What does it mean to be “off the grid”?

A bit more than a week ago, Matt and I watched the final episode of Sarah Richardson’s latest show, Sarah Off The Grid. For those that don’t know, Sarah Richardson is a popular Canadian TV personality and designer.

She does beautiful work, and I was excited to see a new show from her. I was particularly excited because this series was all about her and her family building an “off-grid” house. The shows were mostly focused on decorating–that’s what Sarah’s known for mostly and I of course enjoyed seeing the beautiful spaces she created.

I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t share a lot of details on the off grid portion. In fact, I couldn’t find any photos of the barn with its solar array to include in this post (all photos are from HGTV).

What they did feature made me think about what it means to be off the grid.

For Sarah and her family, they were focused on being off the hydro grid. A large array of solar panels provides all of the power needed. Woodstoves and fireplaces supplement a heating system that runs on propane. They installed a well and septic system (drilling the well took a few tries as they had trouble finding enough water, and there was discussion of adding a cistern, but I’m not clear if they had to do that as well).

For me, when I think of off the grid, I tend to go all the way to self-sufficiency. In particular, avoiding fossil fuels. So I was a bit disappointed to see Sarah’s crew installing a giant propane tank.

I love at our farm that we generate power through our solar panels, we have no need for propane or oil thanks to our geothermal system, and our well and septic handle all of our water needs. We could be self-sufficient.

We’re not self-sufficient because our solar panels are not off grid. They feed back into the grid, and we’re paid for the power we generate. We then draw the power we need for the house from the grid. Usage and production are completely separate. Batteries, and potentially more panels, would be needed if we wanted to disconnect from the provincial hydro system entirely (like Sarah was able to do).

I’m not sure why Sarah elected not to do geothermal. Perhaps the (small) amount of power required to run the system was too much for their solar panels, which also had to run the rest of the house. Perhaps it was a budget consideration. Perhaps the system required for her (giant) 5,000 square foot house would have been too difficult to set up.

They did take a number of steps to ensure their house is as energy efficient as possible from insulation to lighting to windows. Sarah’s husband Alex shares some of his tips in this video.

I was glad to see environmental impact considered throughout the build and the show. That’s a message I don’t often hear on other shows. I wish they had focused on it even more and explained more of their thought process about what off the grid means to them.

Tim at Design Maze posted recaps of each episode, including more beautiful photos.

What does off the grid mean to you? How are you minimizing your home’s impact on the environment? Did you watch Sarah Off The Grid? What did you think of the show?

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16 thoughts on “What does it mean to be “off the grid”?

  1. The house does indeed look lovely. As for installing the propane tank — perhaps they have a building code regulation, like we do, that says you have to have some sort of ‘regular’ furnace or use electric baseboard heaters even if your wood stove will be the only source of heat. Also, perhaps they use propane for their kitchen stove/oven, hot water tank, clothes dryer.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Chris. I’ve heard that’s fairly common in building codes. I guess my wish is for a lower impact ‘regular’ furnace, like geo. That said, I believe they do use the gas for cooking and I’m sure a few other appliances, so it does more than just heat.

  2. The idea of going off the grid is kind of foreign to me. Mainly because it would be literally impossible where I live. If it had the population density of my census tract, your property would be home to 10,555 people. But also, if the grid is hydro power and disconnecting requires fossil fuels that can be delivered on-demand by truck, is there any benefit to anyone here?

    A green builder in my neighborhood focuses first on energy efficiency and healthy/low-impact building materials, including things that some people would consider undesirable like putting studs on 24″ instead of 16″ centers. They also make all their homes all-electric so buyers can purchase green energy and avoid fossil fuels.

    And as for my own lifestyle choices, I aspired to go car free but work in an outer suburb and so I actually drive a LOT. But at 960 square feet, my house blows hers out of the water for eco-friendliness.

  3. When I hear “off the grid” I picture someone living in a remote cabin with a bucket for a toilet and gathering rainwater to drink. While that would be considered “off the grid”, being somewhat self-sufficient doesn’t have to be that crude.
    I think any steps you make toward saving our planet are good ones to make, and mostly the bigger the better.

    We don’t make any huge steps toward living off the grid. We do grow lots of vegetables, conserve water by not watering any part of our yard and we recycle using a compost pile.

  4. The house is beautiful, and completely at odds with how I imagine an off-grid house, even figuring in a modern version of that. It looks completely, 100% elegant, and not country or farm-like at all. With the metallic glints and gleams and shimmering transparent textiles, it is pretty much bejeweled! I haven’t watched the show yet but it’s in my queue of things to watch. Sarah is always fresh and different.
    As for living off-grid, to me it means not having to depend on an outside system at all. So no propane deliveries. I would consider that to be partially off-grid. But any and all steps in the direction of not being dependent on giant corporations for survival as well as protecting the environment and moving away from fossil fuels are steps in the right direction! The more options there are to do that, the better.

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