Low-Tech Off-Grid Living, by Ani

I’m writing this article early in the morning during a power failure. I’ve only lived in this house for six months but this is not the first power failure I’ve experienced here. Previously I house-sat in this town and experienced a long duration power failure complete with four days or so of no cell service either. I got on my phone and looked up the outage map and realized that my town and a couple of adjacent towns have a significant outage, definitely due to the high winds of last night. The electric utility will begin mobilizing the line crews when it’s light out. Might be a while due to how many customers are without power, our rural and wooded nature and that the wind is still blowing quite well. Meanwhile, the woodstove is burning, I’ve got some tea candles lit and strategically placed small solar outdoor lights, stood up in canning jars, are lending some light around the house as needed. As always, when the power is out, the house, without the ever-present audible hum, at least to me, of the grid powered appliances and lights, is blessedly tranquil and quiet. Plus, the light of the candles always makes me feel at peace in a way that any electric light, no matter where on the color spectrum it falls, cannot.

So why, knowing how frequent the power failures, even during “normal times” are here don’t I have a generator? Why don’t I invest in a PV system? All good questions. Recent articles and comments on SB revealed different trains of thought regarding the use of alternative power systems and generators during power failures or prolonged outages. It was clear that there is a big gap in the outlook between some of the posters and an inability to comprehend why others think as they do. I figured I’d explore this subject further here. This won’t be a “how-to” article, at least not in the sense of complete prescriptive measures and equipment lists although I will throw out some ideas for many categories. Maybe that will come later. It’s just meant to provoke thought, challenge thinking and hopefully generate some good (but civil) discussion.

I should state at the outset that I’m not adverse to technology per se, or to alternative energy. In fact, I lived completely off-grid with a PV/wind system for nearly two decades so I’m pretty well versed in living with alternative energy. It’s also true that when the big ice-storm hit in the late 1990s, my home was the only one that had power as usual during the four days that my neighbors went without power. So yes, having my own power supply not dependent on the grid was handy to be sure.

On-Grid or Off-Grid?

When I went house-hunting in early 2020 I was open to either being on or off the grid. I could see pros and cons of either arrangement. It wasn’t a factor in which house I chose as I knew I could live successfully in either situation, come what may. I honestly didn’t feel that my survival depended on one or the other. I ended up with a house tied to the grid with conventional appliances. I have to admit it’s been fun using an electric dehydrator. I’d say that’s been the number one benefit of living with grid power.! I also know how to do without it again if need be.

So why do I not feel anymore that to be truly self-sufficient and prepared for emergencies such as long-term grid failure, that having either a generator with large fuel stores and/or an alternative energy system is required? What has changed my thinking on this?

I guess firstly that living with an alternative energy system opened my eyes up to how dependent these systems are on the technology that produces them including mining, manufacturing, transportation and all the rest. I don’t for a minute think that any of these products (PV panels, inverters, battery banks, wind generators, etc.) would be produced using alternative energy. They are all dependent, somewhat ironically, on a stable supply of grid power. Add to this their distribution and shipping. All of this is totally dependent on the grid staying up, fossil fuels, marketing, shipping, financial transactions et cetera all functioning well. A generator is likewise dependent on a stable fuel supply as well as necessary parts(and know-how) to keep it running.

My own system was quite simple and assembled using the bare minimum of components. Still, I experienced a failure of the wind gen and separate lightning strikes took out two system components (charge controller and battery bank voltmeter). I was able to get these replaced as the system of manufacturing, shipping et cetera was still functioning as usual. Had it not been my system would have ceased to operate. Could I just store extra components? I suppose. But how many? Store a complete extra system? Two extra systems? Three? And what of the battery bank? I replaced it several times during my tenure there. Should I store two extra sets of batteries? Three? At some point, unless things returned to an adequate level of normal in the outside world such that system components were to be available, my off-grid system would no longer operate. And then what? I guess I decided that I’d be better off exploring the “and then what” piece of this and choosing to live this way from the get-go should grid power fail. That’s really the crux of what I’m going to discuss in the rest of this article.

So what’s “and then what”? How does one live this way? What choices need to be made to successfully live without any grid-power or back-up alternative energy and/or generator power? The overall answer to this I think is “it depends”. It depends on your budget. It depends on where you live. Your family structure. It depends on how you are willing to live and what comforts you choose to live without. I’m writing this as someone living in the far north of the US where heating is a big concern. AC is definitely not an issue, at least for me, although it always surprises me to see how many people here are acquiring AC these days and becoming dependent on it.

Other Lighting and Cooking Alternatives

I’d also add the caveat that I’m classifying what I’d use in a prolonged power outage into several categories. Some are items that are simple, can be stockpiled, but would eventually wear out and not be replaceable should the grid stay down for years. Items like this would be batteries, solar lights, candles (paraffin), kerosene/lamp oil, propane for the cook-stove, etc. Thus flashlights, headlamps and other battery-powered items would work until such time that the bulbs failed, batteries ran out or they just expired. While I’m stockpiling a reasonable supply of items such as batteries, flashlights, tea candles, and the like, I don’t for a minute assume that I can stockpile enough to last forever. Or, that in the case of items such as batteries, that they could remain viable for many years.

During the run-up to Y2K I knew some people that were frantically trying to buy enough “stuff” to last them forever. Unless their lives were foreshortened, and they were all then only in their early 40’s, that seemed like a fool’s errand to me. It’s sort of like trying to stockpile enough food to last you and your family the rest of your lives. The reality is that while you might well be able to put aside a year or two or more of food, eventually the supply would run out. You’d need to be able to produce your own food should the system stay down. Same thing with water storage. It seems to me it would be best to stockpile some food to get you through the immediate crunch/crisis situation but having access to land, tools, seeds, know-how, and so forth is of paramount importance. And having a tested means to secure water supplies once the supply runs out is critical. No way you’re gonna store enough water to last for a lifetime!

An in-between category would include items such as canners (water bath and pressure) and canning jars. The water bath canners will last indefinitely if properly cared for. The pressure canners depend on keeping the gauges functional and seals, if any, in good condition. Canning jars can last indefinitely if cared for. The lids are the most vulnerable piece of this. Stockpiling an ample supply of lids, reusing them as much as possible and also purchasing lids that are meant to be reused will go a long way towards prolonging the use of canning as a food preservation tool. Eventually however, should production not resume, this too would go away as a viable option. I’d include it though as it’s viable, in my opinion, if used thoughtfully, for many years given ample preparation and supplies stored properly.

Guns and ammo would also fall in the “in-between category”. Guns will last a long time if cared for and spare parts can certainly be stockpiled. Ammo can be stockpiled as can reloading equipment and components. Eventually, these too would run out. If you were able to properly store a lot of these it probably wouldn’t be a concern for a long time and maybe not even in your lifetime. A smaller supply or lack of ability to reload would bring the long-term viability of this tool into question.

Another category is items that should be able to be used long-term with only a reasonable amount of maintenance needed. These would include wood stoves(non-catalytic), wood cook-stoves, solar ovens, solar dehydrators, hand-powered tools of all kinds, a hand pump, hand saws, splitting mauls and wedges, outdoor fire-pits for cooking, root cellars, crocks, spring houses etc.

No Re-Supply in Sight

Basically the ability to use a lot of things long-term without the opportunity to resupply them becomes a factor in a long-term grid-down situation. This holds true for items as diverse as toilet paper or OTC and/or prescription medications. Eventually, you will either run out (TP) or the product degrades/expires (meds).

So my way of thinking then calls for me to consider what I would use if the grid were to fail long-term, utilizing the short-term stuff in the beginning as needed, the “in-between” items as long as feasible while also utilizing the items that should be able to last and be usable indefinitely from the get-go. It’s critical in my way of thinking, that knowing how and having practiced in using these long-term tools be a part of my life while the grid is still up and things are relatively “normal”. Perhaps we will never in our lifetimes experience widespread long-term grid failure. Perhaps we will be starting next week or next year. Not possessing a crystal ball I of course don’t know the answer to this. But given the enormity of the situation should it occur, I’d rather be as prepared as possible. Thus, my considerations on and determination to know how to live without any grid, fossil fuel or alternative energy sources long-term.

This way of thinking also applies to food-storage. For instance, I’ve stockpiled some vinegar to use as needed. If resupply became impossible, I’d best know how to make my own vinegar from apples and other locally sourced materials! Same with items as diverse as coffee, tea, canned fish, etc. I’m not going to be able to source coffee beans here so no matter how large my supply; someday they’d run out. Same thing with tea. Ditto for canned fish such as sardines, tuna, or salmon. But knowing how to find and process chicory and dandelion roots and growing various herbs such as mint, lemon balm and so forth means that I can make my own “coffee substitutes” (alas minus the caffeine) and herbal teas if need be. I’m not going to be able to buy local sardines, tuna or salmon here but if I know how to fish and have the gear to do so, I can fish for trout, bass, perch and other fish that are found locally. Or pectin for making jam. If that was no longer available it would be good to know how to make your own pectin from locally available fruit and to have done so. Doesn’t mean you can’t use store-bought pectin now and even stash some away but don’t become dependent on it always being there!

Short Term and Long Term Lists

So how do we prepare now for the potential of long-term disruption of the grid and/or loss of access to fossil fuels without depending too much on technology or alternative energy systems? I’d suggest starting by making a list of the systems that you now depend on. Included in “systems” would be food, water, hunting/defense and others as well as the obvious lighting, heat, and the like.

For each of these include short-term items, “in-between” ones, and long term. As an example, perhaps you use row covers or plastic-covered greenhouses with fossil fuel or electric heaters to grow plants in. While these materials will last for some time if properly stored and cared for, they will ultimately run out and be unavailable in a long-term grid crisis situation. So what will work long-term to replace them? Greenhouses built out of glass, cold frames made with glass, pit-greenhouses covered in glass, wood-heated greenhouses, hotbeds utilizing fresh manure etc. Thinking along this path and then starting to acquire both the info needed to design/build these systems and the materials is a useful endeavor.

Heat and Water

Heating is another “system” that is crucial in many regions. A woodstove is an obvious choice. How to acquire the firewood? Early on a chainsaw can work but eventually, the fuel will degrade or run out as will the parts to keep them running. Having the necessary wood saws, splitting tools and the like and knowing how to use them is a necessary step towards long-term preparedness. Yes, keeping an extra year or two of firewood stocked up as well as extra fuel, oil (both for fuel mixing and chain bar lubrication), chains and chainsaw parts is useful short-term and into that “in-between” stage but eventually all of this would run out.

Water supply is also critical. How would you source water if grid power were down? Having several alternatives and trying them out in advance is important. Possibilities include a hand pump on the well, developing a spring or a pond, taking water from a nearby surface water source, water storage from rain coming off the roofs, at cetera.

Cooking and canning is another critical area of need. If grid power were out and fossil fuels no longer supplied, cooking and canning over a wood fire, either indoors or outside would be an obvious choice. Constructing and using a solar cooker would be another good alternative for both cooking and water purification.

Long-term food storage would no longer be able to depend on electric dehydrators, freeze-dryers, freezing, vacuum sealers, Mylar bags and the like. Instead, low-tech solutions such as canning (while supplies of lids hold out), solar dehydrators, fermentation, pickling, root cellar storage, spring-houses and other options would need to be utilized.

If using guns for hunting were a major piece of your food supply, then I’d suggest learning to use (and make) a re-curve bow and arrows, trapping, etc.

Give It Some Thought

What I’ve tried to do here in writing this article is to generate some thinking on planning for long-term needs should we experience a long term grid disruption. While stockpiling store-bought items such as batteries, candles, and storage foods is important, at least for the short-term part of the crisis, I don’t want us to lose sight of the planning, materials and skills needed to handle a grid-down situation long-term. For me, that planning won’t include high-tech alternative options for the reasons I’ve explained. I’m going to continue to work on my planning to utilize some of the long-term low-tech possibilities I’ve mentioned as well as others so that in the event I am confronted with long-term grid disruption, I will hopefully be better prepared to weather that for years to come.

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