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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off the grid: With the right lingo, anything is possible

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

One of my favorite marital bonding pastimes is discounting an idea of my husband’s, then passing it off as my own. I tell him it is for social justice.

Designing a new home together provides ample opportunity for this. After he suggested all my floor-to-ceiling windows and 48-inch Viking range might not be in the budget, I retaliated by questioning his own priorities of efficiency and low environmental impact.

“If geothermal is such a good idea, Charlie, why aren’t all homes heated that way?” I asked.

Turns out, they ought to be. But if I have to choose between parquet flooring and saving the planet, sometimes I get a little confused about my values.

“Anyway, I love chopping wood,” I argue in nostalgic devotion to doing things the hard way.

There was a time when I had to source all that wood, but now it just appears in a pile in the backyard after my husband has been missing for a day or two. I chop a little to feel good about myself, then I remember there was some leftover quiche in the fridge I should probably eat.

I secretly ordered a book about geothermal systems and started reading it after he went to work in the mornings. Then, I strategically placed random, smart statements about geothermal technology and benefits into conversations. The trick here is to use industry terminology with the ease of a “Star Trek” fan explaining how beaming works. With the right words, one can make anything sound plausible.

As far as I can tell from the drawings, if you have a pipe that is long enough, buried in the ground deep enough, the water gets hot or cold enough. There is a diagram where the red line turns gradually into a blue line, which makes sense. I’m not sure what spells have to be cast over the pipe to make it work. I haven’t reached that chapter yet.

It’s not different from when I try to explain how our solar power system works. Sun from up there comes down here, bounces off my panels, and then some watts and amps and volts get stored in these boxes until I need some of them to run my coffee mill.

Now that we are building again, the common question is, “Are you tired of the hardship of an off-grid life?” The assumption being we’re going to plug in and coast our way to retirement. Maybe even own a television.

I grew up off-grid by a combination of naivety and necessity. It was hard, mostly because we were poor and YouTube didn’t exist.

We started with a Coleman lantern, upgraded to a car battery, and hauled our water to the house in 5-gallon jugs. We carried the empty ones down a snow-filled creek canyon where a big plastic cup was stashed, then froze our fingers dipping it and filling them cup by cup. My dad would carry the full jugs back to the house. We could barely lift one, but he ran up the hill with two and made it look so easy.

Our car was parked 2 miles away much of the winter and spring. When we finally installed plumbing, it always froze. We drove with gas tanks in the car for our generator. The generator caught fire once and nearly burned the mountain down.

Now, off-grid life is not a necessity, but a fervent desire for sustainability and connection to the resources that support our life. It is also not an inordinate amount of work. We plow our road and equalize the batteries. We tend to our land and I pretend to grow food. We’re sensitive to the changes in seasons, to how the earth provides for us in different ways. And we’re sensitive to how much power we use and trash we create because we have to make it or haul it away, respectively.

I don’t know if that is a hardship or simply a sense of responsibility. Or the only way I’ll ever truly learn the science of electricity or thermodynamics.

We’ll build our new house to be as off-grid as we can reasonably be, although all the amenities of our remarkable civilization are readily available. It is not a lifestyle of rejection of “the system” or a dedication to difficult living. It is one tiny step we can take to impact the environment a little less.

Which is exactly what I am explaining to my husband as I pitch the possibility of installing a geothermal system, as though we can piously, righteously explain to people that we’ve taken this Good Samaritan approach to heating our new home. And they will be humbled and wonder how they, too, can single-handedly save the planet.

He pauses, probably to consider how proud of me and my green moral compass he is, and says, “You know, the most environmentally friendly thing to do is not build a new house.”

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at