Water is one of the top priorities when you’re building an off-grid world (for the full list see here). Having suffered plenty of experience in doing it the wrong way, I was a little obsessed about water this second time around. I’ve made sure in my new off-grid world that water is in abundance. I can tell you now, the difference it has made to my workload and general comfort levels is huge.
So here’s a list of the top five ways you can obtain water in your off-grid world, with (as always) some very common issues to watch out for, plus one thing you absolutely must factor in to your off-grid water system right from the outset.
Wells are pretty common in off-grid scenarios. Humans have been digging wells for a long time, after all. If they are decent wells with plenty of water all year round, it’s all well and good. Even if you don’t have your own well, you can potentially bore down and create one. But, before you shell out a small fortune for a borer, do consider some of the pitfalls of wells.
The reality: I’ve seen a heap of problems with wells. The troubles begin (but don’t end) when, as they are wont to, wells dry up. Even here in very rainy northern Spain, I see a lot of people running low on water if the season is dry.
So… as always when it comes to water systems. Unless you are 101% sure you have plenty of water all year, make sure you have a backup. This is probably the number one rule with off-grid water. Rely on one source at your peril. I have three potential sources now, and that makes me feel very good indeed:)
The other issue with wells and water systems in general is of course pumps (protracted groan). I often hear people say, “Oh we’ll just pump it up.” That phrase is delightfully short and simple, and belies none of the actual aggravation pumps can cause. More on pumps at the bottom.
I think this is the water system of the future. Almost everywhere in the world, even in dry areas, there is rainfall at some point in the year. If you can harvest that water and store it well, you can change your world.
The best rainwater harvesting system I have ever seen was in Tamera, Portugal. It was a massive water-retention lake designed by Sepp Holzer. You can read more about that here. But the key difference between Sepp’s permie rainwater systems versus classic rainwater harvesting pools, is that Sepp uses clay to line the base of the lake, rather than concrete or any other impermeable man-made membrane. This is fundamental in dry climates because it allows a little natural seepage into the ground, thus rehydrating the entire area around the lake and balancing your local water table. Ultimately it transforms the actual climate, attracting more rain.
But not everyone is in a super-dry climate, nor does everyone have enough land for such a project. In which case, the most common (and effective) way of harvesting rainwater is from your roof. It is then collected in a big tank for later use.
The reality: The main issue with rainwater harvesting is storage space, because depending on how many months are dry and how big your garden is, you may find yourself needing a tank the size of a house. I think for small off-grid worlds, rainwater works superbly as a backup. The water is also beautifully soft, which makes your skin and hair all soft and shiny (if you like that kind of thing:)
You can read more about rainwater harvesting, and about Sepp Holzers’s inspiring work here.
These two Abundant Edge podcasts also give excellent advice on rainwater harvesting.
If you have a spring on your land, then I doubt you are reading this post. It’s the source I favour most, especially if it’s pure mountain water that you can also drink. Like wells or course, springs can dry up. But if it’s an open spring above your living quarters, then you may well be spared the pumping. I’ve seen lucky folk with spring water pipes pouring next to their houses. So if you’re looking for land and find one with a spring in it, go for it!
Brooks and Rivers
Again, if you’re looking for land and find a plot next to a river or with a brook in it, it’s probably a good choice. If it’s above your land it’s easier to drive the water down without a pump, but you have potentially more chance of flooding. If it’s below your land you’ve got to pump it up. Ram pumps are very interesting solutions to this problem though. More on them at the bottom.
The reality: Both brooks and rivers can dry up, so make sure you check their status at the end of the dry season. Also, in many regions rivers are communal, or much worse, corporation property. Or there may be limits to what you can do with them. This is why I favour springs. Generally, if you have a small spring in your land, the government or the mega-corporation has nothing to say.
Dew harvesting/dew ponds
This is essentially a very old but fast-developing water solution. Essentially all you need is a temperature reaching dew point/mist, and a tarp. In the old days, dew ponds were for cattle. A hole was dug, an insulator like straw was put down, and then puddled clay for waterproofing. See more details about the old dew ponds here.
You can make your own dew pond by digging a wide basin or pool, lining it with straw for insulation, and then covering it with a tarp. In the evening and morning, dew will collect in the tarp in a small pond. People have adapted this system for their roofs too, collecting the dew much like rainwater.
The reality: This is way, way easier in a cooler, damper climate than in a hot, arid one. In southern Turkey there was basically no dew point reached at all for about four months of the year, so good luck harvesting dew there. It’s still possible, but you need a much larger, higher-tech system. However, if your climate is temperate, oceanic, rainforest, or cool, dew harvesting can be a nice easy backup source of water.
Video of how to make a dew pond: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66tAHmRd5FE
As alluded to earlier, I hate pumps. My neighbour in Turkey was killed by one, which has done nothing to cure my aversion. Pumps often go wrong, and personally, being an independent type of lass, I dislike that my water supply suddenly becomes dependent on power.
Electric pumps (which could be solar) are okay for lightweight jobs, but don’t forget that mixing water and electricity is a high-risk venture (this is what killed my neighbour). Also, if you have a steep incline, electricity isn’t going to cut the mustard. You will need a petrol pump instead. These are noisy, expensive, and of course require fuel.
There is only one pump system I like, and that’s the hydraulic ram pump. Old school, that’s me. Ram pumps use gravity and pressure as their power source, rather than petrol or electricity. Basically you have a pipe with a number of valves in it, and the pressure of the flow (in say a river) pushes the water up a certain way into the pipe and through a valve, which closes behind it. When the next lot of water gets pushed up the pipe, it pushes the first lot through the next valve. And so on, until you’ve pumped water up your hill. Ram pumps have a lovely click to them as the valves open and close, too. The only disadvantage is that ram pumps can’t usually drag water up very steep inclines.
You can read more about the wonderful ram pump here.
Here’s a video on how to make one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enBEMgDR3-A
Yes, you need drinking water, but not nearly as much as you think. There’s far too much paranoia regarding water, usually spread by people who have zero experience of life in the wild, and who are spewing second-hand stories they’ve seen on the telly.
Remember: Depending on your annual rainfall and the size of your veggie patch/orchard, anywhere between 50% to 90% of your water usage is for your garden. On top of that, the vast majority of your personal water usage is for washing clothes and showering, so it doesn’t need to be pure, either. Then comes the washing up, which unless you’ve got good reason to believe there is giardia or cholera lurking in your supply, and you’re eating off wet plates, can also be washed in non-drinking water.
The amount of water you actually ingest is minimal. I have no drinking water in my taps and collect it instead from a pure spring nearby. I usually use between 2-3 litres a day. What you need most is water, full stop. Provided it’s not downstream from a chemical plant, you are probably fine using it for most things except drinking and eating. Most people going off-grid are moving to remote places, which are automatically less polluted anyway. That is, after all, the whole point, right?
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Probably one of the most attractive features of an off-grid lifestyle is that it’s so inexpensive, leaving the dreaded day job behind becomes very viable. You have no power or water bills. You don’t (hopefully) pay rent. You are not spending idiotic amounts of cash on travelling to work, or on a corporate wardrobe. And most importantly of all, I think, is that the mere act of being outside in nature is in and of itself very fulfilling, so you are not wasting money on myriad distractions. I still say building with mud is one of my cheapest hobbies.
After a while you start growing your own food, which shaves a lot off your food bill too. I worked out that even in my paltry first-year herb garden, I saved about fifty euros on herbs alone in just twelve weeks! My friend said she’s saved thirty euros on tomatoes alone this summer. We’re single. If you’re a family, then growing your own vegetables is a big money saver.
Even so, as I learned to my chagrin back on Mud Mountain in Turkey, unless you are prepared to cut yourself off entirely from humanity, not have internet, or be a parasitic scrounger, you do need a few bucks to live off. In Turkey I was getting by (fairly uncomfortably) on about 150 dollars a month. Here in Spain it’s more like 350 euros. A good half of my outgoings are on petrol and communications (wifi/phone, etc.), and I won’t lie, I still harbour a dream of cutting those out one day. And then there are the times things ‘go wrong’, the inverter blows up, or your water pipes freeze, and you have to repair your infrastructure.
350 euros isn’t much… unless you haven’t got it. So I asked around in our Special Mud Home Facebook Group as to how the other off-gridders and system-escapees earn their crust.
How to make a living off-grid:
1. Teaching natural building and homesteading workshops
This is one of the most common ways people keep the money clock ticking. The learning curve for people building small off-grid worlds is immense, so once you’ve built your own little world it usually by default attracts others who want to learn.
Pros: Depending on your location it’s very viable. In Europe and the US, a lot of people want to learn this stuff.
Cons: You need a decent infrastructure in place to be able to host workshops. Then there’s the food issue (bane of my life). Who’s doing the catering for ten people, who no doubt have all manner of ludicrous dietary requirements? In my experience (and many others concur), workshops are exhausting. You’re not going to be running them every week.
2. Renting out your yurt/tent/campervan on Airbnb
You’d be amazed what you can rent out, so don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mud hut is too basic for Airbnb. Even a square of land in a beautiful place can potentially be rented out to campers. There is a hunger for beauty and nature and simplicity.
Pros: A nice little earner without a huge amount of effort.
Cons: Depending on your location, there may be legal or tax implications with this. It’s tricky to keep rented properties under the radar, and I’ve heard a few cases in various countries of local guesthouse owners complaining, and then fines being issued.
3. Selling your own produce/handiwork
A lot of folk are doing this in my area of Spain, because there are some tax advantages to being a stall holder:) Whether there is a local demand for fresh, organic home produce depends on your location. In Turkey, because everyone already made everything themselves, it was harder to sell your own creations. But in many, many countries, home produce is viable. Jam goes for five euros a jar in my local market, which is a pretty high markup I reckon:)
What to sell?
Jam, honey, organic veggies, chutneys, herbs, herbal remedies, soaps and natural cleaning products, bread, cakes, pasties, cheeses, butter, handmade jewellery, foraged food.
“I’m a big forage geek. Wild gourmet mushrooms sell high in the right season and restaurants ‘eat them up’,” said Wynter Spring in our Facebook Group.
Where to sell it?
In your local market, restaurants, create a ‘pick your own’ and let people do the hard work for you, or sell online.
Pros: Easy to stay under the radar and earn ‘cash-in-hand’.
Cons: Potentially labour-intensive. You need to be sure you have a market for your stuff.
4. Online teacher
If you are a native speaker of English you are lucky. You have ample opportunities to teach your mother tongue online. Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese are other popular languages to learn. But people are teaching almost anything online these days.
Pros: It’s flexible and sometimes pleasant to chat to different people if you’re getting cabin fever up there in your off-grid world.
Cons: You need a decent internet/power system. Teaching takes more time, energy and skill than people think. You have to prepare classes (usually), have decent social skills, and shedloads of patience.
A number of people edit journals and articles. Or if you speak more than one language, you can also flex your translation muscles.
Pros: Flexible. This is non-physical work (which can be important when you are off-grid, as you can get physically very tired).
Cons: Little room for creativity, so potentially quite tedious.
6. Retreats and Travel
These are similar to workshops in their need for effort, but retreats and homestays usually require better infrastructure and more comfortable lodgings. You can run spiritual, ecological, ‘writers and artists’ retreats or responsible cultural holidays like Poonam below:
“I have a little responsible rural travel project in the Indian Himalayas, where I have trained and hired underprivileged women, mainly widows and victims of domestic violence - www.fernweh-travel.com . Plus we have a homestay looked after by women too www.peachesandpears.net,” says Poonam, (also a member of our Facebook Group - it's nice in there:)
Pros: You will probably meet some interesting like-minded folk. Some are like angels bringing fresh air and ideas into your world.
Cons: You may meet royal pains in the backside as well:) For some, the end of the world = no chia seeds, composting toilets, too much quiet/noise, beds too hard/soft/big/small etc)...it goes on and on.
7. Social media manager/online assistant
You need to be fairly tech savvy and dextrous with a number of social media platforms to pull off being a virtual assistant. These skills can be learned though. A VA may have to upload blog posts, edit, sort out inboxes, post on social media, organise travel arrangements, do online research, write or collate newsletters, and more.
Pros: Flexible and not too time-consuming if you have the skill set required.
Cons: I think the most challenging part is getting yourself out there in the beginning so that people can hire you. There are a number of sites where online freelancers tout their wares. Here is a sample of some of the biggest:
8. Start Your Own Online Business
I think by now I could write a book on this, which is ironic, because not once in this off-grid adventure have I consciously tried to create a business. What I did want to do was create a platform, which by default is what you need to do if you want to stand a chance of succeeding in the smoke and mirrors world of online business.
Online businesses can involve selling products. But I’d say selling things is only one side of online entrepreneurship. You could be creating online courses, such as I do for the Mud Home, or offering services such as therapy sessions, or creating online communities.
“Over the past 10 years I've built my business as a master doll sculptor so that I would be able to one day explore my off-grid passion,” says Rhonda, who unlike me and many others was smart and got her ducks in a row before she left the system:) You can see her creations at https://creamsodabjd.com/.
Kirsty Henderson has called herself an accidental cartographer. She’s got a great blog post about how she fell into the online business of selling maps. http://www.portugalfromscratch.com/earning/so-how-am-i-funding-this-crazy-adventure/#more-63
Pros: Creative and exciting. It’s great to be your own boss.
Cons: There’s a lot of rubbish touted about earning millions online. Don’t believe a word of it. An online business is not a get-rich-quick option, but hey, that’s presumably not what you’re doing it for;) Still, for the sake of realism I reckon it usually takes a good two years to learn the ropes and get a decent online platform going (unless you’ve got a stack of money to throw at advertising).
9. Building/designing projects for others
When you have a built a few natural homes and are on the level that Shagun Singh is, you can design or build for others. “I started taking designing and building projects very selectively. These are mostly social with no charge but a few commercial ones too to support finances,” says the amazing woman behind Geeli Mitti in India.
Pros: Potentially lucrative. Could improve your standing in the natural building world.
Cons: Potentially exhausting and frustrating. You have to navigate other people’s vast and often unrealistic expectations.
If you are an expert with hands-on experience in any field, you can offer advice to anyone who’ll pay you by becoming a consultant. There are permaculture design consultants, natural building consultants, online business consultants… heck, even dog psychology and hairstyle consultants. This may be part of your online business, but not necessarily.
Pros: Potentially interesting work because you have a deeper level of input into someone’s project without the burden of actually making it happen.
Cons: Make sure you have decent internet. Your main challenge will be to find customers.
Links and Further Reading for Online Entrepreneurship
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Far up north, there’s a bard in the woods creating dream worlds for himself out of timber and earthbags. He’s built a cabin, a yurt and a hobbit house in his quest to escape the drudge of the wage economy. Let me introduce the free spirit that is Hugh Morshead.
“Ten years ago, I moved into a one-room cabin in the woods. I thought that I would be living a life of voluntary simplicity with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st,” Hugh explained to me. “After my first summer the bank called. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk I faced two sets of arched eyebrows. Their concern was my sudden wealth...I paraphrased the money lender in David Copperfield – disposable income equals income minus expenses.”
Disposable income equals income minus expenses. Stick that on a billboard, someone! Whenever I read all these ludicrous “How to earn a million bucks” stories, I’m prone to chuckle or sigh depending on my mood. Yeah, earn a million and spend 900,000 in the process, not to mention selling your soul, your health and your peace of mind. Hugh’s philosophy is mine. Reduce your expenses, love the Earth and her creatures, tell stories and create beauty.
Now, I’m not going to recount Hugh’s tale, because he’s written that himself and will do a far better job than I. But I’ll whet your appetites with a summary.
Born in Ireland in 1953, and having spent most of his twenties backpacking, I think we can safely say Hugh has always possessed a touch of wanderlust. He emigrated to Canada in 1980 to build equestrian cross-country courses, and for 30 years ran a horse farm with his wife.
Then ten years ago they divorced.
I always think wherever you are in the world, divorce is poorly treated. There are no proper ceremonies or celebrations, because the staid judgement of society is that a divorce is some kind of failure. I would very much question that idea. Divorces are major successes, they are the victory of the individual soul over the expectations of the herd and the temptations of the comfort zone. They are beginnings, the time to dust off old dreams and live them to the full.
So, in true Thoreau style, Hugh left his old world and moved into a 150 year old log cabin on a spacious property in the woods in Ontario. “I went on a crazy building spree – sauna, earthbag hobbit house, yurt, greenhouses, gardens, root cellar, sheds, ponds,” he says. Thus began his new life. “I divided the year into three: reading and writing in winter, working and building during the summer and travel by bicycle or on foot in the autumn.” Now if that doesn’t make you consider going it alone, I don’t know what will. :)
One earthbag house after another
Then somewhat later, ‘on a whim’ as he describes it, Hugh built an earthbag house for himself. It cost him just $500 to construct, and was semi-submerged beneath the ground. He lived in it for a year, and described the experience as much of a spiritual journey as a physical one.
The thing with mud homes is they are as infectious as smallpox, so naturally earthbag building didn’t end buried in the woods for Hugh. “My neighbour had a similar whim,” he says, “so I built one for her. Then I got a call to go to Australia for a month and build one for indigenous women elders.”
I always think building with mud takes you places you never thought you’d go. The dirt opens doors and paves new ways. So off Hugh trotted halfway round the world, from the northern cool of Canada to the Pacific heat of Australia, to build yet another earthbag dwelling for The Sacred Womyn’s Camp near Byron Bay. “It is a collection of tents in the bush...home to Lois Cook, the eldest surviving member of the local aboriginal tribe and designated as Custodian of Country.”
That story of Hugh’s experience with the Sacred Womyn’s Camp is a beautiful one that he recounts in his book, which will be available soon.
Which shelter is best?
Having built a variety of sustainable shelters, I asked Hugh which kind of structure he preferred and why. “I believe earthbag building is simply the best form of owner-build home for any environment,” he says. “Yurts are a perfect starter home or guest house, and combined with an earth plaster wall they have great potential – less work, less materials and easily built by one person.”
Why do we love earthbag?
I’ve often noticed that people are smitten by earthbag. I am too, still. It’s so simple and solid a technique, and so so sustainable, because in the right climate you can actually get away with zero timber. It’s solid, earthquake and hurricane proof, fireproof, bulletproof and soundproof. You can create gorgeous organic shapes with earthbag, too.
As you may have already gleaned, despite his appetite from freedom, Hugh is incredibly socially-minded. He is involved in his community through public speaking, a farmer’s market, and workshops. While the workshops are open to all, the emphasis is to empower women and indigenous people to build their own ultra-low-cost homes.
This summer he’s at it again. He will be up to his knees in dirt in a workshop in Canada organized by an indigenous Elder, Becky BigCanoe who lives on Georgia Island on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, Canada. The course will take place on indigenous land and the plan is to build a hobbit house and a yurt over a few weekends in July and August. I’ll be posting details of it in the newsletter when it’s finalised, but heck if I were in Canada, I’d go!
Hugh is very helpful and sociable. "I'm always available to answer questions," he says. You can read more about his lifestyle and building projects, or contact him from his blog: http://hughmorshead.blogspot.com/
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