What it's really like to go off-grid

House in the woods
Would you take the plunge and leave the modern world behind?
"I built a rainwater tank as big as the house, and we get power from solar panels and leisure batteries," Nick Rosen
  • | by Kath Denton

We humans are designed to move forward. To learn, achieve and make the world a better place.

Huge advancements in technology, science, and education are shining examples of what we're capable of, but they also have their dark side.

The depletion of natural resources caused by an increased demand for energy. The change in lifestyle brought about by the 24/7, instant communication work ethos. The pressures of mass consumerism. These negative influences are compelling more and more of us to unplug from the digital world and live off-grid.

The number of people going off-grid in the UK is on the up. Some dump the iPhone and ditch the TV to get away from the noise, speed and demands of society. They want to lead a simpler life with less stress.

Others hanker after a more self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own food, producing their own energy. Or simply reconnecting with nature.

For some, going off-grid is not a choice. Hit by the economic turmoil of today's world, they can no longer afford to live in society and so have to find an alternative lifestyle.

What are the realities of off-gridding? We spoke to Nick Rosen, an award winning documentary maker, who runs an off-grid website full of information and resources. He's also written a book about the year he spent travelling the UK meeting the country's off-gridders.

Why did you decide to go off-grid?

"I realised 20 years ago that I didn't have to wait to get my retirement home. I bought part of a beautiful mountainside in Majorca. It was cheap because it was off-grid, it didn't have mains water or power. You can live quite comfortably without them"

What do you use for water and power?

"I built a rainwater tank as big as the house, and we get power from solar panels and leisure batteries. We cook on a gas hob, and our fridge is also powered by Calor gas. We have a hot water shower which gets its water supply direct from the water tank.

"It goes into a combi boiler, just like the ones you get in a house, which runs off Calor gas."

What's been your biggest challenge?

"It's been challenging as I'm not a practical person at all, so I made slow progress. I had to pay people as I couldn't do the work needed to get off-grid."

"Make sure all your suppliers are local, because when your equipment breaks, they can come straight out and fix it rather than paying someone to travel 100 miles to come and do the repairs, as this costs more."

How many people do you think are living off-grid in the UK?

"The problem in England is the laws that prevent travellers settling on land also stop eco-minded people from living inconspicuously on the land.

"There are hundreds of thousands living off-grid, but a couple of million want to. They have that dream but can't live it because of the current laws.

"The Government should do more to encourage off-grid living. It helps with so many high priority problems - from providing cheap housing, to energy security, and rural regeneration"

How much does it cost to live off-grid?

"It doesn't have to be expensive, boats and caravans aren't that expensive to buy. For the same cost as a deposit for a house you can set yourself up and live off-grid."

Has the experience turned out to be as you'd imagined it?

"The experience has been better than I thought it would be. Technology is getting so much more advanced, for example leisure batteries are getting more and more powerful. There's no longer a need to be on the grid."

What's your top tip for someone thinking about going off-grid?

"Don't do it on your own. Do it with other people. Very few of us have all the skills required to set themselves up. Use a website like mine to team up with others and pool your skills."

Powering your off-grid home

Lodge with solar panels by lake

Finding alternative power and water supplies are the priority when you go off-grid. As far as generating your own power goes, solar energy is the most popular and efficient. Solar cells capture the sunlight and turn it into electricity. Living in Blighty and relying solely on solar power can mean periods of not having any electricity, especially in winter.

You can supplement your power supply with a leisure battery, like the ones used in a motorhome. It's worth investing in a deep cycle battery, a heavy-duty battery which can handle being run down and charged up again more frequently than a normal car battery. Good news indeed when your main focus is conserving your available energy sources.

There are other alternatives such as wind and hydro power. A wind turbine could be an option if you live in a windy area. A four-foot turbine for example, generates enough power to run several appliances.

Living near a water supply such as a stream or river may give you the option of producing micro-hydro electricity. Using the water's current and some nifty kit you can generate electricity all the time.

And don't forget the Calor gas bottle. You can hook them up to pretty much anything as a power supply. The BBQ for cooking, a plumbing system for hot water, they'll even power a fridge.

What about water? Are we talking a return to the good ol' days where we dug ourselves a hole and pulled water from a well? That's definitely an option although it involves all sorts of complicated things like boreholes, filtration systems and pumps.

A simpler way is harvesting rainwater, by collecting it in tanks or reservoirs. A common way is to collect the rain from roofs, but you still have to think about how to filter the water and make it safe to drink.

It seems living off-grid may not be as difficult as you might think. Powering up is fairly straightforward, and thanks to the internet, finding your tribe to help you get started is as easy as firing up a gas-powered BBQ. It's time to live that dream.

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