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.