si dawson

experiments in self-improvement

Category: home

Living Off The Grid

The other night I went to hang out with a friend’s dad who has lived off the grid for 20 years.

I first started hearing about this sort of thing in detail shortly before the Y2K debacle. Lots of tech guys who knew way too much got super convinced that the end of the world was nigh – airplanes would fall from the sky, public utilities collapse and society in general was about to grind to a halt indefinitely.

Of course, none of this actually happened, but it did provide a lot of opportunities to read about people’s ideas for living off the grid – ie utterly self-sufficiently, independent (as much as possible) from society at large.

This is the first chance I’ve ever had to meet anyone who’s successfully done it.

The house is in the Santa Cruz mountains in California, USA:

(Yes, exactly there. Hehe)

With any house, you need power (to turn into light, heat, cooling, web browsing & so on). Typical options are wind, solar hydro, gerbils in treadmills etc – but none of these would work here due to the massive redwoods (except maybe the gerbils).

The energy source for this house is the propane tank:

It's about the size of a small submarine.

This runs a propane fridge (not pictured, since it just looks like, well, a fridge) & the generator.

Now, here’s where the real magic happens.

The generator is basically just an engine (like in a car) with an alternator (also like a car) that turns that rotational energy (ie, the wheels spinning around) into Alternating Current (AC).

So, the generator looks like this:

It's shiny coz it's a year old. They last about 5 years, typically.

This spits out AC electricity. Now, AC is good for things you plug into the wall. In this part of the world, electric sockets are 120V AC, so you could, in theory, just run everything off the generator. Catch is, you wouldn’t want it running all the time. For a start, it’s noisy as hell. Secondly, you typically don’t draw constant current from the wall (eg, notice how your fridge switches on & off), which means wasted power.

So, the power needs to be stored somewhere – batteries. Batteries work in Direct Current (DC) not AC, so you need convert AC to DC. That’s what this box does:

The ACDC converter box then plugs into the batteries:

See how they look like normal car batteries? That’s not an accident. They’re actually marine batteries, which means they charge deeper & slower, but last longer. They’re basically exactly the same as car batteries though. Batteries last anywhere from 3-5 years before they stop holding their charge & need to be replaced. Since they need to be replaced relatively regularly, cheap & common is a better option that fancy, rare, expensive and possibly better performing.

The batteries take 4 or 5 hours to charge up. They’re then converted from DC (stored in the batteries) into AC, & fed back into the house by this (the DCAC converter):

All this stuff is in a shed out the back of the house – remember the noise from the generator? Yep, far away is good.

The house itself is a great little two bedroom cottage:

It was built by first towing a caravan up there (& living in that), then slowly extending it, piece by piece. Eventually the only bits of the caravan left were the kitchen & the bathroom. Looking at them now though, you’d never guess. Other than some old formica, they look exactly like regular rooms (otherwise I would have taken a photo).

There’s also a wood fire, which makes a huge difference in winter, of course. So here’s an interesting tidbit. It turns out that if you run a cast iron stove day & night for 20 years, you burn right through the cast iron. Who even knew that was possible? Incredible.

Water is fed in from a stream that runs through the top of the property (ie, via gravity feed). The drop from the top to the bottom of the property isn’t really enough to get any power off though – the property would need to drop about 100 ft for that. There’s also about 5 foot a year of rain, although there’s no real need to collect it.

Sewage is dealt with in a common way, it pipes out into what’s called a leach pit, which is basically a field made of a bunch of rocks of different sizes, where it then breaks down naturally & fertilizes the land.

In terms of being off the grid, the only connection the house has to the outside world is a telephone line. Here’s the catch: It took two years & him getting all 25 houses on his dirt road to ring the local telco 8-12 times each before it happened. The local installation guys said it was the biggest project they’d ever done.

And what’s it like to live there? It’s like this:



    I got a set of earplugs a few years back, when I was heading off to Burning Man.

    I saw on them on ebay for, I dunno, maybe 30 bucks. I’m thinking ok, I’ll be there ten nights, I want really good earplugs, since people running around with airhorns at 7am is a relatively common occurrence. 3 bucks a night for decent sleep? So worth it. So, I bought ’em.

    And a pack of 40 sets turned up.

    Uhh, well, ok then.

    So, this meant I had a ton to give away at Burning Man (gifting is a huge thing there), so that worked out pretty well.

    Anyway, these are industrial earplugs. They have 3 baffles on them. You reach over your head with your opposite hand & pull the top of your ear up to straighten the ear canal, then push them super deep so as many baffles as possible as in action., like this:

    & here’s a pdf of full instructions, you know, just in case you’ve ever been curious about how to put ear plugs in.

    So, you see, these are serious ear plugs, not your nickel & dime jobbies. It does take a bit of getting used to, shoving them that deep inside your ear – but that’s where the ear straightening comes in. If you don’t get all three baffles into your ear canal, then they’re average-ok (like foam earplugs, for example), but not super-great.

    Ok, so that’s all well & good. I learned how to put ear plugs in properly, la la la.

    Last year, I went to a thing called Con Fest (a hippie festival, stands for conference-festival. worst naming ever), here in Australia. Took my earplugs, and an eye mask. Found a great little spot in the forest. Super convenient, isolated & wonderful.

    Then four cars drove up, & these farm hands up from up north came and camped, literally, on top of me. I was surrounded on all sides, with my tent right in the middle of their dining area. So much for getting away from civilization.

    Ok, fast forward a few days. I do my usual going to bed routine. Crawl into my sleeping bag (my “beeping slag,” hehe), listen to some David Bowie, then put on my eye mask, insert earplugs & drift off.

    The next morning I get up around 10, get out of my tent, stretch & go about my business. Weird thing – everyone is saying things like “Oh man, we feel really sorry for you” and “Oh wow, how are you feeling?” to which I’m responding “Why?” and “Awesome, why?”

    Turns out one of the guys in the camp-around-me, who’d been dropping acid every four hours around the clock for four days, had been screaming at the top of his lungs. All night. Every single campsite for two blocks in every direction had been shouting at him to shut up.. & he’d been shouting back. & flashing his torches all over my tent etc etc.Everyone else in the area hadn’t slept a wink & were utterly wrecked.

    I hadn’t noticed a thing and slept like a baby. Through it all.

    I like my earplugs.


      The Upside to Abusing Cacao

      Last night about 9pm I had a fruit salad. It was tasty. What wasn’t so clever was putting raw chocolate sauce on it (cacao powder, coconut oil, raw honey).

      I went to sleep around 1-1:30ish. At 3:30 I woke up, wide awake, and could NOT get back to sleep.

      Ok, so cacao late at night = bad idea. I’ll remember that. I’ve now been awake for 20 odd hours, and it doesn’t show signs of abating.

      One upside though, I got to watch the sunrise. Because of the incredible weather patterns over Melbourne – a combination of sea air, interesting landmass curvature, mountains and many thousand miles of desert air, all combining in one place – I got to see all this in the space of about an hour (click each pic for a bigger version):







      And oddly, after all that, it was actually quite a cloudy day. You can see this starting in the last shot. Amazing.

      I never get tired of watching nature at play.


        Thar’s Gold In Them Thar Street

        I saw this today:

        Yep, a glorious rainbow! Well, that’s one end of it. But take a gander at the other end:

        Have a look at that!! The end of the rainbow is in front of the building. This means, of course, that there’s a pot o’ gold somewhere in my street!


        Amusingly, there’s already a giant hole in the ground right where this ends – they’re digging foundations for a new skyscraper.

        .. or at least, that’s what they say. I reckon they’re just trying to beat me to the gold. Me gold! Me gold! Arrr! (etc)

        So, since it’s a bit of a silly day, have this too (Captain Vegetable):


          Beauty At Dusk

          Winter is finally thawing into spring, the days are slowly getting brighter. It’s finally warm enough to venture onto the balcony at dusk.

          This is what beckoned to me:
          (click for larger version)

          From here I get a three hundred degree view of this every evening. Nothing quite like being overwhelmed by the splendour of nature.

          Ten minutes alone with that & a glass of fresh orange juice and it’s easy to believe that all is well with the world. That tomorrow can only be more beautiful, wondrous and awe-inspiring than today.