pricier, manufactured methods can help you figure out the best fit for your own property.
Food Preservation: Electric Dehydrator or Protected Drying Screen
The most basic method of cheap off-grid food preservation, in my view, is dehydrating. The free, desiccating power of the sun and wind have rendered fresh food into a stable, storable form for pretty much all of time. And the best part is? The sun shines freely on everyone.
You can build a pretty cheap solar dehydrator out of recycled materials (we’ve built one out of a defunct stand-up freezer) and there are lots of DIY plans online for such a build. Lacking that, you can merely spread food on a window screen, cover it with a bit of cheesecloth to ward off birds, bugs, and dust, and lay it in a sunny place. I’ve even seen folks use the dashboards of their cars as dehydrators—merely crack the window slightly to release moisture. The point I’m making is, this method of food preservation is extremely accessible and low-cost.
Of course, you can purchase a gadget to do the work for you. There is any number of food dehydrators and freeze-dryers out there to render your fresh produce and meat into shelf-stable sustenance. Granted, in order to power any of these devices requires electricity, and that electricity will likely need an entirely separate solar, wind, or water generator to run. In order to take the high-tech road when it comes to food dehydration, you’ll be investing quite a bit in infrastructure and appliances. The payoff? Predictably dry food, without needing to chase off flies, rain or shine.
Laundry: Lavario and Gas-Powered Machines or Washing Plunger and Bucket
I find laundry to be a funny topic when it comes to the domestic side of off-grid life. Most historical records of manual laundry practices that I’ve found only reflect the Victorian-era manner of clothes washing, with its arduous soaking, boiling, blueing, starching, and ironing. With that litany of tasks to accomplish weekly, it’s no wonder most folks find the idea of hand-washing laundry to be untenable. As detailed in an earlier article, however, those tasks aren’t necessary to clean the laundry. I’ve implemented a pared-down, simpler approach for off-grid laundry, minus the boiling, bluing, starching, and ironing. All you’ll need is a washtub, a homemade scrub board, and an antique washing plunger: can’t get more simple (or cheap!) than that. Hand-washed clothes can either be dried on a clothesline outside, strung up above the woodstove, or—if you’re really into historical reenactments—laid out on clean, dry grass in the sun.
That said, some home-keepers still aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves and scrubs socks when a machine could do it for them. For that off-grid crowd, there’s a veritable army of alternatives available, all of them at varying prices. Some folks swear by the Lavario system, or the Wonder Wash, others use gas-powered, solar-powered, or even car-battery-powered machines, and some opt for a wringer-washer combination. All of these devices are somewhat limited in their capacity, which limits their utility for a large family.
Now, when it comes to drying clothes, I’ve even seen off-grid folks use gas-powered dryers… which, I must admit, personally rubs me the wrong way, since the sun is free and clotheslines work just fine. I’m not here to evaluate your off-grid priorities, however. Though these machines often run you a pretty penny, they may be the answer you’ve been looking for if hand-scrubbing and air-drying have been vetoed.
Toilet: Commercial Composting Toilet or 5-gallon Bucket System
The off-grid toilet is a divisive topic, either eliciting horror from those who pledge fealty to the flush toilet or pocket-emptying sighs from the prospective off-gridders who have just read the advertisements for the latest four-figure models.
Thankfully, the toilet can be a very simple setup, if you’re willing to employ a little elbow grease. There are very effective $10 DIY off-grid toilet builds that feature little else than some pieces of 2x4s, a 5-gallon bucket, and a toilet seat. They won’t win you any beauty awards, but they’ll do their duty while you do your own doody. If you’re unafraid to learn and push convention, Joseph Jenkin’s Humanure Handbook (available for free perusal online) will give you all the information you need to build and perfect your own waste-recycling system.
If you have the (ample) cash to spend, there are composting toilets available for purchase too, of course. Nature’s Head is probably one of the better known, with several models that can be installed wherever wanted. They really do cost quite a bit—about $1,000 for their baseline model—but that comes with the customer guarantees, installation help, and prefabricated convenience that some folks are looking for.
Heating: A Huge Array of Options
Off-grid heating has been a companion of humanity for all of time, and as such, there are myriad methods of keeping your living space warm that have been developed throughout the world. I can’t really categorize this range of options by price. Though some of them have large initial costs, their long-term savings absolutely make up for it in the long run. Instead, I’ll briefly list some of the methods that you can consider when it comes to warming your off-grid home.
Masonry Stove: The masonry stove is an ancient design that has been employed by cultures around the world, from the ancient Roman hypocaust, to the Chinese K’ang, to the Austrian kacheloven. They’re massive structures, integrated into the very backbone of the home itself, but they are able to effectively warm a home for hours at a time with very little fuel. They would be an incredibly ambitious DIY build, but I suppose it is possible for those who are good at their research.
The nice thing about this option is that many masonry stoves can do double or triple duty as both cooking surfaces and water heaters as well. So, though it is a large initial cost, it may become the beating heart of your winter home—and that’s a priceless thing!
Metal Wood Stove: This “fireplace in a box,” invented by Benjamin Franklin, are an easy-to-install option for an off-grid home that can give you heating independence as long as you have access to your own firewood. Options range from already assembled options to DIY Builds that can be constructed from recycled metal barrels.
Rocket Mass Heater: As with a masonry stove, the rocket mass heater warms a room or home by the hyper-efficient combustion of a small amount of fuel used to warm a massive structure which, then, radiates heat over time. Rocket mass heaters were really perfected during the heady days of the 60s and 70s, and embody the self-sufficient, recycling-oriented spirit of those decades by being relatively easy to build, easy to source from your land, and largely needing reused materials.
Passive Solar Design: Passive solar design is a school of building construction that takes advantage of the sun’s energy to warm a home. Unfairly summarized, this basically means that a large series of windows are oriented toward the sun’s winter zenith, a massive, heat-retaining structure is placed where it can absorb as much warmth as possible during the day, and then the house is thermoregulated through the night with the slowly released heat. Houses need to be built with this in mind: retrofitting a home to this design would be borderline impossible (or very expensive) if it’s pointed the wrong way.
Earth-Sheltered Home: Though this won’t actively warm a home, berming a partially-buried home with earth or building an underground home can naturally and effectively moderate the temperature without any other input. Mike Oehler’s The $50 And Up Underground House Book is a good introduction to some practical home construction, as is Michael Reynold’s extensive Earthship series.
Geothermal Heating And Cooling: This is a pricey option, admittedly, as it involves a huge installation of a system of pipes and pumps. The basic concept of this system is to use the consistent temperature of the earth to moderate the indoor conditions of a structure, even if the structure is not underground or partially buried. It’s not enough to warm a home on its own, but it will mean you have to consume less fuel to get a comfortable temperature.
Live in a Warm Climate: This one may seem too obvious, but if you don’t want to have to deal with off-grid heating, living in a place that lacks cold winters may be the best solution.
Bathing: Solar Showers or The Art of the Sponge Bath
There are many ways to get clean. The endless cascade of water that we employ in the typical on-grid shower is simply the most commonly used in “normal” society.
One of my favorite approaches to bathing is similar to this article from an old issue of The Mother Earth News. In it, Alaskan homesteader, Ole Wik described his effective and water-saving method of sponge bathing. Though “sponge bathing” may sound like a treatment for invalids in the hospital, those seeking an off-grid life should try to disassociate the “deprivation” mentality associated with it and see it for what it is: a surprisingly effective way to get clean. The best part is, this system only requires a washcloth, a metal bowl, and some soap.
Other off-grid folks have made effective use of “camp showers;” warm water in a bag suspended above the bather’s head. Another option, though it requires some handyman work, is a so-called “solar shower,” made up of sun-warmed water held in a reservoir and used as needed. This method is only seasonal for those of us with wintry climates but may be a very effective year-round method for those homesteading in tropical regions.
This is obviously a very incomplete list; I haven’t even covered the options for lighting, food storage, cooking, power generation, or water systems, just to name a few. I hope that I have clearly illustrated, however, that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to off-grid living. Instead, there’s a dizzying array of options to consider, which is both encouraging and, sometimes, a bit overwhelming. The final exhortation I can give to you, intrepid off-gridder, is to keep experimenting and trying things out to see what works best for you, your land, your budget, and your personal philosophy. You can easily spend a fortune to get your home off-grid… but, as I have found, you don’t have to!
About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city. But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.