Living ‘off-grid’ might just seem like another word for ‘permanent camping’ to some people. But, for so many individuals, off grid living provides an escape from normality and the rat race of big cities. Situated all along the coast of Australia are little pockets of intentional communities. In this article we speak to some of the homeowners in the intentional communities of the Goolwah National Park in Crescent Head, NSW and ask them to shed some insight into how they make it work. As lovers of camping and all things adventure, here at Outback Equipment we love supporting the people that live and breathe getting off grid and back into nature. The intentional communities of Goolwah have symbiotic relationship with the wildlife in the National Park and respectfully acknowledge that they do not own the land but are in fact sharing the space with the native animals. Everything they build there is to compliment the natural order of the forest, with a huge focus on permaculture, rain collecting and recycling. In order to live, most people have established a 240v/12v solar system, fridge, gas appliances and water pumps to cover the basics. It’s hard to pinpoint any one system that works the best, but after talking to individuals in the community, it’s easy to see that you don’t need much to be happy.
We were lucky enough to get in contact with Ben Adams and Aaron Shanks who both live in the intentional communities of the Goolwah national park in Crescent Head. They walk us through what it takes to set up their homes completely off grid. The following part will be written in question-and-answer format:
What are your best tips for sustainable living?
Aaron: Only have what you need. Keep things simple and efficient. Think with the concept that everything has two uses.
Ben: Growing your own food is the best way to support healthy habits and lower the general cost of living.
How do you make things easier for yourself?
Aaron: Build things that are easy for you, – as in don’t bite off more than you can chew. This simple rule will stop you from getting overwhelmed when it comes to starting your off grid set up, whether that’s building a van or designing a home. Try not to get too caught up in the looks and aesthetics because that will come later. Build things purely for functionality to begin with.
Ben: Definitely asking others for advice. The benefits of living in a community is there are always people with more experience who are willing to help.
How does your toilet and shower work?
Aaron: I have a portable camping gas hot water system from Kickass, solar panels and a 12v water pump. Rain water collects off the roof and into my water tank and when I’m showering the run off falls onto a banana circle. They are very hardy plants that don’t mind dirty water, so if you’re using soap, it's okay, they will still grow. The toilet is a dry composting toilet that’s elevated off the ground and waste is collected into a bin below. By adding carbon or saw dust it helps with odour and you don’t urinate, you save that for the fruit trees or plants that like it. After a while you can reuse waste in the garden as fertiliser.
Ben: I have a very similar set up to Aarons, with a 240v pump and a portable instantaneous gas hot water unit. There are plenty of plug and play options for when you get started that you can set up and start running in 5 mins. The more permanent fixer is an outdoor shower that took me a day to build and still uses the portable system just with a better pump.
What do you do for heat?
Aaron: I have a fireplace and there’s always plenty of firewood around so keeping the place warm is never an issue. I often cook over the campfire as well to save on gas. I just use a few bricks and an old oven grill to sear veggies and on special occasions fish.
Ben: I run a proper gas heater on 240v and since it’s a small space it stays warmer for longer.
What 12v electrical and lights to you have?
Aaron: When I first started, I was using solar camping lanterns, they are the best things ever. Also LED light strips are so energy efficient, you can wire in a dimmer so you can create ambiance. It was just a homemade system hooked up to a 110-amp hour car battery with a 350-watt solar panel. This was already plenty of power just for me, I would charge everything during the day when the sun was at its peak and then at night, I’d only use the lights and run a small camping fridge.
The new system now has four 200-amp hour lead acid batteries in series with 1500-watts of solar power energy. A Victron solar smart controller with a built-in inverter is all I use to connect my 12v and 240v appliances. There is now a few LED round down lights that are really energy efficient that I can leave on without any dramas. I have 410L LG fridge freezer with a smart compressor which runs on 240v. The batteries I picked up second hand from a Telstra recycling place. They are only 7 years old and can last 20 years.
Ben: When I first started I had just the one solar panel and car battery. You could get away with just that for a while but you’d have to be smart about it. Sometimes the lights would go off at night if it was a cloudy day, but you learn to cope in other ways. When your first starting out it’s all you really need, I now have about the same amount of solar power as Aaron and it’s more than enough to run my fridge and lights.
What water pump system do you use for off grid living?
Aaron: I was running a small 12v pump to start with but upgraded to a 240v pump later which pumps water from the water tank outside to my outdoor shower and sink inside. I used food grade drinking hose for everything, but admittedly I haven’t gotten round to installing a filter. When I first started, I was pretty strategic with where I placed my water tank on a hill so gravity did most of the work.
Ben: I have a water tank that is 24,000 litres which is enough for 1-person full time, two people would need more. I used to run a small 12v pump, but now run a 240v pump which helps with water pressure. I also run a washing machine on 240v and hang dry everything.
What gas systems can you run in off grid living?
Aaron: I use two 8.5kg LPG gas bottles, one for hot water and one for cooking. Both last me around 4 months. I have an LG master chef Westinghouse gas stove and oven now but before I was only cooking with a portable camping two burner stove which was honestly fine. I’m not connected to a council facility so no bills!
Can you set all this up yourself?
Aaron: It honestly doesn’t take long to research everything yourself, if you have decent WIFI, you can find literally everything you need on YouTube, there’s sooo much content out there and you’ll find great ideas you would never have thought of that are super easy to do.
Ben: It’s best to build in bits and pieces, to do it all at once you’d need lots of help. I have a carpentry background which helped a lot, but if you are first starting out, you could definitely just live in a tent or out of your car. You could even purchase a pre-made shed for about $500 for a better shelter while you get the rest set up. That would be fine, I wouldn’t do the solar myself, I got an electrician to wire everything up so I’d never have to worry anything going wrong, it’s worth it.
How much did it cost you to go off grid, property, appliances, water, solar and lights?
Aaron: 40K – 50k and that’s with a double garage, workshop, one bedroom, lounge area and balcony all included in the build. I got very lucky with the place as it was already half built, but it still took a few years to get to where I am now. It was honestly so much fun figuring everything out and everyone in the community gave me a hand at one point. It obviously helps that I have a carpentry background and have always been pretty handy but it’s really fun giving things you’ve never done before a go. The best part is that the council rates are extremely low because of the way the commune is divided, so yes you can hear your neighbours having a conversation a few acres away but that’s only because sound travels much further in the bush than in a city.
Ben: Not including the land, the entire set up only cost me around 15k which includes the water tanks which were the most expensive part. Once you start building more of a solid house and running gas, you would need a compliance certificate to show to council but if you didn’t want to do that, a BBQ is more than enough to get by.
What's the next step?
Aaron: I’d like to a have a few more basic living essentials set up so that I can live for free and not be in any debt so I can continue to travel as much as I want to. I don’t mean a TV or anything fancy like that, I just mean a few finishing touches so that I can lock up and hit the road for a few months and forget about anything at home while I’m gone. My neighbours will water the garden and use any food that I grow while I’m away and I do the same for them. It really is a wonderful community.
Ben: It took me a week to build the enclosure and get the soil into my garden. From then, I’ve had plenty of food year-round but I intend on planting a lot more fruit trees. My best advice when getting started is set aside an extra 2 grand and just get really good soil, it’s worth it to get more out of the garden. Planting fruit trees on mounds and having a gutter for water catchment on one side is a great way to grow healthy trees, so there will be a lot more of that happening in the future.
How do you get around?
Aaron: I drive a Troopy with a camper set up in the back. It currently has everything I need to live in it and work out of when I go to random contracting jobs up north. It’s a super simple set up and gets me from A to B, it’s also a great way to meet likeminded people on the road.
Throughout the conversation it was pretty easy to see that with the right attitude, you really can make anything work. Living in nature, amongst kangaroos and koalas sounds like something you’d see in an ad for a weekend away at an Airbnb, but the lifestyle is super cheap and convenient for Ben and Aaron. One could even call it ‘permanent camping’ and for anyone who likes the sound of that idea, they said they’d be happy to answer any questions and would encourage getting in contact. Aaron hosts an extremely popular podcast called @diariesofthewildones and Ben hosts online permaculture lessons, you can see what he gets up to in Crescent Head @benadamstv.
At Outback Equipment, we whole heartedly support anyone that gets around off grid living and DIY projects. They are both extremely wholesome human beings who absolutely froth on the adventurous life style and the great outdoors, so naturally we got along really well. It’s easy to see that what people usually do on the weekends, camping and getting off grid is just a stepping stone to something more sustainable. Even though Ben and Aaron had some pretty simple set ups to begin with, using camping equipment and 12v appliances, they didn’t really see the need to upgrade right away because they enjoyed the lifestyle so much. Over the years, they’ve built bits and pieces, installed bigger and better appliances but reassured me that anyone can start with just the basics and still be just as satisfied and happy with less.
By: Jessica Pritchard