20 Dec Off-the-Grid Living?

Last week, Jill and I installed a wood-burning stove in our farm house. The stove is old–circa 1987–but not antique. You don’t really want an antique stove: they’re not efficient and often not safe. Ours is a Hearthstone brand, which is paneled with soapstone for better heat retention. New, these stoves cost thousands of dollars. If you’re willing to work with an old one (and restore it) you can get it for a few hundred. We had to drive to Ohio to get ours. They’re heavy, too, so you have to be prepared for that.

We need a wood-burning stove because our heating bills are killing us ($900+ for a cold month). Although we have a high-efficiency furnace, it runs on propane. Virtually all country houses use propane for heating and/or cooking. Typically, farms are mostly off the grid. They have their own water supply (well) and an independent septic system. While all farms have electricity from the grid, they may also have a whole-house generator for power outages. We have one of those, which could keep us running (from a 200 gallon diesel tank) for weeks.

Some visitors ask, “Can’t you insulate your old house?” Not really. Old walls do not have uniform bays (empty spaces) inside like new walls. You can drill holes into these old walls and pump in insulation but, chances are, there are going to be a lot of gaps and chasms, which would defeat the purpose: a lot of expense for minimal results. Restored windows would help a lot. But we don’t have the money for that.

A wood-burning stove puts us one step closer to so-called off-the-grid living. This has become a big Thing in America, people trying to get wholly independent of utilities. It’s a laudable dream but, truthfully, an unredeemable fantasy. Our livelihoods–not to mention the quality of life we crave–depend on the grid: lights at the flip of a switch, emails 24/7, streaming that newest Netflix special.

old shack with one solar panel

Off-the-grid isn’t always pretty.

Jill and I want to install some solar panels and at least one wind-powered turbine. But that’s not exactly off-the-grid living because, guess what: you have to store the energy you collect–in very expensive batteries. This reminds us that off-the-grid living doesn’t necessarily have (probably can’t ever have) a small carbon footprint. The best case scenario is that off-the-grid technology helps supplement your on-the-grid amenities, not replace them.

Our old wood-burning stove is capable of heating about 2,000 square feet, but it needs stoking every hour. We keep it fired up until bedtime and that gets us through the night: the furnace does not come on. We need to install some fans to circulate the heat better. And, yes, eventually we’ll restore, and insulated around, our 40 windows. But one step at a time.