In the far corner of the front yard of a large house in Florida, an RV rests, shaded by trees as clothing on a nearby line sways in the breeze. In this RV, Nat Geo explorer Thomas Henry "T.H." Culhane lives with his wife, Enas Culhane, almost entirely off the grid.
“We want to be that average American icon that says you can do this, but you may have to do it in stages,” he says.
Culhane, a longtime National Geographic explorer, began living off the grid in the late ‘90s, when he snuck into the basement of his apartment building in Los Angeles and pulled the plug that delivered electricity. Even earlier though, he was first inspired by sustainable living during a trip in 1970 to visit his relatives near Mosul, Iraq. He was eight years old and worried that his stay in their small village was going to be miserable because his relatives told him they had no air conditioning or electricity—but they had plenty of fresh pomegranates and apricots from agroforestry orchards and lots of cold drinks to offer him.
“I said, ‘How do you have cold drinks?’ and they said, ‘God provides.” His grandparents, aunts, and uncles pointed toward a nearby mountain that had ice caps. An icy stream flowed down to their village, and in the water sat perfectly chilled bottles of Fanta. “We reached in and froze our hands,” says Culhane. “I was like, this is amazing.”
He met Enas when she was living in an ecovillage in Portugal, one of several that she has lived and worked in throughout her life. Enas says she likes the feeling of being low-impact, of being virtually harmless to the Earth. The couple got married about a year ago on the same property where they currently live, and after residing for a short period of time in the big brick house located there, they moved into their first home together—a smaller RV which they promptly took completely off-grid.
Inside their RV, they use gas created by their on-site biodigesters to cook on a gas-powered stove. They feed the biodigesters using their own food waste, in addition to food waste they collect from nearby restaurants and places of worship, like mosques during Ramadan. They also use energy created by the biodigesters to heat their bath water, which comes from a well on the property, and they keep their RV parked in a shady spot of the yard, to avoid using air conditioning—even during a hot Florida summer.
Living off the grid can present many challenges. The batteries Culhane uses aren’t very big and can be drained with heavy use, which can result in a power loss. In order for the biodigesters to work properly, they need a steady supply of food waste. The cables that are run through the yard from the digesters and the solar panels can be destroyed by something as simple as a lawn mower. After extended periods of travel, when biodigesters and solar panels sit unused, the pipes and cords all have to be reconnected and everything has to be restarted.
But when it works properly, Culhane and Enas have hot showers, a working gas stove, a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a big screen TV—at no additional cost to the earth.
“If you have your druthers, you power all your electrical stuff with solar, you do the cooking on biogas, and you do the water heating on biogas directly, taking that thermal energy from burning the biogas and using it,” Culhane says.
Sometimes on weekends, the RV is turned into a classroom. Culhane and Enas host workshops that are held at Rosebud Continuum, a learning center that they have helped create in the yard nearby which works with community members and students to teach them how to respect and coincide peacefully with the environment
“We bring in groups of people from the high schools, middle schools, colleges, and local communities on a Saturday, and I go through just how you live off-grid,” Culhane says.
Enas says they are essentially living in a laboratory.
“Our house is a lab," she says. "You learn every day and face challenges.”
His goal is to show people how effective and easy it is to live off-grid. He says it takes about a barrel of food waste each day to power a biodigester that would allow a couple of people to live comfortably in a space. While some people have expressed concerns about whether food waste creates a bad smell as it breaks down in the biodigester, the actual odor is almost nonexistent, save for the occasional whiff of methane. Compared with the smell of diesel and propane, the scent of the small amount of methane gas that escapes the biodigester is barely noticeable.
“We're trying to get back to this community empowerment model where somebody in the community knows enough about plumbing and enough about electricity and enough about HVAC that we can take care of the community,” Culhane says. “It isn't rocket science.”
Culhane has worked with communities around the world to put sustainability projects in place. From Cairo to Haiti to Jordan, he has devised plans to help people who don’t have a lot of resources, so that they can access cheap, effective sources of renewable energy to power their homes. He has also worked in places like Ireland and Germany, where local governments are collecting food waste from residents in order to use biodigesters on a municipal level.
Enas says living an off-grid life is getting easier as she and Culhane work on improving the systems that run their home.
“The beauty here is not just living to ourselves,” she says. “It’s also to serve, to do something bigger than us, to tell a story and to share a message. It’s more of an education and to be an example, inspiring people.”
With green cards and work contracts to consider, the couple isn’t sure where they will permanently settle yet. But they hope someday to have a regular house that most Americans would recognize—except it will also be completely off-grid.