Lessons learned after living in an off-grid rental

By December 3, 2022Tech

By Thomas Ricker / @Trixxy
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Confession: when I booked a working vacation at an InForest cabin this summer, I wasn’t looking for an introductory course on sustainable living. I just wanted to escape the city without sacrificing the creature comforts my three teenagers demand. I got that, but took away so much more.
I thrive on the reenergizing effects of nature, and escape to the mountains, beach, or desert whenever I can. It’s something that’s become increasingly possible for many thanks to advances in solar panels, battery storage, data coverage, and flexible work-from-anywhere policies that have proliferated in the days since COVID-19. Now people can get their work done from just about any place that brings them joy.
I knew going in that my energy demands would push the already-well-equipped solar-powered cabin to its limits. I had all the gear I needed to work remotely while also keeping my family entertained. That means one e-bike, a video projector, two Bluetooth speakers, five phones, two laptops, one tablet, three smartwatches, and a Starlink RV internet-from-space kit to keep it all connected. That’s on top of the lights and full suite of kitchen appliances and utility devices already inside the cabin. 
For one week this summer I was able to work and play from the middle of a forest in Sweden, despite being totally disconnected from the grid. The experience gave me a taste of what’s currently possible with off-grid tech, and a better understanding of the compromises required when resources are scarce — lessons I’ve since applied to daily life now that energy prices in Europe have gone through the roof.
InForest is owned and operated by Jesper (40) and Petra Uvesten (41) who had the dream of creating a series of off-grid cabins for people looking to get closer to nature. The couple opened the doors of their first eco-friendly and self-sufficient cabin, Ebbe, in 2020. The Vilgot and Esther cabins soon followed. Each is named after one of their three children.
Jesper also works a full-time job with the EU working on rural development, while Petra is a dedicated triathlete. The two run InForest alone, although they also have occasional part-time help so they can take holidays. Their goal is to expand from three to 10 houses. 
The three small cabins are situated in a dense forest dotted with tranquil lakes and hunting blinds in the hills of southern Sweden, about two hours east of Gothenburg or three hours west of Stockholm. The cabins are handmade by Treesign, a local builder of tiny homes. Each house had to be hauled into position by a truck along several miles of dirt roads.
I booked Esther, named after Jesper and Petra’s daughter and oldest child who (rightly) insisted that the biggest of the three houses carry her name. 
The Esther house is powered by a large solar array on the rooftop, with six 320W panels helping to keep a pair of 2.4kWh lithium-ion batteries charged. Each house is fitted with an inverter to provide 220V AC to wall outlets located everywhere you’d hope to find one. 
Power generation benefits immensely from Sweden’s long summer days. Jesper tells me that their solar system is configured to provide about 1.5kW of charge per hour, which is enough to recharge half-empty batteries to full in about two hours. All excess energy is then diverted to the outlets. When the sun goes down, the house is wholly dependent upon the batteries for electricity.
Sweden’s short winter days present a real challenge for the cabins
Sweden’s short winter days present a real challenge for the cabins as the low, weak sun can’t keep the batteries charged. That means InForest cabins can only be booked from about March to mid-October. Jesper hopes to extend the season by purchasing an EV with bi-directional charging capabilities.
Ideally he'd like to buy a Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck but it’s not scheduled to come to Sweden any time soon, so maybe the new Volvo EX90 SUV coming in 2024 instead. Whatever he buys, he can charge its relatively large 100kWh-plus battery at home before driving to each cabin every few days to charge their much-smaller batteries. Jesper or Petra already have to visit each cabin every two to three days anyway to clean them and refill the water tanks. 
Fresh water comes from a 250-liter (66 gallon) water tank. The house is also fitted with a 10-liter (2.6 gallon) water heater, which is enough for about five to seven minutes of hot water.
The cabin’s LED lights, a kitchen fan, a DC refrigerator / freezer, heating fan, and water pump all require electric power. Jesper estimates that each house consumes about 100W per hour when idle, allowing the batteries to power the house for about two days without any charging. 
The houses require more than just electricity, however. They’re also equipped with a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) system for the combined air and water heater and also for the stove and oven. There’s also a waterless composting toilet from Separett that InForest takes care of after guests check out.
InForest houses are designed to be serviced, which is why all of the technology is housed in a utility closet that can be accessed from the outside to avoid interrupting guests. External connectors allow the water to be refilled and, eventually, the batteries to be recharged, just as soon as Jesper and Petra find a suitable EV.
I’ve never been so aware of my water usage, thanks to a gauge mounted on the wall inside the bathroom. InForest says its 250-liter tanks provide enough water for about three days of average usage by two adults. Jesper says guests typically use about 41.6 liters (11 gallons) of water per person per day when staying in their cabins, compared to 140 liters (27.5 gallons) per person in the typical Swedish household. I was traveling with a family of five, including three image-obsessed teenagers. So, challenge accepted!
Seeing how much water we had left on that gauge accomplished more than any amount of scolding could. In our seven days in the house, we only had to have the water refilled once, I’m proud to say. But that meant a fairly severe (but simple) change in behavior, like shutting off the water while lathering up in the shower or brushing teeth. Things I never did before, I must admit. It also meant devising a dishwashing method that would conserve as much energy and water as possible. 
I just wish the cabin was also equipped with a power meter. I have no idea how close we came to emptying its batteries, or how much surplus power all those panels produced during the day. As I’ve learned when reviewing solar generators, it’s easier to modify energy consumption habits when you see them mapped over time. Having said that, not knowing if the power would shut off at any moment was a strong motivator for everyone to keep their social media consumption devices plugged in during the day while the sun was actively powering the ports.
The urine-diverting toilet also lacked a meter, but seeing paper begin to sprout from the poop chute on our last day was a pretty good indicator that it was getting full. Fortunately, it’s ventilated so it was odorless. The toilet collects solid waste in a biodegradable bag that is tossed onto an off-site compost heap after guests depart.
1/9
Purists who quote Thoreau often tell me that I’m doing it wrong when I share my off-grid experiences. I’m supposed to totally disconnect and leave my gadgets at home. But I prefer to strike a balance, bending the will of nature to my needs at one moment, then giving myself over to its wilderness at the next. The grass can’t be greener on the other side if I’m straddling the fence. 
Lessons learned in that week at my InForest rental have turned into new habits upon my return. I still shut off the tap when brushing my teeth and while lathering up in the shower. I’ve unplugged a dozen rarely used gadgets that had been slowly leeching power. I’m also investigating having my home fitted with solar panels and battery backup. Although I have access to what seems like a never-ending supply of electricity and hot water here in Amsterdam, high energy prices make resources I’ve previously taken for granted suddenly feel scarce.
Of course, I’ve known I should do these things for years. But somehow, attaching emotional memories (stress!) to the idea has made it easier to change my behavior. And let’s be honest, saving money is a strong motivator as well.
My biggest takeaway is this: technologies have progressed so much that off-grid living is a more viable option than I had previously thought, without having to make too many compromises. But it’s a good idea to try it for yourself before fully committing.
InForest isn’t alone in providing off-grid getaways. A Google search will likely yield multiple local providers near you. Otherwise, Airbnb’s May redesign makes it easier to find experiences like off-the-grid living for those who want to go to the woods to try living a bit more deliberately.
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