Letter Re: Some Off-Grid Living Techniques

Mr. Rawles,

Thank you for a great blog site.  I’d like to share some techniques we use every day at our off-grid homestead that would be applicable for grid-down living

With 280 watts of solar panels in the southern plains, a good Xantrex controller, three marine deep-cycle batteries and an inverter we power a 9 cubic foot freezer-turned-refrigerator fitted with an analog temperature controller, a portable dvd player used nightly for movies and documentaries, 1 to 3 small fans in summer, a netbook computer, and a couple of compact fluorescent lights along with charging cell phones and cordless tools and even running a sewing machine on sunny days.

In our experience a homemade composting bucket is the best choice for human waste disposal and if properly constructed and maintained can even be kept and used in the house.  An outhouse works but I have yet to visit one that was particularly pleasant (read – I usually come out blue in the face or gagging.)  Chemical toilets are just plain gross as well.  Separately-collected urine makes a great garden fertilizer. [JWR Adds: Readers are warned that the risks of using composted human feces for garden fertilizing far outweigh the benefits.]

We have used a bio-sand or slow sand filter for water filtration exclusively for several years.  They are used the world over and work well for biological contaminants.  One can be constructed for $100 or less.  Ours is housed in a plastic 55-gallon drum. Plans and information are available on line.  Google “bio-sand filter”

Off-grid clothes washing is much facilitated by pre-soaking clothes for an hour or so up to overnight with 1/2 cup ammonia added to the water (if adequate water supplies are available.)  Ammonia is a great clothes cleaner and really cuts grease plus it takes much less water to rinse out.  Gray water containing ammonia seems to cause no harm to garden plants.  Borax, on the other hand, can kill or damage plants.  The little pressure washers, plungers and other gimmicky laundry aids have been a waste of money for us.  A washboard, a scrub brush (for jeans) and elbow grease will get clothes clean just as easily.  In a long-term grid-down situation lye leached from wood ashes will clean clothes. One thing to remember in considering SHTF clothes washing strategies is that without adequate rinsing clothes both stay dirty and attract even more dirt from the soap trapped in the fibers.  It may be that an ammonia/water or lye water soak and one quick rinse is the best option.  Bedding can be freshened between infrequent washings by hanging it in the sun and the breeze.

Five gallons of water is easily enough for a bath even for a woman who wants to shave, condition hair, etc. For example: wet down a little, wash hair without overdoing the shampoo, wash body, rinse.  Apply conditioner (again, don’t overdo it), shave and scrub feet and nails with the water that’s accumulated in the bottom of the tub, rinse again.  You’re done in 5 gallons and most likely will have a little water left for a final rinse of the rag.  An oval, shallow black poly stock watering tank makes a great bathtub that even a child can move and empty. – Judy B.