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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How "living off the grid" saves money

Off the grid living is sometimes accomplished with green energy investments
Living "off the grid" reduce or eliminates utility costs

 By Angie Picardo

In this era of global warming, recession, and unemployment, wouldn’t it be nice to just get away from it all? Paying continuously escalating bills, while watching climate change affect our environment on a global scale, can seem overwhelming. While the world hammers down on us, some people have left for a better, cleaner world---and it isn’t Mars. Living off the grid is becoming increasingly popular today, not only for its greener, more eco-friendly reasons, but for its money saving benefits as well.

What does living off the grid mean?

First of all, the grid in question pertains to the overall power grid that most of us are plugged into, in order to receive electricity, gas, and water. So, living off the grid means being removed from these public utilities and existing as an autonomous residence, producing your own power. This can be done in several different ways, with varying extremities. 

On one side, there are survivalists---those living without any sort of electricity or communication devices, a traditional water and sewer system, a reliance on farming for food, and few possessions. They live off the land in a very self-sufficient way. However, while you can certainly see the financial benefits of this choice, not many folks are as keen on pursuing a survivalist lifestyle. Many houses are partially off grid or totally off grid, with the appropriate hardware and appliances to make it work.

How much can I save living off the grid?

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the nation’s average monthly electricity bill was $110.14 in 2011. Water and sewer usage is more difficult to calculate due to the range of use and region, but CNN reported in February 2012 that the average national monthly water bill was $335 per year.

Off the grid electricity

The first step to living off the grid is becoming independent from your area’s electricity utility. Solar power is usually the first go-to. Solar panels placed on a house’s roof are the most common ways to use the sun’s energy. This natural energy is then converted to usable energy, from DC (direct current) power to AC (alternating current) power that you actually use. These DC and AC batteries are usually stored near the solar panels, like under them, in a garage. 

To get started using solar panels, a consultation of your house is in order: square footage, how much electricity is used daily, and so on. From here, you can decide if you want to pursue solar energy from an ever increasing business (California is leading the country in solar energy).

Harnessing wind power through a wind turbine sitting atop a tower can also be used as well. Wind turbines are placed on your property in an open space. Like solar panels, wind power is converted from DC to AC for you to use.

Many homes combine both solar and wind power to run their homes, as they cover the most natural accessible energies. With enough power generated, your monthly utility bill will vanish. That’s a savings of $1,321.68 a year. Moreover, if you produce more energy than you use, you can even sell it back to your old utility company.

Off the grid water

There are several ways to get off the grid water wise. The most simple way is digging a private well. A pump brings out the water. The deeper the well is, the cleaner the water. However, it is still a good idea to install a filter, both for health and taste reasons. To avoid any sort of contamination, be sure to hire a certified well driller; if a well isn’t dug properly, you run the risk of getting sick.

Building a cistern can also be an alternative to getting water from a public utility. Cisterns are large tanks that catch water from rain, funneled from gutters, and then pumped back into your home to use when you need it. Take into consideration what kind of water you want; if you want drinkable water, a clay or metal roof is best, as they are cleaner. Filters can be used on shingled roofs, but this is an extra cost. As with solar and wind energy, it is important to consider if your area will receive enough rain for a cistern to be worth it.

Installing a septic tank is the way to go in order to get off the public sewer line. Septic tanks are large containers collecting and releasing waste. It is important to have septic tanks checked and treated every year, as no one wants a soiled property. Composting toilets can also be used, too. Composting toilets commonly use an aerobic processing system to compost waste, with a minimal use of water.

You can also use gray water---water collected from washing dishes, bathing, etc.---to flush the toilet, if a septic tank or composting toilet isn’t right for you. As with the saved electricity costs, going off grid with water and sewer lines will save you $355 annually. However, if you purchase drinking water, these savings change.

Off the grid heating

Propane is usually used as a gas source in off the grid homes. Wood-burning stoves are a great way to both cook and heat your home, too. There is also a building technique, passive solar construction, that uses a house’s surrounding environment to heat and cool the house naturally.

Is living off the grid worth it?

Now, after hearing about all that needs to be done to go off the grid, is it worth it? First of all, to successfully go off the grid, you will need to be willing to spend some money to save some money. Solar panels range from $300 to $20,000 depending on your region and how much electricity you use, and an effective wind turbine costs between $15,000 and $25,000---not including installation costs for both. Private wells range from $3,000 to $15,000. Cistern prices range as well, depending on how intricate you want it and how much installation is done yourself. Composting toilets range from $300 to $3,000. You see the idea; costs depend on your home, region, how much you want to live off the grid, and how much you are willing to spend.
Despite the stackable costs to begin living off the grid, you will ultimately save on the monthly expenses of electricity, gas, and water. Since your home is disconnected from the public power grid, no more bills! But living off the grid is not necessarily just about saving money (however nice that is!). Your carbon footprint is dramatically reduced, and you are helping conserve our fragile planet. While living totally off the grid may not be right for you at this time, it is worth considering going partial. Even one small step will make a difference. If your wallet won’t thank you, Earth will.


  1. http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/living-off-the-grid.htm
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Off-the-grid

About the author: Angie Picardo is a staff writer for Nerd Wallet, a site dedicated to best information on green investing.

Image credit: Michael Adams; CC BY SA-3.0

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