Convenience: Things as simple as getting drinking water, cooking dinner, and watching a movie are very different events where we are, living off the grid on this permaculture property in Hawaii, where we are volunteering in trade for free accommodation. And although it can be debilitating and very isolated at times, we do enjoy a certain element of thought and strategy which is necessary to function every day.
This post was originally published in 2007. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Generating Power While Living off the Grid
When the sun don’t shine, we don’t have power! It’s as simple as that.
And even when we do have power, we always have to approach it conservatively when living off the grid.
The lights only go on (and only one at a time) when and where they’re needed. Nothing more. Headlamps are invaluable here. Much more attention is paid to wattage of our powered items: Charging a computer uses about 75 watts, but operating a radio is only 4 watts. Light bulbs can range from 7 watts to over 80 watts (we obviously have the former kind)!
Also, the solar panels only charge up when the sun is strong and high, currently between about 10am and 2pm. On a particularly sunny day (especially in the summer), the batteries can be fully charged by noon, at which point we’re actually “wasting” available power! So when the sun shines, that is the time to charge electronics, operate refrigerators, and do anything else that requires power. It gives the batteries a chance to continue charging and hopefully remain fully charged for evening power usage (or subsequent rainy days)
Minimizing Energy While Cooking
As I refer to in an article I published on Wise Bread, we often use a hot box for our cooking. It conserves propane (which needs to be purchased off-site and doesn’t contribute to the sustainability of the property), and besides – it’s kind of fun!We generally cook a starch/bean combination (eg: rice and lentils, millet and chick peas, or wheat berries and soy beans) large enough to yield three days’ meals.
Then each night, we prepare our meal base in a different way. If we have a ripe avocado, we’ll prepare it with a Mexican flare with guacamole and salsa on the side. Another night, we’ll stir fry it up Chinese style. And yet another night, we’ll prepare an Indian curry vegetable stew to pour over our meal base. If we are lucky enough to catch a fish, we’ll prepare a fresh coconut sauce to be drizzled over our breaded or steamed delicacy!
The forethought and preparation that goes into our meal preparation is great fun. We start talking about how we are going to prepare the night’s meal often throughout the day, so when it comes time to enjoy our creation, we have ruminated over it and can enjoy it fully. We also expect that when we return to the “real world”, many of the cooking strategies we have adopted here will follow us.
Food here (and in general for us) is not just sustenance: it’s off-grid lifestyle entertainment!
Amusement here varies according to the weather. On sunny days, there is almost too much to do. Walks, bike rides, fishing, beach days, snorkelling, scrambling and bouldering, and exploring are some of the obvious outdoor activities to enjoy. But sunny days also mean good power days, and if we are sticking around, it is our golden opportunity to use the wireless internet here on the property, as well as charge up any electronics and appliances we have.
And if we have enough sun to fully charge up a laptop, we can enjoy movie night in the evening. DVDs rented from the library for $1 can make pass an evening by quite nicely. Sometimes if there was enough power during the day we’ll get together at Rick & Iris’s house to watch it on the tv – a real treat. On rainy days, entertainment isn’t as abundant. Hopefully we have fully charged laptops from previous sunny days to at least enjoy a battery’s worth of power for writing, music, or games. If not, there is a lot of card playing, puzzle books, sleeping, and working out. Cabin fever is always a risk, so we often brave the crappy weather to escape into town where we can enjoy some good hot coffee, lots of power, and camp out with internet for the day.
(And terribly unfortunately for us, the last month straight has seen rain every day and very little sun. Cabin fever abound)!
Walking to Get Drinking Water
Although there isn’t much strategy involved, every day or two we’re off to the reservoir (all of 150 feet away) with our two one-gallon jugs to filter and pour some more. We do have water that comes from our kitchen tap, but we only use it for washing dishes and some cooking, as it isn’t potable for drinking.
The Outdoor Shower
The shower is outdoors, and although it is romantic with an incredible ocean view, on a cold windy day it can be a painful experience. Did I mention that there is no hot water?
Well, that’s not exactly true. We can sometimes have a hot (or at least warm) shower if we do it during the day when the sun is shining and warms the black pipes through which the water flows. It’s actually sickly warm in the middle of the day, and just nice around 3:00pm.
The problem is, we try to shower as close to the end of the day as possible, since we are often doing messy property chores right up until dusk. Besides, the cleaner we are before bed, the less we have to wash our bed linens. (Doing laundry is another story here).
Besides, hot showers are mainly a North American phenomenon. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t “enjoy” such luxuries, and in fact thinks that hot showers are odd and somewhat disgusting. Believe it or not: I agree! I feel so refreshed after a cool shower, that even when I have unlimited heat available to me, I imagine I’ll keep the hot water usage to a minimum. This is one of the many small ways in which our lives and priorities have changed here in a more environmentally-friendly way.
Speaking of environmentally-friendly, water conservation becomes a shower strategy at times too. On really low power days, we can actually lose power to the water pumps and lose water altogether! More than once we actually had to wait for a heavy rain to get our daily shower in the natural way. And despite hard precipitation, you’d be surprised how long it takes to rinse shampoo out of your hair in the rain!
Recycling Pee and Poop
For fear of getting too graphic (I’ve already been accused of it in what I thought was a harmless mention of pee! I guess reality out here is stark and “in your face”), I won’t say anything more on the topic, except: Ick.
This is one of the chores that requires the most strategy. We keep a keen eye on the weather, and only on days when we are relatively sure to have lots of sun and/or wind can we attempt to do the laundry (which is washed in a bucket by the way). Otherwise, our clothes hanging outside on the line will get wet over and over again in the rain, never fully dry, and eventually start to mildew. My dear Lululemon pants don’t like that much at all!
All in all, the degree of strategy required to function here and the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into basic chores we used to take for granted is a blessing. Although we don’t expect to permanently adopt a permaculture off-grid lifestyle, no matter where we are in the world we will be considerably more conscious of our actions and grateful for the amenities which most people take for granted.
Check out my Travel Lifestyle Guides for more ways to earn money remotely, spend it wisely, and balance the two so you can travel as long as you wish, in a financially sustainable way.