Living Off the Grid
When we say a home is off-the-grid, we mean that it is 100%, or close to 100%, energy independent. With no connection to the main power grid, and sometimes no connection to the city water system, off-the-grid homes need to be as efficient and clean as possible. Through in-home generators, solar power, wind power, and clever design, up to 350,000 people in America alone are living comfortable lives off the grid.
Thirty years ago, this was a matter of principle, inspired by the earth-friendly, conservation culture of the 1970s. Today, as fuel prices skyrocket, there is a more practical reason to go off-grid. Alternative energy technologies have dropped in price dramatically – 80% in the last 20 years alone as both demand and production ramp up. As people become more environmentally conscious and seek cheap ways to avoid the high costs of living, these prices will likely fall further.
These six families in the U.S. and Canada all have different reasons for doing what they do. Some are old pros at living off the grid and pioneered the techniques of doing so back in the ’70s. Others are more recent converts trying to live lightly, efficiently, and frugally. The differences between their lifestyles, and the similarities, are striking. But, whatever their motivations, these pioneers of life off-the-grid are paving the way for a cleaner, greener future.
1) Ryan and Janet Costello – Kailua, HI
This husband and wife team owns and manages Organica, an organic food and beverage outlet, and also happen, not coincidentally, to own one of the world’s most stunning off-the-grid homes. Green living is what drives these two, and they do so stylishly as well as sustainably. The warm climate, bright sun, breezy trade winds, and frequent rain make Hawaii an ideal spot for an off-the-grid home, a fact not lost on the Costellos. Hand built and designed with sustainability in mind, their two-bedroom, two-bath home was constructed with only reclaimed and sustainably harvested wood. Its open air construction, with short walls acting more as partitions, allow air to naturally circulate throughout the house. Electricity and hot water are provided by 32 solar panels, and heat for the stove, clothes drier, and backup boiler come courtesy of a 500-gallon propane tank.
The roof channels the abundant rain water into four reservoirs, efficiently capturing it for use around the home. Even the landscaping serves a purpose; the house is surrounded by fruit trees and other edibles including Surinam cherry, mango, banana, starfruit, orange, macadamia nut, coffee, herbs, vegetables, and lilikoi. Most importantly to Ryan and Janet, no trees were harmed in the building of the house. Its posts and beams are reclaimed from the Pearl Harbor Navy Shipyard, formerly used as siding on the docks. 
2) Todd Bogatay – Brisbee, AZ
Born out of 1970s hippie culture and a yen to save the world, Todd Bogotay’s off-the-grid house has since blossomed into a 16-home eco community – fittingly called the Ecommunity – with more homes slated to be built in the future. The forward-thinking architect created his masterpiece 29 years ago, back when most would consider solar and wind power prohibitively expensive, but his long career and expertise as a sustainable home builder have since made him indispensable as the green movement became an industry unto itself in the 21st century. With the recent dramatic drop in the price of alternative energy technology and the corresponding hike of fossil fuel prices, Bogatay’s Ecommunity is now going strong.
The house that Bogatay built in 1982 uses solar panels and wind power as well as collected rain water to make life off-the-grid comfortable. He has had to make a few sacrifices – for instance he uses a small, energy-efficient refrigerator – but by and large his house is one like any other, with satellite TV and high-speed Internet. Situated on a sunny Arizona hillside, Bogatay’s home is not only totally energy independent, it also enjoys some striking views of the valley.  
3) The DerVaes Family – Pasadena, CA
It may seem somewhat incongruous, but the urban homestead owned and run by Jules DerVaes and his family is smack dab in the middle of a bustling California town, and almost completely off-the-grid. On one-fifth of an acre, sandwiched between two highways and surrounded by neighbors, the DerVaeses run a fully functioning farm, complete with crops and citified farm animals. The farm produces over 6,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables a year, most of which they sell to local restaurants.
Solar panels provide enough power to meet all of the homestead’s energy needs, though this is not without caveat. Wherever possible, they have replaced electronic conveniences with their manual and mechanical counterparts; they use a manual washing machine and even a hand-powered blender. They’ve also converted their vehicles to run off-the-grid by producing their own fuel. Used vegetable oil, donated by their customers, is converted to bio fuel in a chemical process that takes several hours, but only costs the family around $1 per gallon.
The family does operate two computers, which serve as their primary access to the outside world. Other modern conveniences include electric power tools, a television, and Netflix. Running water is also a necessity to care for their extensive urban garden. 
4) Thomas Levy – Near Ottawa, Canada
Just outside of the Ottawa suburbs live Thomas Levy and his wife. Their off-the-grid home uses a combination of active and passive solar technology to heat their home and provide electricity, a favorite technique among green technology advocates. The main system is comprised of 865 sharp panels wired to produce 1300 watts of power, aggregate. With 40 watts of power pumping out of each and stored in a battery array, the Levys have enough power to light up their modest home. It is a challenge balancing the need for efficiency with need for comfort, especially in cold Ottawa winters, but with a few carefully placed windows and a backup generator for when all else fails, they easily pull it off.
Part of the solution is an ingenious solar system that can be fine tuned by season, calibrated to collect the maximum amount of sun energy no matter the time of year. By shifting the position of the solar panels to just the right angle, they’re always sure to catch as many rays as possible. The rest is a matter of prioritization. The Levys don’t feel like they’ve sacrificed anything for the cause of energy independence. For instance, at first Thomas was adamant about not having a vacuum cleaner, but after a few months of cleaning the whole house by hand, he made it a priority.
Overall, the Levys are very happy with their living situation, secure in the fact that they have a power source that can never run out: the sun and wind. They hope that their example will inspire thought among their friends and help to pull alternative energy into the mainstream.
5) Steve Krug – New Auburn, WI
Like many off-the-grid homes, this one was conceived out of the energy-conservation culture of the 1970s. Steve Krug has built two off-grid homes, and used the lessons of the first to perfect the second. The property he currently owns in Wisconsin features many luxuries that would seem out of place on an energy independent, super-efficient home, including a fully functional washer/drier, two range stoves, numerous extra bedrooms, and even a jacuzzi and spa. Why all the extras? The house has recently been expanded to serve as a bed and breakfast. And it’s for sale.
In the early ’70s when Krug and his then-small family first traded in their city apartment for a rural life off-the-grid, the entire notion was still experimental. They spent their first winter frantically repairing their broken windmill and shivering when the heat and power systems failed. As their family expanded to three children, Krug built pedal-powered clothes washer just to keep up with the loads of diapers. Today, he enjoys heat year-round thanks to a refined passive solar energy heating system (water-based), active solar/wind electricity generation, and numerous back-up systems including wood-burning stoves and a clean diesel generator for emergencies. 
6) Mike Robinson – Canada
Owner of Canada’s unofficial “greenest home,” Mike Robinson practices what he preaches. Not only did he design and build the super efficient and totally off-the-grid house, he is also the president of Ottawa’s Natural Power Products Inc., a company that specializes in alternative power. The key to the building’s efficiency is concrete – a lot of it. The walls and floors are all solid concrete, making the house one easy-to-heat and easy-to-cool unit. Add to the simple construction a passive solar design including krypton-filled windows and set the main structure several feet below ground level, and you have a house that is always the ideal temperature.
The simplistic exterior belies an attractive and modern interior. The concrete floors have been polished in a warm bronze hue, and the building’s 3 kw active solar panel and 1.3 kw wind mill provide plenty of power for the family’s flat-screen TV. And, thanks to the technology designed by Robinson’s company, their jacuzzi tub always has plenty of hot water. Instead of sacrificing luxuries, the Robinsons make a point of having the most efficient appliances possible. And if the wind dies down or the sky is cloudy, their 45-watt batteries store more than enough energy to keep things running until the sun comes out again. 
This article is from Wellhome, which provides Home Energy Audits or Assessments with the ability to upgrade HVAC, Windows, and Home Insulation, and perform Duct Tightening and Air Sealing to create a comfortable more well balanced home that performs at its best level. Home energy assessments through WellHome allow the homeowner to get a bigger picture of the efficiency of the home and its ability to maintain comfortable temperatures and air flow.
- Hawaii upgrading system to sell power to grid (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Smart Grids Highlight Innovation’s Promise and Where America Leads the World, Even China (forbes.com)
- Blog Post: Fundamentals of Solar: Off-Grid – Online Course Now Live (e2e.ti.com)