Going Off the Grid

by | Jul 9, 2021 | Energy Efficiency, Entire Home, How-To, Room-By-Room

People choose to build off-grid homes for a variety of reasons. Some are committed to reducing their impact on the planet, while others are interested in a simpler way of life. And some have no choice—the remoteness of their property makes building an off-grid home the only option.

For David Jakubowski and his family, a number of factors contributed to their decision to build an off-grid log cabin on their 82-acre Vermont vacation property. “First was our love of nature and privacy,” says Jakubowski. “We wanted a simpler existence at Ravenwood [the name of the property].”

With no cell service in about a 10-mile radius, and eight miles to the nearest power pole, the family of six is truly able to disconnect when they are there. “It has allowed our kids—and ourselves—to unplug from our iPhones and laptops and Netflix and reconnect with one another.” The family has rediscovered the simple joys of board games, puzzles, and reading, and though it’s a vacation home now, Jakubowski and his wife are looking forward to spending their retirement years there full time.

It’s no surprise that many off-grid homes are log homes. “While any type home could be chosen, there is something about a log home that goes along with this type of lifestyle,” says Mark Elliott, vice president of Coventry Log Homes in Woodsville, New Hampshire. “The log home has always been synonymous with the rugged outdoor lifestyle and independent homeowner. A log home, just due to the very nature that it is from a renewable resource, makes a special connection with those who choose to live off-grid.”

Whether you’re considering going fully self-sustaining or taking a limited off-grid approach, be aware that building an off-grid home comes with both design and construction challenges, but they can be overcome if you’re armed with information and expert guidance.

A few of the very important things to consider when designing your off-grid home are power, water and waste. Ideally, you’ll want the design of your home to make the most efficient use of resources, informed by passive solar building principles.

P. Niesen/www.istockphoto.com

The Jakubowskis wanted their home to be sustainable with little to no environmental impact, but with the comforts of modern living. “I did a tremendous amount of research before I started, and was hands-on during the entire construction process, so there weren’t many surprises,” Jakubowski says. “If folks are considering building an off-grid cabin, it is worthwhile to consider and install things like indoor plumbing, electrical outlets and switches, and an electrical chase through the roof for future solar panels.” It is easier and much less expensive to install those things during the construction process than adding them later.

Alternate power systems are becoming more accessible to homeowners, and in many cases you can take advantage of tax credits for installing these systems. The power source you choose—wind, solar, geo-thermal or hydro-power‚ will be determined to some extent by the climate and property features. Many appliances can be run on propane, and a wood stove can heat an efficiently-built home.

Solar power is the most commonly seen alternate power system. “Of course, designing the home’s layout around the orientation that is best for solar panels is important,” says Elliott. “The roof pitch should be taken into consideration for the location. In northern climates, many times a steep pitch will help with keeping the panels free from snow and ice.” Elliott recommends working with your local solar panel company to make well-informed choices during the design phase.

“Wind is another form of energy that can benefit from forward thinking and design of the home and its electrical system,” adds Elliott. Coventry’s customers have seen the benefits of solar and geothermal right away, but wind power may have a different return on investment. To ensure you are selecting the best solution, a cost analysis of each should be done with a local professional before choosing what’s right for your home.

You can’t live without a reliable source of water, so count on the expense of drilling a well. You’ll also need to regularly test your well for water safety. “Other considerations such as rain collection systems to help offset the main water source should be considered during design,” says Elliott. “Designing from the start to divert water to where it can best be stored and used will benefit you in the long run.”

To protect your health and the environment, you’ll need a professionally installed septic tank or composting toilet if your region allows them. Both types of systems need regular maintenance and inspection.

Coventry Log Homes/photo by David M. Jakubowski

With technology changing rapidly, it can be hard to find builders that have experience installing new systems. “One of the biggest challenges is finding a local professional that has had a lot of experience in this department,” says Elliott. “If you can find someone who can help educate the other trades on the jobsite, such as the electrician, plumber and builder, this is a big plus.”

Island Timber Frame, based in Cumberland, British Columbia, has a good deal of experience building self-sustaining homes on the small remote islands along Canada’s west coast. “Pre-planning is everything,” says Island Timber Frame’s Carl Tessmann, whether you’re building a simple cabin or a multi-million dollar dream home.

“If you design the house properly and plan all your connection details in advance, you can get everything figured out before you start cutting wood,” says Tessmann. “We need to make sure there will be no surprises.”

As with many things in life, an investment up front can pay off in the long run. Building an off-grid home is no different. If you cut corners on your home’s design and construction, you may end up paying for it later.

High-performance windows and doors, for example, may cost a little bit more to purchase but will cut energy consumption over the life of your home. “Almost anything can be done with some extra forethought and ingenuity to get off the grid, but remember some of these systems do have extra costs involved up front,” advises Elliott.

It always pays to have professionals on board, especially for more complex projects. “My advice is to pick the company that makes it look easy,” says Tessmann. “No matter how complicated the job, if you pick the right company it will go smoothly, and you won’t have to worry about it.”

“My advice to anyone considering an off-grid log home is to find that perfect piece of property and just do it,” says Jakubowski. “You will never, ever regret it.” He advises people to ask questions and think about what they do in their home now—even simple things like washing dishes, cooking, drying clothes— that you’ll want to be able to do easily in your off-grid home. “The biggest piece of advice I can offer is to find a mentor,” he says. “Find someone who has done it. Use them as a sounding board. Most people who have successfully build an off-grid cabin will be more than happy to talk with you and answer questions.”