The Quantified Off-Grid Life

We got our first water bill from the Aromas Water District last week. In our first 30 days on the land, we used 220 cubic feet, or 1645.71 gallons of water. That sounds like a lot, but if you do the math, that works out to 54.85 gallons of water used on-site per day in April. We haven’t begun any irrigation efforts on the land yet, so that roughly 55 gallons per day is exclusively personal usage on-site. Discounting the marginal water usage of our guests in April, that means the three of us, Jessica, Rachel, and myself, used an average of 18.3 gallons per day in the month of April. That still sounds like a lot of water, until you compare it to the national average for water usage in the US, which is 80-100 gallons per person per day, according to the USGS. In our first month on the land, we’ve slashed our personal water usage to 1/5 the national average. Not a bad start for off-grid living!

Our electricity bill for the month of April was similarly (and laughably) light. We used 15 kWh in 30 days here at Terra Cultura, compared with the national household average of 897 kWh per month. That’s less than 2% of the national average, despite running (battery-powered) power-tools, having plenty of light at night, and charging our phones and computers regularly. Our usage was so low that PG&E took the extreme step of making a special request for a meter inspection to ensure our smart meter was registering properly (it was). We asked the PG&E rep if he’d be coming out regularly to inspect the meter, to which he replied, “No, you’ve got a smart meter, this was really a one-time request from our billing department, because they didn’t believe your usage could possibly be so low.”

When you live without dedicated, easily accessible utilities like water, gas and power, and have to rely on things like water storage tanks, propane tanks, and battery banks, you can’t help but start to quantify your usage of these resources. This heightened awareness of resource consumption inevitably leads to a concerted effort to reduce one’s consumption. When filling your water tank requires 2 hikes up and down a hill to turn on a water pump, you start to rethink your dishwashing habits, and start to shut the water off while you’re soaping down in the shower. When your battery banks require a full 8 hours of charge time to fill back up, you can’t help but use the power saver setting on your cell phone, and look for every way to squeeze extra run time out of your computer’s battery. When your heater runs on propane, and running out means a trip to the gas station, you start to realize it’s a lot easier to just wear an extra thick sweater to keep warm.

We don’t expect this severe resource diet to be permanent. We also don’t expect our guests to live under the same austere conditions that we’re living in presently. Until we establish our site’s infrastructure more fully, the restriction is out of necessity, not by choice. It’s still an interesting life experiment to live in a way that makes you consider every flick of a light switch, or the length of every shower. If we can find a balance between resource consumption reduction and comfortable living, then we will be achieving one of our core missions. If we can then teach others about that balance, and help them make simple changes in their lifestyle to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle, then we are doing our job to make future generations more resilient in the face of resource scarcity.

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