Soup to nuts off-grid living for under $160,000?

So, what would the real “all in” cost be to live completely off-grid? Can it be done affordably and comfortably?

It can be – that is if we’re realistic about expectations. Living off-grid pretty much rules out the McMansion lifestyle… In fact, as I think will be demonstrated below, it will require a pretty significant lifestyle change.

What follows certainly isn’t scientific, and I’m going to caveat the hell out of it as I’m sure there are expenses I’m leaving out, but it should at least get the gears spinning on possibilities and costs. And for those out there who already have expertise in off-grid living, please feel free to poke holes in my analysis.

I’ll include a budget graph at the end.

Land Costs

For off-grid purposes, there are four absolute land requirements:

1)   Access to a water source (in this case we’ll opt for a well with a flow of 10-20 gallons per minute);
2)   Plenty of sun
3)   Good soil quality
4)   A moderate climate/Longer growing seasons

For grins, lets also assume we’ve got some good breezes to take advantage of backup wind power.

For this example, we’ll choose a hectare lot (2.5 acres) on the Azuero Peninsula in Panama since I’m familiar with land costs in the area.

We’ll choose a lot right around here…

Not a bad place to live huh?

  • 1 hectare (2.5 acres) lot: $30,000-$50,000. Land can still be found in the area that is much more affordable, but I’m willing to pay a premium for these views and to be close to the ocean.
  • Groundwater well: Approximately $2000-$4000, depending on how deep we need to drill before hitting adequate water flow.
  • Solar Pump: Grundfos SQFlex Submersible Solar Pump $1800

 Housing construction costs

For purposes of completely off-grid living, I’m really intrigued with the “tiny house” concept. We need a place to cook, sleep, and bathe, but the outdoors will serve as our “living room.” Plus, to go completely off-grid and make it affordable, the electricity demands of a larger house are just impractical.

One of the coolest “tiny house” concepts I’ve seen is the ecoPerch from Blue Forest out of the U.K.

The ecoPerch is 36.5 square meters (around 400 square feet) and can be built as a tree house or as a standalone structure.

It has a master bed with built in storage, second bedroom with bunk beds, toilet and shower room, kitchen with a breakfast bar, and a small deck. It’s highly insulated, made of sustainable materials, and can be fitted with an off-grid energy system.

I’ll concede this is probably not the ideal home for a place like Panama – it’s constructed from sustainably harvested external tongue and groove timber cladding, which would probably not last as long in Panama’s hot and wet climate. But since it’s such a cool concept and we’re just spitballing possibilities, that’s what we’re going with.

To increase efficiency, we’ll install low-flow showerheads, LED lighting, ceiling fans (rather than an AC unit), and a low-flow toilet.

  • Estimated cost for ecoPerch construction:  Approximately $85,000. If you want to go cheaper still you can substitute traditional cement block construction instead of the ecoPerch and estimate building costs of $80-$90 per square foot ($30,000-$35,000).
  • Septic tank: $4000
  • Low flow shower head aerator: $50.00
  • Low flow toilet: $250-$300

Electricity Needs

Here’s where it gets interesting… And complicated.

The average energy use per household per month in the United States is around 958 kilowatt hours (kWh).

But keep in mind that the average home size for a single family home is 2171 square feet according to the DOE’s Energy Information Administration’s 2005 Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

Since the ecoPerch is roughly one-fifth the size of the average American home (400 square feet), we’ll assume that the kilowatt hours per month needed will be roughly one fifth as well (175-200 kWh per month/6.6 kWh per day).

That’s a pretty tight energy budget, so lets break it down.

Remember how I suggested above that this will require a fairly significant lifestyle change? Well, here’s how significant:

We get a washing machine, but no dryer… We’ll dry clothes on a clothesline. No disposal either, and no air conditioner… We’ll make do with a good ceiling fan or two, which, with a home this small should keep the interior plenty cool. No dishwasher… We’ll be washing dishes by hand.  We’re also going with a gas stove and water heater.

Here’s what our daily energy budget looks like:

Now we’ll need to figure out how many solar panels we’ll need to generate those kWh, so we’ll use the very cool sun calculator at wunderground.com.

By plotting our longitude and latitude on a world map we can get a breakdown of energy from the sun, as well as the number of solar panels we’ll need.

According to their calculations, we’ll need 8 panels to be in the ballpark and generate the 6.6 kWh of energy we’ll need per day.

  • Solar panels: $6500 (for 8 Kyocera KD-205GX-LP solar panels)
  • Battery storage: $1000 (for 6 deep cell 12v batteries)

You’ll also notice from the graph above that we’re going to be running an energy deficit during several months (May to November)… Panama’s rainy season.

So, we’re going to supplement our solar with some wind power.

The good news is that the area gets a lot of wind. The bad news is that the highest winds happen to occur during the dry season, not the rainy season.

We’ll install a backup wind generator from Whisper 100 and estimate that it will give us another 50 to 100 kWh of power per month.

I’ll confess that I am not comfortable enough with my knowledge of wind power to know whether this is feasible or whether the claims are valid, so I’m taking the company’s info at face value.

  • Whisper 100 Wind generator: $2500

Food

As I’ve written about previously, we can grow a lot of food on 2 ½ acres and most of the costs associated with building a small organic farm are sweat equity.

We’ll go with raised vegetable beds, which are fairly new even to the permaculture/organic farming world, but the concept is sound: Plants at ground level compete with other plants, thus you can spend a lot of time hunched over weeding.  Plus, mulching, composting, pruning and harvesting are much easier.

The beds here were built using the cuttings of plantation teak and corotu scrap that local woodworkers and furniture builders couldn’t use, so we were able to get it virtually for free.

We’ll build four planters… The two you see above for vegetables, and another, wider bed below for watermelon, cantaloupe or other vining/running plants and then a fourth herb circle.

The planters are spaced about 4 feet apart to utilize as much space as possible for growing, while leaving room for wheelbarrows and other garden implements and making it easy to walk down each row and forage from both sides.

Finally, for good measure lets throw in some protein… Broiler chickens and eggs.  So our food package looks like this:

  • Estimated garden construction costs and seeds: $1000
  • 50 chicks @ $2.50 ea.: $125
  • 2 Waterers: $85
  • Heat lamp: $25 (150 watts. We have enough in our solar energy budget)
  • Chicken coop: $200
  • Chicken feed @ $30 per month: $360 per year

There are a hell of a lot more details in the chicken department that I’m not going to get into here, but Chris Martenson has a detailed article on raising broilers that I’d encourage you to read here if you’re interested.

So… Here’s what a conceptual “soup-to-nuts” budget might look like:

As I wrote at the top… Poke holes in the analysis if you’d like and I’ll fine tune in future missives.

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7 Responses to "Soup to nuts off-grid living for under $160,000?"

  1. Michael says:

    Your plan sounds great but you might think about more latitude with solar panels. We have 12 and our usage in a 1200 sq. foot house (2 people) is a bit higher than you estimate. We don’t have a gas stove and that makes a big difference but in the winter, here in the FL Keys, we average using about 8-9 KW  a day. We don’t use a dryer either but I think 8 panels might be low and would encourage you to think about 12. We also have solar hot water which is a must because water heaters use a lot of energy. 

    • Coleyh says:

      Drats… I knew I’d forgotten something. Solar water heaters are a must. There are also some really interesting concepts I’ve seen utilizing compost water heaters.

  2. Enigmatica says:

    Don’t forget water power! Our turbine keeps the lights burning here in Wales.Then there’s  passive heating, pantry instead of ‘fridge, twin tub is much less power hungry,….

  3. sarah says:

    This is a great outline, but I think it’s a little demanding for one family. “Self sufficiency” is great in theory, until you end up working from 4 am till midnight, weeding, feeding, and maintaining all your crops and animals and equipment. I’d rather break up a project like that into 3 or 4 sections. My family will handle the veggies – your family can handle the chickens – another family deals with maintenence.

  4. MikeS says:

    6.6kWh/day…?  Are you kidding?  We run a 1500 sq ft house on just 2.5kW/day in Australia in a climate probably similar to Panama’s…

    http://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/the-power-of-energy-efficiency/

  5. Michael says:

    Here’s on my fav off grid homes. Looks expensive though, they don’t give a price. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gcgz6aZ3jk That channel has a lot of other good off-grid living videos too.

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