Tom Kerr writing on living off the grid

I was in New York’s JFK airport, about to catch a flight, when the woman sitting next to me grabbed her husband’s arm and said, “I smell smoke!”

They started frantically looking around for the fire, and for a policeman.

That made me extremely nervous.

But I didn’t smell any smoke – and that’s when I figured it out.

“Pardon me,” I said to her. “There is nothing to be concerned about. What you smelled was my coat. I live out in the country and heat with wood, so in the wintertime my clothes pick up that scent.”

She sniffed me rather skeptically, in that New York way. Then she smiled with approval.

“That smells nice, it reminds me of camping out when I was a little girl.”

Heating with alternative fuels offers many benefits. In my case, a woody fragrance is one of the unexpected ones. I’ve never cut down a tree – unless it was already dead – and I try to plant as many as I can to give back natural resources to our shared community.

If your woodstove is efficiently designed, it barely gives off any smoke into the atmosphere, because all the energy is used up inside your home, to keep you nice and cozy.

It’s amazing how much energy you can generate in your own home.

Once upon a time I met an older fellow who lived in a big city and rigged-up an exercise bike in his apartment that would grind coffee beans or grains while he cycled.

My friends in Florida told me that in the Sunshine State lots of boats that folks live on have solar panels and wind turbines to power their radios and other electronics, because wind and sun are so abundant on the ocean.

A beekeeper I know built a tiny house out in the woods about 10 years ago, right next to a huge spring-fed waterfall. The water cascaded down into a small natural basin at the bottom, with ferocious force – like a miniature Niagara Falls. So he dropped a small hydraulic generator into that churning pool and captured enough power to light up his little house.

I once met a man who lived on a 400-acre ranch in Montana and generated his own power with a wind turbine. He described himself as an “energy glutton” and admitted that he was bad about leaving lights on in every room in the house…but he had not paid a penny in utility bills in 15 years. In fact, most months he generated more electricity than he could possibly consume. Whenever than happened, he sold the excess power back to his local public utility grid, for pure profit.

After reading about the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, I decided I needed at least enough emergency backup power at my own home to keep basic electronics such as phone chargers and lights going for 72 hours. But I didn’t want to store flammable fuels around the house to run a generator, or to invest the kind of money necessary to buy a generator.

To solve that problem, I bought $300 worth of off-the-shelf products from Now I have a portable and stable system that utilizes a dry-cell battery, which can be safely stored, plus a power inverter that converts battery power into normal household current.

Meanwhile, the most common use of solar power in rural communities across the United States is for operating electric water pumps that carry vital water up from private wells. That kind of personal infrastructure can be really comforting because of the independence it represents. It could also potentially save your family’s life…if the utility companies that provide water and power suffer a catastrophic breakdown.

The family of a yoga teacher I know owns a solar panel installation business, so I asked her for advice on the cheapest way to start using solar energy.

“Clothes hung outside on the line are dried with solar power,” she said, “and laundry from the clothesline smells so much better.”

That just goes to show that anyone can start taking steps to get off the grid, without a big commitment. Along the way you might also wind up smelling fresh as a daisy – or woody enough to attract curious attention – when you venture out in public.

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