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What Does Living Off the Grid Really Mean?

Updated: Jan 3

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What do you think of when you hear someone say they’re going off the grid? What about if someone says they are living off grid? Depending on the context and who’s saying it, there are a few different meanings behind the phrase.

Off grid (or off-grid) is defined by Merriam-Webster as “not connected to or served by publicly or privately managed utilities (such as electricity, gas, or water).” But you’re also likely to hear people referring to getting off the grid whenever they are out of reach of cell phone service or when doing a digital detox.

For our purposes, we’re using the dictionary definition of living an off grid lifestyle: having your own sources of electricity, gas, and water without being connected to a public utility.

Living off grid doesn’t mean going without modern conveniences or communication methods. For many who have taken up the off grid lifestyle, having a high-speed internet connection and reliable cell phone service are necessities for their remote occupations.

You might be living a hybrid lifestyle—maybe you have a well and a solar system, but you’re connected to a landline telephone—or you may have taken the plunge to go completely without public utilities for your off grid home.

Either way, let’s look at some alternatives to public (or private) utility systems.

Hand pump for a water well in a farmyard.


Water is necessary for life. You’ll need an off grid water source to provide for the needs of your family, your animals, and your garden. Here are a few alternatives to public water utilities.

  1. Haul water to your home and store it in a cistern.

  2. Dig a well and install a solar pump.

  3. Set up a rainwater catchment system to supplement your water supply from a well or from hauling water.

  4. Hydropanels: another supplementary water source that can provide clean drinking water from the atmosphere.

Off grid solar panels next to palm trees.


Although it is possible to live without electricity, it isn’t necessary to forgo all modern conveniences when living off the grid. With your own renewable energy sources, you can still enjoy having frozen foods (in an off grid freezer), electric lights, and have power to pump water into your home from your well or cistern.

Here are the most common alternatives to public electric systems.

  1. Solar panels with battery storage.

  2. Wind power including turbines or a windmill.

  3. Hydropower systems rely on a natural source of moving water to turn a wheel and generate electricity.

  4. A generator (gas or diesel) can be used intermittently to provide electricity only when needed or can be used as a backup power source when your battery bank runs low. (We like our Champion generator.)

Compost Happens sign by a compost pile.

Waste disposal

When connected to a city sewer system, you don’t have to worry about where things go when you flush the toilet or use the garbage disposal in your kitchen sink.

However, when you’re off grid, you need to carefully manage your waste systems to avoid creating an environmental hazard or just ending up with a bunch of garbage that you can’t get rid of. Here are some options:

  1. Septic tank systems can either rely on electricity (from your chosen power source) or be gravity-fed.

  2. Composting is a great way to turn biodegradable household waste and kitchen scraps into a nutrient-rich soil enhancer for the garden. A composting barrel makes stirring your compost pile easy!

  3. Hauling trash to a recycling center or landfill may be necessary if you have nonbiodegradable waste, like plastics, that you need to dispose of.

Vintage telephone sitting on a shelf.

Communication methods and internet

Who says sustainable living means you can't have a phone? Living off grid doesn’t mean being disconnected from society.

Whether you’re trying to keep in touch with family or work from home, you’ll want a way to communicate with others and access the internet.

Some of the following suggestions are obvious, and others might require a bit of a learning curve. Choose the ones that work best for you!

  1. Cell phones can be used for multiple communication methods: talking, texting, and email are the most common. Not all cell phone providers reach remote areas. Check a cell phone tower map, like CellMapper, to find out which providers serve your area.

  2. Wireless hotspots can provide a portable Wi-Fi data connection for you to access the internet as well as Wi-Fi calling with some phones. We have a Verizon Jetpack MiFi mobile hotspot to use as a backup internet connection at home and when we travel.

  3. Satellite internet is available in many remote areas. Yes, you’ll still be connected to a public or private company that provides the service, but as far as I know, there isn’t a way to harvest free internet from the atmosphere. Find providers like HughesNet and other satellite internet providers by searching sites like StarLink has a satellite constellation specifically designed to provide internet service to remote locations. You can check their availability map to see if StarLink is available near you.

As a backup or for emergency use, you can try one of the following systems.

  1. Ham radio requires taking a test and acquiring a license, but the license is low cost, and the technician’s (beginner level) test has been passed by adults and children alike. Depending on your license, you can talk to people a few miles away or on the International Space Station.

  2. General Mobile Radio Service, or GMRS, is a licensed two-way radio communication service for short-distance communications (several miles or more). There is no testing required to get licensed.

  3. Family Radio Service (FRS) is a two-way communication system that works over short distances and uses ultra-high frequency radio waves. FRS radios are limited to a range of around a mile or so. FRS is licensed by rule, meaning that you do not need to take a test or purchase a license—but you do need to obey the FCC rules.

  4. Send text over GPS with some newer GPS models (like the Garmin inReach GPS with satellite text messaging).

  5. CB (Citizen Band) radios can communicate when you are out of range of cell phone service and even when conditions are poor. CBs are useful during emergencies, although they are not as popular as they were in the past.

What does living off the grid mean to you?

If you're disconnected from the electrical grid and using a renewable energy source such as solar panels or wind energy, heating your home with wood or propane instead of natural gas, and providing for your family’s water needs with a well or private water source, then you are living off the grid.

Since off-grid systems can take time to set up, you might first need to start with less expensive options or live a hybrid lifestyle. But with time, patience, resources, and the willingness to learn new skills, self-sufficient living is within reach!

Want more off-grid lifestyle information? Check out all our posts in Unplug!

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