Off-Grid Lessons For On-Grid Living: When The Power Goes Out

I spend 6-7 months per year off the grid.  The rest of the time I’m at home in a modern house.

Most modern houses become unlivable when external inputs such as electricity and running water stop being piped in.  I’ve scratched my head for decades as to why they were designed like this, and I keep coming up with the idea that for several generations we’ve put all of our eggs into the convenience and comfort basket.  But stuff breaks and stops working, so instead of being a helpless victim I like to have a backup plan.

It would be a lot easier if we could all move to homes that were designed from the start to be self-sufficient, but for most of us that’s not a realistic option.  So instead of longing for the well-designed self-reliant homestead, we need to take steps to make where we live now able to support us when the inputs stop.

And the inputs do stop.  Around here (New Hampshire) it happens because of storms, usually in the winter.  Especially when you’re a mile and a half down a dirt road that isn’t maintained by the town.  Just the other day we lost electricity for a few hours.  So here are the basics of what I’ve done, and what you can also do with minimal outlay of money.

Toilet: Humanure, composting sawdust toilet and single-stream composting.  Consists of a 5-gallon bucket and wooden box with a toilet seat and some sawdust as a cover material.  When it’s full it goes on the compost pile and gets covered with hay.  These don’t have to be just for emergency use, but they’re so simple that to not have one is silly.  All food waste goes in it as well, minimizing the trash that we generate.

Cooking: I have a rocket stove that I made from a stovepipe “T” and a 5 gallon metal can from the dump.  I burn everything from sticks to junkmail in it.  Anything made of wood, paper or cardboard can be used to cook your food and minimize the trash you generate.  Obviously I use this outside, not inside.  I also have a campfire cooking setup and dutch ovens that I can use with charcoal.   Propane, alcohol or backpacking stoves are another option if you’ve got them.  We also use insulated boxes (such as a cooler) and a thermos for long-cooking items.

Light: Propane lantern, candles, LED headlamps and LED flashlights.

Electricity:  Batteries, set to trickle charge from the grid (ie. wall socket), that I use when the power goes out.  I only use these for the essentials, and can recharge them from a solar panel.  I also have a generator, which is a big money item, that can keep the well pump and furnace running.  At our field school I have a hand pump on the top of the well casing.  These are also big money items, but ensure that you always have access to your well water with a few pumps.

Food Storage: Critter-proof cooler or box that lives outside in the winter and keeps things cold.  I have a bunch of food grade 5-gallon buckets with Gamma seal screw-on lids that make them watertight and mouse proof.  We always have a few weeks or months of food bought in bulk.  This isn’t because I think the power is going to be out for that long.  It’s because when you buy in bulk the unit cost goes way down, and you also don’t have to deal with as much packaging.

Water Storage: We live on a lake, so I don’t store any water.  I can boil lake water and drink it.  We also have a well and the pump runs off of a generator.  In the winter, it’s also a simple thing to melt snow for water.  If I lived in town I’d keep a few big jugs of water on hand.

Heat:  This is by far the biggest expense in time and money.  The house we live in was designed with an oil furnace that needs electricity to run.  We solve the problem with a generator.  We also have a fireplace where we can cook and heat one room.  Eventually we’re going to add a wood stove to our house, but it’s a big money item that takes cash and planning.  We heat our buildings at the field school with wood stoves.  If the power stays out for an extended period I can move my family into a canvas tent with a wood stove.  These tents aren’t that efficient because they’re warm only as long as the wood stove stays lit, but they are a small space to heat so they don’t use that much wood compared to heating a house.  Also, have plenty of blankets and/or sleeping bags.  I’ve slept out in just a sleeping bag at -45 F, so I’ve got some thick sleeping bags around.  But you can accomplish the same level of insulation with a bunch of blankets or comforters.

None of these, with the exception of wood heat or a generator, take a lot of money.  Or time.  Or information.  Or skill.  But they do take a bit of planning ahead.

If you’re starting from scratch, build these aspects into your design plan.  But you shouldn’t need electricity to take care of basic needs in the home you’re in.  Another way to say this is you should have a plan so that you can still cook and crap when the power is out.  It isn’t that difficult to set up systems that work with no inputs.  The way to start is by thinking about what you need to be able to do at  your place of residence.  For us, it’s eat, drink, crap, stay warm, have light at night, and keep enough food around so we’re good for a month or two.  Throw in some board games and books and having the power go out isn’t that big of a deal.  It can even bring the family together.

Don’t be a victim of the weather.  Take care of yourself and those around you by looking at your on-grid house with an off-grid mindset.

Blog, Sustainability

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Derek Faria

    Great info as usual Tim

  • Thanks Derek!

  • Jay Schofield

    I completely agree.

  • Thanks Jay!

  • Glen Underwood

    Good stuff as always, Tim.

  • Thanks Glen!

  • Great post Tim. I bought my stove off Craigslist for $200, just needed a the rust knocked off and repainting.

    Not as efficient as some newer models, but an option for those looking to save some dough.

  • Thanks Andrew.

  • There’s a solar powered LED lantern called Luci that I’m loving. It charges in sunlight or under a lamp. One charge holds for a year if it’s unused. It will run for 14 hours between charges. It’s 1″ x 5″ when flattened, has three light settings, and weighs only a few ounces.

    We need a new generator but have the rest under control. We heat with wood, cook with propane, grow/raise/harvest almost all of our food and keep a year+ in storage and are generally prepared for anything. I do have to store water to drink and cook but for flushing we can take water from our pond. I like not having to be concerned about comfort when the power goes out no matter how long it’s out.

  • Thanks Robin. I’m going to check out that lantern, sounds great.

  • Lloyd Archer

    Why not just dump water in your toilet? A couple of gallons of water will flush the toilet if it comes from the tank on the back of the flush or a bucket of lake water.

  • If it’s all gravity fed that works great when the power is out Lloyd. But at our place there’s a pump because the septic tank is uphill. Also, another benefit to the humanure system is that it builds soil for the garden.

  • Lloyd Archer

    O.K. that makes a difference.
    I had some friends that went through the the ice storm in the Bangor aea back quite a few years ago and went without power for almost a week. After listening ti their story I bought a hand pump for our well. and we’ve always had a wood stove for backup anyway.
    We lose power a lot but so far it has only been for a short time, a couple hours. My biggest concern is the food in the freezer.Usually have some kind of wild thing in there. now it’s moose meat, we don’t care for it canned, Probably should get a small generator but I really have issues with engines, espescially those which are seldom used. I really don’t trust them to start when I need them.
    Have been enjoying your blog and stuff for a while now great job.

  • Thanks Lloyd. The first year I was married (at least a hundred years ago by my count) we bought a pig from a local farmer, had it butchered, and kept it in a freezer. In the same freezer was a piece of wedding cake we were supposed to eat on our anniversary (not my plan, but you learn to go along with it). Somehow the freezer got shut off during the summer, but stayed sealed up. A few weeks later I noticed it, and there was a putrid mess of semi-liquid hog fat in there. And a piece of wedding cake. The lesson I learned was to keep the wedding cake in a different freezer. But agreed, it would suck to lose a freezer full of meat to a power outage. There are other ways to store meat, but I’m like you and freezing it is my favorite.
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