I was asked the other day “How off-grid are you?” The answer, in short, is completely, but the question has prompted me to write an explanation of how everything works here.
The UK National Grid is the network of high-voltage power lines delivering a seemingly endless supply of electricity at the touch of a button. Anyone not plugged into this mothership is deemed ‘off-grid’, renegades who use home-made power in whatever form works for them. Because they tend to be remote or mobile in some way, finding warmth, water and sanitation usually comes with the territory.
Off-grid homes can be shacks and caravans, yurts and log cabins built by nature loving hippies retreating from mainstream society and seeking a more environmentally friendly way of life. Currently enjoying something of a renaissance, any search on social media will reveal bountiful images of bronzed twenty-somethings sporting bamboo underwear and extolling the virtues of freedom and low impact living.
But there are other off-griders who, rather than consciously escaping from modern life, are for whatever reason living in properties that were simply missed out when the giant electricity pylons made their march across Britain. In our corner of North East Britain there are actually hundreds of properties: farmhouses, hunting lodges and smallholdings that were deemed too remote and inaccessible for the long arms of the Grid to reach.
We are not making a point and we are probably not wearing bamboo underwear. We are simply trying to live as normal a life as possible in less than normal circumstances.
For us water comes from a spring which burbles out at the top of a steep cliff about 50 meters from the house. The slow but steady stream is channelled down a long pipe, first suspended over the river and then buried under our field before finally climbing back up to dribble into a large tank on the first floor of the house. The system is gravity fed, ie it works ‘all by itself’ without the need for pumping and the reliable source of good clean drinking water is probably a reason why the house is here in the first place.
Electricity is produced by a diesel generator that charges up a rank of batteries, which provide power to the house. The benefit of this system is that, when its running smoothly, we have power all the time even when the generator is not running. The generator kicks in automatically when the batteries are low or when there is a sudden high demand for power, like when you turn on a washing machine.
Inside is a wood burning stove which warms the house and also heats the hot water. Most of the wood we try to collect ourselves and many weekends are spent chopping and stacking logs but sometimes, especially after a long winter like we have just had, we are forced to buy in extra.
The heart of the home is the Aga which runs on anthracite, a naturally occurring mineral similar to coal. Everyday I riddle out the ash and restock the fire and the constant heat is used not only for cooking but helps to heat the hot water as well as warming the kitchen and providing a useful drying space for everything from wet boots and washing to garden herbs or soggy animals. There is always something that will benefit from a warm and dry space in a often cold and damp climate.
Living off-grid, when there are so many things that can go wrong, its always best to have an alternative so we also have a second cooker which runs on propane bottled gas. We usually have a couple of sacks of house coal in, to supplement the wood supply especially when temperatures really get low in winter.
There is no landline to the house but luckily enough there is a mobile phone signal outside so we can makes calls standing at the open front door. We also get internet access by a wireless router that takes a sim card. The speed seems to be improving every year, presumably as the number of salties increase.
And finally we have a septic tank naturally composting at the far end of the field to deal with the sewage.
Certainly for us living off-grid has proven to be a bigger deal than we imagined when we discovered the property on the market and immediately fell in love with the location. The inconveniences seem to trip you up when you are least expecting it. The spring water supply blocks up with leaves in autumn or turns brown when peat and silt are washed down in heavy rain. The Aga chokes up with dust and loses temperature just when you have guests arriving for dinner. The diesel spills in the back of the car when you pick it up along with the weekly shop and you and the groceries carry the distinct whiff of fuel. At the time of writing the inverter, which acts as the interface between the generator and the batteries, is on the blink so we only have electricity for a few hours in the evening when the generator is running.
Living here has made us acutely conscious of our energy consumption. We quickly stopped using power hungry household appliances such as a toaster or an electric kettle because they would make the generator come on for extra hours everyday. We try to only use the washing machine when the generator is running anyway to charge the batteries and and we wouldn’t consider using a dishwasher or a tumble dryer.
Simply gathering up the fuel required to get us through makes you think. Sacks of anthracite and coal, stocking the wood shed, collecting red diesel from the local farm, bottled gas from the hire shop. I see all our energy consumption piled up in front of me. Having physically lugged it to our place you wouldn’t dream of wasting any. The National Grid has fooled the country into imagining that energy is endlessly available at the touch of a button and the consequences of our addiction to power are now all too much of a reality in the form of global warming.
Yet down here in the woods we are not as ‘green’ as we would like to be. Although most of our heating is done using wood, we don’t have any renewable energy sources involved in our electricity generation. The initial high cost of installation weighed up against the amount of diesel we could buy in the meantime has meant us putting it off. We do plan on fitting some solar panels soon although and the most wonderful solution would be to somehow harness power from the river which runs so close to the house.
But generating your own power will always be fraught with problems and I have no illusions that a water turbine would be any less problematic. This blog is filled with such tales of when things go wrong and despite the fact we are growing more experienced at dealing with problems as they arise there is always something unexpected round the corner.
Explaining a problem we had with the spring water supply to an old timer who had lived off-grid for many years, I got an unexpected solution.
“I know exactly what the answer is,” he said with a smile. “You get yourself down to the estate agent and put that house on the market because let me tell you, you’ll never get it sorted for good.”
He had a point and the courage of his convictions as he’d recently sold his rambling Heath-Robinson set up for a centrally heated home in town. Generating your own power, sourcing your own water will always involve time and money and there is never enough of either. It will always involve frustrating set backs and a time when the power is out and the bath water cold.
Connection to the grid would solve at least some of our problems but at a rough estimate it would cost £40,000 to £50,000 more than double the money we have already invested in the generator and battery system which is set up to accept renewables.
Continue on our course? Sell up and give up the Goodlife? The discussion is at the heart of this blog. I for one get incredibly frustrated at the slow progress and countless setbacks we have experienced over the years. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting a losing battle in a house with so many challenges. And yet turning off the road and bumping down the dirt track to the house is leaving behind the rigmarole of the everyday, the traffic and the pressure. It’s a privilege to live so close to nature, to be tied tight to the changing seasons and perhaps at night to enjoy a glass of wine under a sky ablaze with stars free of light pollution – and it all seems worthwhile.
I hope this post has helped you understand some of the practicalities of life off-grid. If you enjoyed it why don’t you follow my blog by using the blue link at the top of the side bar on this page or by scrolling towards the bottom of this post if you are reading on a mobile.