Kathy Menzel says she used to be completely oblivious to power bills, “just running along in the hamster wheel like everybody else, you know, busy, busy, busy, spend, spend, spend”. She and her husband Bob, both IT professionals, did have an inkling they wanted something different though, yearning for a serene country lifestyle with no neighbours.
When they finally found their dream block in the Adelaide Hills, reality hit home. “We’d been looking for five years for this great piece of land in the middle of nowhere but still easy to commute to the city,” she says. “But it was going to cost $450,000 to get on to the grid.” The cost of connecting was far more than the $238,000 for the 10 acre block, which was only 1.5km from a main road.
Undeterred, Menzel researched sustainable housing and calculated their energy and water needs. The result was a self-sufficient home they’ve been enjoying for four years now – which cost $150,000 less than the price of connecting to the grid. “It’s completely changed my way of living and my whole understanding of everything to do with energy waste and carbon,” she says of her new minimalist, eco-friendly lifestyle.
These days Menzel is acutely aware of her energy and water consumption. “It’s not an endless resource; someone’s paying for it somewhere, and I mean look at the climate – the Earth is paying for it, isn’t it?”
What are the challenges and perks? “Oh, just perks,” she laughs.
For one reason or another, Australians are increasingly taking up the gauntlet while governments drag their feet on sustainable housing regulations. Even the six-star building standards, for instance, just don’t cut it, says Menzel. “You know, you can put windows wherever you like and you can just run a big great air-conditioning system and pay a fortune.”
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They built their home guided by “passive house” principles, achieving a 7.9-star energy rating. With no air-conditioning and a combustion heater for cold winter evenings, she says it never goes below 16C or above 26C inside in a region that dips below zero in winter and can soar over 40C in summer. Two rainwater tanks provide plenty of water, with enough to spare for the South Australian Country Fire Service.
Off-grid living can vary widely, but generally embraces a sustainable, autonomous lifestyle. This includes generating your own power, water, waste removal and sewerage solutions (such as a worm farm waste system) and can extend to growing your own food.
Possibly the ultimate answer to sustainable living is the earthship, a passive solar shelter made from recycled tires, plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. “You can use other stuff as well,” says expert Martin Freney. “Like you can salvage sheets of metal from car bodies and old fridges and washing machines and use them as roof shingles if you’re really creative.”
Freney did his PhD on earthships, originally conceived by US architect Michael Reynolds, and built Australia’s first council-approved version as a B&B with the help of volunteers from all over the country who wanted to learn how. Now he estimates there are at least a dozen earthship-inspired homes around Australia.
Six key principles are woven into the building’s design. These involve natural and recycled construction materials, passive heating and cooling through thermal mass and natural cross-ventilation principles, renewable off-grid energy, sustainable sewerage and waste solutions and water recycling which feeds into indoor food production.
You don’t have to pay power bills any more and that puts a big smile on your face
“So if you want to divorce yourself from the system that puts a big smile on your face, and you don’t have to pay these power bills any more and that puts a big smile on your face,” says Freney. “And the house is comfortable to live in, it’s looking after you, it’s growing food, and you get zero food miles out of your little garden that’s just right there before you even reach your doorstep, inside your house.”
Straw-bale homes are another popular approach. Des Menzel and his wife built theirs in 1999 near Clare, South Australia, where they lived for 19 years before recently moving to Port Lincoln. They were (and are) committed to living sustainably in every possible way, including a composting toilet and an off-grid, energy-efficient home built with recycled materials that is naturally cool in summer and heated in winter with wood harvested from native trees they planted on the acreage. Rainwater tanks feed water to the house under gravity pressure and a dam irrigates the garden created using permaculture principles.
At the time they built the home, the technology was in its infancy and they navigated the challenges with much trial and error. “You certainly learn how to manage energy,” Menz says. “You learn it very quickly.” The biggest setback was the 2016 storm that blew over South Australia’s transmission line. “A massive lightning strike blew out all our solar panels,” he says. A flashover ran through the tilted array on the ground and destroyed every cell. Luckily, they were well-insured.
The technology is moving ahead rapidly now, especially battery storage. Omar Buckley and his extended family recently moved from Sydney to a large, off-grid acreage in South Australia. They upgraded the existing solar panel and battery system and have plenty of water after building extra concrete tanks with 200,000L storage capacity to supplement the dam. Overall, they have found the transition surprisingly easy.
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“In all honesty, I was expecting it to become a bit more of a changed lifestyle,” he says. “But we haven’t changed what we used to do at all. We still run the dishwasher and the washing machine as much as we always have. We don’t have air conditioning in the house as it’s very well built, so even on a 47C day it was still mid-20s inside and it felt really cool.” For heating they collect wood lying on the ground for a combustion heater. The main consideration is checking the system once a month.
The family has achieved their goal of living “a more connected with the Earth kind of lifestyle”. His 12-year old daughter, Jo, says “I enjoy it because our power never goes out even when it goes out for kids at school. They didn’t have TV last night, but I did!” She and her brother also enjoy the animals on the property, including pet goats, llamas, chooks and horses as well as their two dogs. “I like living in the country because I have loads of space, I can’t hear the neighbours, and I have over 35 pets.”
For people considering going off-grid, Buckley says, “Do it! I would say absolutely do it. You’ll never look back.” The key is in the planning.
“Just make sure you’ve got the time to do the research properly and be prepared to go for a deep dive into something that you don’t know much about,” says Menzel. “I would never even consider doing it without having a house that works and performs.”
It’s also important to factor in upfront costs, which will transform into cost savings over time. But as with any home, prices vary widely depending on what you choose.
The options are endless – some Australians have even started building hemp homes. And it’s not necessary to move to the middle of nowhere to live sustainably; what’s most important is considering your motives and needs. Renew offers many helpful resources, including an annual Sustainable House Day across Australia. This year more than 200 people opened their homes for people to visit and ask questions.
“You don’t need to be a hippie to benefit from being off-grid,” says Menzel. “But you know, you can feel really good about doing your bit for the planet. It’s a fabulous way of existing, knowing you are doing the right thing and it’s not costing you any more – it’s costing you less.”