How Living Off the Grid Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. Chuck's here, I'm here. I'm Josh Clark; this is Chuck Bryant.

Chuck Bryant: We're both here.

Josh Clark: Yeah, we are, Chuck, aren't we?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: You know, Chuck, I've been really getting batted around by my electric company lately.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, man.

Josh Clark: Do you know that, for the most part, electric utilities just kind of guess how much you've used, how much electricity you've used?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, no.

Josh Clark: Like, I think maybe once every quarter they send somebody out to actually check but I don't think they ever go back and say, oh, well, we owe you some money because we were wrong. They just guess how much you're using so you can conserve as much electricity as you want and it's actually good if you're doing that environmentally speaking, but financially, it may not help you at all. You may actually pay more -

Chuck Bryant: I know. A lot of times, it's based on the previous year's usage and I went through some nightmares with the water company here, man.

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah, that'll happen.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, boy. Ridiculous!

Josh Clark: You want to give us details about your nightmare?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I could give you some quick details. We moved into this house we bought and after being there a month, we got a $5,000 water bill.

Josh Clark: Holy cow.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, so that - it set off a chain of phone calls for just months and months and months.

Josh Clark: I'm sure. That's not one you just kind of swallow hard and go through with.

Chuck Bryant: No, no.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: No, it was bad. They're not fun to deal with here in Atlanta.

Josh Clark: No. Did you finally get it knocked down?

Chuck Bryant: I'm not afraid to say that either. They're not fun people to deal with.

Josh Clark: Well, no, and you also have to think about it with the water company specifically or the water utility, you have no competitor to go to. You can't just be, like, oh, yeah, I owe $5,000, how about this, I'm going to go to your competitor because they'll say we don't have one. So, good luck with that, pal.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, you feel like you have no power. The power is all -

Josh Clark: Exactly.

Chuck Bryant: You know what this makes me want to do, man?

Josh Clark: Go turn on a faucet?

Chuck Bryant: No, its makes me want to just live off the grid, scrape it all, get the heck out of town and shun public utilities all together.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, I've heard of this. It's the back to earth movement generally. Living off the grid!

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, uh-huh.

Josh Clark: What is it? It's -

Chuck Bryant: Well, yeah, that's one name for it. Back to earth movement. It's basically people that want to take the solar energy and wind energy and conservation a step further and completely be not tied to their power utilities and their water and their sewer, gas.

Josh Clark: Gotcha. So, Chuck, I'm pretty excited about this prospect of not having a power bill anymore, clearly, or a water bill and I'm quite other people are, maybe even some of our listeners. Why don't we talk a little bit about living off the grid because it's not - it's pretty precise actually? It has a very precise definition of what it entails.

Chuck Bryant: Right and there's -

Josh Clark: Starting usually with electricity.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, there's a plan. It's not - you just don't go into all willy nilly, like, what do I do, I want to be off the grid.

Josh Clark: That's probably a good idea.

Chuck Bryant: I don't want to get a bill anymore. Duh! No, that's not how it works. What happens is there's a few major bills, you know, cutting your phone is easy because if you just decide you don't want to live with a phone, you can cut your phone off.

Josh Clark: Yeah, and your cable bill -

Chuck Bryant: You can cut your cable bill, the same deal.

Josh Clark: Have you ever actually lived without cable TV?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, quite a few times.

Josh Clark: It's odd, isn't it? It takes a little getting used to and then all of a sudden you find yourself reading -

Chuck Bryant: You forget about it.

Josh Clark: - and having conversations.

Chuck Bryant: I did, too. I went without cable for a couple of years and, yeah, same thing happened. I didn't miss it after a little while at all.

Josh Clark: So, it takes a little getting used to, huh?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, but eventually I did. Cable is not all it's cracked up to be although I do lov e my reality TV so it might be a little hard.

Josh Clark: Really, do you? That's sad.

Chuck Bryant: No, I'm just kidding. Bret Michaels, Rock of Love. Sorry. Yeah, the grid, basically, you refer to the power grid so you're talking about power, water, your major utilities are the ones that you're really going to have to work to get around if you want to cut those off.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: And the obvious answer for power is solar power.

Josh Clark: It's obvious but it's also fairly expensive, isn't it? I mean, this is kind of a financial obligation one is making here to staying off the grid.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's one of those deals where you pay some upfront but in the long run, it pays itself off and then you're making money basically.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I wrote an article once where I came across this company called Sun Power. They're out of California and they make these things called sun tiles and they're actually roof shingles that are individual solar cells and they look just like roof shingles, they're just as durable as roof shingles but they actually connect to a power grid on your roof and apparently they convert, like, 50 percent more electricity or convert solar power into 50 percent more electricity than a traditional solar cell.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Yeah, I mean, I don't know how expensive they are or how much mass production they're in yet but it seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Chuck Bryant: That's a great idea. And wind power is another awesome idea. A lot of people are getting their energy from the wind and it's kind of the same concept at work except the wind blows a turbine. Instead of collecting energy from the sun and that produces energy that's converted to useable energy.

Josh Clark: And a lot of people are kind of hooking these things. You don't need batteries. They're hooking these things into the grid but you're technically not off the grid then, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, there's a couple of ways here. If you have solar power and that's pretty much all you have going on, it's stored - the energy you create is stored by the power company and this is actually kind of cool and I don't think many people know this. If you create more power than you're using and you're still hooked up to the power system, you get a check from them every month buddy instead of having to write a check. How cool is that?

Josh Clark: That'd be very cool actually.

Chuck Bryant: If Georgia Power sent you a check for, like, $100 every month.

Josh Clark: Oh, it'd be nice.

Chuck Bryant: That'd be great.

Josh Clark: But at the same time, you'd still be -

Chuck Bryant: You're still on the grid.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: If you want to completely cut ties, that means you need to store the power yourself and you do that, you know, like, most people have a shed or a garage and just a huge supply of batteries all hooked together basically. It's really a pretty simple system.

Josh Clark: And how is the electricity stored?

Chuck Bryant: In the batteries.

Josh Clark: As, like, DC, right and then there's, like, a converter?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, an inverter.

Josh Clark: Oh, an inverter. Okay.

Chuck Bryant: Like a converter and it converts the DC to AC which is what you can use in your house.

Josh Clark: Hey, so, quick fact about AC and DC, not the band but the actual electricity, when you're being electrocuted or actually if you see someone being electrocuted, you can tell whether they're being electrocuted by a direct current or an alternating current. You know how?

Chuck Bryant: I can't wait to hear this.

Josh Clark: With a direct current, you're frozen in place because your muscles are seized up and it's just electricity running through you. With an alternating current, you'd be shaking from the spasms and contractions and your muscles spasming and relaxing over and over again as the current alternates.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yeah, now you know.

Chuck Bryant: I would say that's the complete opposite of living off the grid is dying on the grid -

Josh Clark: Dying on the grid. Yeah. Nice.

Chuck Bryant: That's good though. I like that, Josh. Thanks.

Josh Clark: You're welcome.

Chuck Bryant: All right. So, we've covered your power then there's water. You gotta get your water somehow and you do that through - you can have a well or you can have a citrine system.

Josh Clark: Citrine is basically slightly more sophisticated system of rain barrels, right, it includes a pump and -

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, exactly.

Josh Clark: - it's tying into the plumbing in your house where a rain barrel might just have a spigot.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's basically just a big, big water collector and a lot of people - you can have them under your driveway. It's just like a big cement tank. Not always cement; they can be plastic, too but -

Josh Clark: But it runs off of your roof.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it runs off your roof.

Josh Clark: And I wonder if the sun tiles are good for allowing water to run down them and collecting them because I know you said in the article that just regular tile shingles, not that good because you get all the little crud, little crystals in there.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, exactly. You don't want your asphalt - I think it's made out of asphalt - and tar.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, you don't want that. I think they talked about clay shingles and stuff like that.

Josh Clark: And metal shingles, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, being the best.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, you got water. Most people who are living off the grid as far as water goes, have a well, right? Like, 15 million Americans have a well?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's the number and wells aren't cheap, like, $3,000 to $15,000 depending on how deep you have to go and the deeper you have to go, the more expensive and it's cleaner water though, better water -

Josh Clark: Yeah, because you're hitting like an aquifer or something, right?

Chuck Bryant: - underground. Yeah, ground water basically.

Josh Clark: Okay. But what do you with your waste? I mean, you get a septic system, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Okay. And a lot of people have septic systems as it is. A lot of people are on septic and well and might not realize that they're partially living off the grid right now.

Chuck Bryant: Right, exactly.

Josh Clark: They just don't live, like, in the city.

Chuck Bryant: They just moved - right, right, they moved into the house that had the septic tank.

Josh Clark: But I guess the question is - the question that was on my mind, until I figured the answer out was is it a good idea to have a septic system which uses a leach field which is basically the waste just goes into the soil and well. Isn't that the ultimate in recycling where you're, like, drinking your own waste over and over again?

Chuck Bryant: You know, that's a good question. Did you find an answer to that?

Josh Clark: Yeah, the - it's actually okay and I think that is kind of what's happening to a degree but the soil acts as a natural filter. Again, the microbes, all these things in the soil that eat all the waste products and basically all that's left is purified drinking water so -

Chuck Bryant: And really green grass, too.

Josh Clark: Exactly. Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Apparently, if you have the septic system and it goes out in your yard it's just, like, incredibly rich soil.

Josh Clark: Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: Which is kind of cool? So, then you can grow your own - that's part of the living off the grid thing, too, is a lot of these people on the back to the earth movement, they grow their own crops so that eliminates the need for the refrigerator. And another big thing if you want to be off grid is your garbage pickup. Not many people think about that. So, if you're growing your own - if you have chickens, and you're getting your eggs from your chickens and you're growing your own vegetables, you're not dealing with egg crates and - or if you're milking your own cows you're not dealing with milk containers and just a lot less waste is produced.

Josh Clark: So, is that an essential aspect of living off the grid, no garbage collection?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I mean, if you really want to be completely off grid then you're going to have to get rid of your waste pickup but the people that are into it, can recycle enough and limit their waste and compost enough to where they say they can limit to, like, a bag of garbage a month.

Josh Clark: And I learned something new. I didn't realize that you could compost animal waste or byproducts like chicken skin or something like that. I thought it putrefied and that's not what you were supposed to do with compost. I thought it was just supposed to be plant matter but I looked it up and found out that you can - you just have to turn your compost a lot more. It can't just be a pile that you throw stuff onto or else all of a sudden you do have rats and that kind of thing.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, they have those systems.

Josh Clark: It stinks to high heaven.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's cool. There's all kinds of things that you can compost if you go to websites about composting. It's pretty cool to look into.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck, tell me, I mean, I realize a lot of people are doing it because they want to get away from the power bill or maybe they're getting back to earth but is this, like, a trend you're seeing? Maybe not complete living off the grid but at least partial living off the grid?

Chuck Bryant: Well, I mean, I lived in Los Angeles before I came back here to Atlanta and it's a lot bigger in L.A., if not completely off the grid, solar and wind power and citrine systems -

Josh Clark: Really?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, so, people trying to augment and not pay as much [inaudible] -

Josh Clark: Okay. Were you doing that?

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: Okay.

Chuck Bryant: But I collect rain water now just because -

Josh Clark: And - out of your AC unit, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and my air conditioner is water and we use that to water plants. It's mainly just because we're under a watering ban and we don't want everything to die essentially.

Josh Clark: That's a good one.

Chuck Bryant: But the final one that we need to cover I guess is gas. If you get your propane - you'd have to switch to propane, sorry. Instead of getting natural gas -

Josh Clark: Yeah, because natural gas has to be piped in through the grid.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But you can just have a big old truck come and fill up your propane tank.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, a huge propane tank.

Josh Clark: There was some other backup power supplies like electric generators that run on bio-diesel.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: That's pretty cool.

Chuck Bryant: That's to augment like if you are off grid and it's - it's overcast for, like, a week straight or rainy, you might not be getting the energy you need so most of these people have backup systems to help them out.

Josh Clark: Right, and those steps that seem, you know, minute and almost useless to people like us on the grid, like, if you make sure your windows are sealed and cocked properly you can save a $100 and you're, like, who cares about a $100 over a year but really electricity is so cheap that that $100 equals a lot of electricity. So, I imagine that if you're living off the grid, it's best to take steps to seal your homes envelope or use passive solar construction which is the placement of trees to kind of keep your house shaded and cool -

Chuck Bryant: Trees and what color you paint your house and where the windows are placed. Yeah, a lot of people do that because then you won't need your lights as much. You have more natural light and the way they have it set up with the windows is you open some during certain parts of the year and others in other parts of the year and it encourages either cool air or warm air to flow through. And I know that a lot of these folks when - these hippies - when it doesn't rain for a long time, you know, they'll take really quick showers or not shower or not flush the toilet if it's yellow let it mellow and they'll do, like, just conservation techniques like that to help.

Josh Clark: You know, water is the next oil. These people are going to be down with it when the grid goes down.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it might be nice. I'd love to not get bills.

Josh Clark: I'm with you.

Chuck Bryant: Wouldn't that be great?

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah. Well, before you cut off your garbage service, first go onto howstuffworks.com and read how living off the grid works by Charles W. Bryant.

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