Sunday, February 6, 2011

Simple Survival

Having lived off the grid for over ten years, running the gamut from completely non-electric to a fairly technical hybrid solar system, I have come to understand the complexities of real survivability in an extended grid-down situation.

The more complex our off-grid system has become, the more convinced I am that the simpler your system, the more viable it will be long term.  I have also realized that the more components that make up your system, the more fragile and prone to failure it is.  If any one system ceases to function, or function properly, it will affect the entire system.  Our photovoltaic system is a perfect example.  Our solar panels work wonderfully, however, the first day we installed our charge controller, it malfunctioned.  We installed a new charge controller, which worked perfectly, but about a year later, one of our two inverters quit functioning properly.  Without both inverters, we were no longer able to produce 220 volts, making pumping water from our well impossible, without a generator.  We have had generators fail, batteries lose cells and wind turbines fall out of the sky.  Our system is incredibly vulnerable.  If any one component fails, our entire system fails.  If you look to the power grid to provide your household electrical needs, your vulnerability is increased tenfold.  Our system, however primitive, has only five components capable of failing.  The power grid has hundreds.

Ultimately, you can spends thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on alternative energy, and you will still be quite vulnerable to complete system failure.  Looking to our forefathers for inspiration will yield a much more sustainable lifestyle that will provide our families with not just the ability to survive for the long term, but the tools and knowledge to flourish.  When considering a grid-down lifestyle, you may want to consider old fashioned alternatives versus high-tech options.  Here are some things that Sir Knight and I have discussed:

1.  Water:  Gravity fed is always optimal, of course, but when that is unavailable, low tech options are best.  Hand pumps for your well, water filters for ground water and water catchment systems are low tech, practical options.  When you rely on two inverters (like we do), if one fails, you are out of luck.  If you rely on your generator (like we do), running out of fuel or having your generator break down will really ruin your day.

2.  Food Storage:  Root cellars are great!  They are practical, time tested, reliable methods of storing food for the long term.  Keeping canned goods in a root cellar will increase their shelf life and your root crops will last all winter in their most nutritious state.  You can keep many foods fresh longer in a root cellar.  They require no power and very little maintenance.  Everyone should have one!

3.  Food Storage II:  An ice house would be an incredible, wonderful luxury.  With a little pre-planning, it is very attainable.  Milk, butter and other dairy products will keep well, even in the heat of summer, in a well insulated ice house.  Your lemonade and iced tea would actually have ice in it.  Ice cream wouldn't be an unheard of treat.

4.  Food Storage III:  Creating a "winter refrigerator" is a convenient, do-able idea.  Sir Knight plans on cutting holes in the back of our well insulated refrigerator and plumbing it to the outside, so that, when it is cool in the winter, we have the ability to open the holes in the back of the refrigerator and let the outside air cool our food.  Low tech and non-electric, it is a wonderful food storage option for the cooler winter months.

5.  Hot Water:  Plumbing a hot water tank into your wood cookstove provides free domestic hot water.  It too, is low tech, using only plumbing, not gas or electricity, just natural convection.

6.  Waste Management:  Everyone, and I mean everyone, should have an outhouse!  Very few folks will be able to keep up with a water supply capable of running a toilet.  An outhouse is a very sanitary method for dealing with the call of nature.  It would be by far less expense to build the Taj Mahal of outhouses than it would be to have an alternative energy system capable of running basic plumbing.

7.  Lighting:  Having a number of high quality kerosene lanterns and a supply of fuel, having candles and knowing how to make them, or utilizing a very simple 12 volt solar system (not requiring inverters) are preferable to a solar system like ours, that requires inverters, huge battery banks and charge controllers.

All said and done, we have learned a huge amount in our off-grid adventure.  One of the most valuable lessons has been "the simpler, the better".  We will keep our off-grid system, however, we will make a concerted effort to simplify.  Sir Knight is collecting all of the cables necessary to rewire our system to bypass the charge controller and inverters, if need be.  We are planning our root cellar and ice house.  An outhouse is on the books.  We have been stocking up on wick, fuel and spare parts for our kerosene lamps and lanterns.  Redundancy is good, but simple is better.


  1. How does one go about learning how to make and fill an ice house though. I have often thought of this myself but have no knowledge of how to do it. Ice and sawdust after it is in the ice house, but how to cut the ice and specifics about building the ice house are my concerns.

  2. Great ideas. We have tied to the grid solar, but have been talking about changing at least part of it. The cellar is full and we wish it was larger.

    Thanks again for the ideas.

    Steve in Central CA

  3. It's so nice to read the experiences from someone who has been living off-grid and not just dreaming of doing so, as so many other bloggers do. Experience speaks volumes.

    Yes, keeping things simple is the way to live whenever possible and practical. I enjoy the benefits of modern America, but am preparing to live a much simpler life should the poo hit the propeller. I pray it doesn't, but plan as if it is inevitable.

    Imagine if the country went "green" with all the solar and wind contraptions, we'd be freezing in the dark in no time because the technology just isn't there yet to make them practical for 99% of the people. Too expensive, too complicated, too prone to trouble. Nope, I'll live as my grandparents did and act as if electricity was never developed.

    My mother only ate ice cream in the winter - when there was enough ice on the water trough to chip off and make the stuff. Simple.

    Soda pop was made with a fresh orange or lemon, some bubbly mineral spring water right out of the spring itself, and a spoonful of sugar. Simple.

    Almost all towns used to have an ice house. The ice man would deliver a block or two to each household. We may get back to that someday. What's old is becoming new again.
    With modern insulating materials, an icebox could retain ice for up to two weeks, as my newest ice chest does. Maybe making efficient iceboxes for the home will become a new industry?

    NoCal Gal

  4. Enola,
    Why an ice house and not a spring house?
    Why an outhouse and not a low tech sawdust/peat moss composting toilet?

  5. We discovered a small cellar under the old milkhouse room in the barn. I'm thinking it was to put the fresh milk in to cool back in the day. Would work as an ice box. Also, heating is a big thing up here. With a wood cookstove it would heat the house or at least the kitchen, we also have a wood furnace in our basement. We bought a handpump for our well in case of no electricity. And don't forget those solar powered radios and flashlights. We have a long way to go to get ready to go off grid, but it's a start.

  6. When it comes to TEOTWAKI, you are the "Joneses"!!! :) I have a basement, and my dad told me if nothing else, all I need to do for a root cellar is hang up 3 blankets on a north wall in a spot w/o windows - cheap, easy, 10 minute root cellar to get me started. Of course, it would help to have a garden so I can put things I grow in it!

    My security system digs up all my plantings. (An 85lb black lab/rott mix. He's my first level of defense before I have to start shooting. It's worked out well so far.)


  7. So Enola, please explain what a good quality oil lamp would be. Does good quality have to equal expensive? - I have a couple of old oil lamps that are all glass, not "names" but they're pretty, and they produce light. Now I'm curious what would make a better quality lamp.

    (Beth, I hope nobody ever shoots your sweet security system. That's what I'd hate about using a dog as the first line of defense: They can get hurt.)

  8. Enola -

    You mention "high quality kerosene lanterns" but in your tools of the trade post you mentioned Coleman Lanterns and Dietz kerosene lanterns. I own both Colemans and a Dietz, and the Coleman by far puts out more light and does not experience the dimming as soot coats the inside of the glass on an oil lantern or lamp. Oil lamps are fine if the goal is enough light to get around a room without hitting stuff, but particularly as I get older I find I need much brighter light in order to read or do any real work.

    Only one of my Coleman Lanterns and one of my Coleman Stoves are dual fuel (burn either liquid Coleman fuel or unleaded gasoline), but particularly given today's cost of fuel (propane is way up, Coleman fuel is $8.88 / gal at Walmart, but unleaded is still under $3.00 / gal) if I buy any more Coleman Lanterns or stoves they will be the Powerhouse Dual Fuel models.

    So given all of the above, why no mention of Coleman lanterns this post? Yes they are more complex than a Kerosene lamp or lantern, but they are also vastly more usable for the tasks where you really need lighting.


  9. Enola,

    Since we live in Alaska, frozen food in the winter is not a problem (unless you don't want it frozen!), and a properly insulated (against freezing!) root cellar doubles as a refrigerator since the year-round temps are between 35 & 40 degrees. But, for those of you not in the Far North, there are few ways to keep your food refrigerated and/or frozen that are really simple and not so construction-intensive as an ice house... especially for folks who don't have cold enough winters for ice or access to a river or pond.

    Sundanzer makes wonder DC direct chest fridges and freezers... hook up a PV panel to them and you're good to go, no inverter or charger required (although a charger and a backup battery are nice to have).

    We have the small freezer (5 cu ft) that we use to keep some perishables frozen in the summer, and make ice blocks/blue ices. We don't have a refrigerator, so we use those ice blocks/blue ices in a large cooler that we cover with an old water heater blanket. In the winter, we turn off the freezer and it's just a food storage chest, and we make blocks of ice for the cooler on the porch or just set the cooler out with the lid propped open an inch if it's not too cold out at night.

    Since water is a hard commodity out here, we use blue ices or make ice blocks in plastic tubs with lids. That lets us simply refreeze the same water over and over, and keeps the food in the cooler from getting soggy.

    We keep a quick "fridge" in the kitchen for things we're going to use that day, or use frequently. This is simply an insulated bay window seat with air vents. One of our neighbors simply left a gap between the studs of an outer wall, installed shelves and added an insulated cabinet door to make his "fridge".

    Thinking outside the box is a skill that so many of us off-grid homesteaders require. Hope my ideas spark some of your own :)

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  11. Unfortunately, we all don't live in the same climates. I live in the South/Midwest, so we don't get enough snow during the winter to play in, much less get ice to cut and put in an ice house. Our soil is clay and not very deep, underneath is sandstone, and we have a high water table. No basement here for me! Also I can't dig into a hill to make a root cellar, because the land is flat. I do have a well and a septic system. The septic tank is on the front (public) side of the house and the well is in the back. I won't make an outhouse anywhere behind my house because of the possibility of contaminating the water table from which I draw my water; and I'm not putting one up in the front yard!

    Things I would like to do are: install a solar hot water system; have a non-electric option to pump the water up from my well; and continue to insulate my house to minimize the heat in the summer and the chill (such that it is) in the winter, which includes installing energy-efficient windows.