I have been asked: How much do utilities cost at our remote, off-grid home?
Since we live 40 miles from the nearest road, we receive no municipal services. No mail, electricity, telephone, Internet, water lines, or garbage pick up. Certainly no fire or police protection. So, if we want any of these conveniences, we have to make them happen ourselves. The bad news is that this involved high up-front costs and delays of several seasons and even years for both the materials and transportation. The good news is that the ongoing costs are very low.
People who are willing to live without most modern conveniences can certainly live very cheaply in a remote area, but if you want some modern services, such as utilities, you will certainly pay a lot more up front, and, in some cases, ongoing, for what is often inferior to the service in a city.
Since we have lived full-time out here for over a decade now, I thought I would summarize our upfront and ongoing costs for basic utilities and taxes. In cases of expensive infrastructure, I will amortize the costs over 10 years.
Taxes: Up to age 65, our property taxes ranged between $215 and 250 for five acres. When the first of us turned 65, we no longer have to pay taxes in Alaska on properties worth less than some threshold amount.
Mail: Many rural communities have no home delivery of mail. That is true for the closest community (2,000 people) to us. Like everyone else, we rent a P.O. box. The size we chose costs $300/yr. For some items that cannot be delivered to a post office box, a friend accepts delivery in a nearby town that does have home delivery. Because we have no street address (no roads!), it has sometimes been challenging to fill out forms for new bank accounts or credit/debit cards. Alaskans “get this” but other service providers have been stymied when I had to send them our PLAT number, which is the sort of geographic descriptive numbers you may have seen on the title to your home.
Trash and Garbage: $0. Because we raise so much of our food, and make others, like wine, beer, bread, and condiments, we do not accumulate much trash other than packaging. We repurpose what we can, burn paper and cardboard as fire starters in the woodstove and hot tub firebox, and haul back to a town dump any broken or unused glass and cans. Recycling is quite limited in Alaska. Almost all kitchen garbage goes into the gardens or is fed to the animals. (In many neighborhoods, residents pay extra to install bear-proof garbage cans.)
Electricity: For $12,000, my husband assembled a 120-foot guy-wired tower and mounted on it (included in the $12,000) a 1 kw wind turbine, 4 solar panels (we added 6 on a turning pole later, after prices plummeted), an antenna that he pointed to a telephone repeater 40 miles away, satellite dish for Internet, and other antennae for ham radio.
For about seven months per year, we need no generator as a backup to the solar and wind power. However, solar power is less effective this far north in the winter. Not only do we experience snow storms and short daylight, the sun also traverses super low in the southern sky in December and January. Additionally, the batteries do not store the power as long at temperatures below about 0 F. So, in the winter, we run a Honda 2000 generator for 3 or 4 hours, which uses up a gallon of gas. After 8 years, we had to replace the battery bank (that stores the wind and solar power), which cost us about $3,000.
We have recently replaced the first wind turbine with a second one that we got in a barter deal. It is much more efficient – generating power more quickly at a lower wind speed. Yeah!
The electricity we generate is enough for our modest needs in a small home. We do not own many heat-generating appliances, like a dishwasher, clothes dryer, hair dryer, heater, or toaster. We also have to be cognizant of big electrical draws: for example, we do not use the electric log splitter at the same time that we are moving water from the pump to the washing machine or to hoses for watering the gardens. Too much electrical draw triggers the circuit breaker. Our utility bill? Over the course of a decade, we can calculate $12,000 (initial expenses)+ 3,000 (new battery bank) + ($4 (gas) x 150 days x 10 years) = $21,000 /120 months = $160/month for electricity at this ten year mark. Thus, we estimate future, ongoing costs at and above $125 per month.
Water: For $12,000, we finally had a well dug by a professional company. We were on the waiting list for 3 years until enough people on our side of two or three rivers justified their transporting the heavy and expensive equipment across ice and snow by snowmachine sled, and flying the workmen out to our home to do the work for several days in January. We rely on the electric power (above) to move the water to the house and gardens, but, as a backup, we do have a hand pump ($2,500) for manual water extraction, which is very labor intensive. It takes me about 100 strokes to prime the pump and fill a 6 gallon jug. So, we can calculate our potable water costs as $12,000 + $2,500 = $14,500 /10 years = $1,450/year or $120/month. Since the well requires little maintenance, this cost will continue to drop. In our kitchen, we have a 55-gallon drum for water, propelled to the sink with a little RV pump. We use this reservoir in winter when the temperature drops to a level that we fear will imperil the water lines that we probably did not bury deep enough in the yard. During those weeks, we string hoses across the yard from the pump to fill the inside drum and the 23-gallon hot water tank that sits on the woodstove all winter.
We also bought a lake pump which we keep on the dock all summer for fire suppression and watering the gardens on still, overcast days of little solar/wind power. I have forgotten the cost of it. Gasoline use is minimal. It has been absolutely trouble-free for more than 10 years.
Before the well, we utilized a number of inferior, camping-quality water filters, showers, etc. Many times in winter months we had to melt snow for water and wash clothes in buckets and wash ourselves standing up by the sink. In my opinion, reliable water is the most important utility to secure.
Heat: We heat our home (8 months) and outdoor hot tub (12 months) with firewood. My husband’s goal is 10 to 12 full cords per year, which he splits and stores in a roofed but open-sided wood corral so it can cure (dry) for a year. In recent years, depending on the size, we have cut 45 – 61 trees. We also have an on-demand water heater ($1000) for the kitchen sink (used only in summer. In winter, we heat 23 gallons of water on the woodstove). So the cost of heating (other than water) is $0, but does rely on labor and the necessary chainsaws, Kevlar chaps, gloves, and head/hearing/eye protection ($600) + gasoline to power the saws. How much labor? In 1 hour, we cut and haul home enough logs to heat the house and tub for 10 days. For a person with a heating bill, it might be interesting to calculate how many hours of salary/wages pay for 10 days of heat.
Telephone and Internet: Satellite Internet is $125 per month and Verizon telephone is $110 per month. When we first moved out here (40 miles from the nearest road), my husband was told that he would not be able to get phone service. However, he had experience setting up phone systems all over Latin America and felt confident that he could figure this out. He did. Phone reception is better in some parts of the house and property than others, but it works. The Internet is adequate for our needs. If desired, we can stream two movies a month before bumping the upper limit of our contract plan. We also have amateur radio licenses and participate in local, regional, and national nets, so we feel confident about our communications alternatives.
For people whose homes are on a road system and in the Lower 48, prices are likely lower and installation more convenient than we experienced. But I hope that my summary may be useful to readers who are trying to pencil out expenses for a remote, off-grid home.
Editor’s Note: As I’ve mentioned before, Mrs. Alaska’s excellent blog is: Alaska Bush Life, Off-Road, Off-Grid.