Thursday, 04 September 2014 00:00

Off Grid Comparison Costs

energy costs, alternative energy, alternative energy costs, off gridDoes living off grid cost more?

I’ve been wondering how all of these off grid lifestyle changes add up for costs compared to how I lived before. By lifestyle changes, I mean living off the grid compared to living on the grid.
Remember I define living off grid as supplying my own sewer, water, and power. It may mean other things as well but those three things are the most common criteria. Did I save money by switching from on grid to off grid or not?

First of all, let me be clear - we can’t make a perfect comparison. That would be impossible. Just take solar power vs. public power for instance. Every single power jurisdiction in the US charges a different rate for their product so my comparison would vary according to what part of the country I lived in. The same goes for sewer and water costs around the country. They vary considerably depending on where you live.
It also depends on what kind of home you build and the size of it. Propane or natural gas costs also vary depending on your location.

So how can I make a cost comparison between on grid and off grid living? I can look at my own circumstances in a very simple way and at least get an idea about the above question of costs. I am a professional estimator by trade so I know the difference between exact comparisons and simple comparisons. I’m not doing this exercise for accounting purposes but rather just to get an idea of what MY circumstances are and how WE came out cost wise by making this change in our lifestyle.

I live in a well insulated home in the Eastern part of the state at an elevation of 4200’. A relative of mine lives in a similar size home in the western part of the state at sea level. So already we have a discrepancy in elevation which is a big factor in this exercise. That’s okay, just take that into consideration when reviewing the numbers I am about to share with you.

Both on grid and off grid homes are 1400 square feet.

Here is a simple list of MONTHLY COSTS:

OFF GRID                                                                                             ON GRID
Solar Power  $73.00                                                                         Public Power  $48.00
Propane  $46.00                                                                                Natural Gas   $88.00
Water  $38.00                                                                                    Public Water  $37.00
Sewer  $21.00                                                                                    Public Sewer  $40.00
TOTAL  $178.00                                                                                  TOTAL  $213.00

This is not an exact comparison. It does however give me an idea of where I stand cost-wise by going off grid. Even though this is not an exact comparison there is a lot we can learn from it.
My deductions from this simple comparison:
1. It would not have been economically feasible to go with solar power without the 30% Federal credit.
2. The reason propane is so much less than natural gas is because I heat with wood and the other house uses a furnace so this cost difference makes sense. It will also vary either way for either home depending on where you live and what your fuel costs are. We heat more than the other home due to our elevation so I think this cost would triple if we also heated with a furnace.
3. The water is comparable but if you get into a deep well (over 250’) the off grid cost is going to go way up.
4. I have a very simple septic system which is about 5 years old. The new regulations have already raised septic system costs for three bedroom homes by about 25% so these costs are closer than they look here.

 Over all it probably cost more to go off grid with modern sewer, water, and power systems but it is nice to know that by going off grid we didn’t spend much more money and these two columns of costs will vary a great deal depending on where you live. If I have these same off grid costs in an area that charges more money for power, fuel, sewer or water, then it could easily be more cost effective to be off grid.
There is one other thing I like to consider in this exercise. We know that by going off grid we have cut our use of natural resources considerably. It just seems to be a natural byproduct of the off grid lifestyle so if we can stay in the “ballpark” cost wise and at the same time lower our need for natural resources. I would have to declare that “cost effective”.

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites  and Off Grid Works..


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  • Homestead - Where to Start?

    Off grid, homestead, good ideas for lifeWe all have a picture in our mind of what a homestead is and each one of our pictures will be different. Some of us will picture a little cabin in a meadow by a stream. Many of you will picture gardens, chickens and goats. Barns, greenhouses, and orchards will weigh in. All in all there are many different factors to be considered when deciding what your homestead will look like, so many in fact it can be difficult just figuring out where to start.

    One tool you can use to help organize your thoughts is something I learned years ago in a beginning journalism class – Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How?

    Who – Are you doing this alone or will there be others? If there are others, what considerations will they require? If there are children involved then schooling will be a factor. If some of you are in the elder category then health care can be a factor.
    Another consideration will be friends and family. How (if at all) do they factor in? An example of this is when Laurie and I built our homestead it was 250 miles from friends and family and that certainly became a factor, especially during Holidays.
    Just try to think of all the people who will be impacted by your decision to create your little piece of paradise.

    What – What are some of the things you want to accomplish on your homestead? Animal husbandry, fresh vegetables, going off grid, and becoming more self sufficient are just a few of the reasons people create homesteads.
    We wanted to live a more active and healthier lifestyle and have a more positive impact on our environment and we have accomplished that with our current homestead living. We’ve learned to be more conservative with our resources and grow and preserve our own food. Decide what your own goals are before you even look for property.

    Where – Some of the things to consider in deciding where to build your homestead are growing zones, climate, the local real estate market, neighbors, and local regulations. If you are going to have chickens, you need to make sure you can. If you are going to capture rainwater for your personal use or garden you need to make sure you can. Different government jurisdictions have different rules so once you figure out what you want to do on your homestead, make sure you can do it legally. Typical regulations include building codes, water, sewer, and yes, even whether you can have a rooster or not. Do you want a compost toilet and gray water system? In many jurisdictions anything considered “alternative” can be difficult to accomplish. Houses such as straw bale, cordwood, and other less common construction practices can be difficult to achieve in some jurisdictions.

    Why – Why do you want a homestead? It’s important to ask this question because if there is more than one person involved it is good to answer this question with similar goals. You need to be on the same page as your partner. It will be best if you both want a garden and want to preserve your own food, want to heat with wood. A homestead requires a lot of teamwork and cross training. You probably won’t be in a situation where one person can just push a button and get food or heat or even water. Homesteads require a lot of physical work and commitment. It is imperative that everyone directly involved is on the same page and has the same goals.

    When – Shall we do this while we are young? Should we wait until the kids are gone? Shall we wait until we are established financially? These are all normal questions people ask themselves about homesteading.
    We waited until we were in our mid fifties because that is what life threw at us. Only you can decide when the best timing is. Other than your personal circumstances I don’t think there is a right or wrong time. We know people from between the ages of 20 and 65 who are just starting their homesteads. The only thing to add here from experience is “the sooner the better”.

    How – And finally we get to the big question of how to go about creating your own homestead. My suggestion is to start reading and talking to those who have already been successful. We started in our local library checking out books. Today the Internet is full of information. We also subscribed to three different magazines like Mother Earth News to get our knowledge firsthand from those who have “been there and done that”. On my own website Off Grid Works there is a ton of information from planning to property use to building tips and all kinds of gardening and animal articles. You don’t have to BE experienced. You have to GET experienced.

    Laurie and I made our move in 2010 and have never looked back. We have made a few mistakes but not very many due to the amount of research we did before we took our first step. There is no set formula for the perfect homestead. The perfect homestead is the one you create for your own reasons.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website and Off Grid works.


  • What We Gave Up By Going Off Grid

    Four years ago we moved from our cozy convenient condominium to a custom off grid home in the mountains of Eastern Washington State. We are located 20 miles from the nearest small town and 40 miles from something larger.

    Our new home is at 4200’ elevation and is a homestead of sorts with goats, chickens, and horses. We grow much of our own food and have learned to garden the year ‘round.

    I’ve always defined off grid as providing your own water, septic, and power. So what DID we give up by going off grid?

    off grid, survival, septic field, gravity septic system, self sufficientSeptic/Sewer – We installed a larger than needed septic system on our property. It is designed in the simplest form. It is gravity flow down the hill from our house and consists of two 60’ lines and a 1000 gallon two compartment tank. 
    The only maintenance required is to have the tank pumped out periodically. Recommendation is once a year but with only two of us using an oversize system it won’t be necessary to do it that often.
    We are now responsible if anything goes wrong but with this simple gravity system it should last for years to come trouble free. If there is an issue we have 40 acres to choose from on where to relocate our present system.
    Once installed the only thing we have given up to provide our own waste management system is the monthly bill (from the local government sewer provider) which always seems to go up.

    well, deep water well, pure water, off grid, survival, self sufficiency

    Water – We get our water from our 300’ deep well. It has two sources, one at 118’ and another at 200’. Our well has been in operation for about 10 years and has never run dry. The water is clean and delicious.

    We have to maintain our well, pump, and waterlines. With a public water source you don’t have to maintain anything except for maybe the waterlines on your own property. As a tradeoff for assuming full responsibility for our own water we had to give up the following:
    Rising costs on a yearly basis or the threat of rising costs due to a “less than average snowfall” each year. Water additives like chlorine and fluoride. Agencies fighting over control of the water. Private and public fighting over the use of water from lakes, rivers and streams. Where I came from there was always a discussion or battle concerning water control and use.


    living off grid, solar panels, solar, solar power, solar energy, self suffcient

    Power: We get all of our power from our solar panels and battery backup system. We have all of the conveniences and appliances that any modern household has but since many of you find that hard to believe I will list them here specifically: microwave oven, TV, computer, washer and dryer, dishwasher, refrigerator, freezer, and vacuum cleaner. Our water pump is ¾ HP 240V. I can plug in a 240V welder and use it if I want to. Solar power has come a long way in the past 10 years. We are now in our fourth season with solar power. Again, as in the two examples above, we have to maintain our systems. No one is going to do it for us.

    What have we given up for the use of the sun? To date our system has been operational 24/7 since we made the final connection. No more worries about outages due to downed power lines from wind and ice storms or someone taking out a power pole with their car. No more unsightly power poles and lines. No more monthly bills or threats of rising costs, in fact solar costs have been going down.

    All in all we haven’t really had to give up anything except convenience for producing our own sewer, water, and power and the maintenance and repairs do fall on our shoulders.
    Public services are more convenient but come with a list of negatives from rising costs to battles over jurisdictions and what we should or shouldn’t add to the water or whether we should or shouldn’t have dams and on and on and on. I’ll take off grid anytime now that I’ve lived both ways because self reliance generates more old fashioned values and benefits than the alternative.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites and Off Grid Works.


  • Taking the Leap

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI’ve got a friend who purchased land close to us. Like a lot of people he was curious about our solar setup and what it was like to live off the grid. Remember, my definition of living off grid is providing your own sewer, water, and power.

    Many people have septic systems (sewer) and draw (water) from a well, spring or other body of water. Not many people go that third step to produce their own power. I wonder why?

    I helped this friend of mine acquire a site analysis for solar exposure to see if he would be a candidate for a solar power system. His site wasn’t ideal (southern exposure all year long) but it was excellent for nine months out of the year and still pretty good those three short solar day months of November, December, and January.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableHe decided to bring traditional power in. At $10.00 per foot underground the total cost was over $22,000. That was just to get power to the house. Solar (in his case) would have been approximately $15,000 for a complete system installed. With public power he will have a monthly power bill. With solar he wouldn’t. Public power continues to climb in cost per watt. Solar is getting cheaper.

    He would have to have a generator to help charge his batteries at times but out here everyone has a generator anyway for many reasons so the only extra cost to be compared here is the generator fuel. We all know that any kind of fuel is expensive but would it be enough to disqualify solar power as a good alternative? In his case probably not.

    If you have read my other blogs you will know I live in a modern home with typical appliances. The only difference between our house and yours is the source of power –in our case the sun. Well, ok, there is another difference. Our power usage. For some reason, when you make your own power you automatically become more conservative in how much power you consume. Other than that, if you stayed in my home for a week you wouldn’t know it was being powered by the sun.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThere are a lot of options out there – sun, wind, and hydro. So why aren’t more people doing it? I think it’s because it’s different than what we were brought up with. Almost all of us have had public provided power all of our lives. We were born with it being available. We can all tell the same stories about being out of power for a few days, usually because of a storm. Whether you live in the city or country we’ve all grown up with power poles and power lines on the side of the road.

    Change is difficult and for some, just plain scary. I understand human nature and for the most part I was skeptical, just like many of you. That being said, there is now so much information at your public library or bookstore, Internet and even TV, that there really is no excuse not to be well informed about alternative power. Articles from scientists at NASA to the simplest online blog from people who are living with alternative energy are available to anyone who wants to take the time to read them. Educate yourself and become informed.

    Ultimately it will probably be economics that will be the driving force to changing where we get our energy from. When solar, wind,  individual hydro systems, or something else entirely, become more cost effective than the more traditional means we use today then change will certainly occur. That has already happened to some extent. In the meantime some of us are pioneering the way, one watt at a time.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites  and Off Grid Works.

  • Spring To Do List

    We might have called this blog “after the snow leaves” instead of spring. At elevation 4200’ spring is a pretty short season. We don’t see the end of snow until the end of April and then it seems spring is only visible during the day for another month because it still freezes at night. It’s not just the snow. We have to wait for the ground to thaw as well. In short we really don’t get to go to work outside until sometime in May and by that time the “to do” list is pretty long.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs you can see by previous blogs we are already growing vegetables before spring even gets here.

    We need to get the boat and gear ready for trout fishing because they only seem to bite in late May and early June and then again in the fall. We rely on those fish for part of our pressure canned food supplies we stock our pantry with the year round. Besides fishing is fun and after a long winter being cooped up it is time for something different.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThe garden has to get re-leveled and roto tilled. That takes two different days before it is ready to plant. We got ours done May 15 and 16 this year. After that it is time to plant. Our garden is pretty good sized so planting is an ongoing process throughout May and June.

    There always seems to be fence to repair. The deep snows tend to do the most damage to our fences every year.

    We clean our chimneys of creosote and the masonry heater as well. Then we shut it down until October. We have to clean the stone face with vinegar and water.

    When the ground freezes deep enough some of our gutter tight line drains freeze as well. We have to take the downspouts off and hook up temporary drains for when the snow melts off the roof all winter long. So once the ground is thawed we have to remove the temporary drains and put the downspouts back on so we can catch rainwater for our cisterns.

    It’s a good time to run vinegar through the tankless hot water lines to get any mineral deposit buildup out of those lines.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe can’t forget one of our bigger tasks is wood cutting. I cut the trees down in the fall to get them to start curing and in May we start cut, split, and stack the wood. All six cords. We may not burn that much but I like to have extra just in case. You really want to get this work done before it gets too hot.

    The horses, cats, and dog all need extra grooming because they are all shedding their winter coats.

    Much of the equipment has been sitting all winter and the tires need to be refilled with air. I maintain all of my equipment in the fall before winter so it is ready to go on the spring but the tires still need air from sitting so long.

    The winter hay area needs to be cleaned and organized. Mouse traps set in the barn when it warms up. For that matter we also usually clean the barn.

    I spend about two days repairing our three mile long road from the winter thaw damage. That work is a timing issue. It has to be done after the thaw but while it is still damp and before it dries out and turns to moon dust.

    It’s a good time to clean and rearrange the pantry. Take inventory of what is left over and what we will need to replenish our supplies.

    This year we have to make arrangements to leave for a few days to attend the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA on June 2, and 3rd. That only adds to our hectic spring schedule but we will find a way because we really want to go to the Fair.

    All in all it is a pretty busy time for us. We have these things to do as well as our “day jobs” and running our two websites. It’s a lot of work but it’s what we chose. Why is a whole ‘nother blog.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and Off Grid Works.

  • What Have We Gotten Ourselves Into?

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableNovember 2011 – My wife Laurie and I have been in our off grid home for exactly one year now. We live in the Okanogan Highlands of Eastern Washington State at an elevation of 4200′. We are both in our late fifties. This past year has not been anything like the condo lifestyle we came from. Although our backgrounds have well prepared us for our late life adventure I could still fill a book with brand new experiences.

    Most of our friends and relatives seem to think we have lost a marble or two but that’s okay, we moved so far away we won’t see them for a while anyway.

    This past year we have experienced building a home and moving 250 miles away, living off grid with all new unfamiliar systems, record rainfalls, sub zero temperatures, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake, and a forest fire. Our property is almost three miles from the nearest paved road and no neighbors. Well, there is one neighbor, sort of, but he doesn’t talk to us. I don’t think he likes having neighbors. What in the world did we get ourselves into?

    We love it here. We have a “view to die for.” We are surrounded by National Forests, lakes, pine, fir, tamarack trees, green grass and sagebrush. It is beautiful the year ’round.

    So what about Off Grid? Simply put, off grid means that you are responsible for your own power, water, and sewage disposal. In our case we chose solar power with a backup generator, water from a drilled well, water cisterns, and an onsite septic system.

    Each of these three off grid requirements has multiple methods to choose from. For power, you could choose to go without. Some people in this area live with only a small generator for electricity. The three main sources for off grid power are solar (AC or DC), wind power, and hydro power.

    For water we chose a drilled well as our main water source with a 220V pump. That’s right. Our solar AC power is both 110v (regular household) and 220v for the pump. We also put three 1200 gallon underground water cisterns in, one at the barn and two at the house. We use the barn cistern to water the horses year round and the two cisterns at the house are for the garden in the summer time. That puts a lot less strain on our solar power to pump water. It only takes about 1 inch of rain to fill the cisterns off our metal roofs.

    For sewage disposal we chose an onsite septic system which is the most common. We use it for both gray and brown water. Some people separate the two types of water. The brown water goes to the septic system and gray water may be used to water landscaping, trees, plants, and even gardens. Others get by with a gray system and an outhouse, chemical, or compost toilet. There are many options to choose from for all of these systems. Of course your local Health Department will have something to say about it and you may even have to educate them.

    So how do you learn about all of these things and where do you start? I will talk about all of them and more in follow-up blogs in a step by step process that we went through but I can give you a hint right now on where to start………. Commitment. Making a commitment is the first step.

    Laurie and I made a decision to change the way we live. There may be others who are “greener” or more “sustainable” than we are but ANY change you make that is better for your health and the planet is worth committing to.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their websites and Off Grid Works.

More in this category: « Taking the Leap