Feature article

What you need to know about living off grid

A guide for those dreaming of self-sufficiency and living remotely.

If you’re inspired by the growing numbers of people living in off grid homes around the country, now could be the time to do some in-depth research on whether it could be something for you. And it’s an area where the technology for generating and storing energy is improving all the time so it pays to keep on top of the latest advances.

What does off-grid mean? It means living without relying on a utility company for power and producing your own energy, often through solar energy.

Jon Iliffe, director of DesignHaus, which does eHaus homes, has helped three clients build off-grid homes. There are two approaches to adopting the lifestyle.

“The first is more the low budget approach where people are choosing a simple lifestyle and are making compromises to save money. This often involves wood burners and gas for cooking and for hot water,” he says.

The second are those who are building their dream home and their location means it’ll cost an extra $100,000 and more to connect to the grid.

“It’s entirely possible to have a fully electric house and even an EV and be off-grid,” adds Jon. The investment is significant, but the clients we have built for have been very determined to make it happen with no compromise, he says.

In some cases, the off-grid house may already be connected to the electricity grid, and it might be an idea to keep it connected, not to draw power from but to contribute to it. You’ll collect credits for any extra energy you produce.

Jon likes this idea. “My favourite position is to be grid-tied with solar PV because you get the best of both worlds and the cost of power is only $80 a month,” he says.

When choosing to go off-grid it makes sense to minimise the amount of energy the home will need to run every day. In the old days this often meant a compromised lifestyle and making do with less than optimal living conditions but in the last 10 years, thanks to Passive House technology this is no longer the case, says Jon.

A Passive House will typically require 90% less active heating or cooling energy and an overall reduction in energy consumption of around 60%, says the DesignHaus director. The Passive House standard is the highest energy efficiency standard in the world and has been building code in countries like Switzerland for years, he adds.

The tech’s getting better

The good news to those starting out is it’s gotten easier and less expensive to be living off-grid with features like solar panels becoming more affordable, and strides being made in battery sizes for greater energy storage.

Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf is completely off-grid and resident, Kevin Haster, speaks about the lifestyle regularly to people thinking of making the move.

His message to anyone considering living off-grid is: “Don’t rush into rash decisions, do your homework relative to your financial budget, and identify what your priorities are.”

Prices are coming down in certain key areas such as solar panels, he notes.

Rakino Island resident Kevin Hester.

“The price of solar panels today is 10% of what I paid for them 20 years ago,” he says. If he were building today he’d “carpet the roof with solar panels,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the fastest evolving aspect of off-grid living is in battery developments, says Kevin.

“Stay on top of those developments but don’t fall for the best marketing campaign,” he advises. “Only buy technology that has stood the test of time.”

The Rakino resident can talk at length about septic systems. He prefers a non-electric syphon system, as electrical pumps can be a drain on household power.

You don’t need to sacrifice things like good water pressure, he adds. He has a 240v system at his Rakino home with a mains pressure pump.

“A high-pressure shower is one of my luxuries of life,” he says.

Why one family is upsizing from one off-grid home to another

Cantabrian, Bryan, and his family are privately selling their first off-grid home in Waimakariri, and plan to repeat the off-grid experience.

The four-bedroom, two-bathroom Ohoka home they’re selling is just 20 minutes from Christchurch’s CBD and was built in 2020. It has its own solar energy, a well and septic tank, plus a large veggie garden, two orchards, and a sheltered entertainment fire pit and pizza oven.

It would have cost $55,000 to become tied to the grid from this Waimakariri home and it was the fact it was off-grid that really made the block appealing to them, says Bryan.

“It’s like an addiction really, and we’re going to be doing it on a bigger scale at the next property,” adds the entrepreneur.

At their current home, which Bryan designed and built himself, there’s an extra shed for solar panels on the roof and some down the wall at 45-degree angles to make the most of the summer and winter sun. The solar energy runs through a good quality solar charger system and inverter and then into a large-size storage battery, he says.

The Kiwi previously lived in a house in Germany built to Passive standards and he recommends double glazing or triple glazing in your off-grid home depending on where you live in the country.

The next off-grid home he’s planning will have triple glazing, a coal range, and a big cellar to store food and other items. He’s also going to have more water storage next time so he can run radiators throughout the house to heat it.

“It’s the older style of doing things, it’s about doing everything passively, for instance having a concrete floor to hold the heat in,” he explains

Self sufficient home in Ohoka, Waimakariri, Canterbury.

Why one home owner took the off grid route and would do it again

Aucklander, Ben, and his family have enjoyed their Waitākere off-grid home for the past five years, auctioning it recently after strong interest through Harcourts agent, Celia Challis.

“I think it appealed to a lot of buyers, we had 46 groups come through. They’d come in and look out at the view and their shoulders would drop,” says Celia.

With the power feed stopping halfway up the driveway, the Harcourts agent made sure there was a costing done for buyers interested in getting power to the house.

Ben says you don’t need to be an engineer to live off-grid. “You could probably build the system yourself now with basic knowledge,” he says.

The Waitākere homeowner explains why he and his wife decided to live off-grid with their three boys. “The whole point of it all was to give my children the best possible upbringing, so they knew where meat comes from, they learned about power conservation, conserving water supply, and to eat food straight out of the garden. We wanted them to have that holistic experience,” he says.

Ben's Waitakere home.

The Waitākere property has three 25,000 litre water tanks for the house and the owners have taken water out of the property’s pond for stock and crops when needed.

It’s about going for a simpler life, he explains. “When you have a solar system and you’re reliant on the sun for energy for the house, every time you walk past the garage you go and have a look to see what the battery charge is like,” he says.

“You learn things like you don’t use the oven, the dishwasher, and the clothes washing machine at the same time. It becomes a way of life and forces you to be present,” he says.

It's a lifestyle choice, says Ben who likes meditation and being at one with his surroundings.

Ben says he would absolutely do off-grid living again. It’s all gotten much cheaper, he says. It cost them around $45,000 to $50,000 to install a solar system at the home, using SMA Solar Technology from Germany.

The next time the couple has a property off-grid, they’ll be looking to harness energy with a wind or hydropower turbine, he says. “Whatever I do next will be a combination,” he explains. And he quite likes the idea of a yurt for the home, he says.

Best spots in NZ to go off-grid

If you’re curious about which parts of the country would lend themselves well to off-grid homes due to climate, Northland would be a good spot.

A lot of people in Kerikeri are installing solar panels, says Barfoot & Thompson agent, Paula O’Brien, who’s marketing a three year old off-grid home on a lifestyle block for $1.95 million. The home has 20 solar panels, a woodfire with wetback, two 25,000 litre water tanks, and a further 10,000 litre water tank.

The current owners have bought a property that they’ve gutted and are redoing, and they’ll be putting in solar again, says Paula.

Off-grid homes tend to be more expensive because the initial build will be more costly to make it an efficient home, says Paula. You’re investing in solar panels and two inverters and two batteries, which requires more of an investment, she says.

10C Doonside Road, Kerikeri, Far North.

What to consider when buying an off-grid home

When you’re looking at an off-grid home, you’ll have a lot of questions for the agents.

If it’s not a type of home they know a lot about, it’s always a good idea to speak to the owners themselves because they’ll be able to talk you through the nitty-gritty.

Harcourts agent, Celia Challis says people were excited with the quality of the build of the Waitākere property which had over 46 groups through it.

“It was the overall feeling of calmness of the property with an established orchard and garden view,” she says.

The feeling was of being “a million miles away” but it was actually only 25 minutes to Kumeu or the North Shore, she says.

People who want these houses want all the mod cons, the coffee maker, the gas hob, the electric oven, and that was no issue at the home which sold for $3.375 million recently.

Would you do it again?

When you ask off-grid advocates, would they do it again, they rarely deviate from a hard yes.

Says Kevin: “If I was to win Lotto and could afford a small shack in Herne Bay, I’d still go off-grid. As our climate change predicament deteriorates, the grid-tied power will be more and more unreliable. Self-sufficiency will become a major asset.”