What does it mean to be "living off the grid?" This is a term that is used in a wide variety of contexts, from a friend or colleague simply choosing to stay away from Twitter during a particularly distressing news story, to a couple you know choosing to put away their techno gizmos for a romantic evening in the country, to someone you know literally cancelling their cable and cell phone contracts...and then, to your horror, building an outhouse. What makes people want to make choices that might seem extreme to the majority of their peers? What are the pros and cons to choosing to live somewhere on this mysterious spectrum?
For those of you who aren't using this term figuratively (the term "grid" usually refers to the power grid when being used in the more literal sense), and who truly want to live a life with as little modern technology as possible, one of your primary motivations is likely to save money. Utility bills are an astronomical part of the average budget, and the concept of reducing or even eliminating them is a strong temptation--if not a total necessity. Another common reason is the desire to reduce or eliminate one's carbon footprint, as concerns rise about climate change and environmental preservation. So how can this be done?
If you truly want to dump your electric company, the best way to go about doing this is to generate enough of either solar or wind energy to supply power for all the needs of your home and family. Most people who do this successfully use both. In order to use solar energy, photovoltaic solar panels need to be installed either onto your roof or close to your house. Photovoltaic technology converts sunlight into usable energy through an electronic process, using silicon semiconductors. The semiconductors contain electrons that are liberated by the energy that comes from the sun. The solar panels then force these electrons into a singular direction so that they may travel through an electrical circuit and be used to power your home.
Wind technology is not so different. You've probably seen residential wind turbines before--they look like airplane propellers, or like the old-fashioned farm windmills in cartoons. They're visible from quite a distance, as they sit atop towers that can range from 50 to 120 feet high. They work exactly like every windmill you've seen in television and film: when the wind blows, the propellers spin, and the spinning shaft of the windmill sends energy to a generator. The terrific thing about wind power is that it is the cleanest possible way to generate energy; there are zero greenhouse emissions with this method. The combination of a powerful windmill such as this one with photovoltaic solar panels can be enough to power your entire home, but many people choose to create a hybrid system by buying some power from the local electric company but saving a ton on their monthly bill by generating most of their daily power needs themselves.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
Here's a great incentive: people who create a hybrid power system have their energy stored by their local electric company, and if they create more than they consume, a remarkable forty out of our fifty states allow those people to sell that energy to the electric company. That's right--you can not only generate energy to power your home, you can actually create energy and sell it as a product, so there is an entrepreneurial aspect to partially living off the grid. Want to cut ties with the power company entirely? Then you have to store your self-generated energy in batteries, which you will then convert from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) on an as-needed basis.
Of course, breaking up with your electric company isn't enough to prevent your continuing dependence on city water. How to remedy this? Well, digging a private well is probably the simplest route. The electricity we already discussed will power the pump that brings your well water to your home. This is a costly investment; saving on water bills for the rest of your tenure in your home will cost you an initial $3000 to $15,000 to make sure your well is installed properly by a licensed well-driller. This is necessary to prevent harmful chemicals from leeching into your water, as well as to make sure you keep everything up to code. You can also spend a little more and install a filter.
The final step when it comes to living completely off the grid is to install a septic tank in order to avoid ties to your local sewer line. Waste water enters the tank, and the anaerobic bacterial environment inside will act as your own personal sewage treatment system, breaking everything down into three layers--scum on top, liquid in the middle and sludge on the bottom. New waste water forces the liquid layer out into a system of pipes, then into a separate chamber, and it is released safely into a drain field. The bacteria digest the solid layers. You'll need this tank to be serviced and emptied annually.
You've probably met people who live on well water, and you've probably met people who have a septic tank. You may have even met people who use solar panels. However, if you wish to put the money and effort into combining all of the steps outlined above, you'll be on your way to reducing your carbon footprint, saving money in the long run, and living completely and totally off the grid.
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