Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Living the REAL Dream

For the past twelve years, we have lived off the grid.  When we began our adventure, we lived with no electricity, no running water and no indoor plumbing.  Little by little we added a generator, inverter and batteries.  We wired the shouse for electricity and added plumbing.  We put up a wind turbine, added a couple of solar panels and invested in a second inverter.  We upgraded from an antique propane refrigerator to an off-grid specific electric refrigerator.  Then we went for broke and installed a large solar array in the hopes that it would provide us with more electricity than we could possibly need.  But, regardless of the upgrades, improvements and advances we have made, we are still, unequivocally off-grid.

Being off-grid requires a complete and total change in lifestyle.  Our family made the change cold-turkey.  In a matter of days, we went from being a simple, suburban family, living the typical American Dream to modern day pioneers practicing the skills perfected by our great-grandparents.  Our home became a living, working museum.  Not a day went by when folks didn't drop by, just to see how we were living.  Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone had a suggestion.  Everyone said we were "Living the Dream".  But, not everyone was living the dream.  They went home to their comfortable houses, hot running water and flushing toilets.  They flipped a switch and the lights came on and they didn't give a thought to how much electricity they had generated that day.

The years have come and gone.  We have gotten used to being off-grid.  We hardly blink when we have to start the generator to take a bath or do the laundry.  We check the Tri-metric as a matter of course, without consciously noticing.  Even our youngest children can tell when the pressure tank is full and run out to shut off the gen-set.  Living off-grid has become second nature.  But, once in a while, we take stock, and then we realize how much work living off the grid truly requires.  

Back in the day, when I wanted to do laundry, I simply walked into the laundry room, tossed some clothes into the washer, pushed the button and let the washing machine do the rest.  After the washing machine was done with it's magic, I would put the clothes into the dryer, let them spin and fold wonderfully soft, warm, clean laundry.  Simple, yes?  Not so much now that we are living the "simple" life.  When I did laundry this morning, I had to go outside to start the generator.  When I got to the shed, I realized that the generator was empty and I needed to fill it with fuel.  Grabbing the funnel, I filled the generator, pulled the choke, switched the breakers off and pulled the cord.  The generator hummed to life.  I turned off the choke, flipped on the breakers and headed back into the shouse.  Before I started the laundry, I took a few minutes to flush and plunge the toilet.  Because we don't flush every time (limited water, you know), I have to flush and plunge every time the generator is on - every time - for twelve years.  The plunger and I are on a first name basis!  After flushing, I started the laundry.  I do have a washing machine (with hot water!), so washing clothes is really pretty simple.  Once the clothes have been washed, I plop them into a laundry basket, cart it out to the kitchen and proceed to shake out each article and hang it on the clothes horse.  After the clothes horse is full, I heft it up (on the pulley) to get it out of the way.  Once the clothes have been hung, I take the towels and sheets and any other large items to the stairs and hang them to dry.  This is living the REAL off-grid dream.
Getting ready to start the generator
Laundry on the Clothes Horse
Continuing on with my day, I check our Tri-metric, which is a meter telling us how much electricity we are using or making.  If we get low on power (22.5 volts or lower) I start the generator and charge our batteries.  If the batteries are low, I turn off non-essential electronics and make sure the electric kettle and microwave are not used.  If the batteries are particularly bad, I start the generator and plug in our industrial battery charger and really put the current to the battery bank.  This is living the REAL off-grid dream.

The Tri-metric (using 17.3 amps)
The battery bank
Cooking and baking used to consist of turning on the electric oven, setting a timer and going about my other business.  Now, my culinary skills have been honed by the heat of a wood cookstove.  In order to get my oven ready for baking, I split kindling and small wood, open the drafts and put my arm in the oven to determine proper baking temperatures.  Once in the oven, I rotate food regularly, put heat shields over the tops and sides of pans to keep things from burning and measure baking time with my nose.  This is living the REAL off-grid dream.

Getting the fire good and hot
An oven full of goodness!
I don't regret moving to a shouse in the middle of a prairie and leaving power lines far behind.  I love the way that we live.  But our lives are full of hard work and sacrifice.  The romantic notions of oil lamps and cozy quilts have been tempered by the realities of noisy generators, heavy clothes horses and fussy wood cookstoves.  

Had I known before going off-grid how much work it would be, I think I would have balked.  I am so glad I didn't know - I would have missed so much.  I would have missed learning what I couldn't live without - and what I could live without.  I would have missed  learning how to keep going when things got tough.  I would have missed learning how to make do with little.  I would have missed living the REAL dream.


  1. We're heading off grid permanently at the end of July this year. Although we have had the odd two / three weeks on our smallholding, and therefore know most of the pro's and con's, I, too, can't wait.

    Do you not have suitable weather so that you can hang your clothes outside to dry? And have you ever considered buying and using a solar oven - they are brilliant!

  2. Enola Gay,

    I love this post, it is the ultimate dream to live off the grid. I would give anything to live totally off the grid this very moment. As I get older, I find myself getting extremely annoyed with the B.S. of the world today. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I enjoyed this post...thank you for sharing. I have had to lived with little means in my life time and know of hard work and sacrifice,but in the end at night when my kids were tucked safe in bed and all was calm and was then I realized just how truly blessed we as a family were. That life helped to make my now grown children become the sensible men and women they are today. They have no regrets of what some would consider a less than fortunate childhood. And I have no regrets of all the hard work that went into it. We lived "One day at a Time"...and trusted God for the grace for it......blessings

  4. Wonderful post, as always! You are so lucky in so many ways.

    (and that pastry pictured looks yummy!)

  5. Thank you for cutting through the gauzy romance and telling the unvarnished truth. It helps keep me awake and get ready to what I could do if I had to, and what I'm not REALLY going to do unless I have to. I really appreciate your writing.

  6. You make me thankful for the electricity we use at the flip of a switch and I'm thankful for our electric dryer that makes it possible for me to do laundry on my schedule - I don't have to wait for a sunny day to hang our clothes on the line. We even have a Surge milker for our dairy cow! Still, my city friends and co-workers think we're crazy to live in the country as we do. Sometimes I'm tempted to think like them. I was especially irritated by the lack of storage space in our home. Our few closets really bugged me UNTIL I saw your post showing how you store supplies in your home. I was humbled. I'm trying now to have an attitude of thankfulness for what we have - even while preparing for a day when we may have to do without. Perhaps I should milk the cow by hand once in a while, just to stay in practice! :) Blessings to you and yours and thanks, so much, for re-directing (again!) my focus! MB

  7. I have also lived this lifestyle for a long time. I had friends visit from LA who were interested in the lifestyle, but had no experience with being off grid and self sufficient. After spending some time at our home they confided to me that "I never knew you could be so comfortable living this way. Nothing seems to be lacking, just the means to the end differs."

    Gas lights for backup, Photovoltaics powering LED lights, freezer, refrigerator, washing machine. Yup! Everything needed can easily be accomodated. By the way, I have never met any stove I like to cook on better than the Pioneer Maid.


  8. we are not off grid, but we live our daily lives as though we are..and homesteading on a shoe string aint for sissies. it takes alot of courage and determination to live as you wish to live these days!

  9. Now you have me dreaming about cinamon rolls!

  10. The conveniences of ON GRID living must be paid for with money; OFF GRID living is paid for with hard labor and doing without, plus the cost of any panels, charge controllers, inverters, batteries, generators and fuels. Those who romanticize about off grid living, may only see the independence that is obtained and be unaware of the physical costs in labor and equipment. Your article, and the others that preceded it on this topic, truly exposes the truth.

    I grew up in military base housing. Lights came on at the flip of a switch, water flowed from the tap when you turned the handle, the furnace came on when the temperature dropped. We turned off lights as we left the room, water was conserved and the heat was kept low. We were taught that the taxpayers were footing the bill for the house and the utilities and we were not to be wasteful. I marveled at my mother's parents who lived in the country and heated with only wood, did not have a bathroom in the house (the outhouse was straight out the west door, and they had a hand pump well, and kerosene lamps on the wall. At some point a faucet was installed in the kitchen, so dishes and cooking could be done with less labor and "bathing" and "shampooing" could be accomplished easier, but all water had to be heated on the wood stove. We children loved using hatchets to cut kindling, stacking wood and bringing it in, pumping water from the well and washing up outside (no dirty feet in grandma's house or on her sheets, it was a chore to clean floors and wash sheets!). There was a ladle on the pump and one cup at the sink, and everyone drank from them. Dishes certainly were not dirtied between meals. Any snacking we did was a cookie out of the jar or an apricot, strawberry, tomato or potato from the garden. I loved helping but I do realize what I was enjoying was a long day of work for Grandma.

    In 1972, my father was stationed overseas and we returned to the US in late 1975. Grandma and Grandpa had a new house, with an indoor bathroom, a modern kitchen and carpet everywhere and light fixtures on the ceiling and more than one outlet in a room. It was so nice for grandma and her pride was evident. They were retired and the modern conveniences were well deserved, but oh, how I missed the lovely worn linoleum and hardwood floors, the patterned wallpapers that grandma redid when needed, the handpump well that had been replaced by a spigot and a well pump that needed electricity, the warmth of the woodstoves, and the dark coolness of the cellar lined with hundred of jars full of colorful fruits and veges, and the sand filled boxes of carrots and potatoes.

    I long for a hand pump well and a outhouse and the simplicity of the very highly ordered life my mom's parents had. My husband doesn't want to live in an old farmhouse and only would if he had to. When I think of my grandparents life, I see security by knowing that what I need is only a chore away, not a paycheck away and then only if the grid and the government deems it so. It was hard work, especially for Grandma, as it is today for you, Enola. Thanks for reminding us all.

    Sorry so long,

  11. I have done much research into being "off-grid" with solar. Hopefully very soon I will make it a reality. Right now, I am trying to hook our water well up to it's own independent system first. (Baby steps..LOL) I have visited hundreds of websites and hope the information is right. Reading this post encourages me. Thank you.

  12. Ahhhh, the simple life, but not the easy life. So many think they are the same but they are not. The simple life is hard work but oh so satisfying. The easy life has led the country to the dilemma we are in today.