Definition Of Off Grid Homes
Daniel Mark Schwartz
June 15, 2019
With living off the grid become more and more popular, you may be wondering exactly what an off grid home means. Although off grid homes can mean many things to many people, I’ll walk you through the simple definitions below.
Definition of an Off Grid Home. An off grid home is any dwelling that is not connected to public electric utilities, either because it produces its own or if is designed to function without electricity. Also Applied to homes without any public utility access.
That is the simplest definition, but exactly what it means to be off grid comes down to the details. To some people, just having solar panels means you are off grid. To others, off grid means you are entirely independent on all levels from society.
Off the Grid Synonym
Off the grid, or just “Off Grid” is closely related to several other commonly used terms.
In one sense, off grid can mean disconnected from the power grid. You might call an off grid home off-line or self-sufficient if it is built to use electricity like a typical modern home, but it does so locally through solar cells, micro-wind turbines, or micro-hydro electricity production.
Homes that are disconnected from the grid, but that make no effort to replace these services through local production, might be called primitive, low-tech, or historic. Alternate nouns for the building could be cottage, cabin,
In another sense, off grid is applied to homes and properties that mimic or riff on pre-industrial forms of life. These homes may or may not be connected to particular utilities, but are generally built to provide some form of self-sufficiency. You might call a home like this a homestead, farmstead, farm, or ranch.
Some people develop off grid homes largely as a place to escape to in case of a large scale emergency, but not as a full time residence. These off grid home are often called a shelter, get-a-way, retreat, or compound.
Off the Grid Living
Off grid homes can be intimately tied in to the mode of living and self-sufficient lifestyle of the people living there.
On one end of the spectrum, you may not notice any difference when looking at an off grid home compared to a typical western house. On the other end of the spectrum you may notice several energy saving systems including:
- Solar panels (photovoltaics)
- Passive solar home design
- Direct solar hot water systems
- DC or mixed DC/AC electrical systems
- High efficiency refrigeration
- Non-electrical food storage, such as:
- Cold boxes
- Root cellars
- Large dry goods storage for canned goods
- Smoke houses
- Solar dehydrators
- Gravity fed or hand pumped water systems
- Outbuildings and/or bars for:
- Gardening supplies and implements
- Feed storage
- Seed storage
- Chicken coops
- Wood sheds
- Wood heat and wood stoves / ovens
Living off the grid means a number of items that might typically be bought commercially must be produced in the home. Thus, the off grid home reflects a combination of both residential, agricultural, and industrial uses. Off grid living is a lifestyle of “cottage industry” which require significant changes in the home site design and construction the more one venture in to self-sufficiency.
Off Grid Homes
Any home can be an off grid home, if you are willing to make the proper modifications and have the means to meet code requirements in your area. However, when rethinking life so radically as to depart from an energy rich yet dependent existence to a life of personal responsibility, most off-gridders also radically rethink their accommodations. Here are a few options for off grid homes that are popular:
Off Grid Cabin
Find a plot of land far out in the woods and build a cabin. This may be a log cabin, common stick frame, SIP panel, or one of many other systems. Cabins tend to be primitive and may not have running water or electricity, but some off gridder make their cabin in to a stylized home with full amenities.
Off Grid Tiny Home
Something like a cabin, but often found on wheels. Tiny homes are commonly defined as homes with less than 200 sqft of living space, but this definition is now expanded to encompass almost any living structure smaller that your “average” home.
Tiny homes can be built from scratch (often using reclaimed or excess material from other projects), built from a kit, or bought complete from an ever growing number of tiny house construction companies.
With a cult following on social media, tiny homes often take the form of an art piece, besides a living unit. They come in many designs from quaint to trendy and low-cost to extravagant.
Off Grid Yurt
For the rugged, price conscious, and mobile off grid aspirants, yurts are often seen as a good compromise. Yurts are rugged round tent like structures inspired by dwellings of the nomadic peoples of Siberia. With a proven track record for cold and windy climates, yurts are also the cheapest and easies structure to move on this list. Most yurts cast be easily folded and packed in the back of a small pickup truck or inside a small trailer.
Many companies offer pre-built yurts in a variety of styles, sizes, and construction methods online. You can also build your own with minimal tools and little skill in sewing and wood working.
For more information on Going Debt Free and Living in a Yurt Full Time, check out my full length article on the subject.
Off Grid Farm House
Some people prefer to just buy a completed standard home, and the move their home system by system to an off grid mode of living. So one year, add solar. The next year add a composting toilet. Plant a garden and build a chicken coop in the spring.
Off Grid Natural Home
For the aspiring builder and eco-friendly off grid enthusiasts, many consider “natural building”, which attempts to use materials naturally found on site as much as possible during the construction. These techniques are often confined to an owner-built home, since there are not many commercial practitioners of these trades.
- Cob homes — thick walls made of sand, straw, and clay
- Straw bale — stacks of straw bales as walls, covered in clay
- Light straw clay — straw coated in clay and packed between supports, usually framing or timber frame.
- Wattle and daub — walls made of woven sticks or wicker coated in an earthen plaster
- Timber Frame — building with large green timbers, usually hand joined
- Rammed earth — walls made of tightly packed soil. May be “stabilized” with small amounts of cement mixed in
- Adobe — bricks of sand, straw, and clay. Hand dried then stacked and mortared with clay
- Earthships — a family of well known natural building designs that feature use of rammed earth, reclaimed materials, and a number of off grid systems.
Off Grid Power
Power can mean specifically electricity, or energy in general. See below for a more specific discussion on electricity.
Commonly, the cheapest way to go off grid is to replace electric items with hand power alternatives. For instance, a washing machine can be replaced with a bucket and a brush. While a drier can be a piece of line or a wooden frame to placed next to the wood stove. Although, you may consider something like a bicycle powered washer if you are inventive enough to create your own
Look for the old Harrison Ford movie The Mosquito Coast for fun ideas for off grid inventions.
Another way to generate power off grid is through burning. Some consider gas engines and propane stoves off grid, even though you need to buy fuel to keep these running.
For the more independent among us, wood or charcoal fire steam boilers could be an interesting way to go. Additionally, the ATF readily permits home owners to distil their own fuel alcohol, which opens the door for ethanol powered tools fueled by homestead grown corn and other grain alcohols. Thirdly, bio-diesel — peanut oil treated with lye — is one option to free the industrious homesteader from ever increasing gas prices. (Interestingly, this is what Rudolf Diesel had in mind when he developed his engine in the first place.)
Off Grid Electric
Off grid electric options are well documented, but usually consist of one or more of the following three options:
- Photovoltaics aka solar panels
- Small scale wind turbines
- Small scale hydroelectric energy
- Gas or diesel generators
Is it illegal to live off the grid?
You can legally live off grid. In the United States there is no legal requirement to be connected to public utilities, except in some cities. However, to receive a building permit for a residential structure, almost all US counties require some form of water, sanitation, and electricity be provided.
Can you live off the grid in the city?
It is possible, but it can require creativity. Some cities require that you attach to city utilities if available. Others may have restrictions on how you use the property such as how solar panels are installed, how much you can garden, or if you can have chickens or other livestock.
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