Obstacles To Living Off The Grid

We’ve done it and survived, here’s a list to think about
BY: CINDY RAY

We live out on the East Cape on a dirt road and without any tentacles of civilization reaching us. Some things to plan for are power, water, sewage, and garbage disposal.

Water is a huge item; considering that Los Cabos area is pretty much a desert.  All the water is pumped out of a well somewhere near town and brought out via water truck, then pumped into a pila (holding tank) which stores the water.  Our community shares one large pila which is metered to each homes’ personal tinaco (individual tank with a float).  The challenge is getting the water truck to come out. The further you live from other homes or communities, the larger the challenge.  Our water usage costs about $20 to $30 USD monthly; however, our landscaping contains mostly natural desert trees and cacti.  Our neighbors that water often generally use the gray water from sink/shower drainage and the clothes washer.  If you buy a home you may want how old the water pump is. They generally last 15 to 20 years and could run you roughly $200 USD or more to replace. 

Another huge consideration is that this water may not be trustworthy to drink or even brush your teeth with.  Most people bring five gallon bottles of purified water to use for drinking, making ice etc.  We opted for a purification system. It has a three stage process consisting of particulate, carbon filters and UV light. It purifies all the water used throughout the house.  There are a few major companies which cater to single family home usage. The Pelican we selected has a lifetime warranty.  The cost was $1500 USD with the necessary filters.  The UV light is changed annually. To me it was well worth the money for purified water.

For the disposal of the privy waste probably most of you are familiar with a septic tank system.  They do the job very well usually. 

The gray water from sinks and shower are usually spread out under the ground into the dirt and sometimes landscaping.  The challenge here is knowing what was used and how large the pipes are.  Often roots can clog the pipes. If you buy a house it is wise not to plant trees over the leach lines so knowing where they are is very important. 

The other important water item is to make sure the vents are connected and working properly (air vents sometimes on the roof or around the base of the house) if they do not, the drains won’t work as well.  Some of the houses in the area do run the gray water out into the landscaping for watering purposes.  And there are capture systems you can use to spot water your yard.

Garbage can be a real issue out in the rough. There are no garbage collection trucks except in some of the larger towns.  There are dumps in most of the large towns (San Jose del Cabo; La Ribera) and they do not charge you got delivering your garbage.  However; depending on where you live it may not be very convenient to load up your garbage and take it to the dump.  For the most part the Mexican residents burn their garbage, plastic and all (It sets up quite a stink).  Most of the glass the dumps recycle; but the plastic normally they do not.  Often there are enterprising locals who make some revenue by taking people’s garbage to the dump for them.  They charge about 100 pesos a bag (large bag) and usually have plenty of eager takers.  The other option is to network with the neighbors and take turns traveling to the dump. 

Many of the homes have a composter out back which is a large aired bin with a lid to fill with degradable waste such as produce; food scraps; and egg shells.  It is a good way to dispose of the waste and make rich fresh soil for the garden and planting.  A good composter varies in price and quality from $50 upwards $500.  The down side is the unit will attract scorpions that love the dark cool hiding spot.  Hey, living out here is not for sissies!

Let’s discuss power. All the homes in the outlying areas are solar powered.  If you are buying a home already built, the age of the batteries and solar panels are a huge item.   Most of the systems are 24 volt to power a home.  The panels glean the solar power which charge the batteries.  The batteries store power for when the sun is not out. Most battery banks are designed to store up to three days depending on usage. There is a control panel and displays to monitor the power bank and flow.  There is also an DC to AC converter which converts the DC solar to AC to run the household applications. 

Another way to go is to have a generator (gas or diesel) to re charge the batteries if the sun falls on the job. A generator will run you from $300 to thousands depending on the size.

One of the homes in our community has a small windmill to supplement the power for nights and very cloudy conditions. The new innovations in windmill power has probably made it a very good backup option especially where there is a continual breeze as in the East Cape where we are. A good 24 volt solar system will operate all these comfortably:  lights; refrigerator; water pump; appliances; vacuums; leaf blowers; grooming accessories; washer; just about everything a utility grid would power.

However; the solar panels last about 20 years (give or take) and are very expensive to replace.  The cost is anywhere from $3000 to $11,000 each depending on the size.  Most homes have at minimum three or four.  The batteries as well are only rated for about the same; and could run $500 each.   We have four of these. 

Most if not all homes also have propane tanks to run their oven/stoves and water heaters.  There are a few homes with propane refrigerators.  Propane is very pricey not to mention getting the propane truck out to fill you up.  There again living in a communal area is advantageous for getting service.  To fill the average tank is roughly $500 to $600 USD (80 gallon tank) and a “propina” for the driver.  (You want to incentify them to come out when you need them!) 

There are a couple more things to check into.  One is that most off the grid homes have no air conditioning (only mother nature’s breeze) or heating.  The climate dictates the living temperature except for lots of fans or closed windows.  Most of the homes are outfitted with storm shutters of all types.  If you see your neighbors putting up shutters it is a sure sign it is coming. (Unless your neighbor is just a fool. Check on that.) Again, there are enterprising individuals who make a living by caring for people’s storm shutters and landscaping needs.  The closest neighbors are your best resource.  The cost varies depending on window and sizes.

Secluded home spots are cozy but expect to be there all the time or pay someone to stay there while you are gone.  The reason for building/buying in a community is that there are enough permanent residents to keep a watchful eye on things for you.  When we leave for a few months we lock all the doors and give a caretaker a set of keys just in case.  The resident nationals that supply us with water are very good about reporting any suspicious activities as well.

Off the grid living is truly liberating.  However; do your homework first if you are considering it as an option.  If you are considering building a home off the grid, that is an entirely new challenge and not an easy one, with supervision and an ethical contractor two big concerns.  There is not going to be a government building inspector coming out with every phase of the completion.   And check on some of the large items mentioned: power; water; sewage; garbage.  Hopefully your living off the grid will be the best experience rather than the most challenging!