Friday, October 8, 2010

Shoestring Survivalists

Industrial forklift batteries
1850 pounds each!
 My recent blog "Lights Out" had unintended reactions.  Many people took the opportunity to point out the flaws (which there are many!) in our off-grid system and the numerous ways in which different equipment or maintenance methods would save us the trouble of a "systems down" situation.  They missed the point entirely.  My reason for writing that blog entry was to bring attention to the fact that no matter how prepared you are, how many systems you have in place and how ready you are to meet the unexpected, things will happen.  They always do.  They always will.  You can meticulously service your generator, water and acid adjust your batteries and have your inverters inspected and yet, at some point, they will fail you.  It is the nature of life.  It is not if something goes wrong, it is when.  My point was and is just this - it is not what happens, it's how you handle it.  Will you panic, fall apart and allow circumstances to raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels?  Or will you deal with the business at hand and find a way to make do?  Somehow, when you live off-grid, you WILL find a way to make do - and not kill yourself in the process!

The best off-grid tool we own.
Heat, hot water, fresh bread -
all in one beautiful package!
Years ago, Sir Knight and I talked about going off-the-grid.  We had it all figured out.  We would buy solar panels (at least 5000 watts, who could possibly get by with less?), wire the panels into a super do wah tracking system, have multiple true sine wave inverters (nothing but the best, ya know), a solar pump for our well and solar hot water panels.  Our generator would be big, at least 15KW, and silent (read tactical) and would be wired for remote start in our kitchen.  When our batteries reached a certain level of discharge, our generator would automatically start and charge batteries so that we were never without a fully charged battery bank. We would have a water jacket installed in our wood cook stove, 1000 gallons of propane (for alternative hot water and a gas range) and three years worth of dry wood stacked in the wood shed.  Oh, and did I mention that we would have a 250 gallon gas tank full of treated gas, for chainsaws, tractors and our vehicles, if necessary.  That was our plan.

Now, for our reality.  We are shoestring survivalist.  When you have five children and one income, you don't have the money for true sine wave inverters, 15KW generators or 5000 watts of solar.  You could never afford to fill a 1000 gallon propane tank and you barely have time to put up one years worth of firewood, much less three.  You may dream of a 250 gallon tank full of gas, but you're lucky to have ten 5 gallon gas cans waiting in reserve.
Trace 3624 Inverters
The top inverter had the charging
relay weld. (they all do it after about
7 to 8 years!)  The board is in for service.

Everything we have done, we have done on a shoestring budget.  Our first inverter was a 1500 watt Trace that we bought used because we couldn't afford a new one.  We bought our first two solar panels (75 watts each) from some hippies way north of us with money I had earned having a bake sale at our local grocery store.  Really!  We bought solar panels with cupcake money.  We have never owned a new generator - in fact, I don't think we have owned a generator that is less than 30 years old.  We did buy 1 new inverter, but the brother inverter we bought used.  All of the solar panels in our 2150 watt array we bought used (through Craigslist, no less) and were BP test panels.  My husband designed our system and wired everything together (he claims that it looks like cats wired it - but I say that it has never let us down).  He even built the frame for our solar array (it would have been $3000 through Backwoods Solar!).

We have found that if you wait for just the right time, if you wait for everything to be perfect, it will never happen.  You have to be willing to deal with the hard stuff and you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and you have to be willing to settle for what you can afford.  And sometimes, you have to be willing to listen to all of the people who tell you that you are doing it wrong.
Tri-Metric meter.  Mounted in our
kitchen.  It monitors our battery condition
and charging current.

Being off the grid or being a survivalist or being prepared does not require a million dollars.  It can be done a little at a time.  It can be done by families with five children and one income.  Although it doesn't require a million dollars, it does require fortitude.  It requires commitment and it requires courage.  Being a shoestring survivalist may look one way on us and another way on you - but our goals are the same - to make our own way in the world.  We are the new Pioneers.  We are the future.


  1. I admit, I did "miss the point" entirely on the 'lights out" post. Enola Gay, I admire what you and your family are doing. My plan is been to keep my prep's simple and stupid, and I stick to the basics. Less can go wrong.
    The most important thing in my life has been to at least "not be dependent on the grid mentally". I have no cell phone, no television. I see people who have fallen apart when thier cell phone failed for some reason. I hope to go off the grid and when I do, I will be better prepared thanks in part to this blog.

  2. i did not miss your point at all...sometimes the most logical thing to do is just check things out, go on to bed for a good nights rest and deal with the problems in the morning light. i agree with you-us preppers and survivalists and frugalistas are all true pioneers in a world that scoffs at us and calls us dreamers and backward people. that is okay...i will still be here collecting fire wood, making quilts, cooking and canning the old fashioned way, planting and harvesting what i grow, and sharing with the stranger that might come along and lend a hand. have and keep faith.

  3. Yeah, I missed the point too, although in re-reading it I see now what you were getting at. I got a similar and unexpected lesson from being off-grid for 6 days after a hurricane: everyone kept their cool and pulled together, we got up with the sun and went down with the sun (mostly), and all-in-all it was in many ways LESS stressful than "normal" life. So I guess we handled it reasonably well, considering we had just adopted two young children still in diapers.

    Maybe it was also a simple reminder that we are NOT in control, although we all love to believe that we are, and that we need to trust and have faith in the One who is. Reading the Bible by lantern light (out of necessity) was strangely calming... and it made me remember some lines from a Country song: "If you wanna hear God laugh, tell him YOUR plans."

  4. Hi Enola; I came across your blog this afternoon, and find it quite interesting. I enjoy your perspective on faith and life, and look forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. You know what ELSE impresses me besides your shoestring off-grid living?

    The fact that you ALWAYS bring a feminine touch to everything, despite the surprises of off-gridness.

    The picture with the Tri-Metric Meter next to a lovely china piece says it all . . .

  6. I just discovered your blog and am catching up, hence the really late reply to this entry. I would just like to say thank you for this post. It's encouraging to know there are other shoestring survivalists out there. In reading through your blog I am constantly inspired and know that there is hope for my family. There are a lot of things on our farm that my husband and I have done "wrong" but they work, even if the system isn't perfect it works, thank you for reminding me of that.