How to Live Off-the-grid in a Tiny House

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LaMar Alexander grew up in a homesteading family. For him, self-sufficiency, including gardening, raising animals and “doing for ourselves” was normal and necessary. He tried city life after college, but says he felt like a slave to a house, bills and employers. At 35, he made a change.

“I had a wake up call,” he explains, “that made me realize that what I really wanted was a simple homestead cabin and to eliminate my dependence on the system, so I could live sustainably while I pursued my dreams.”

So Alexander built a house. A very small, 14 ft. x 14 ft. house. A solar and wind powered off-the-grid cabin with a kitchen, bathroom and living room downstairs and a bedroom and office upstairs. It cost him $2,000 to build not including the recycled doors and windows, the front porch, and the solar system.

Being an avid outdoorsman, Alexander didn’t need a lot of indoor space, but as an author, videographer, and off-the-grid builder, he did need need modern amenities including a cell phone, Internet access, electric lights, indoor toilet, and shower etc., and he has them. Alexander says his tiny house is easy to clean, cheap to heat and cool, and he has no house payments or monthly utility bills.

“I now have the freedom to pursue my dreams,” he says, “and the money I make stays in my pocket and can be used for vacations or to help my family and for a secure retirement. That is the freedom that an off-grid lifestyle makes possible.”

LaMar's son on the porch of the off-the-grid, tiny house

Alexander is part of a growing movement of tiny housers. The options for going tiny are growing. In fact, tiny house villages are even being tested as solutions to homelessness. Within the tiny house movement, there's a contingent who are taking the simplicity, sustainability and freedom of tiny houses to the next level by building their tiny homes off the power grid.

Shareable connected with four experienced, off-the-grid tiny housers to find out how they made the move to living off-the-grid in a tiny house; what challenges they face; how they handle practical matters like electrical, sewage and water; what someone considering off-the-grid living should know; and the benefits of living tiny and off-the-grid.

Contributing to the conversation are Laura LaVoie, who, along with her partner Matt, built an off-the-grid tiny house in the mountains of North Carolina. She also authored the book 120 Ideas for Tiny Living and blogs about tiny house living at Life in 120 Square Feet; Merete Mueller who, along with her partner Christopher, built a 130 square foot, off-the-grid tiny house and documented the experience in the film Tiny: a Story About Living Small; and Alexander, who has produced several books and videos about going off-the-grid, and writes about off-the-grid living at Simple Solar Homesteading.

Benefits, Challenges and Legalities of Tiny House, Off-the-Grid Living

Tiny house, off-the-grid living is a good way to reduce your ecological footprint, save money -- "Our bills for energy and water are zero dollars,” explains LaVoie -- and simplify life down to the things that truly matter.

“One benefit to tiny house living,” says Mueller, “is that it frees up the money, time and energy that would otherwise be spent on maintaining a house and rent or a mortgage, to be used on other things, like working on creative projects, starting a business, spending time with friends and family, or on other hobbies that bring a lot of satisfaction to one's life.”

She points out that with tiny house, off-the-grid living, the drawbacks can be the same as the benefits.

“One obvious challenge is a minimal amount of space inside,” she says, “But one benefit related to that is being forced to spend more time outside, and being forced to simplify possessions and think about which things matter most.”

Emptying the composting toilet, hauling water and the other “challenges” that come with tiny, off-the-grid living were, for Mueller, part of the allure. “We wanted to know and understand,” she says, “exactly how much water we were consuming.”

Laura at work on a tiny house

Alexander says that the biggest challenges involve government regulations and “burdensome codes.” He also mentions outside interference from neighbors and businesses in the area, securing an adequate water supply, and, if you live in a rural area, isolation and making money in a rural economy.

Regarding zoning issues, all three recommend talking with local authorities as regulations are different in different counties, towns, and even neighborhoods. Mueller suggests calling your local town office to ask questions before making any long-term plans. She also advises getting to know your neighbors.

“In many places with restrictions, those rules will only apply if the neighbors choose to report you or are somehow offended by your situation,” she explains. “So getting to know your neighbors early on, explaining to them your motivations for choosing this lifestyle, and how all of your utilities work, can help to avoid that from happening.” She adds, “It's good to develop allies early on.”

Generally, the closer you are to a city the more rules there are to follow. Because of this, off-the-gridders often choose to live in rural areas in counties that want to increase their tax base and may be more open to alternative structures. Alexander lists Colorado, Oklahoma, Alaska, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Missouri as some of the states that promote off-the-grid living.

Merete and Christopher in front of their off-the-grid, tiny house. Photo by Kevin Hoth

Taking a Tiny House Off-the-Grid

There’s a direct relationship between tiny houses and off-the-grid living. Having a life with less stuff and more experiences is a big driver of the tiny house movement. Going off-the-grid allows tiny house dwellers to take that simplicity even further.

For LaVoie, the connection between tiny houses and off-the-grid living is one of personal preference.

“The beauty of the tiny house movement is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone who wants to go tiny,” she says. “With the right resources someone can be connected to the grid if they want to. Otherwise, the smaller the house the less energy it needs to run efficiently, so off-grid systems are an easy match.”

Mueller points out that there’s a DIY element that connects the tiny house and off-the-grid movements.

“Not everyone builds their own tiny house, but certainly a very high percentage of people do,” she says. “This means that people living in tiny houses have a greater understanding of how their homes and their utilities work, which is conducive to off-grid living. Tiny housers often like the idea of being self-sufficient and environmentally sustainable, and it's certainly much easier to heat and power a tiny house through off-grid methods than a larger, more traditional house.”

She adds that because many tiny houses are built on wheels—a necessity to bypass building codes—they can't use traditional utilities (a septic system for example), so off-grid methods are often used even if the house is parked in a location with access to the grid.

How Much Does It Cost?

The consensus on how much a tiny, off-the-grid house costs is: it depends. Variables include whether you build the house yourself; how you choose to heat it; how much you spend on off-the-grid energy sources; whether you want to go super-simple or have a luxurious, off-the-grid tiny house. Here’s what LaVoie, Mueller and Alexander had to say about building their tiny houses:

LaVoie: We worked with an online company called the Alt-E store and put together a solar power package that was exactly what we wanted. It included two 245 watt panels, a 45 amp charge controller, and three 110 amp hour AGM batteries. We also use an 1800 watt inverter that we already owned. We were able to purchase all of this for around $2,000. The only other investment we made for our off-the-grid lifestyle was our Berkey water filter which cost around $300.

It costs us $0 a month for electricity, heat, and water in our tiny house. There are, of course some other minor costs but paying nothing for energy helps to offset those. For instance, since I work for myself I pay for my own health insurance. We, of course, have phone and internet bills. There is some small cost for fuel like propane and butane but it is really less than about $20 a month.

Mueller: [The cost] completely depends, but in our case when our tiny house was parked in an off-grid location, we only had to purchase a small propane tank once every few months for heating and we purchased water, which we hauled up in large jugs. Our solar system is a pre-made unit called a Sol Man (manufactured by a company called Sol-Solutions) and cost about $5,000. It cost us about $26,000 to build our tiny house, but people have built similar tiny houses for much more and much less, depending on how they were sourcing their materials and the amount of building experience they have.

Alexander: That all depends on what lifestyle the person wants. You can be a minimalist and go without any electricity using wood stoves or propane for heat and candles and lanterns for light, and a basic yurt, cabin or other house style. Or, you can build a very high-tech green home with the latest Leed's sustainability guidelines, which can be very expensive.

Older homes can be remodeled for off-the-grid efficiency or there are many small off-grid cabin designs like mine that people can use and modify to fit their needs. The style of the house may be modest or expensive depending on what you want.

My cabin cost under $2,000 to build and about $5,000 for the off-grid system and I believe a smaller off-grid home under 400 square feet that is very efficient and also nice and comfortable to live in can be built for under $20,000, and much less if people are using recycled materials and doing the work themselves. Land, water and a power system are not included in that figure because they vary greatly depending on your needs, the area, and where you want to live.

Matt and a friend during the construction phase

Options for Generating Electricity

One option for electricity is to go without. Alexander explains that one quarter of the world’s homes do not have a grid electricity connection.

“People survived and thrived just fine before electricity came along,” he says, “and still can if you are willing to do things by hand and go without much of the entertainment that people think they need to survive.”

If going without is not an option, there are several options for generating electricity for an off-the-grid house, but solar is the most affordable. At approximately $1 per watt you can have an inexpensive system for basic power needs for under $5,000. Solar also works in cloudy conditions and snowy areas.

Wind is another option, but wind turbines are expensive and only work when the wind blows. If you have access to a river or stream, you could look into hydro power for generating some of your electricity.

Both Alexander and LaVoie advise doing a lot of research before you invest in anything. LaVoie recommends getting an energy meter before making any decisions to figure out what your electrical needs are. Alexander says the best tip he can give is to first study how you can greatly reduce your power consumption using more efficient appliances and non-power using appliances.

“Heat, cooling and refrigeration are the main power consumers in any house,” he explains, “so off-grid houses use wood stoves, propane heat, fans, passive cooling and alternative power fridges to take those appliances out of the system. Once you eliminate those appliances from your power needs,” he continues, “you can use a very small solar system for everything else.”

Alexander’s current system is 580 watts solar, a 400 watt wind turbine, and propane for heating and cooking with a wood stove back-up. He does passive cooling with fans, porches, overhangs and trees, and refrigeration is done using a converted freezer run off solar.

Laura and Matt's completed tiny house

How To Get Water

Finding a water source is one of those things that you’re going to want to research before you buy land. Most counties require an approved source such as a city water connection, a professionally drilled well, or a cistern tank with a delivery system. Drilling a well can be expensive, so find out what your options are. Hand-drilled, shallow wells and rainwater catchment can be used for agricultural purposes, but these generally don’t meet county codes.

Alexander, who has a hand-drilled well and a 300 foot deep Artesian well, warns that if you’re using rainwater to supplement household usage, it must be filtered and treated to make it safe for consumption. He explains that giardia is a “real problem” with rain water but it is safe for washing clothes and flushing toilets.

LaVoie counts herself lucky that the land they bought has a running spring. She adds that you can also purchase water, but cautions that the costs begins to add up. She says that the thing that she is the most proud of is their conservation of water.

“The average American household can use over 200 gallons of water a day depending on the number of people in the home,” she says. “In our tiny house, Matt and I use a total of five gallons a day, not including drinking water. We have an air pressurized shower sprayer that holds two gallons of hot water and is plenty to ensure that we are clean.” She adds that one of the biggest culprits for water use in a traditional household is flushing the toilet.

The Lowdown on the Toilet

Outhouses are a proven solution for dealing with human excrement, but composting toilets offer a solution that can be brought indoors, have all the comforts of the modern toilet, and are allowed in many rural areas. Another solution is a conventional septic tank or, where allowed, a leach pond.

Alexander and LaVoie both recommend the book The Humanure Handbook: a Guide to Composting Human Manure by Joseph C. Jenkins for getting the facts about all things poop. LaVoie uses a dry composting, sawdust toilet that she describes as “easy to manage.” She adds that there are commercially available composting systems, but they can get pricey. Alexander designed and built a solar enhanced composting toilet that keeps the microbes at a higher temperature so they work faster to compost the waste.

“If you eliminate gray water from your tank,” he says, “you do not need a leach field and there is nothing left over but some dry composted material when the process is complete.” The plans for his toilet are in his book Off the Grid.

LaMar says living in a tiny, off-grid cabin frees him up to do what he loves

How to Handle Garbage, Recycling, Mail, Internet

Another question that arises is, if you’re off-the-grid, how do you deal with details such as garbage, recycling, mail and internet. The consensus here is to use the local dump for garbage and recycling and set up a P.O. box or a mailbox at a UPS store if there’s one nearby, or just use a mailbox on the road.

There are other options as well. Most household waste can be composted or incinerated in rural areas. Alexander explains that most rural people have an incinerator barrel and what is left over is hauled off occasionally. He adds that the key is reusing or repurposing everything possible.

“Everything gets recycled at my place,” he says, “and all wood and metal is held on to for other projects or sent to the scrap yard for someone else to use.”

Internet access is available through a cell phone hotspot or a satellite system. If T.V. is a must-have, satellite T.V. works everywhere and with Internet access, you can get Netflix, Hulu etc.

The Big Picture on Tiny, Off-The-Grid Living

The big picture takeaway on becoming an off-the-grid, tiny houser is that there are countless possibilities when it comes to building a home that's right for you. Making the move requires a big, hands-on commitment, but it’s a lifestyle change that, according to LaVoie, can be personally fulfilling.

“I think it is especially important for everyone to recognize that there isn't one right way to live simply or off-grid,” she says. “Tiny house living shouldn't be viewed as a competition or that someone is doing it better than anyone else. The most important thing is to live in a way that is comfortable for you.” She adds, “Always make sure you enjoy the adventure.”

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For more tiny house goodness, check these out:

Interviewed: The World's First Tiny House Hoteliers

The Tiny House Infographic Proves That Less Is More

Inside the Rise of the Tiny House Movement

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Top image: Merete and Christopher install their tiny house roof trim. Photo by Kevin Hoth. Follow Cat Johnson on Twitter

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