Global warming and the state of our environment are current “hot” topics (pun intended), so it’s not surprising that more of us are becoming conscious of our impact on our habitat. This is one of the reasons that some people decide to go “off-grid”.
By producing energy from natural sunlight, and collecting rainwater, it is possible to dramatically reduce our eco-foot-print.
Another reason people build or live off-grid is out of necessity. In more remote locations there may be no access to the grid-provided water or power services.
Others may just choose to live a more simple lifestyle, closer to nature. There is great pleasure to be had from escaping the rat-race, and living at a slower, more natural pace.
Whatever the reason, there are many people living off-grid. And, because of the specific maintenance requirements of off-grid homes, there are now many house sitting opportunities to take care of these interesting, challenging and rewarding properties.
What exactly do we mean by “off the grid”?
The definition of “off-grid” is as wide and varied as the people who live in off the grid properties. Every off-grid home will have its own individual “personality”.
From true back-to-nature enthusiasts, through to those who simply need to find alternate ways to power their homes, there is a broad spectrum of what is referred to as “off-grid”.
A person who wants to really live “wild” might cook over an open fire, collect water from a stream, and have little or no contact with the outside world. They may not have any phone or internet connection at all.
At the other end of the scale you might find a very modern, comfortable property, with great internet connection, and easy-to-maintain off-grid power and water systems.
Off-grid power in house sitting homes
Without access to mains electricity, there are several options for powering a home. Most systems involve having a bank of batteries which have to be charged up regularly. These batteries then provide power over a period of time, until they need to be recharged.
Solar power, wind turbines and generators
The most common way to charge a bank of batteries is with sunlight, collected by solar panels, often mounted on the roof of the house. The batteries and panels, along with a solar controller and power inverter, make up the basic parts of a simple solar power system.
When the sun falls on the solar panels they create electricity, which is fed into the battery bank. The rate of electricity production can vary widely over the course of the day, and depends on the level of sunlight, the angle of the sun, cleanliness of the panels, size of the panels, etc.
Because of this wide range of power production, the input into the batteries needs to be controlled, to avoid damaging them. This is the job of a solar controller, which monitors the battery charge level, and regulates power input accordingly.
Battery banks can be arranged in various configurations, and usually operate at 12 volts, 24 volts, or for some bigger home systems, 48 volts. To make this power useful to the home it has to be changed to 110 volts, or possibly 220 volts. 110V is an American standard, whereas many other countries use 220 to 240V appliances.
A suitable power inverter performs this task, taking the power from the batteries, and outputting it to the electricity outlets around the home.
Batteries can also be charged by wind turbines, or by a generator run on petrol or diesel. Some systems may have a combination of solar and wind power generation. Most systems will have some sort of generator backup for cloudy days when the solar panels can’t produce enough power.
The battery bank
The bank of batteries is the heart of any off-grid power system. They represent a significant financial investment, and they need to be looked after properly to ensure a long-trouble-free life.
Maintenance of batteries is generally easy and quick, but it is absolutely vital that it is done on a regular basis. Depending on the type of battery, acid levels may need to be checked, and perhaps topped up. Terminals need to be cleaned and greased, and all cables inspected regularly for loose connections.
Regular maintenance will avoid the occurrence of expensive problems.
Power use is also an important consideration for your bank of batteries. Most systems use “deep-cycle” batteries, which are designed to be charged and drawn upon very regularly. They deliver power at a steady rate over extended periods. They are very different to a battery which starts a car, which is designed to give a huge boost of power over a very short period to crank an engine in order to start it.
If solar batteries are drained too low they are easily damaged, and on the next charge they will be able to store less power. Therefore monitoring power levels is important, as is sensible and conservative use of the power available to you after the sun sets.
Automatic vs. manual systems
Different solar systems have different levels of automation. Some will have a backup generator connected to the system which will start automatically when the battery charge drops to a preset level. Other generators will need to be turned on or off manually.
For systems without a backup, very careful monitoring of your electricity us is vital to avoid damage to the batteries.
Generators need care and maintenance too. Fuel and oil levels are important, as is the battery that starts the generator, if it has one. Some are simply started with a pull-cord.
In long periods of sunny weather the generator may not be needed for weeks on end, but it is a good idea to run it occasionally, just to keep it in good shape.
If you are house sitting a property where a generator is in regular use, you should be aware of the continual background noise that you may be able to hear if it is positioned close to the house.
Looking after a solar system
Perhaps this all sounds very complicated, but a good system that has been set up to provide a suitable power supply for the size of house and number of occupants, will need very little work to maintain.
Sensible use of power is crucial.
For example, charge laptops, phones, flashlights, etc. in the middle of the day, when the sun is high and the solar panels are providing an excess of power. The same goes for other power intensive tasks, such as running a washing machine, or power tools. Don’t leave these tasks until evening, when you will be drawing power directly from the batteries.
Keep an eye on the battery bank power level. There is often a separate gauge which will give an accurate reading, or the solar controller will show this too. Really good systems have a panel in the house that you can see at any time for easy reference.
Regular basic maintenance will uncover minor problems, and catching them early will prevent them developing into major, and potentially very expensive issues later on.
None of this is difficult, but a good understanding of the basics is important:
The internet is a good place to start building your knowledge and understanding, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience.
Maybe you know someone who has a solar system, and they could spend some time with you, explaining how it all works.
Or perhaps you could volunteer at an eco-property for a week or two, spending time to learn how their systems work.
We recently stayed in an off-grid Airbnb property in Mexico, and I spent quite some time quizzing the owners on how their particular solar, water and composting systems worked. Every home is different, and you will always learn something new, adding to your knowledge and skills.
Off the grid water systems
Usually, if a house is too remote to be connected to the electricity grid, there is very little likelihood of connection to a water supply either, or to waste water and sewerage services.
Like solar systems, off-grid water systems come in a wide variety of configurations, each with their own challenges and maintenance routines, but the basic promise of all is the same – collect water, store it somewhere, then dispose of it after use.
Let’s take a look at each part in a little more detail.
The simplest form of water collection is taking the rain run-off from the roof of the house, and diverting it via pipes into a holding tank. This is obviously much more effective in climates where there is a regular rainfall.
Pipe systems can be very simple, direct from the roof to a single tank. Or they can be much more complicated, to allow redirecting water flow to different tanks, flushing of the pipes, or moving water from one storage tank to another.
Plastic water storage tanks come in a variety of sizes, and bigger houses may have several inter-connected tanks. Other homes may use concrete storage tanks, often built under the house. Tank location is an important factor when considering how water will be delivered to the taps and showers in the house.
Like any house, a network of plumbing – usually plastic or copper – takes the water to all of the outlets.
If the water is stored below, or at the same level of the house, then a pump will be needed to force the water under pressure up to the point of use. This pump will usually be run by the solar system, and will have a pressure sensor which will switch the pump on when a tap is opened and the pressure in the water pipes drops.
Some systems have a pressure tank which helps maintain an even pressure in the plumbing system. When a tap is opened the pressure tank provides the initial flow of water, and as the pressure falls, the pump kicks in. A pressure tank helps provide a smoother flow of water, and hence puts less strain on the pipes when the pump starts up.
Water can be provided to the home by gravity feed. On a property with some higher land, tanks can be placed above the height of the house, and water will flow to the taps via gravity alone.
The water may be collected at the same location as the tank from a roof in that location, or it could be pumped up to the tank on a daily basis. Some houses might have a small header tank built on to the roof of the house. This might or might not be supplemented with a pump.
Water that has washed from the roof into a tank is generally fairly clean, but small debris such as leaves and insects can be an issue. Usually water will be strained through a mesh as it enters the tank to remove larger debris.
As water is drawn from the tank for use it is usually filtered by one or more filters and purifiers. Some houses have ozone systems which purify the water to a very high standard.
Hot water systems vary too. With a good solar power system electricity can be used to heat a hot water tank, or to provide instant hot-water via a small in-line heater unit. However, these usually draw a lot of power, and bottled propane gas powering a gas-fired water heater is a common choice.
Solar hot water is also an option, and in sunny climates can produce great quantities of hot water at zero cost. A solar water system consists of a water tank and a series of pipes positioned to catch direct sunlight. The water from the tank circulates slowly through the pipes, being heated as it does so.
You may also encounter geo-thermal hot water heating systems in some countries, especially if the property has a lot of land.
Waste water disposal
Waste water has to go somewhere, and once again there are several options. Some homes have a waste water tank, and if there is vehicular access to the property, a water service company can come an pump out the tank on a regular basis, disposing of the waste water professionally.
Some homes, especially in rural UK, have septic tanks which can range from efficient modern systems to less reliable and more temperamental tanks dating back years!
Properties further off-grid have to deal with their own water, and a leach field is a common way to let grey water (shower, sink and washing water) drain naturally back into the land.
Many properties will use grey water from showers and sinks to provide water for the gardens, thus not wasting precious fresh supplies to water fruits and vegetables. Therefore it may be required of you to use natural, non-chemical cleaning and toiletry products.
Looking after an off-grid water system
As with solar systems, simple basic maintenance can prevent major problems, and an understanding of how everything is set up will help with any minor issues that you do encounter.
When house sitting you will need to spend time with the home owner to ensure you have a good in-depth understanding of how everything works, where all the valves and cut-off switches are, and what they do.
Some practical ability will be a great advantage too, as if anything does go wrong with the system, it may be days before you can get someone to help you. At a very bare minimum, you need to know how to access water from the tank if the pump fails. Even if you have to use buckets for a while until things are fixed, you would still have water available to you.
Of course, you also need to be much more aware of your water use. In a dry spell of a couple of weeks it is all too easy to run the tanks dry if you aren’t frugal.
Simple things, like not leaving the tap running while you brush your teeth, or flushing the toilet fewer times each day, will make a significant difference to your consumption.
Some off-grid homes have a flushing toilet complete with its own septic system for “black water” waste. Flushing toilets can have a significant impact on water consumption, and you may need to adjust your habits to avoid over-use of water resources if you are in a dry climate.
TOILET PAPER WASTE: You will probably be directed NOT to put your toilet paper waste into the system. This is common in many countries in Central America, even in water connected areas. In Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua etc., all toilet paper waste has to be dealt with separately.
Some off-grid properties use dry composting toilets. Composting toilets need a little bit more “hands-on” maintenance, but a well set up system can be clean and efficient. A well run system should not smell!
As a house sitter, make sure you are clear on all the requirements of the system you will be using and looking after.
Propane gas as an electricity alternative
Bottled liquefied propane is very common in many off-grid properties, and can serve many purposes. It can be used for heating the house, for hot water systems, for cooking, and even for refrigeration.
If you are unused to using propane tanks, make sure the home owners show you the connection technique, and check to see that you have a full replacement in reserve. It could be miles to your gas supplier and if you run out in the evening and have a propane operated fridge, you risk spoiled food, especially in hot countries. Propane fridges also require weekly cleaning of the flue with a brush – again ask to be shown the technique for this and have some old clothes as it can be a little messy.
There is little to do with these systems, but there are a few safety considerations. Gas burning appliances need to be well-ventilated, and most items have a flue, or chimney. These need to be kept clear to avoid potentially lethal gases building up.
In my own off-grid property several years ago, I noticed that my hot water heater wasn’t working very well, and upon investigation, discovered a complete birds’ nest inside the heater, right on top of the burner. There were even some eggs in the nest, cooked solid by the heat. How the nest hadn’t caught fire I will never know.
I had to dismantle the whole unit, remove the nest, and then build a small protective grid (using a small metal pasta strainer from the kitchen) over the end of the flue to stop the birds getting back in. Had this gone unnoticed I could have very easily burned down the whole house!
House sitting off the grid for the first time
- Before making any off-grid house sit applications, read some off-grid handbooks – there are plenty available online – and build your knowledge.
- Gain some hands-on experience wherever you can, and start applying for assignments you think will be within your abilities to cope with.
- Don’t accept anything that you think might be too difficult, or too far out of your comfort zone, as this might result in an unhappy and potentially expensive experience for both you and the home owner.
It sounds like there is an awful lot to deal with when fully off-grid, but in a well set-up house there is often little to do. Following a regular, simple maintenance plan will usually prevent most issues.
A good off-grid home owner will have a “house manual” which should explain all of the house systems, routines and quirks. You may even be provided with schematics for plumbing and electrics to help locate problems.
Extended house sit handovers
With so much to consider, the handover period for an off-grid home is often longer than a regular house sit.
Don’t be surprised if the home owner wants to spend two or three days with you before they leave, as they will want to be confident you know everything, and are able to deal with any potential issues.
And as a house sitter, your role, as on any house sit, is to ensure you are comfortable with how everything works. Ask plenty of questions, and go over in detail anything you are not sure about. It is often a good idea to video any complicated procedures.
As your confidence grows, and you develop and hone your skills, you will be able to apply for some truly amazing opportunities in fascinating, wild, remote places, like this beautiful waterfront property we recently looked after in Panama:
This property also came with a boat, as there was no road access at all – another level of skills!
NEW LIVES IN THE WILD – In 2013/2014 Vanessa and I lived on a small island in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The header picture for this article shows our off-grid home. UK presenter, Ben Fogle and his crew from “New Lives in the Wild” came to film our unique lifestyle, and we featured in Episode 4 of the second series of the show. You can watch our episode online here if you want to see what off-grid remote living involves: https://52sits.com/about