Not Off the Grid, But We Can See the Edge From Here

One family stumbles toward quasi-self-reliance.


Cottonwood, Arizona—Our power went out for the better part of a week in 2008 after a particularly nasty storm. It failed quite frequently when we lived in our previous house at the end of a dirt road in Cornville, a few miles from our current locale. That might have had something to do with our remoteness, or the extreme weather in the state. Or maybe it was the local tradition of crashing pickup trucks into desiccated wooden utility poles and knocking them over.

During a blackout, having your own well isn't necessarily as independence-enhancing as you might think—not when the pump requires electricity and the surface of the water is far too low to dip some out by hand. Then you have nothing but a steel well cap to meditate upon as you consider the requirements of coffee pots and modern plumbing.

Unless you're prepared.

Because outages were common, we had stored water, cut firewood, and fueled up the camping stove and lanterns. We remained hydrated, warm, and fed through that and every other experience with the electric grid's fragility. All in all, it was a bit Little House on the Prairie for our tastes, though with a better wine selection—but ultimately more of an inconvenience than a disaster.

But tolerance for inconvenience can decline with the years.

"We need a way to keep the air conditioning on if the power goes out," my wife told me when we moved to our new house in the foothills. Wendy had reached a point in life marked by the occasional mood swing and extreme temperature sensitivity, and she made it clear that maintaining a climate-controlled environment in the house through all scenarios that nature or man might send our way was a non-negotiable requirement.

This being Arizona, where everything bakes for much of the year under the fireball in the sky, my first thought was solar. But I quickly discovered that all of those panels adorning people's roofs were nothing more than expensive shingles during a power outage. Most solar installations are designed to feed the grid, not keep you independent of it. I priced adding batteries to the mix to gain some autonomy, but they more than doubled the cost. And batteries couldn't handle the power demands of an air conditioner anyway.

So we settled, if that's the right word, for a 22 kW standby generator, which can handle the well pump and keep the air conditioning running. We were especially pleased with our decision when in October the European Union completed a coordinated cyber-attack simulation and found it leading to a "very dark scenario" including crashed power grids.

I also beefed up our water storage with rain barrels hooked to the gutters. Now, when the wet stuff falls from the sky, I capture it before it runs off into the desert. The barrels are conveniently located near the garden, which is handy for watering the food I've taken to growing. In fact, we're dining tonight on pesto made with our own basil, mint, parsley, and San Marzanos (yes, tomatoes—we make the Sicilian variety of pesto, not that bland Genoese slop). The olive and fig trees were coming along nicely, too, until the wild javelinas chomped on them. They're definitely a long-term project; I'll try again next year.

Wendy and I have stumbled down our path incrementally over the years out of a combination of necessity and curiosity. But our journey to (partial) self-reliance seems to be setting a tone for our son. Recently he declared that he'd like to go hunting—his first time.

I breathed a genuine sigh of relief when he said he wanted to start with rabbits rather than going straight to deer, which are harder for me to bag than might be the case for more, well, competent hunters. Rabbits, on the other hand, are easy. And they taste good with the wine from our cellar and the herbs from our garden.

We also keep tweaking our set-up. In addition to the generator, I'm putting together a smaller-scale solar power system. That fireball in the sky isn't going anywhere, and I want to get some use from the thing. I'm picking up a few panels, a few batteries. I doubt I'll manage to put together a system that can handle the well pump, let alone the air conditioner, but maybe we'll be able to power a refrigerator. We can always stick our heads in there to cool off in a pinch.

NEXT: Brickbat: Dancing Too Close

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  1. Given that the property already has a generator it might be worth skipping the batteries for now. You could still go with a central inverter with a "Secure Power Supply" feature that you could draw from when the sun it out. It seems there are more inverters with this type of feature on the market nowadays, and the cost is more competitive with micro inverters now too.

    If you're going to do solar might as well go all out now. Homeowners will probably lobby tooth and nail to keep net metering for those grandfathered in already. Plus the Residental Renewable Energy "Tax Credit" will be phased out in a couple of years. What is the point of being a homeowner if you can't take advantage of all the sweet sweet subsidies for the relatively well off?

    1. Stockpile canned foods and MRE's.

      1. Burt from Tremors 2: "Meals, ready to eat."

        Look I'm social signaling, see?

        1. That's a good point actually, what exactly is 2 Chili's Graboid defense plan?

          Wait a Tremors 2 Chili's biography?

          1. Tremors 2 has better comic relief and dialogue. Tremors 1 has Kevin Bacon. Cognition crisis...who the fuck wins? They can be co-equal best Tremors.

          2. I like how the Youtube still is on the scant few seconds from that scene that doesn't hold up well nowadays effects-wise (most of the rest being reasonable practical effects and a quick, effective pan to hide a transition.)

    2. Net metering is the biggest crock of horseshit. I remember when I first started looking into libertarianism; Leftists always talk about the Kochs like they are self-serving crony capitalists posing as libertarians. I looked into it, and saw the best they could do was, I kid you not, saying that they lobbied to charge a fee for net-metered homeowners, allegedly to protect their own energy interests. I was so fucking disgusted. Nowadays the "left" barely pretends not to be a bunch of bourgie parasites feeding off the poor.

  2. "Wendy had reached a point in life marked by the occasional mood swing and extreme temperature sensitivity, . . ."

    I'm sure Wendy is going to be extra cuddly this Valentine's Day, knowing you put this bit of info on the Internet.

    1. Wendy would definitely want to spoil a holiday built around forced compassion. That's in her interest.

      How else is one to write "Menopause makes my wife a bitch?"

  3. not that bland Genoese slop

    I wouldn't fight you, 2Chili, but thems fightin' words if said in the wrong parts.

    1. Not only that, but there's no pine nuts, garlic, or cheese. What he made is tomato sauce, not pesto.

      1. Nah. Recipes are just a guide -- they beg to be tweaked. From Teh Wiki:

        Pesto alla genovese, the quintessential pesto recipe, is made with Genovese basil, coarse salt, garlic, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (Taggiasco), European pine nuts (sometimes toasted) and a grated cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano and pecorino sardo or pecorino romano.[11]

        A slightly different version of this sauce exists in Provence, where it is known as pistou. In contrast with pesto alla genovese, pistou is generally made with olive oil, basil and garlic only: while cheese may be added, usually no nuts are included in a traditional pistou because no pine trees grow there to provide the nuts. Pistou is used in the typical soupe au pistou, a hearty vegetable soup with pistou flavour. The sauce did not originally contain basil, however; instead, cheese and olive oil were the main constituents.[14]

        Sometimes almonds are used instead of pine nuts, and sometimes mint leaves are mixed in with the basil leaves.[14] It has been pointed out that pesto is essentially a combination of flavourful leaves, oily nuts, hard cheese, olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon juice; any ingredients meeting this description can produce a pesto-like condiment.[15]

        Pesto alla siciliana, sometimes called pesto rosso (red pesto), is a sauce from Sicily similar to pesto alla genovese but with the addition of tomato, almonds instead of pine nuts, and much less basil.

  4. Now I want a series of Reason 'Prepper Guides' as written by various Reason contributors and readers.

    You'd get everything from Heroic Mulatto talking about his Arctic Twerking Videos Vault to Soave spending four hours to change a tire and being really, really proud when he actually did it.

    1. You really zigged instead of zagged there by not going with the obvious about the contents of Robby's grooming-products vault and 9.5-Richter-shatterproof mirrors. Chapman's prepper guide will consist mostly of tips on fine dining and entertainment in various faraway cosmopolitan cities. But it will still be included in the series of prepper guides, and be presented as a prepper guide, and if you call in the next five minutes we will throw in a bonus volume, of reader comments going "I thought this was supposed to be a prepper guide series! This isn't a fucking prepper guide! Get this shit out of here or I am cancelling my prepper guide series subscription and never coming back!"

      Also, I'd want to see a face-off in bunker red sauce between Gillespie and Tuccille--though I think Ron Bailey will probably take the prize in survivalist cuisine with all the 'possum-and-roadkill stew recipes he'll be pulling out.

      Because I'm racist.

  5. I have a gas well on my property. Part of my deal with the gas company is that I get free gas at my house. In the future in plan on hooking up a nat gas backup generator large enough to run my well pump and house.

    1. Well la dee da, mister hydrocarbon producer. Not everyone is sitting on top of that much stored energy.

      1. It is nice. My well water tastes like sulfur though. I have to run it through a series of sand filters for it to be potable. About 5 years ago I got hooked into city water. I run the house on that and use the well for the garden, cows, and pigs.

        1. And now you can expect protesters form PETA - - - -

    2. This an Appalachian region shale well?

      1. Northwest arkansas, in the ozark mountains. It's shale formation that I would imagine are similar to what is found in the Appalachian region.

        1. hmm. Where in NW Arkansas, may I ask? I may have to look into that (my family has about 1200 acres in Marion County)

          1. South franklin county. I only have 20 acres with one gas well. I have a family a few miles down the road who owns about 2000 and I understand they have around 30 wells on their property.

            Marion County is nice. My uncle has a cabin and a few acres on the white river around flippin. We go up there frequently to trout fish
            Beautiful country.

    3. When the apocalypse comes gas well heads will be the first to be overtaken by the car gangs, have you never seen road warrior. you may want to camo the well head

  6. This kind of self-reliance can be an enjoyable hobby, but it's one that most people can't afford to indulge in. For most people in the modern world, self-reliance means heavily engaging in the ongoing trade of goods and services.

    1. I can't afford the time sink of sub-subsistance farming.

      1. What about sub-subsidized-assistance farming?

    2. It is a bit odd that this hobby seems to be very popular with libertarians! Of course the "leave me the fuck alone" autonomy angle probably has a visceral appeal to folks who are attracted to libertarianism in the first place. But ideologically, the very center of the entire philosophy is the principle of mutual benefit from voluntary exchange; libertarians are the most unalloyedly forward-thinking, pro-modernity, cosmopolitan people out there. Indeed, a big problem nowadays is that environmentalist ideologues have been pushing their weird, bougie-fetishistic green-primitivist "sustainability" solutions on the developing world, and hooking them up to small-scale solar generators and so forth as a long-term plan (viability kinks to be worked out later). Libertarians have been at the forefront of fighting this, fighting for these people to be hooked up to real electricity on the real grid. I think Reason may have actually done a piece on this recently.

      Not to take all of this super-seriously; I know it's just a hobby. But it's a real tendency that has always puzzled this particular coastal-liberal city slicker.

      1. It's not libertarians. It's a 'hobby' that spans political preference.

        I got into it a few years ago and spent a lot of time learning and researching, before realizing how daunting the task of self-reliance is. You'd be shocked at how many people are 'closet-preppers', that have stockpiles in the basement that they don't talk about because they don't want people to think they are weird. Costco sells 5gal buckets of freeze-dried food....its everywhere and the market is growing. The continuing ammo shortage is due in no small part to the huge number of people stockpiling.

        I believe there is a communal sense of pending catastrophe. People see issues (fragile power grid, neighbors only eat-out and have no pantry, everyone living paycheck to paycheck, grocery stores have only 2-3 days stock at anytime, etc, etc) and it scares the pants off them.

        1. It's not paranoia if they really are after you.

          Seriously though, taking some measures to be prepared is probably prudent. Every time there is a disaster like the Oroville Dam you get human interest pieces where people panicked when they evacuated and don't even have enough supplies to make it a day. Can you imagine the crisis the dam actually breaking would have caused?

          1. Wait until the next Carrington Event shuts off the entire planets power for months or years.

            1. it would take 18months to simply make all the required transformers....assuming the plants were still running. Imagine US cities without power for days, let alone months.

              The industrial world would not recover for generations after the 90%+ die-off.

  7. Don't know how you are fixed for hills or other variable-height geology, but a storage tank for the well would help. If you can raise it 50 feet above the house, that will give you 20 psi without relying on a pressure tank when the power fails. Does require extra piping, and the pump has to work a bit more to raise the water that extra height.

  8. When it comes to dealing with the grid, I prefer the term "resilient" rather than "prepared" or "independent."

  9. (yes, tomatoes?we make the Sicilian variety of pesto, not that bland Genoese slop).

    You realize, of course, that this means war.

  10. Whatever works for you. But frankly, I like the grid. I have lived off the grid and I don't see the attraction of it. Life is very hard without modern conveniences. Oddly rewarding, which is why it appeals to some people, but hard.

    1. "off the grid" is an overused term. what most people mean is that they can easily handle the mild inconvenience of a week without power. They have a generator, full pantry and stored water.

      It's a whole different question when you need to plan for a year "off the grid" or god forbid, longer.

      Generators are useless without fuel and the amount of water the average person consumes in a year is daunting to say the least. Then of course maintaining a healthy diet is a whole 'nother question.

    2. In California if you build a house off the grid it is still required to meet the energy and insulation standards which is BS since the homes I do off the grid are all solar electric and solar is free. I'm sure Jerry brown will figure a way to tax the sun soon though

      1. Isn't California where they tax you for the rain that falls on your property - or is it Oregon?

  11. But tolerance for inconvenience can decline with the years. Welcome to the real problem. What was easy 20 years ago (splitting 4 cords of wood) is now a bit more work. The fruit trees will outlive me, but will I be able to prune and harvest in 30 years? Same thing for keeping up the repairs on the house itself, etc.

    The sad truth is, entropy always wins. I guess that makes it all the more important to do these things while you can, and remember to enjoy it!

  12. I like the natural gas generators that don't rely on gas/diesel. With an extended power outage, the gasoline stations can't pump gas. You're going to need a lot of fuel to keep the AC on.

    1. as long as the NG flows. I doubt it will in most areas with an extended power outage.

  13. Just remember, you can't survive on rabbit meat. When the zombie apocalypse happens, you're going to have to get better at killing - in addition to the undead - other game.

    I am considering a whole house standby generator. I, too, live outside the confines of civilization and for a week back in the Aughts went without power. (I don't remember why, but I think it had something to do with the remnants of a hurricane.) I heat with propane so I could bleed off that to run the thing. Between that, my chickens and the hordes of turkey and deer around me, I plan to live out the ZA in style.

    1. Yes, you can survive on rabbits...just not rabbit meat. You have eat the whole critter, organs and marrow to get the fats.

      Or just harvest your neighbors.

      1. Yeah, I'm unclear on why exactly one could not subsist on rabbits. You'd have to shoot more of them, of course, but one would actually expect them to be one of the more plentiful species in a world-ending scenario. And their size would actually be an advantage, as you could prep them quickly and would not have to worry about preserving if you had a steady supply.

        Nutritionally meat is more or less interchangeable. Probably want to supplement with some plants, though, to fight off scurvy and such.

        1. It's called protein-starvation. The human body can only process about 200grams of protein a day, which is about 800 calories. Physically can't process more, so if you only eat protein (lean rabbit meat) you starve even though your belly is full.
          You have to eat fats and carbs to make up the difference. Carbs are extremely difficult to find in a hunter/gatherer scenario without farming, so that leaves fats. If you are hunting in winter/spring/summer, many animals are lean and not fat-rich. Marrow and organs are the only have to eat the whole critter to survive.

          1. But, it's all a mute point, because in a true apocalyptic scenario, there will be no game left in the wild after the first month. Humans will scavenge the country clean before they start dropping off.

            It will be impossible to survive as a hunter/gather prior to the human die-off and wilderness repopulation. Ya need 2-3 years of food stockpiled to get through the difficult times and then the requisite seeds and land to farm to provide the bulk of your calories, supplemented with game and wild growth.

            1. Oh, yeah. I guess I didn't read carefully, sorry about that. I guess I hadn't really even wildly entertained the notion that in a survival scenario you would be turning your nose up at all but the choicest rabbit cutlets, blithely throwing away all the bones and organs as being for the peasants. So I wasn't paying attention to the issue.

              I assume people nowadays almost always eat the rabbit innards, anyway. Why wouldn't you? It's not like you likely have a boneless-skinless-breastmeat palate if you're already eating game! Except maybe the rabbit tripe. Yuck! Fuck tripe.

              1. I think the scenario for most would be "roasting the critter over an open fire" and eating the meat off the crispy critter like movies have taught us. Of course, all the fat is rendered out and drips down into the fire.
                The purpose of stews, stocks, and broth is lost on most people.

                1. "roasting the critter over an open fire"

                  Providing they even knew how to light and build a fire in the first place, it would be nice to think the ignorant would make sure it was dead first. I have my doubts.

      2. I SPECIFICALLY SAID RABBIT MEAT. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here. Which, btw, I stocked up on in case society falls and the pharmacies are plundered.

      3. Or just harvest your neighbors.

        PETA members get eaten first!

    2. I can plow a field all day long, I can catch catfish from dusk 'til dawn
      Make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
      Ain't too many things these boys can't do
      We grow good old tomatoes and homemade wine
      And a country boy can survive

      1. Aren't catfish mostly a farmed fish? And not just nowadays, but historically, in the sense that their prominence in regional American diets is a product of the rise of aquaculture? I know that's true in Cajun country; nowadays apparently catfish has displaced the river trout that was traditional in their cuisine.

  14. "We need a way to keep the air conditioning on if the power goes out."

    Sit her down, watch Alone In The Wilderness and show her Dick Proenneke building his own cabin in Alaska by himself with his own two hands, and tell her this is her future under Trump.

    1. I always wondered how he held the camera to film all that.

  15. The olive and fig trees were coming along nicely, too, until the wild javelinas chomped on them.
    Javelinas = pigs = bacon!

    1. Yes, the native tribes in Texas used to eat them. Takes special preparation to make the meat edible though.

  16. The olive and fig trees were coming along nicely, too, until the wild javelinas chomped on them.

    I'm sure 2-Chilli's gotten no shortage of advice, but here's my $0.02: put a small ~ 3-4 ft high chicken wire fence around the base of the trees to keep them from being able to reach the bark. Worked for my parents when they lived in Prescott Valley and had a garden. Or, if the trees are close enough together, put the fence around all of them. Just make sure to use fairly sturdy posts, anchored a good 2 ft in the ground. Javelinas can get pretty big.

    The power grid in central AZ can be pretty shitty. I remember when I was in college there losing power for no apparent reason. It got so bad that myself and several others got UPS's for our computers so that we could at least save our school work finish our marathon game of Starcraft (if we were close to finishing) and then shut down gracefully.

  17. When does the next novel come out, 2-Chili?

    "High Country BBQ" was fun.

  18. You could have a hand pump installed to pump the water without electricity.

  19. I also beefed up our water storage with rain barrels hooked to the gutters. Now, when the wet stuff falls from the sky, I capture it before it runs off into the desert.

    I thought this was illegal in most desert states. Stealing the state's water.

  20. a cheap source of durable batteries are old Prius cars. their battery packs are lasting a lot longer than expected,and the cars end up junked with still-good batteries. they're NiMH,not lithium,so they're more durable than lead-acid (that sulfate) or the lithium cells (and a lot less of a fire/safety hazard). the catch is assembling them into a home "powerwall",and a charging system. You also need an inverter that doesn't get it's 60hz reference from the grid.(the usual practice for today's solar installations)
    I would suggest this battery-backup system to run lights and small appliances,not "whole-house" or AC.
    For your generator,you need a fuel stash,or run it on natural gas that is usually a reliable supply even when the power goes out. Or a big propane tank. Diesel (and gasoline) doesn't store well,you get water condensation in the tank.

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  22. It is dubious that the city of Detroit was "dragged into ruin by the car industry's collapse," although that is the narrative repeated endlessly as fact rather than opinion by out-of-state and foreign journalists. They'll show the images of the collapsing buildings, trees growing on roofs, graffiti, empty fields, and deserted streets and handily explain it away as a testament to the decline of the automotive industry, ignoring obvious inconsistencies with that explanation. The population of metro Detroit did not descend into abject poverty or disappear into thin air; its White citizens simply moved out of Detroit into the suburbs in the 60s and 70s, which sprawled and prospered for the next 30 years while Detroit crumbled into dust. These were the same people who had been employed by the auto industry. Factory employment did decrease (as it has nationally), but most of the Detroit's former residents did not move out-of-state as the automotive industry declined, and could've continued living in the city and commuted to their new jobs. They fled the city because it became extremely unsafe to continue living there. There was rampant destruction of property, violent crime, falling school performance, and an embarrassing parade of ceaselessly re-elected absurdly corrupt municipal government officials incapable of maintaining basic first-world services.

    1. The city itself depopulated, but the overall metro population did not drop precipitously, at least not more than other northeastern cities' with gradual migration to the Sunbelt. All will ignore the fact the adjacent city of Windsor Ontario (protected from the destruction by the international border) did not experience the same virtual obliteration, in spite of the same economic reliance on the automotive industry. And the other neighboring Michigan suburbs that experienced hardship because of plant closures without descending into complete ruin. Occasionally some right-wing pundit will blame the city's decline on labor unions or the alleged socialist policies of elected left-wing democrats. But there were other changes that accompanied Detroit's decent into chaos besides the decline of an industry. You can bet those same journalists won't show images of a healthy 26-year old father of 4 sitting on what's left of his front porch at 11 AM on a Tuesday (without bothering to break off the sapling growing up through it) while there's a help wanted sign in the McDonald's window right up the street.

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