Living Off The Grid

“Living off the grid” is a phrase heard more and more often.What is the “grid?” I assume, off the top of my mostly empty head, that the “grid” refers to electricity, phone, water, sewage, cable services for television and internet connections. Those things that provide what most of us have come to accept as necessities for our ordinary daily life.

People live off the “grid” (and that’s the last time I’m going to put it in quotation marks) for different reasons. Some do so for political and social reasons. Some do it in an effort to lower their monthly utility bills and others do it because they simply don’t have access to the grid at all because of their location.

I think when I move to Panama and build a shanty boat I’ll be living off the grid for the latter reason. I’ve done it before and came close one other time.

I spent nine months completely off the grid when I took my trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala aboard my Nancy Dawson back in 1992. Once I left Fort Lauderdale, and until the day after I returned, I was never connected to shore power electricity. I didn’t have solar panels or a wind-powered generator as so many cruising boats do these days. And I didn’t have a huge battery bank, either. Simply two ordinary car batteries were my sole source of electricity.

My electric usage was tiny, really. My VHF radio while underway and in the mornings on the Rio Dulce to listen to the morning cruiser net. I had a single-sideband receiver and would listen to the BBC World Service in the evenings. I listened to the Presidential debates between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton from Voice of America. In Belize I listened to Radio Belize “Bringing you news from Belize and around the WOOOORRRRLLLDDD!” I had a boom box that I used sparingly because it gobbled up the amps pretty good, but there were nights when I’d be anchored off some tiny island on the edge of the reef in Belize where I’d crank up the volume and lay out under the stars in a hammock strung between the mast and the fore stay. I didn’t have a television and it was years prior to my owning a computer. I didn’t have a refrigerator or freezer, either, two items that are a real drain on battery power. I had a couple of small lamps on the boat. Most evenings I’d have one on to read by for a while.

One thing that really guzzled amp hours were my running lights. And I have to admit that because they would practically drain my battery bank overnight I broke international law by running dark, like a smuggler, most of the time. If I saw a ship’s lights I would turn my running lights on until any possibility of an encounter passed and then I’d run dark again. Once I’d made the passage from KeyWest to Isla Mujeres it was all day sailing with the exception of five nights; two headed southwards from Cozumel to Belize City and three nights back from the Rio Dulce to Isla Mujeres.

Most boats, power and sail, that didn’t have solar panels, and they were still pretty rare back in ’92, did have engines with alternators. They’d keep their battery banks charged by running the engine for an hour or two every day or so. Since Nancy didn’t have an inboard engine the way I kept my small battery bank charged was with a 1.5 KW Generac generator and a car battery charger. Damn, but that thing was noisy.The only way I could cope with it was to fill the tank half way, start it up, plug in the battery charger to the 110 volt outlet, hop in my dinghy and take off somewhere for a couple of hours. When I’d return to the boat the gas had run out and my batteries would be sufficiently charged to last me for the coming two or three days.

Essentially I learned to live in harmony with nature as trite as that sounds. You get up with the sun and go to bed when it gets dark, with the exception of those couple of hours reading before going to sleep.

When I lived on my shanty boat in Louisiana back in ’84 to ’86 I came close to living off the grid. I didn’t have a telephone hookup at the marina. I probably could have arranged it, but I never did. I did have an apartment-sized refrigerator that I’d been given that came off of a 53 foot sport fishing boat that was being completely refurbished at the boat yard where I was working. The owner gutted the interior of the boat and was installing all new appliances and said I was welcome to the fridge if I could haul it away.

The marina didn’t provide electricity in its rental. Each slip had to have an account and meter with the power company. The minimum charge to be hooked up to the grid at that time was $7.00 a month. And that’s usually what I paid. In the two years I lived on the boat I think my biggest hit was around $12.00 the first winter and that was because I used an electric space heater until I bought my “Mr. Sun.” That was a neat device that attached to a standard 20 pound propane bottle and would keep my cabin warm enough to sit around with little more than a tee shirt even on those wretched nights when we’d be hit with a norther and an ice storm. When I was sleeping on those freezing nights it was beneath an electric blanket.

One day I went to the electric company offices to pay my $7.00 monthly bill. I stood in line behind people who were paying $5, 6 and $700, not to pay off the monthly bill but paying just enough to keep their service from being shut off!

When I got up to the counter I jokingly said to the teller, “Gosh, with what the people ahead of me have been paying I’m almost embarassed to give this to you.”

The lady looked at the bill clearly marked “Minimum Payment” and said, “Well you don’t live there.”

“Yes,” I told her, “I do. The only difference is that when I’m not actually home the only thing drawing electricity is my refrigerator. And when I’m home you can add the television or the stereo and at night one light.”

One morning a couple of weeks later I was lying on my couch watching the Phil Donahough Show (I had been laid off at the yard) and I heard a vehicle coming down the shell road that ran along the docks. I heard two doors open and shut. I was curious as to who might be out there and when I looked out the window I was surprised to see it was the power company. Two guys were there testing my meter to make sure it hadn’t been tampered with. The cashier at the power company office couldn’t believe that anyone could exist on the minimum payment each month and pimped me out. Of course there was nothing wrong with the meter at all. I just didn’t use much juice.

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