off the grid explained

We are living off the grid, meaning we are not connected to the electrical grid, but we are also not connected to a sewer or water system. We don’t pay utility bills each month like we did back home. I haven’t taken the time yet to explain how we set up our system, but I know that some readers will want to know how we run.

Everything we have for amenities at Circular Lodgic runs off of the gas-powered generator or our two liquid propane tanks.


When we had the power company come out to estimate the cost of putting power in to the a-frame, we were shocked to get a quote of $8500. Granted, we are over half a mile from a power line, but still, we never imagined it could be that expensive, given that we’re on a state highway.

After that quote, we knew we were definitely going off the grid. We chose a generator, on clearance at the mighty L&M. It’s called the Wingling Xingshang and it runs on premium gasoline. We fill a two-gallon container and fill the generator. I’d say one of those tanks gets us through half a week to a week, depending on how much we’re home. The generator can either directly power all of our electricity, via a generator/battery light switch found in the a-frame, or it can be used to charge the marine battery which otherwise powers all our lights. To charge the battery, you turn the generator on and flip the switch up. Then you plug in the battery charger, select the appropriate options, and you can watch it charge the battery back up to 100%. When the battery dies, the inverter makes an alarm sound before shutting the electricity down. We have the following items running directly off the battery itself since they have to ALWAYS have electricity: the water pump, the pilot igniter for the propane refrigerator, the tiny fan that circulates the composting toilet air to the outside, and the smoke alarms. When the generator/battery light switch is in the down position, the power comes from the battery connected to an inverter. The inverter changes the battery power into regular electricity, thus allowing our lights to run and our outlets to work in the a-frame and the yurt. That inverter has to be on to have power for the switches and outlets. We bought the inverter and charger at Walmart.

We are skimpy on electricity, running only lights we really need. We only charge cell phones, laptops, etc. when the power is coming straight from the generator, or the battery runs down quickly. We have to run the noisy generator every other or every third day if we’re lucky. We have to run it for about four hours to fully charge the battery. Other than the $8 we spend on gas for the generator a week, the power costs us nothing. No bill arrives each month, but if we run out of gas and the battery dies, it means a trip to the gas station if we want lights!

Wingling Xingshang the generator

Wingling Xingshang the generator

The generator vs. inverter switch, a light switch, the blue battery charger, and the inverter.

The generator vs. inverter switch, a light switch, the blue battery charger, and the inverter.


The charger, inverter, and battery.

The charger, inverter, and battery.


We pump water from a small creek that is about 150 feet from the a-frame cabin. It was running when we looked at the land in May and we were thrilled in dry August that it was still running, meaning we wouldn’t have to drill a well. During the middle of our building inspector fiasco they would tell us it was illegal to pump water from a creek, but the statute is nowhere to be found and they dropped it. The closest law we could find was something like if you pump some million gallons a day, you have to get a permit for it. I think we’re all set there. The health department also said that source of water couldn’t be approved and that we will likely be required to dig a well down the road, but they haven’t shown us where that is stated in code or law.

If the water seems to freeze in the winter, we’ll try breaking the ice open every day to pump, but our friend Matt is well-versed in digging sand point wells, so perhaps he can help us find a more permanent solution if it comes to that. A sandpoint well is one you drill yourself. It’s kind of a mini version of the wells you pay drillers to drill. Our land has some sandstone, so we thought this would be impossible, but Matt suggested drilling it right in the creek, so that may be possible.

A flojet pump (hardwired to the battery) brings the water from the small pool of water to the 35 gallon water tank in the a-frame. Before it hits the tank, it is filtered through a whole-house water filter with gets the silt, dirt, and some of the pathogens out of the water. From the tank, the pump pumps the water up into the water lines which then filter through the Eccotemp tankless water heater. When flipped on, it heats the water to the temperature chosen by the combination of the dials (one is temperature, one is gas amount). From there, it goes back to the fixtures, like the kitchen faucet. That faucet has a water purifier attached to it. When you want drinking water, you turn the purifier switch sideways and it is purified of giardia and other pathogens that might have made it through the filter. The pump pumps water not only to the kitchen faucet, but to the shower and bathroom sink as well. To use any water, you have to turn a small timer next to the pump on. Putting enough time on that dial is crucial when showering or the water might stop flowing mid-shower. Not fun, but you just have to run naked from the bathroom to the kitchen sink and add time.

Implications: It was extremely fortuitous that that creek is running because that means water is free for us. While we are much, much more aware of the amount of water we use (which is good), we do always know we can pump more. While it is annoying to wake up and be ready to jump in the shower and realize that there are only 3 gallons of water left in the tank, I think it’s really important to be more aware of the water we use and take steps to conserve it!  I haven’t always been very conscientious about that at home, so it’s useful to have to watch it dwindle away before my eyes.

Water filter (blue), water timer, and dials to switch from pumping water to using it.

Water filter (blue), water timer, and dials to switch from pumping water to using it.


The flojet water pump and filter.

The flojet water pump and filter.

It’s a little bit of a hassle using the tankless heater because you have to have it on to get any hot water, so oftentimes it is left off to conserve electricity and gas, meaning 75% of the time we don’t use hot water. Also, it takes a minute or so to heat the water, so you waste some water letting it run to the desired temperature. There is no way in hell I am getting in the shower and turning it on to my body when it is 56 degrees. Also, it does take some finesse to get the dials just right on the heater. It can get hospital-visit-required, skin-grafting-here-we-come hot very, very quickly, so you have to really gingerly turn it up and we NEVER adjust the gas gauge. That stays on the lowest of lows to avoid scalding.

We heat with liquid propane and wood. The a-frame has a propane-powered heater or furnace with a thermostat. Since there are pipes into that building, it has to be kept above freezing all the time, hence the thermostat. The yurt has a wood stove, but we are also adding the same propane heater we have in the a-frame to keep Xena and the dogs warm when  we are both at work or if we have to leave Xena for a weekend. The wood stove can keep the yurt warm for about 6 hours without anyone adding wood, but after that, it’ll cool down. There are no pipes to burst in the yurt, so if it wasn’t for the cat, we could just let it cool down. She’s worth it.

We have two 150 pound propane tanks rented from Ferrell Gas Company. They do a one-time charge to fill them and a yearly $25 charge for renting it. They will be unable to get their refill truck up our driveway in the winter, so we have to make sure that we’ll have enough gas to make it through the winter! We have a lot of work still to do to get enough wood put away for winter, but our land is absolutely full of downed, dead wood to cut up. Bryan’s been putting the chainsaw his dad gave us to good use and it’s a chore he really likes, so that’s good.

Composting Toilet:

This land had only the a-frame on it, with no improvements to speak of. Because of the cost of septic systems, we knew right off the bat that we would invest in a composting toilet. For $900 we could deal with our waste environmentally, if a little more personally than most people do. I did hours of research, finally choosing the Nature’s Head toilet, originally designed for boat use. The reviews were wildly positive, while the reviews for all the other, more expensive brands were much more negative. I watched one woman’s review video, showing exactly what dealing with a composting was REALLY like and I made Bryan watch it too before we ordered it. We felt like we could handle it and I was really excited to try it out!

The basic concept is this: Your feces gets mixed with peat moss and through air circulation and time, it breaks down, no longer being fecal matter, but turning into compost. Once the tank is full, you empty it. It is all self-contained, so there is no plumbing. It is about the size of a toilet, but it’s only attached to anything by the vent pipe that goes outside the cabin. To remove it completely, for emptying or cleaning, you just unscrew it from the floor and lift it out.

You sit down to pee, male or female (so Bryan pees outside) or you get major splashing since the bowl is closed except a trap door and two pee holes. It’s shaped so your pee filters down those holes into a separate pee container. This is what prevents the toilet from smelling. It’s actually the pee that makes outhouses stink, not the feces, as I had always assumed. When you have to poop, you open the trap door which goes into the solids holding tank. When you prepare the toilet for use, you fill this tank with about two gallons of peat moss.  You do your thing, put your tp in there too, close the trap door, and close the toilet lid. Then you crank a handle on the side of the toilet which mixes the feces and the peat moss up, allowing the composting to take place.

When the handle gets hard to turn, you know it is time to empty it. I think with full-time use, it usually has to be emptied every week and a half or two weeks. The first time we did this, we were shocked by the fact that our poop was no longer poop! It honestly all looked like peat moss with toilet paper in it. The toilet paper obviously takes longer to break down than feces, so it will still be there. The emptying isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it is annoying because the base doesn’t have handles. That was a bad design move on the company’s part and it drives Bryan crazy! You can either wrap a kitchen garbage bag around the base and dump it, or take the whole toilet outside and bury the compost. We have done it both ways, but we usually put it in a bag and let it sit for a few weeks to compost even more before disposing of it.

The pee container is the grossest part. Like I said, THAT is the stinky part of waste, not the feces. I just go into the woods, dump it out using the handle, and then rinse it a couple of times with a bottle from the recycling bin. Then it slides back into its holder and you clip the toilet base back in place. Add your new peat moss, and you’re back in business. To be honest, I don’t mind it. It is much cleaner than our home toilet ever was and it only ever smells like peat moss when you’re doing your business. When I pee in it, I just spray a little water and vinegar solution at the holes to wash any residual pee down so it doesn’t stain the bowl. That’s what you use to clean it too, although like I said, it stays far cleaner than our home toilet bowl ever did!

Now, we had to get a permit to have our composting toilet there. The health department requires you to report what you’ll be doing with your waste, so the permit was necessary. Part of the permitting rules for them in this area is that you can’t have plumbing in any buildings. We do. It said on our permit that if we had plumbing, we’d have to have a septic system to deal with the gray water from the dishes and shower. The building inspectors told us when they came that in order to show good faith that we wanted to make things right with them, we had to put in a septic system.

When the health department found this out, they rescinded our permit, saying we had to get a regular low flow toilet instead, so that’s coming down the line.

Our Nature's Head Composting Toilet

Our Nature’s Head Composting Toilet

they got their pound of flesh and are out of our hair

We are done with the building inspectors!

A while back I posted about our little visit from the county building inspectors and all the changes they were insisting we make in order to stay living here. A couple months and a few thousand dollars later, and we have satisfied them, got our permits, and should be done with them.

We now have a full septic system, with tank and drain field. Did I mention that we have a composting toilet? So, that system is processing our Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap for us! Hurrah!

We added a bathroom sink, hardwired smoke alarms, added a gfci to the generator, took out our vent-free heaters, and installed our woodstove to code. We replaced the copper piping for the gas lines with coated copper piping, and we paid hundreds of dollars for our permits to be right with them.

Now, when they came they were all fire and brimstone. They told us we couldn’t live here, that we’d have to get an apartment, and that yurts were not for sleeping in (we reminded them that state parks in their state rent them out for sleeping in, but didn’t get around to the whole Mongolians living in them for centuries thing). They told us we should have asked for permission to do these things, not waited and tried to make it right after the fact. I know these people are just trying to do their jobs. I also recognize that their jobs require them to try to follow rules that do not always make sense or work for every situation. For instance, because their code is out of date, it doesn’t recognize other ways to live besides building a 2×4 framed McMansion. They don’t have code on composting toilets, despite the fact that dealing with waste that way is more environmentally sound than dumping it into our land through a septic system.

Anyway, after all the fear factor stuff, they were willing to work with us. They gave us a by on the yurt, in spite of the fact that we shouldn’t have built it in the first place, according to county rules. They didn’t charge us the 50% more they charge on all permits obtained after construction begins (so all of ours). They were polite about my waterworks. They didn’t say we had to put in a well or stop pumping water from our creek. Granted, we can’t find a law ANYWHERE that indicates that that is illegal, though the health department would claim it is. When I went to the health department to ask if they would let us just pump our water into the tank and then have it pumped, they said no. We were hoping to save thousands of dollars and avoid cutting down trees and creating a big eyesore behind the a-frame, but no such luck. She did allow us to put in a smaller drain field, allowing us to keep one of the biggest maples on the land. But, she said she thought that the building inspector was going to make us get rid of our composting toilet.

It’s a bummer that they found our place and that we have had to do a lot of unnecessary and some downright silly work to please them. All in all though, it could have been worse and they certainly could have made our lives much worse, so I’m satisfied to have that phase of yurt life be over.