Learning to Live off the Grid

When we left Southern California behind for Northern Idaho, we traded congested “free”ways for a gravel road, year-around sunshine for months of wet and cold, a postage-stamp lot for acres of meadow and forest, a 1950’s Mid-Century traditional home for an earth-sheltered Hobbit house with a castle turret on top, inescapable city lights for the Milky Way. We went from a suburb where everything was a couple blocks away to a rural lifestyle where anything is miles away.

Then we traded city utilities for a well and solar panels, garbage pickup every Thursday for hauling our own trash to the dump (open 9-5, 7 days a week), daily mail delivery for a post office box miles away in a general store. The Gas Company for propane tanks. Rudy’s Gardening Service for a tractor. High speed internet for a trickle.

It takes some getting used to -- and lots of planning. Because any errand starts with a couple miles on a dirt road, tasks get grouped together: drop the trash off, check the mail, then down the highway for groceries, Walmart, Home Depot or (our new favorite) North 40. Take out doesn’t survive the half-hour drive home, so we keep our shelves stocked with meal fixings. Also a good idea just in case we get snowed in – which has already happened several times.

We love using electricity, but now it’s a resource that requires constant attention (just like a certain Mars rover we know and love). Every morning starts with power questions: What’s the state of discharge on the batteries? Is it going to be sunny? Are the solar panels clear of snow? Do we need to run the generator? If the answers to the former are below 80%, no and no, then the answer to the fourth is yes. And it’s also time to grab the snow shovel, clear a path to the solar panels, and brush off the accumulated snow. Guessing the power level is our new favorite game. Sunny days are happy days. Seeing over 100 amps flowing into the batteries is pure joy - and a green light for vacuuming, laundry, and the use of miscellaneous power tools.

Conserving energy consumes us. Our phantom-loads (e.g., anything with a clock or LED) are on power strips, so we can turn off a bank of appliances (toaster, microwave, toaster oven; TV, DVD player) with a flick of one easy-to-reach button rather than having to plug/unplug everything individually. We have a separate refrigerator and freezer – with the freezer in the garage. No more ice-in-the-door (I really miss that). We religiously check Energy Star ratings on anything we buy.

We have a wood stove to augment the propane fireplace that heats the whole house (OMG – the price of propane!). We now know what a cord of wood looks like – and how much time and energy it takes to split and stack it, in preparation for winter weather. We’re getting better at starting the stove and keeping it going. We haven’t accidentally set off any smoke alarms recently, and have learned the hard way to not run the kitchen exhaust fan while the wood stove is operating unless we want to draw the smoke out of the chimney and have it fumigate the whole house.

I don’t yet fully understand the house we live in, the systems that keep it running, or all the ways our new environment can punk us. Who knew that when the temperature dips below freezing (10-15 °F) diesel fuel turns into gel, ice crystals form in your fuel lines and your tractor dies? Actually, lots of people know – and (cha-ching) we now know, too. Heaviest snowfall in 20 years makes the private road treacherous to navigate? Sometimes only a bull-dozer can clear a wide enough path (cha-ching – we learned that too). If your propane runs out then you have to re-certify your entire gas system? HA! We learned that one the easy way and are doing our best to NEVER run out of propane – even if it requires shoveling through 4 feet deep of snow to check the level in the propane tanks.

It’s a grand adventure – and we haven’t even seen “mud season” yet!

4 thoughts on “Learning to Live off the Grid”

  1. John and I really enjoyed your blog about Living off the Grid. You are such s good writer. You should write a book.

  2. Loved it. Hmmm…I got tired just reading what you and Brian have to do. What do you do for entertainment? Brian, are you keeping up with your magician skills?

  3. I’m full of admiration, Lynne! May your stamina prevail! Sounds like you need a LOT of it! All the power to you!

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