Kate had lived in cities all her life and never in a million years imagined she’d live off the grid. But about a year ago—on April Fool’s Day 2010—she and her partner, Jeff, packed all their belongings into a 1974 Argosy and left Portland, Oregon, for a piece of property near Taos, New Mexico, that Kate’s father had acquired in a business trade but never inhabited.
Kate, Jeff, their four dogs and two cats are living in their trailer, powered by a 400-watt solar system, while they build a small straw bale house. Their system allows them about 60 kilowatt hours per month; Jeff says the average electric utility consumer uses about 900 kilowattt hours per month. “Our battery arrangement is under capacity for the solar panels we have and the weak link in the system, which we will upgrade after a lifecycle in 4 years,” Jeff explains. Kate and Jeff cook using propane or a mud woodstove that Kate built, use a composting toilet and haul water from a community well as they develop water catchments. They’re fortunate enough to have a nearby community garden and goat co-op, so Kate can make yogurt and cheese. The couple looks forward to establishing their own garden and flock of chickens this year.
“I'd say the best thing about living off-grid is independence,” Kate says. “This was really driven home to us this winter when much of northern New Mexico experienced a natural gas outage for a full week as the weather outside dropped to -25 degrees. The situation was chaotic and in many cases costly and dangerous for people who were dependent on natural gas, but we were unaffected.” Kate writes in her blog, Juniper Journeys, that pipes froze and broke in many homes, businesses and schools were closed, and stores ran out of electric heaters during the power outage.
Off-the-grid living has also helped Kate realize how little she needs to be comfortable and happy. “I don't miss having a microwave, regular internet access, or a washing machine in my house,” she says. The couple has found many secondhand items for their home once it’s finished, including an oven on Craigslist, a 100-pound propane tank on “Trash and Treasures” (a local call-in radio “swap meet”) and a galvanized metal ceiling fan from Habitat for Humanity.
“The hardest thing for me about living off-grid so far is the lack of an indoor shower,” Kate says. Outdoor showering is lovely in the summer when water can be heated by the sun, but Kate often uses friends’ indoor facilities in winter. Jeff occasionally builds a small fire under a cast iron tub in the yard for a hot bath. “Luckily, this is a temporary situation as we are putting hot water and a shower in our house,” Kate says. “It will probably be a year or two before we get to this part, and I know I'll really appreciate it when it’s completed.”
Cold showers are a small price to pay for the satisfaction and serenity of living off the grid and being physically engaged in her life, Kate is quick to add. “Food tastes better, sleep is sweeter, and my mind is calm,” she says. “A relative asked why in the world I choose to live like this, and I replied that it just makes sense.”
Kate and Jeff have been living happily off the grid for more than a year.
Solar panels provide their power.
The solar system's guts.
Jeff says the batteries aren't quite adequate, and the couple will replace them in four years.
Kate built this wood-fired cob oven for cooking.