A homestead is a sustainable way of life focusing on food production and physical labor. It can also help people learn (or re-learn) vintage skills and build self-reliance.
Before purchasing a piece of land think about the exact type of homestead you want to have. For example, if you’re planning to raise livestock how far are you willing to travel in case of an emergency?
Decades of problem-solving and experimenting have given this author valuable tips for homesteading in Oregon; here, he shares his best off-grid living ideas.
I must be setting a record for longevity and determination. I’m now celebrating my 40th year of living off-grid in western Oregon.
I didn’t grow up this way. While I’m related to generations of homesteaders, I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs less than 10 miles from New York City. My father, a professional journalist, built our large cinder block and stucco home while working full-time in the city.
Growing up mixing concrete and building things imbued me with a sense of can-do and a problem-solving mindset. I’m an ethereal rather than a practical person; I have a successful business as an astrological consultant, serving clients nationally and beyond. But I live off-grid on solar power in a house I co-built over many years that, circa 2000, also had the first residential permit for straw bale in our county near Eugene, Oregon. The 2,000-square-foot two-story octagon has post-and-beam logs from our land that frame straw bale infill walls and insulation. Almost all the dimensional wood was grown, sustainably harvested, and milled here, costing about 10% of commercial wood — at a much better quality — and also saving a 60-mile delivery. Our ceiling insulation is R-38 from recycled blue jeans, about as thick as pink fiberglass but much less toxic, especially to install overhead.
Living off-grid on solar is particularly extreme homesteading in Oregon near the coast, where we’re blessed with more than 100 inches of rain per year. It rains a lot in the darker months and hardly at all in summer. We’re in a narrow valley far up the watershed, with a creek running through the middle that we’re not allowed to pump water from or put a dam or spillway in, as it’s a major undammed salmon-spawning creek. There’s little wind, except when there’s a lot; wind generators aren’t an option, nor is hydropower.
So how did we do it? In our case, with time, cleverness, and effort. For anyone who’s contemplating off-grid living, I can help with the learning curve by offering my best off-grid living ideas.
Off-Grid Living Ideas: Where to Begin
For starters, if you’re going solar, make a large investment and get everything at once if you can, because your solar panels should match in wattage, voltage, amperage, and how that energy is accumulated and transferred. Solar panels are dropping in price, and so is most of the other hardware. My initial investment of about $3,000 in 1990 would be about $1,000 today, even with inflation.
I’m not enthusiastic about grid interties, though if you’re already on-grid, it’s harder to go off-grid and save money that way. But where I live, the grid still goes down several times a year from downed trees in winter storms, and when the grid goes down, interties are useless. If you’re starting anew, and especially if you’re removed from the grid, then designing and living with an off-grid system may be the way to go. Your system will improve with time, knowledge, and adaptability.
We originally lived uphill of our present location, and going on-grid wasn’t an option because of distance. We lived without electricity for about six years before investing in a remote home package in 1990. Years later, circa 2001, when we got permits for our permanent home, the electric company wanted $4,000 to run a line less than 100 feet from the road. They’d then bill us every month, including the months when the power typically goes down locally for a few days. So we invested another $4,000 on our solar system instead.
We invested in several 185-watt panels to start — large at the time, but not now. I wish we’d made a bigger investment right away. Panels tend to last 30-plus years, and that’s where much of the savings lies. I recently retired some 40-year panels after line loss finally took its toll.
I’m sure we’ve saved thousands of dollars by now, even after investing in numerous upgrades. Last year, I invested another $1,000 in more panels and batteries, and my systems went from 1,160 watts to 1,990 watts, plus more storage. With these, we nearly got through a whole winter for the first time — except during those nine “atmospheric rivers” that California got to the south, when we endured a time of unprecedented dark weather for a few weeks. Usually, if we get one clear day every four or so days in winter, we can recharge, but a week with no sun is too much.
Our Solar Setup for Homesteading in Oregon
We have separate solar systems for each building: house, shop, and two cabins. This means we can avoid running wires everywhere or, worse, converting all of it to 110 volts alternating current (VAC), which would have an adverse effect on my electromagnetic field (EMF) sensitivity. Also, different but matching configurations allow us to use different sizes of panels, including the older littler ones, and each panel or matching group requires its own charge controller. (That’s the brain of the setup.) I also have multiple systems so that if one is drained, it doesn’t affect the others. This is essential, as our guests tend to waste resources because of unconscious patterns habituated through on-grid consumption. So I get through winter by switching batteries from the unused cabins to the house, which is in full-time use.
Most of our systems use lights and outlets designed for RVs and boats, since these are direct current (DC) rather than alternating current (AC), and they’re becoming more prevalent and affordable than a few decades ago. Plus, DC is much lower consumption than AC, with a lower EMF field. I’m just starting to switch to lithium ion batteries, which are lighter and longer-lasting than the sealed RV batteries we’ve used for the past 30-plus years. We use up-to-date LED lights, replacing 60-to-75-watt VAC bulbs with 7-watt bulbs that use 12 or 24 volts of direct current (VDC). The price has come down a lot on these and other fixtures.
To determine the size of your system’s needs, surrender to the joy of math. Most modern houses are designed around more daily kilowatt usage than you need, unless you use appliances with a heating or cooling unit. Dryers, microwaves, and older refrigerators and freezers use a lot of electricity. All devices have a little place, often on back, where they name the amount of power used, such as “600W 117VAC.” Eliminate the need for 220VAC if you can. For alternative drying, we use a rack above our woodstove and a good old-fashioned clothesline. Instead of a large freezer, we have a “cool box,” which involves circulating cold groundwater and has a vent at the bottom and the top, augmented in our case by ice packs, which we freeze in our small freezer and swap out daily. We purchased a low-power fridge and washer designed for RVs and marine uses a few years ago.
We use almost entirely 12VDC appliances, such as car stereos, but we use 24VDC for lighting, because we have a large house; DC has greater line loss over distance, but the higher the voltage, the less resistance in the wire. We also have an up-to-code 117VAC house wiring that we were required to install, including outlets every 12 feet, per code, but we hardly use it. We’ve even modified our internet router for 12VDC. Many items, including computers, cellphones, and internet routers, are really DC, not AC, but they have a little box on the power cord that converts. You can convert to DC by eliminating the inefficiency of that box.
We use propane and wood for cooking and heating water. Because our home is straw bale, the insulation in our walls is triple the legal minimum, so a medium-sized woodstove heats the entire house and about half of our cooking and cleaning water. We use about 6 cords of wood a year for all of our buildings combined. We also have a solar shower for summertime, and we have a forest full of firewood from dead trees and winter blow-downs. So the cost of our heat is some propane, the chainsaw and its fuel, plus wheelbarrow transportation, which keeps me healthier and fit.
Battery Banks to Power Off-Grid Living Ideas
Batteries are key to retaining enough power for your needs. They don’t call it a “battery bank” for nothing. Compare an off-grid system to a debit card, while an on-grid system is similar to a credit card. On-grid, you can waste as much power as you want; it just means your bill will be higher. Multiply the waste times the homes involved, and this adds up environmentally. Off-grid, there’s a certain amount in the (battery) bank that’s renewed through your charging system, and you can’t overspend your budget. If you use too much, you can’t just pay extra for overuse. If you drain the battery bank, it becomes harder to recover.
For example, if you drain a 12VDC battery below 12, you won’t be able to charge anything, and your lights will dim. Worse yet, recharging to full power will take much longer. It’s like overspending your bank account and paying extra fees for your carelessness, except these fees are the amount of time and energy spent in rebuilding your power bank’s charge to full. Draining to, say, 12.4VDC will yield a quick recovery, while rebuilding power after going down to 11.8VDC will seem to take forever.
Batteries have a life span based on charging cycles, not on months or years (regardless of how they’re described). For example, a laptop battery lasts a long time if you keep your unit plugged in and charged. When you discharge over and over, these are the charging cycles. Keeping everything at full charge is the best way to ensure a long battery life and potency no matter what that battery is used for.
Off-Grid Living Is Liberating
Don’t be afraid to try these off-grid living ideas. Your gadgets will teach you power management, which is key to your own personal success, but more important, it’s a drop in the bucket of society’s use, and every drop counts. So take the plunge if you can, and learn to live within our collective means. Having more money to waste doesn’t validate the waste. We can’t “afford” to waste.
Being in charge of your own consumption is a form of liberation. Rebel into the future!
Mark S. McNutt is an astrologer and metaphysician who’s also a longtime homesteader and land steward at LivingWell Nature Spirit Sanxuary, an off-grid eco-retreat center in the central Oregon Coast Range, where he lives, builds, and gardens with his longtime partner, Mary. They can be reached at AERIOUSNews@Gmail.com and AERIOUSNews@YouTube.com.
Originally published as “Off-Grid Living in Western Oregon” in the August/September 2023 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.