For nearly two years, a Florida woman named Robin Speronis reportedly has been relying upon solar panels for her electricity and collecting rainwater, which she treats with colloidal silver to kill the pathogens and render it safe for drinking and bathing. She uses a five-gallon bucket with a plastic bag inside for a toilet.
"I'm choosing to live without being dependent on the system," she explained in February to a Florida TV station. "I never have to worry about that bill coming in."
But officials in her town of Cape Coral, a city of 161,000 residents on Florida's Gulf Coast, saw things differently. They recently took her to court, where a magistrate decided that she was violating local laws by not being hooked up to an approved water supply and gave her a month to comply. And even though Speronis stopped using the services, the city continued to charge her monthly water and sewer fees of $70 per month.
Many people are enamored with the dream of living "off the grid" -- that is, dropping out of modern civilization completely and becoming a self-sufficient iconoclast, free of utility bills, government intrusion and other pressures of the modern world. In addition to the occasional suburban dropout such as Speronis, there are other, even more committed off-the-gridders who move to rural areas where they not only generate their own electricity and purify their own water, but grow their own food as well. But even for the most resourceful and determined people, it's a challenge to supply all of life's needs without some help. Getting around society's restrictions -- and unplugging its pervasive connections -- can be difficult too.
Still, a few people are willing to give it a try. A tiny fraction of the U.S. population -- perhaps 750,000 people out of 317 million -- is making do without public utilities, according to Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America."
"There's a desire to step out of the rat race, and in America, that goes very deep in the national psyche," Rosen told CNN in 2012. "You know, the pioneering spirit and sturdy self-reliance -- these things which define the American character."
Going off the grid was an American meme long before there even was a grid as we know it today. Back in 1845, writer Henry David Thoreau, who sought to simplify his life, spent two years living in a cabin that he built in the woods near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, where he relied on firewood for fuel and cultivated potatoes, corn, peas, beans and turnips, supplementing his diet with fish and an occasional woodchuck. ("Notwithstanding a musky flavor, I saw that the longest use would not make that a good practice," he noted in Walden, his 1854 book about his experiences.) On the frontier, homesteaders practiced self-reliance out of necessity, and even after the founding of the modern electrical grid in the 1880s, many rural areas remained dark until the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935.
In the decades since then, some Americans have chosen to drop off the grid -- from hippies in the 1960s to contemporary "preppers," who want to be ready if civilization's technology collapses due to a solar flare or terrorist attack. Some Americans, such as the Alaskans featured on National Geographic Channel's Life Below Zero, live in wilderness areas where utilities don't offer hookups. Still others are hardcore environmentalists who want a lifestyle with the least possible impact upon the planet.
Being a committed unplugger necessitates getting used to doing without some ubiquitous conveniences of modern life. Craig Leisher, a social scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and his wife and three sons moved from the New Jersey suburbs in 2011 to spend a year living in a cabin in the woods of Maine. With a solar panel array that only provided enough electricity to power two laptops and a cellphone, he found it necessary to do without a washing machine, microwave oven and coffee maker, and even hot water became an unattainable luxury. He had to turn on a small generator every other day to pump lake water into the two 55-gallon barrels on the roof that served his family's needs. And getting a drink or washing dishes meant boiling the water for three minutes and allowing it to cool. "A lot of tasks are harder up here," he wrote in a New York Times essay.
But Leisher also discovered some advantages to off-grid life. Without video games and websites to occupy their attention, his kids spent time biking, swimming, kayaking and exploring the outdoors.
Those who want to disconnect from the grid also should be prepared to spend some money. If you're going to disconnect from the electric utility company and still intend to lead a reasonably modern lifestyle, you're going to need to generate your own power. Very small wind turbines can be purchased and installed for perhaps $6,000, but a 5 kilowatt system capable of powering a typical home will cost around $30,000 on average, according to the Wind Energy Foundation. You also have to put up a tower, typically around the height of a telephone pole, and navigate through local zoning regulations. A comparable 6 kilowatt solar panel system, once tax credits are factored in, might cost around $25,000.
Electricity isn't necessarily crucial for survival, but nobody can last very long without clean water for drinking, bathing, and washing dishes and pots and pans. Off-gridders who leave on a lake or pond or near a flowing stream can use a pump to obtain water, and collecting rainwater in barrels is also an option. But after that, the water needs to be cleansed of particles and potentially dangerous pathogens before it can be used. Boiling water is an option, but a ceramic filter containing colloidal silver--an inexpensive option often used in the developing world--can remove most bacteria without expending any energy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sanitation is another crucial issue, since life off the grid can become very unappealing in a hurry unless you have a way to go to the bathroom. Unless you opt for a bucket or dig a latrine trench outdoors, the best option is a composting toilet, which not only conserves water but produces fertilizer. Various models are available on Amazon.com for between $960 and $2,500.
In many parts of the country, people who unplug from the grid for ideological or environmental reasons have the option of reconnecting if life gets too difficult or inconvenient. But that's not an option for others who live in remote spots where they must fend for themselves by necessity.
In an episode of Life Below Zero, for example, cast member Chip Hailstone searches for someone who'll give him a used steel oil drum in a barter exchange for fish or caribou meat so that he can repurpose the drum as a portable wood stove to keep warm in the brutal Alaska winter: "It's really important that you be able to do for yourself up here," he explains. "You ain't got something, and you want it, you gotta make it yourself or do without."
In a sense, the most indispensible resource for off-gridders isn't necessarily electricity or water, but ingenuity.
Watch the below video to find out how the Hailstones (pictured above) survive in the rugged Alaskan bush, and don't forget to tune in to the premiere of the new season of National Geographic Channel's Life Below Zero on Thursday, April 17 at 9pm.