Hello Reddit,

My name is Alexis Zeigler. In November of 2010 eight people and myself acquired 127 acres of land in rural Virginia in order to create an intentional community (otherwise known as commune) focused specifically on living sustainably and off-grid. Prior to this, I had had some experience building conventional off-grid houses for a number of friends and, having seen how costly, high-maintenance and error-prone these systems were (most of those friends went back on-grid after only a few years), I decided I wanted to try and find better approaches to off-grid technology.

Today our community (it's called Living Energy Farm, you can find our website here: livingenergyfarm.org) has twelve members, including children. We are currently completely energy self-sufficient on the residential level, using a setup that has been running with very low maintenance costs (both in terms of time and money) for many years.

There are two key ways in which our system differs from conventional off-grid technology. The first is that we primarily store energy in forms other than electricity, allowing us to function with much smaller solar panel rigs than are possible with conventional systems. Our solar space heating system is a good example of this. Rather than have a solar panel connected to a large battery bank and run a space heater off of that battery bank, or keep a wood stove running constantly, we heat our house during the winter with passive solar and a combination of solar thermal hot air collectors and DC blowers that are connected directly to our solar electric panels. On a sunny day the solar hot air collectors heat air, which the blowers then push under the floor so the heat can radiate up through the house. To make the most of this heat we have a heavily insulated house (our walls are around a foot thick, insulated with straw bales) that cools very slowly, allowing us to stay warm even after multiple days without enough sun to run our blowers. The entire heating system operates without any electricity needing to run through a battery or inverter, which allows us to get away with much lower battery capacity than other off-grid systems. We run many tools directly off our solar electric panels, such as a winnowing fan, grain grinder, drill press, metal-cutting lathe, belt grinder, air compressor, to name a few. We refer to the way in which our equipment runs primarily off of a solar electric panel as Daylight Drive.

The second way in which our system differs is that where we do use batteries to store electricity, we do so for things that run at lower voltages, and we use nickel iron (NiFe) batteries. Nickel iron batteries have some disadvantages in certain circumstances, but for our purposes they work incredibly well. Compared to the battery types used in more conventional off-grid systems they are incredibly robust (they can be discharged with minimal loss in their functionality; I even have one made 70 years ago that can still hold a charge pretty well) and also have much lower maintenance costs (once every month I have to add some distilled water to our batteries and once every five to ten years I will have to replace the electrolyte in them, but other than that they run without any real maintenance on our part). For lighting we use DC bulbs that can run direct off our batteries with no inverters, and for charging phones and laptops we have cigarette lighter outlets (the kind you find in a car) so we can charge our devices without the need for inverters as well. Because we have no inverters and only use batteries to power a small range of devices, we can get away with a much smaller and (most importantly!) cheaper battery bank than would be possible with a conventional off-grid setup.

Part of why our system has worked so well for us is because of both a willingness to adjust our lifestyles to the amount of energy that we can use, and because of cooperative use. Using our system we have access to many of the comforts of a modern American home (eg. I can take a hot shower or surf the internet whenever I want, and our lights have never gone out in all the years we have been here) but we still need to pay attention to our energy use. For example, when we go through a long spell of cloudy weather we cannot leave the sink running all day or run all of our shop tools. We actually find this to be advantage however, as it means the system incentivizes us to live and use electricity in a more deliberate and conservationist way. Conventional energy systems on the other hand incentivize people to not be mindful of the amount of electricity they use.

Cooperative use means that we have technology scaled for a small village or community rather than an individual home. While our systems would likely be prohibitively expensive in terms of per capita cost for many individual families throughout the world (though they are far, far cheaper both in terms of initial investment costs and ongoing maintenance costs!), the per capita cost becomes much more affordable when distributed among a small community or village. Cooperative use also results in a more effective energy system, in the sense that it is less resource-intensive to heat one large building that houses three families than it is to heat three small individual homes. Because we are an intentional community, cooperative use for us means that our systems support several different families and individuals, but it could just as easily mean supporting the same number of cohabitating friends, one multigenerational family household, or several single generational families. The per capita effectiveness is a result of the number of people sharing the system and not how many of the people are or are not related.

We also grow most of our own food. Out of our 127 acres we farm around five acres, growing both staple crops for feeding the community as well as seeds, which we sell for income. The farm is USDA certified organic and we are currently experimenting with several different farming techniques that we hope will be more sustainable than modern, commercial organic agriculture. Some of these include chemical-free no-till farming, and grafting commercial fruit tree varieties onto rootstock that is growing natively.

There are some areas in which we are still trying to improve our energy systems. The first is our cooking system, which currently involves cooking on wood-fired rocket stoves. We are experimenting with biogas and Daylight Drive electric hotplates. Another area is our agricultural technology. We currently still burn fossil fuels to run our tractors, though we are experimenting with running one on pine pitch (turpentine).

We also very recently have returned from a trip to Arizona where we installed several dozen of our off-grid DC-powered nickel-iron lighting kits for families in the Navajo and Hopi nations and trained several people in the installation and maintenance of our systems. Many Navajo and Hopi families have had more conventional off-grid technology (eg. using AC power and lead-acid batteries) installed in the past which have since stopped working. We are confident that our lighting systems will prove to be as reliable and long-lasting for these families as they have been for us.

If you want to know more about our community, you can visit our website at livingenergyfarm.org.

Proof this is me: https://imgur.com/gallery/hKFdQbK

You can watch a video tour of our electrical systems here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5Wk7inoIxI.

You can read more about the nickel-iron batteries that we use here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/bats3.pdf

You can find more technical information about our systems (as well as a primer on electrical systems more broadly) here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/electric.pdf

And finally you can read about our recent trip to the Navajo and Hopi nations to install some of our off-grid solar lighting systems in our latest newsletter here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020febmarch.pdf

Ask me anything!

Comments: 85 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

Redmoons19 karma

Are you a net calorie importer, or a net calorie exporter community?

LivingEnergyFarm20 karma

Net exporter.

ChazMcDude16 karma

How do you cook with your off-grid system?

LivingEnergyFarm23 karma

Cooking is a technology that is still evolving for us. We are using some wood, both on rocket stoves and on an old-fashioned cook stove. We are also using biogas and a daylight drive solar electricity running hotplates and an electric oven. That electricity goes from the PV panels to the cooking devices, not though a battery.

camilopezuluaga13 karma

What 3 pieces of advice would you give someone who is interested in/taking steps towards an off-grid/homesteading lifestyle? I’m 24 years old with not much capital, but live on a remote island off the northern coast of BC and have access to resources/tools/land.

Thanks in advance, look forward to learning more about your community and practices

LivingEnergyFarm22 karma

Find some other people to work with, but be clear about your intentions and theirs. Make no untested assumptions about shared values. Focus on good design and conservation, not energy production. Talk to other people in the area who have tried to do anything similar. Environmental solutions are always local.

mywave12 karma

I can see several candidates in your introduction, but what would you say are the primary personal and philosophical motivations for setting up the commune?

LivingEnergyFarm21 karma

For me it's environmental. The Earth on which we live is sacred. It is under threat. This lifestyle allows people to have modern comforts with a small fraction of the ecological impact.

mywave13 karma

I admire that—and I especially admire you for doing the hard pioneering work 'the market' won't.

Follow-up questions: Do you have any plans to use the dominant economic system (capitalism, in many ways unfortunately) to help others adopt a similar sustainable lifestyle? Also, does veganism figure into the commune at all?

LivingEnergyFarm12 karma

Well, we spun off an llc, livingenergylights.com We have been growing seeds, but that is not highly lucrative. We spun off the LLC to sell solar kits and supplies that would help people do more of what we are doing. We have also been giving away solar kits as we are able, in the Navajo and Hopi Nations. As for veganism, we use the term "plant based diet" That is more descriptive of what we do rather than what we do not do. We have a small amount of animals products available, but not a lot. We have a problem with ticks and other insects. We keep ducks to help with that, and eat a few duck eggs, though some of our members are vegan.

Trienna8 karma

HI alexis, Tim and Brie here. We are wondering about the feasibility of retrofitting existing homes to dc mircro grid. Is the loss from using thhn as oposed to solid core siginificant? can we set up a system that uses Live technology for electricity and also has grid backup?

LivingEnergyFarm7 karma

Hey Brie and Tim, you can certainly retrofit. The losses on thhn are not a problem that I know of. I would not recommend LIVE systems with grid backup. You would be making investments in two realms. Better to focus.

rustyshackleford627 karma

If you guys are off grid then how are you connecting to the internet to do this AMA?

LivingEnergyFarm18 karma

My computer and my internet hotspot are solar powered.

Static_Frog-17 karma

On the grid.

LivingEnergyFarm9 karma

No, not on the grid. The computer charges from a 12 volt car charger. The internet is through a hotspot, USB charged on the 12 volt system as well.

BugzOnMyNugz-5 karma

Yea, but the internet...

Static_Frog-4 karma

Kinda my point. 🤷‍♂️

LivingEnergyFarm6 karma

Reply

Well, I didn't build the internet, it's not my prerogative to take it down. I don't know if it's sustainable what happens down the wire, but on this end, it's all solar.

BugzOnMyNugz-3 karma

I'm with you

LivingEnergyFarm7 karma

If all of you folks could live like we do, then we could shut down the power stations. Then we would need to decide whether or how to power the internet.

SuperPants737 karma

I've heard that you use DC as opposed to AC as an electrical source. How is that better for your situation?

LivingEnergyFarm17 karma

Pretty simple, photovoltaic panels (solar electric panels) put out DC. The sun shines every day, so we have energy, DC electricity, falling out of the sky every day. DC and AC are just forms of energy. Anything an AC motor can do, a DC motor can do. But for us, the DC if free once you have the panels.

UsingMuse1236 karma

I assume everyone does work each day to contribute? How is that work decided on?

You mentioned you're a net calorie exporter, I guess you sell, earn dollars and buy what you can't produce, right?

How are purchases decided on?

Does anyone have a job on the outside?

Do you have private possessions?

Who's your oldest resident? What will their aging process look like if they decide to stay?

How long do you think this will continue?

How did you decide on your current coresidents?

Has anyone been kicked out? How many have lived there but left on their own accord?

Do you have anyone with chronic diseases like diabetes?

Why did you decide on rural VA over other places in the US? Also, what other regions did you consider?

LivingEnergyFarm7 karma

Work is decided based on face to face communication about what needs to be done.

Yes, we sell seeds and buy what we need.

No one currently has an outside job, though we do get donations for some of our service and educational work.

I have lots of private possessions, though we live fairly modestly.

Our oldest residential is me currently. I should hope to go down in a blaze of glory.

I think this will continue forever. My hope is that we will all live sustainable some day.

Our decision making for residents is the same as everything, what we call positive consensus. We try to hear everyone, not focus on the block.

We have kicked out a few people with substance abuse issues. We have had dozens of short term interns, as well as longer term people, come and go as they choose.

No chronic diseases currently.

We ended up in central VA because we had lived here long before we started this project and had lots of personal connections in this area, including with other intentional communities.

UsingMuse1233 karma

Who is the deciding vote? I.E. if there isn't a consensus, are you the one who makes the final decision?

How do you handle healthcare? Do you all have insurance? What happens when someone breaks and arm? What if someone got cancer?

LivingEnergyFarm3 karma

Our bylaws say that if consensus fails we use majority vote, but we have not done that yet. As for healthcare, VA has medicare for all, and we are low income. The healthcare here is actually pretty good, though quite corrupt at the national level, obviously.

Nochairsatwork6 karma

Thanks for the AMA! What's your favorite meal to eat? What are you most proud of about your community?

LivingEnergyFarm12 karma

Favorite meal.... Homegrown grits, homegrown toast with homegrown fruit on top. Or maybe my wife's curry....

LivingEnergyFarm10 karma

Oh, the what are we the most proud of -- that we figured out a way to support modern conveniences that makes centralized electrical grids unnecessary, and have happy kids....

i_should_go_to_sleep5 karma

With your focus on off-grid and no fossile fuels, how did you guys get out to Arizona?

Do you ever use fossile fuels? For example, getting your seeds to market?

Do you rely on the postal system or are you also removed from that?

How do you handle things such as finances?

Last question, do you guys have amazon prime? Netflix? I’m only wondering because you said you can browse the web as much as you want.

LivingEnergyFarm10 karma

Well, we drove a donated truck to Arizona, burning gasoline. We are trying to take the farm off of fossil fuel completely, but it seems justifiable to use some fossil fuel to reach out to communities who can benefit from out work. On the Navajo Nation, people end up driving places to charge a cell phone. Hopefully, we are helping them use less.

Our tractors are still using fossil fuel. We are working with woodgas, turpentine, and gasified tree resin as possible fuels. But we also are stretched thin. In a few years I think we will pull it off. Our seeds travel in a truck or car to the seed suppliers, or are shipped.

We rely on a lot on the postal system.

Finances are handled by growing seeds and taking donations. We started a new venture selling solar products, livingenergylights.com, but that is not making any money yet.

I am a cheapskate, and I hate hate hate amazon because they killed so many local bookstores. I watch youtube a bit, or look at old tractors on CL. Bad habit I know....

rlnrlnrln4 karma

What would you have to do differently to make a similar setup in a place that gets regular snow during the winters and less sun? Focus more on wind power?

LivingEnergyFarm5 karma

Well, you use what you have. If you panels are tilted up, it's easy to get the snow off of them. We have some snow here, sometimes at least. If you have more wind, use that. The issue is not energy source so much as good design and conservation. Then your options are much broader.

redhotchiliprepper3 karma

But what is your quality of life though? Can you take hot showers?

LivingEnergyFarm13 karma

We get to take hot showers any time we want. 98% of the time, it's solar. We have wood backup as well. We have a solar powered pump and storage tanks. The storage tanks mean we don't have to try to run a pump at night only during the day.

newleafkratom3 karma

Did you study other cooperative communities before this endeavor? Which inspired you, and why?

LivingEnergyFarm4 karma

Our residence in Louisa County VA is not coincidental. The largest secular income sharing community in the USA is here, called Twin Oaks. I lived there in 80s and 90s. My wife lived there in the early 2000s. There are several other communities here, Acorn with 30 or so members, and two other small ones our sized. We have lots of experience with community living, and lots of interconnection in the area. The strength of Twin Oaks is the social culture. We have a much stronger environmental focus.

AdonisGksu2 karma

Where do you sell your seeds at?

rejoicing2 karma

I live in the same area and also grow seeds. We sell to a variety of seed companies. The local commune-run one is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, but it makes sense to diversify who you sell to. Sometimes you can grow the same crop for two different companies, sometimes you can get a better price on certain crops from elsewhere, sometimes you want a bigger grow-out (you get paid per ounce or pound of seed) from a company that has more annual throughput of that crop. Anyway, other seed companies we both sell to include Fedco, Sow True, Baker Creek, and Seed Saver's Exchange.

We made a small, farmer-direct seed company together, along with another neighbor, a few years ago. Common Wealth Seed Growers. This gives us a better price for our seed and, unlike the contract system used by most seed companies, doesn't inherently incentivize shoddy crop standards to get more money. It compensates us financially for doing breeding work we'd like to be doing anyway, where we take crop varieties that we like and improve them for our climate or other purposes.

LivingEnergyFarm1 karma

Diito what Rejoicing said.

lancelotschaubert2 karma

You connected to the New Monastics or more hippie?

LivingEnergyFarm5 karma

We are a self determined community, not a member of broader ideological group.

lancelotschaubert5 karma

Gotcha. What's it like raising children in that environment?

What's the education system like?

LivingEnergyFarm3 karma

There is a community nearby that runs a cooperative home school program. Our kids go to that 4 days a week, before COVID 19 that is. Right now we are waiting it out. We are self sufficient though, so waiting out the virus is not much different than our normal daily work, just less traveling about.

lancelotschaubert3 karma

Gotcha. So you're cloistering from your cloister in this?

LivingEnergyFarm3 karma

errr, lost me. What??

lancelotschaubert3 karma

clois·ter /ˈkloistər/

verb seclude or shut up in or as if in a convent or monastery.

Lame joke, sorry.

LivingEnergyFarm5 karma

No prob, but it is easier for us to shield ourselves from the pandemic. We are not locked inside, and don't have to go anywhere if we don't want to.

Preece2 karma

I'm interested in the logistics of buying one piece of land and building multiple houses on it. Building codes, zoning, regulations, etc... Seem absolutely hell-bent on making this impossible. How did you accomplish this? Also, what sort of houses do you have on the land and how did you construct them? Thanks.

LivingEnergyFarm3 karma

Yes, zoning and building codes can be a big problem. There is a cluster of communities in NE Missouri that is there specifically because there is no code. Most of the rural parts of the US have little or no code, but you have to decide whether you want to live in a rural area. If you can get a piece of land that already has a house on it, you do not have to get an occupancy permit. Gives you more flexibility to hide your improvements, if you go that way. You either want to have a positive relationship with the inspectors, or stay off their radar. Before you move anywhere, make sure you talk to your potential neighbors. A bad neighbor can use code against you. Our buildings are under code, but the politics are a bit libertarian, which serves our purpose in this case. We do stud frame, cheap and in the inspectors like it. Then stack straw inside of that. Then wire to AC standards. Inspectors like that. Just put in a DC breaker box, and use the same systems.

egavasretnuh2 karma

what's the process for joining the community? does a family need to build their own place to live/work there? do people commit to living there for a certain amount of time?

LivingEnergyFarm3 karma

We are pretty full at the moment, but the process is to contact us. We talk about it, people come to visit. People live in shared housing here, not individual housing. That is for environmental reasons. We may build more someday if we can scape up the money. No time commitment per se, we just try to figure out what people want and plan to do.

CashewsAreTheNut2 karma

What's the toilet sitch? And the water sitch in general?

LivingEnergyFarm1 karma

There is.a good supply of ground water here. We have a good well. We do not use flush toilets. They are foolish for a few reasons. Our daylight drive water system fills the tanks during the day. Although our water is plentiful, the fact that it can run out (and does if you behave foolishly) encourages a conservation ethic. It works great. We have plenty but use less. We use composting toilets, and are in the process of switching to a large-scale biogas system.

GammaJK1 karma

Where do you get your solar panels from? Do you verify that the materials they're made from aren't sourced from places in the world that do a terrible job of protecting the environment (ie dumping the by-products from solar panel production into rivers, etc)?

LivingEnergyFarm1 karma

We buy them on the open market. Are there companies that claim to have no conflict materials or exceptional environmental protections in making their panels?

kmethridge21 karma

How did you purchase the land? 8 people with decent savings? Loans?

LivingEnergyFarm1 karma

Loans and donations.

kiwi_reader1 karma

This is a little bit out of left field, but do you have any thoughts on Orania?

LivingEnergyFarm1 karma

Orania

Don't know that that is, sorry.

[deleted]-2 karma

[deleted]

rlnrlnrln11 karma

They are environment activists who have accepted a challenge to live sustainably, not a freaking cult...

[deleted]0 karma

[deleted]

justpeachyman10 karma

Do minors choose to live anywhere?

LivingEnergyFarm10 karma

My kids are more aware of the outside world than most. They read a lot. They are not lost in the land of television. We pay property tax same as anyone.

WapitiTal-15 karma

You boys got the Wu Flu?

LivingEnergyFarm8 karma

No actually. We could live here for 40 years comfortably without interacting with the rest of the world if we chose.