Is It Time To Go Off-Grid?
Unplugging yourself from the daily grind is a lifestyle choice that is easier to make than you think
Mr Nick Rosen never intended to go off-grid – it was just much easier that way. In the early 2000s, he fell in love with Deià, a pine-scented paradise on the west coast of Mallorca, full of olive trees, mountain passes and heart-swirling views of the Mediterranean. Ms Claudia Schiffer, Mr Michael Douglas and Mr Richard Branson are regular visitors. Only as a freelance writer, Mr Rosen found the sorts of luxury villas they lived in beyond his means.
“I started walking around in the hills in the National Park overlooking Deià and found an abandoned shepherd’s hut on sale for €7,000,” he explains. “At first, I thought, well at least it would give me this million-dollar view of the Mediterranean. But actually being disconnected is a very comfortable way to live.” He bought some solar panels; this was enough to power his laptop so he could work there. He built a stone water tank to collect the rain from the roof in the winter with an ancient dual chamber system to stop the water ever becoming stagnant. He installed a butane cooker and fridge. And he burned wood for warmth and did most of his cooking over coals. Mr Rosen has since written two books on off-grid living, set up the online community off-grid.net and has travelled the UK and the US meeting people who choose (and who have no choice but to) live this way.
And there’s no doubt that the off-grid dream has captured many imaginations, even if some confusion endures as to what it means (technically, it means living without mains electricity and plumbed water, though for many it means living outside the “grid” of modern commerce, with all its standing orders, hidden clauses and final reminders).
Why do people do it? The desire for simplicity and pureness stands as a reaction against the complexity and guilt that often accompany 21st-century life. Mr Rosen believes there are four key motivating factors. The first is economy. Going off-grid is dead cheap and for many families who have lost their homes in the US foreclosure crisis, buying a patch of Texas on eBay is about the only option open to them. The second is ecology. Living off-grid – without relying on fossil fuels – is sustainable and responsible, and renewable technology makes it more feasible than ever. Hence whole towns – such as Tyalgum, a village of 300 people in New South Wales, Australia – are now attempting to do it.
The third is existential. There are plenty of people who believe that Western civilisation is under threat of imminent moral/financial/literal collapse, so learning how to collect rainwater and skin rabbits is more prudent than, say, majoring in English literature. And the fourth is exhaustion. Many off-gridders want to loosen ties with consumer society and reconnect with things such as kindling and nightingales and fireside singalongs. As much as humans incline towards laziness, we also like a little difficulty in our lives. No sooner do we make food abundant with modern agriculture and refrigeration, we invent complicated diets and intolerances to make eating hard again. No sooner do we eliminate most manual jobs, we invent gyms to perform as leisure the sort of manual work we were once paid for. And no sooner do we bring electricity and sanitation to the masses, we make not having them an aspirational lifestyle choice.
Still, while some off-gridders take the lifestyle to extremes, Mr Rosen insists it’s not a hair-shirt existence at all. “I don’t accept that living off-grid is difficult,” he says. “Yes, you have to commit to running your own power-station and water-supply and hauling your own trash. But that’s not difficult. It becomes second nature after a while and you become much more connected to the elements in the process.”
And – unless you’re a member of a millenarian cult, in which case, run away! – there’s no reason to sever ties with the grid just yet. You can come back to recharge your own batteries as often as you like. But where to start?
Test the water
Don’t take an axe to your fuse box just yet – first, take a holiday. It is unwise, unnecessary and probably unsafe to live off-grid if you’ve no experience. However, it’s easy enough to take a holiday and get your head around the concept. Plus, erm, you get to go on holiday.
Initially, Mr Rosen liked to keep his Mallorcan retreat a secret, but he now rents it out on Airbnb when he isn’t there. Many off-gridders do the same: “An off-grid house is a bit like a pet,” he explains. “You can’t just leave it like a normal house – it needs looking after, and the best way of doing that is having it in regular use.” So how about: a treehouse in Hawaii? A hyper-modern architectural retreat in the California desert? A bamboo hut in Bali?
Meanwhile, there are plenty of ecotourism companies that offer similar properties. Responsible Travel has a gorgeous off-grid villa just tucked into the Ligurian coast near the French-Italian border, as well as villas in Dominica and yurts in Lanzarote. And if such luxury seems a little against the off-grid ethos, well, you could always go camping (wild camping as opposed to a hastily-erected-supermarket-tent-at-a-music-festival camping). You’ll want a patch of woodland near a crystal, trout-filled stream, some wild garlic, kindling, a volume of Mr Henry David Thoreau and a well-charged iPhone so you can Instagram your idyll.
Go off-grid in the city
You don’t need to retreat to the wilds of Scandinavia. Going part off-grid is a possibility. With a little creativity, you can apply off-grid principles in the comfort of your very own city. Houseboats are by their nature off-grid. And even if you want to remain on dry land, you might consider taking part of your home off-grid. If you have a spare bedroom, an attic, or a shed at the bottom of the garden, you could install a few solar panels to make it entirely self-sufficient: a lithium ion battery will allow you to store the electricity so that you can get power all-year-round. Additionally, a rainwater collection tank on the roof should provide enough water for a sink.
This will not only reduce your electricity bills and provide you with a sense of deep resourcefulness – it could come in handy in the event of catastrophe. There is predicted to be a seven per cent energy shortfall in the UK by 2020 owing to the British Government’s failure to form a coherent industrial policy. (Mistrust of government is another key motivating factor for off-gridders.) So establishing your own stash of electrons could be a wise move.
Get the right kit
Naturally, different climates will present different challenges. Collecting rain is not such a problem in the Shetland Islands as it is in Arizona, say. But in most climates, a solar panel is an essential investment if you wish to control your own power supply. Solar technology has advanced hugely in recent years so that even in cloudier climes without much direct sunlight, you ought to be able to harvest enough energy to run a laptop and a couple of basic appliances. (Forget washing machines, though; you’re going to have to go 19th century on your laundry.)
And while for many, the delight of going off-grid is doing away with needless consumer accoutrements, it’s not a competition. There are a few pieces of gadgetry that will come in handy. The GoSun Stove Sport solar cooker heats food to 290ºC using the sun’s energy alone. The EnerPlex Packr is apparently the world’s first solar-powered rucksack. It comes with a built in USB port so you can charge your phone as you hike. The BioLite CampStove is even more ingenious. You fill the chamber with firewood to create a smokeless campfire, which you can use to cook food, boil water and charge your phone. And yes, phones are important, as much for their GPS, map, compass and torch functions as for their scope for locating extremely rare off-grid Pokémon.
Unless you’re a hermit, a misanthrope, or a survivalist who is convinced that the world is about to end, it’s best not to try going off-grid alone – or even as a pair. Landbuddy.com allows you to team up with likeminded souls who might want to do something similar to what you’re doing nearby. “I don’t really advocate communal living, but I do believe in pooling resources,” says Mr Rosen. “You might buy a plot of land together. And you should ensure you have a range of skills: building, plumbing, medical, electrical and legal – that’s very important.” Remember kids: there are different laws covering what you can and can’t do on different types of land and you don’t want your painstakingly carved log cabin to be pulled down for falling foul of some arcane planning law.
The more remote you get from regular centres of commerce, the more open people are to exchanging non-monetary items. “Often in the north of Scotland, people will gather on a Friday evening to swap salmon for asparagus, say, or a supply of firewood for some help on a project.”
Big ideas should start small
You should abandon any idea of constructing an off-grid palace. The smaller a place is, the cheaper it will be to build, to heat and to power – and the cosier it will be, too. For his 19th-century experiment in isolation – documented in his essay Walden; Or, Life in the Woods – the American philosopher Mr Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in a 10 x 15ft cabin, which he constructed at a cost of $28.12. Mr Thoreau is a sort of patron saint for off-gridders – to the point that some have built modern-day versions of his cabin, and attempted to keep within (today’s equivalent value of) his budget.
If fashioning your own dwelling seems a little ambitious, however, you can always go prefabricated. The Austin, Texas, company zeroHouse has designed a completely pre-made home that works straight out the box. It uses solar panels to generate up to a week’s worth of electricity. It collects and stores rainwater and distributes it by gravity. And it has a functioning compost-system that enables you to recycle all food waste. It’s also fully climate controlled, with a 42in LCD TV, refrigerator, induction cooker, two bedrooms and balconies – and can be deposited in two flatbed trucks pretty much wherever you want it.
MAPA Architects have also designed Minimod, a pre-fab off-grid home, which at 26sq m is about twice the size of Mr Thoreau’s – although it’s modular, meaning you can add as many different rooms as you please. Meanwhile, Scottish company Echo Living create bespoke off-grid pre-fabs to order, including this cute little “House On Wheels” in Crete. Bye-bye, bills.