YES! But How? :: Off the Grid

Live off the grid, Sustainable burials, Alternatives to plywood roof decking, Greywater on gardens,and Reusing Envelopes

Live off the grid, Sustainable burials, Alternatives to plywood roof decking, Greywater on gardens,and Reusing envelopes.


What is an effective way for someone of limited income to begin living “off the grid” in a conventional home? —Lynn Boland, Van Nuys, CA


Start by looking for places to conserve energy. Conserving energy is almost always more cost-effective than generating (or buying) new energy and almost always the most sustainable option. In increasing order of expense:

  1. Caulk windows and apply weather strip around window and door frames. 2)
  2. Switch to compact fluorescent (CFs) light bulbs, which use 75 percent less electricity than incandescents. Check with your electric company—they often provide coupons for CFs. My public utility issues coupons for 50 cent CFs.
  3. Refrigerators are energy hogs. Check to make sure the temperature isn't above 37-40Â*F (5Â*F for the freezer section). Consider replacing any refrigerator over 10 years old with an energy-efficient one.
  4. Upgrade windows and insulation. This is spendy, but your energy supplier may provide subsidies and/or low-interest financing.

Since you live in the city, you probably don't want to be entirely off the grid. Mike Tidwell of Takoma Park, Maryland, generates much of his own energy using a solar water heater and photovoltaic cells, but on cloudy days, he might need some help from natural gas and purchased electricity. In some states, PV owners can sell their excess electricity to their power company and spare the expense and the environment of costly batteries.

Before you start shopping for alternative energy sources, do your homework. The Rocky Mountain Institute's Homemade Money and HomePower Magazine ( have extensive reviews of alternative energy technologies.

Tidwell made all his energy changes with a budget of $7,500, financed with a home-equity loan. $7,500 may seem a daunting amount but the savings negate much of this cost. Tidwell's monthly loan payment is $87; he calculates that his savings on energy bills make his actual cost less than $39. For a full account of how he did it, get Co-op America's “Guide for a Green Energy Future” at 800/58-GREEN.

—Doug Pibel


What are the sustainable burial options for humans? —Sandy Long, via email


Contrary to popular belief, burials do not have to be performed at funeral homes. Embalming, and the use of burial vaults, interferes with the recycling of nutrients. Embalming involves the use of toxic fluids, which can contaminate water supplies both from the embalming site and, eventually, from the cemetery.

Organs for transplant are much in demand, and you might consider a donation. At times, people choose to donate their bodies to medical schools, but schools will have to embalm the body (they later cremate the remains and give you the ashes). Check schools near you to see if this is still an option.

In some states, you can do your own burials legally on your own land. If you choose this option, be sure to choose a site away from streams, springs, and power lines. Avoid heavy coffins and deep burial so the body can move quickly back into the biological cycle, but make sure the grave is at least a couple of feet in depth to be certain animals don't disturb the remains (check states laws for legal depths).

Cremations take up less space than modern burials and don't require the large quantities of water and pesticides many green-lawned cemeteries use. Most crematoriums have scrubbers that prevent air pollution. You'll receive four to seven pounds of ash that you can keep in an urn or spread in a meaningful place.

It's a good idea to research your state laws and to discuss these matters with family and loved ones. Then when the day comes, you won't have to cope with making decisions—or with family disagreements. There is an excellent book on this subject, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, by Lisa Carlson. Especially useful are the 50 chapters detailing each state's laws.

—Mary Wildfire


It's time to replace the cedar shake roof on our house. Our choices, whether composition-style or metal, need a decking surface placed on the rafters. Are there alternatives to plywood that are sustainable, affordable, and durable? Collins Pine in Oregon is a sustainable wood manufacturer but they're now re-tooling and the plywood is no longer available. —Ralph Davis, via email


First try using salvaged material. Check telephone directories under “salvage,” “demolition,” “waste disposal,” or “recycling,” or talk to building contractors who do renovation work. Many times they have wood left over.

One possible recycled product is Firestall decking, a board made from layers of Homasote, a recycled newspaper product. Unlike regular plywood, Firestall contains no formaldehyde (beyond what may be in the newsprint ink) and is rated for structural use as a roof-decking material. Contact Homasote for more information (800/257-9941 or

Wheat straw and other rapidly renewable materials (such as bamboo, rice straw, and sunflower seeds) are now being made into board products. The Alberta (Canada) Research Council Forest Products Group is applying for a patent for Oriented Split Straw Board, a wheat straw panel that is stronger than wood. However, none of our usual sources has been able to tell me of a currently available board that is rated for structural applications and that can be exposed to weather.

As a fallback choice, plywood and OSB (Oriented Strand Board, also referred to as chipboard or wafer-board) are ubiquitous. Made from veneers or thin chips of wood oriented for maximum strength, these panels are structurally efficient. Their glues contain formaldehyde, however. Exterior-rated glues, counter-intuitively, contain the less-volatile phenol-formaldehyde, while interior-rated glues contain urea-formaldehyde.

While we have not been able to find formaldehyde-free plywood, there are several lumber mills that make sustainably harvested plywood. Ask your local lumberyard for sustainably harvested plywood and wood products certified by the SCS (Scientific Certification Systems) or FSC (Forest Stewardship Council).

Co-op America's Green Pages ( and WoodWise program ( list retailers of salvaged or sustainably produced wood products.

—Pam Chang and Doug Pibel


I'm using my laundry water on my fruit trees and garden. What detergent should I use? —Emery, Whidbey Island, WA


Greywater–recycled shower, bath, and laundry water–can be used safely on your garden given a few guidelines. In fact, over half of the water that goes down our drains could be used on lawns and gardens.

Use biodegradable, phosphate-free soaps, widely available from natural markets. Avoid detergents that advertise “softening power,” as they contain high amounts of sodium, which can damage soil and plants. Be sure to rotate greywater with fresh water to avoid any harmful build-up. Foliage and stems are more susceptible to damage from greywater compounds so water plants at the roots. Shower or bath water is preferable to washing machine, dishwasher, or kitchen sink water due to its smaller concentration of grease, food particles, and other material. On flower gardens, limit greywater use on acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas, as greywater is more alkaline than fresh water. Unfortunately, grey-water should not be used on anything that will be consumed.

Greywater can be used by installing an irrigation system into your plumbing and landscaping, or by doing things the old fashioned way—carrying water in buckets. For information on local regulations for greywater systems, contact your public utilities department. Oasis Design also has a website that outlines important do's and don'ts of greywater at

—Mary Guterson and Beth Balderston



We're thrilled our subscribers are so careful about reducing waste. So here's the scoop on how to reuse envelopes successfully.

In order to re-address an envelope with a printed address already on it, you need to cross out or cover up more than the address. Those preprinted envelopes come with bar codes, often two per envelope, including a set of short bars across the bottom of the envelope. Computers read these and tell the post office where to send the letter. Computers can't read the written address. Any time you want to send a pre-printed envelope to an address other than the one printed, you need to cross out every barcode with a black marker in vertical strokes.

As for the mail routed to YES!, never fear; we forward all bills and letters to their intended destinations.

—Jan Seslar, YES! mailroom volunteer

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