Living Off-Grid Comes With Both Savings and Hidden Expenses
In three years of living off the grid, I've compiled a list of things I wish I'd known before making the big move.
Eric MackContributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is firstname.lastname@example.org.
ExpertiseSolar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/Credentials
Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Budgeting for the off-grid essentials is one thing, but planning for the hidden costs is harder. Three years in, the savings in rent and utilities alone have already paid for the cost of the property itself. But there were also plenty of big purchases as we set up our homestead.
I installed our off-grid electrical and plumbing systems largely by myself during COVID lockdowns. I did speak to professional installers, unlicensed handy folks with experience putting in systems, and plenty of folks in online forums about what I was getting myself into and how much I should expect to spend.
The price range was huge, especially for installing a new solar system. I described the energy needs of my home and family and received estimates between $2,000 and $20,000. It was baffling.
I eventually found someone local with experience in the solar industry who was willing to take a few hours and go over my situation and options in detail. We came up with a system that was going to cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for all components and supplies to get a basic system up and running to meet most of our needs.
But there were surprises to come.
Setting energy expectations
Skimping in the process of setting up a solar system can lead to costs down the road and even be dangerous. Simple mistakes like choosing the wrong size wire to connect your system components can be a fire hazard.
It can also be tempting to overbuild. You can put two dozen solar panels and fill a room with backup batteries to ensure that you have enough energy to run all sorts of power tools whenever you want, or you can simply start a generator for a few minutes when you need a power boost.
We've taken a minimalist approach, as evidenced by our home, which is under 1,000 square feet. Our solar array is rated for 1.23 kilowatts, and we started with a pair of six-volt golf cart batteries wired in series to create a 12-volt system connected to an inverter that can handle the wattage from the solar panels and our 4-kilowatt back-up generator.
It's a pretty small system by modern energy consumption standards, but this was a deliberate choice. We got rid of our high-powered vacuum cleaner, clothes dryer, Instapot and a few other electron-hungry appliances.
Luxuries we opted to hold on to or even add to our off grid life include a modest-size flat screen TV, a conventional washing machine -- although a quite efficient one -- and the unusual choice to go with a wood pellet stove for heat. Most people in our off-grid community use propane or a simple wood stove for heat, but after years of dealing with wood stoves elsewhere, pellets offer a worthwhile degree of ease and control, even though it uses an electric igniter to start up. It can be a big power draw that sometimes requires starting up the generator in the low-light days of winter.
Essential electricity expenses
To keep all your electrical gadgets in functioning order, they should "think" they're on the grid. This means installing quality batteries, inverters, charge controllers, breakers and even wire that can provide a steady, safe supply of electricity at a consistent voltage. There are myriad off-grid stories of appliances being fried by cheap inverters, among other things.
I think we made a mistake using the flooded lead acid golf cart batteries, due to the amount of maintenance and attention they require. It was our best option at the time due to the supply chain problems of 2020, but we've since upgraded to lithium batteries, which are safer, lower maintenance, longer lasting and more expensive.
I also believe we should have invested more in a generator that includes more features like remote start, quiet running and a compact size. It's just very unpleasant when your system's low-voltage alarm goes off at 4 a.m. in a blizzard, sending you across the property to start the generator.
Other hidden costs
Taking charge of our own water supply required a few big specialty purchases, including a pair of huge 1,600-gallon plastic tanks to store rain and hauled water, a waterless compost toilet and an on-demand hot water heater. All three came with a bit of sticker shock. (see below)
A major expense of living off grid I have never heard anyone else mention is storage, especially if you're living in a remote location. You don't want to be caught without a key part when it fails if the nearest replacement is an hour away or more. Having all those extra parts on hand requires space to store them. A cheap and easy to assemble outdoor shed was one of our first projects, even before our plumbing was fully installed.
Plus, off-grid solar systems need their own spaces too -- batteries, inverters, generators, pumps and the tools to maintain them are all things most traditional homeowners don't need to find space for. If you don't have that space in your home, you'll likely need to build or buy it.
Generally speaking, living off grid and/or remotely is going to require more than a Prius to haul supplies to the homestead. This isn't a rule, but my life would just be harder without a truck or a trailer for hauling things like building supplies, water, wood pellets and more. I definitely spend more at the pump than I did living in the center of a town.
This is to say nothing of our biggest single expense, which was fixing our long dirt driveway that was becoming a rutted mud bog during monsoon season.
Our biggest expenses in our first three years living off-grid:
1. $4,600 for 100 tons of road bed to fix the driveway 2. $3,500 for all solar system components 3. $2,200 for a water-free, non-electric compost toilet 4. $1,500 for two 1,600-gallon water tanks 5. $1,200 to upgrade to lithium batteries 6. $1,000 for a high-efficiency 12-volt fridge (that's smaller than a typical fridge) 7. $1,000 for a wood pellet heater 8. $750 for a high-altitude on-demand propane water heater
There's another major expense missing here too. With the exception of fixing the driveway, all installation and labor was done for free, by me. If I'm honest, I can't recommend this to most people. I was in over my head and spent tons of time learning before starting a project and then more time correcting the inevitable mistakes I made anyway. But for me, this was and continues to be an important part of the experience.
I definitely recommend finding professionals to do the work for you. So add several thousand more dollars to the list of expenses. Sorry.
But, in today's housing market, even with the hidden expenses, it still adds up to a great value for a home that's more independent and self-reliant than so many mansions, which are only as luxurious as the gas, power and plumbing systems they're connected to.