Living off the grid in the hills of Southern Humboldt

By Cody Centeno
Flapjack staff

In order to live off the grid – without PG&E, provided water, etc. – you have to be willing to put in a lot of work to get things that come easily when you are on the grid. For instance, instead of just turning on your electric heater, you might have to build a fire with wood that you had to gather and cut yourself. This article was written to help readers better understand what life is like when you are off the grid, and to help understand why people would want to live this way.

Charles Watson live in Piercy, California, a small town about 80 miles south of Arcata, with a population under 200. Piercy is smack dab in the middle of the Emerald Triangle, where Humboldt and Mendocino counties meet on Highway 101. Watson has lived off-the-grid in the area for over 40 years. He gets his water from a natural spring.

“First, you have to find a viable spring,” Watson said. “Then, I build a small dam that still allows the stream to continue flowing, but also catches enough water for me. I fill up the area where the water will be with small gravel, which will filter the water slightly.”

Once you have this small dam in place, he says that you run your water line from there to your water tanks, but it isn’t always so simple.

“If your spring is above your tanks, you will usually be able to benefit from the gravity flow,” Watson said. “But, if your tanks are above your spring, you will have to buy a water pump to get the water to it.”

From your tanks, you run your water through a pipeline to your house. Again, Watson said that the gravity flow aspect is important. He also talked about keeping a spare water tank.

“We have a spare tank on our property, just in case the spring slows down in the summer time,” Watson said. “If it does slow down, we can use a water pump to bring in water to the house from our spare tank while the primary tanks slowly fill up again.”

Piercy resident Patrick Landergen has owned his property since 2004. He heats his home with a wood stove in the winter.

“During the summertime, I have to cut wood for burning during the winter,” Landergen said. “When I’m out looking for wood, I try to take trees that are already fallen instead of killing a healthy tree.”

He must cut each tree in to “rounds” using his chainsaw, which are 12-14 inch long sections of the log, and then split them with a maul, which is a slightly dulled axe with a head that gets thicker from front to back.

“Once you find or cut a tree, you cut it in to rounds with your saw, and split it down small enough to fit in the woodstove with a maul,” Landergen said. “If the wood is wet, I let it dry out for the rest of the summer, and once it’s dry, I take it home and stack it until the winter.”

He also made it clear that he has a favorite kind of wood to burn.

“Madrone is all the I burn,” Landergen said. “Out of tanoak, fur, and everything else that I have tried, nothing burns as evenly or clean as the madrone does. When I burn tanoak, I have to clean my chimney out once every to weeks. With madrone, it is once per month.”

When it comes to powering your home, one common option in the hills of Humboldt is a diesel generator. That’s what Dan Bittick, a Southern Humboldt resident since the 1980s by his account, uses.

“Installing and running a generator is not necessarily easy,” Bittick said. ” You have the cost of the generator, the batteries and the inverter.My current power system cost me over $12,000 and many hours of labor, but that’s still cheaper than having PG&E run power lines up here.”

Aside from the initial setup, which is a lot of work wiring things in, burying wire, and doing other things, you have to maintain the generator throughout its life as well.

“I change my oil every month, and I also have to keep an eye on things like the fuel filter, solenoids, and diodes. How often you maintain your generator usually depends on how many hours you run it for per day,” Bittick said. “I run mine for eight hours per day, and oil changes every month have kept my generator running for over 10 years now. With the right care, you can make these things last decades.”

Those who live off-the-grid agreed that it is very rewarding to be able to produce for yourself with little to no help from the outside world.

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