The Cost of Going Off Grid in Hawaii: 10 Things to Consider


Tropical Home in the Jungle at Sunset

Hawai’i is a paradise for going Off-Grid.  More and more people are making the move. With ample sunshine, rainfall and year-round growing seasons, living is easy in the Aloha State.  With that easy living comes a high cost of living, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Going Off-grid can actually be quite affordable.

How much does it cost to go off-grid in Hawai’i?  Besides what it costs to get you to the islands in the first place, once you are here, the cost to go off-grid starts at $10k and goes up from there.


Most people don’t believe me when I say it’s possible to go off-grid for as little as $10k.  If you are willing to keep your expenses low, purchase a modest property and keep things simple, you can definitely get there for only $10k.  However, if you’re like most people, you will probably want to upgrade along the way.

The chart below gives you a range of costs that you will likely encounter, then read on below to see how it all comes together.

 LOWAverage
Land/Property$6000$40,000
Clearing$1000$10,000
Cinder$800$2000
Fencing$1500$10,000
Initial Dwelling$4000$25,000
Solar Power$100$10,000
Water Systems$4000$12,000
Waste Systems$100$6000
Gardens$200$3000
TOTAL$17,700$118,000


1. Is It Legal to Go Off-Grid in Hawaii?

This is kind of a funny question for many of us that live on Hawai’i Island (ie. Big Island).  A large majority of people that live here have no other choice. Off-Grid living is necessary for many parts of Hawai’i simply due to the lack of infrastructure.  In the country, many live off-grid.  In the cities, most everyone is connected to the grid.  Legally you do need building permits, but you can get away with “Farm Housing”  in some areas.

If you are already tied to the grid, there may be some legal hurdles to jump through in order for you to cut the cord to your power or water company.  For new builds outside of the cities, harvesting water or installing off-grid solar systems are perfectly acceptable and in fact, considered normal.

2. Consider the Price of the Off-Grid Property

How much is the property you are looking for?  It is important to stay within your budget. If you have $10k, don’t put it all down on a $10k piece of land that needs improvements or else you’ll never get to do anything with it until you are able to save up more cash.  Most people never get there.

Buy within your means and have enough left over to make it livable, even if that means just living in a van or tent.  You need enough money to at least get you to that point.

Most people looking to go off-grid have a tight budget that they are working with and that automatically brings them to the Big Island of Hawai’i, specifically the Puna District.  This is where land is most affordable.

Lots can still be found for $6k in certain areas.  But you get what you pay for. Rocky land, far from amenities or maybe it’s a place with not so desirable neighbors.  It is VERY important to do your homework when you are searching.

There are also many properties that are already off-grid and on sale.  Many of them, due to being unpermitted, require full cash payment or working out an owner finance deal if you are looking for something more ready made, but that requires more cash upfront.

Buyer beware, I have seen many people over inflate the price of these properties from what they would be if you just did it all yourself.

*Another thing to consider besides price is the historical aspect of the land.  Hawai’i has a troubled history with America with many local people aware of the fact that the islands were stolen from them by wealthy American businessmen and missionaries.

If you are haole, or foreign to Hawai’i, remember, you are the guest.  Respect local culture and traditions and you will be respected back.

3. Does the Land Need Clearing?

Hawai’i has a tropical climate, leading to the growth of many tropical forests around the island.  Some areas are naturally open and don’t have much in the way of tree cover and these areas allow for easier homebuilding.

For the rest of us, you will probably have to clear some space on your new property so that you can begin building your off-grid homestead.

The lowest cost method is to pick up some gardening tools, chainsaws, pruners, you name it and start clearing the forest, but this is not easy and most times leaves you with a very uneven surface on your land due to the nature of lava flows.

Most people choose to have their lots cleared by a bulldozer.  The dozer typically comes in, clears the vegetation and rips up the lava rock below to make it more even.  This can cost anywhere from $4-$10k per quarter acre, depending on how busy the dozer operators are at the time of your request.

You can get them to do it for less though.  I stopped a dozer operater one day who was clearing my neighbor’s lot and asked if he could do a quick pass on mine for $1500.  No need to pay for the tractor delivery and I made it super simple on him by saying there was no need to rip my lot, since it was super flat already.

I started off clearing that lot by hand, but paying the $1500 was well worth it.  He did in an hour what would’ve taken me 2 weeks, plus any small rises in the landscape were knocked down to allow for easier mowing as the grass filled in.

After clearing my lot, I had 2 loads of red cinder dropped and spread on the quarter-acre property to smooth it all out even more.  This cost about $800. This gave me a nice area to build and filled in what was a muddy driveway.


4. Fencing Can Eliminate So Many Problems for the Off-Grid Homestead.

I’ll be the first to say that I hate fencing, but I am really thankful I have one.  It is an added expense, but I do not have to deal with any predator problems or unwanted visits from destructive pigs.  Plus, it deters theft, which can be a problem here in Hawai’i.

A fence, by all means, is not necessary.  You may just want to fence off a small garden area instead of your whole property.  That works. Especially with larger properties where vegetation acts as a fence for most of the land.

On smaller properties though, I would consider adding a fence at some point.  My whole property is fenced and I never have pig or predator problems. I also have the added security in feeling that there is one way in and one way out, deterring would-be criminals from entering my property.

If your property is on lava rock, a fence may take a jack hammer to make all of the post holes.  Because of this, most fence installers start somewhere around $10k for a ¼ acre of chainlink fence.  If you have soil, the cost would be less.

I made my own holes and installed agricultural fencing for $1500.  Obviously a way better deal.

5. Start Simple.  Live Onsite While Building

The best way to get off grid is to move onto your land as quickly as possible.  Put up a tent or better yet, buy a car that you can sleep in. That way you have transportation and a place to sleep at night.

Whatever way you have to do it, move onto your land while building.  You will save yourself the money that you have been paying on rent. Now that money is freed up to add to your construction budget.

Living on your land while building also protects your construction materials from theft.  I have heard many stories of huge piles of lumber missing when you arrive back on the jobsite the next day.  Once I even heard of thieves welding through a shipping container to get at all the valuable equipment inside.

When I first got started, I moved my VW Vanagon onto the property and quickly built a shed to store all of my tools.  From there I was able to slowly build while living onsite.

6.  Affordable Construction Methods for Hawaii

In order to affordably build your house, it’s important to have a design and plan ready to go.  Design your home so that it can be built in stages and have a clear plan for how you will get there.

I built my first place as a 14’x20’ cabin that I have since added 2 rooms onto.  I regret not having it planned out a little better from the get go as my house is now a little bit funky in how it’s laid out.  Good planning can give you a smooth flowing home.

The easiest way to build is with conventional lumber.  It is fast and most people have the knowledge to do it already. My 14’x20’ cabin cost me $8k to build, whereas I just built another home for my mom in 2019 that was 20’x40’ that would’ve cost $20k if I was allowed to keep it simple, but my mom got in the way of that by adding all sorts of expenses onto it.

Roofing was one of the biggest expenses of the project.  We use metal roofing because it is the best for harvesting rainwater and lasts a really long time.  We ordered ours from HPM, but if you had your planning down, you could pick up offcuts from HPM for up to 50% off the normal price.  Always ask for off cuts.

Alternative to conventional lumber would be bamboo, aircrete, cordwood, or roundwood poles and thatch.  Each of these methods have their pluses and minuses. Minuses mainly being lack of local know how to accomplish these projects and the time it takes for those who are experienced.

My favorite is bamboo since it can be grown locally and is a regenerative building material.  Bamboo is used in tropical countries throughout the world, but unfortunately, our building codes do not allow for it.  Contrary to popular belief, if treated and built with proper design, bamboo can last a long time and can create some really beautiful structures.

Aircrete and cordwood both take concrete, one of the world’s most widely used and most destructive of building materials.  These dwellings can last a long time and can justify the use of concrete, but I for one would rather have my dwelling go back to nature as opposed to imposing it on the landscape for generations.

Other options include converting shipping containers, but they really don’t do too well in our hot and humid climates.  Some people are building tiny homes, but there really isn’t too much of a need for a house on wheels like there may be in a more higher cost of living area where the tenancy is shakey at best.

7.  Harvesting Your Own Water in Hawaii

Not all places in Hawai’i have ample rainfall, but if you live on the wet side of any island, harvesting water is really easy.  A large percentage of homes on the wet side of the Hawaiian islands are on water catchment.

According to code, you need at least a 10k gallon cistern to be legal.  This is so there is enough water for the fire department in the event of an emergency.  However, it is not necessary at all.

I have a 3k gallon tank that has never gone dry.  We are a family of four and we love taking long showers or playing in the hose on a hot and sunny day.  That goes to show how much it rains out here.

One can expect to pay $3k per gallon of water catchment, then you have your plumbing, pump, pressure tank and hot water heater which all comes in at another $1000.  If you want to add a filter system to make it drinkable, expect to pay another $1000.

8.  Harvest that Warm Tropical Sun

Ahh Sunshine.  It warms our lives everyday for free.  Why not harvest some of it to produce some energy for you as well?

Plugging into the grid from a vacant lot starts at $3000.  Then there is the monthly power bill, with Hawaii having some of the highest in the nation. Not to mention all of the power outages that occur.

For $3000 you could easily create a small solar system that could get you started with providing power for your home.  With a back up generator, this system could power almost anything with some basic efficiency hacks.

I started off with a small system that had 4 solar panels, 4 batteries that required monthly maintenance, a charge controller and 1500 watt inverter.  It costs me less than $3k and I was able to power a solar chest fridge and washing machine with that system.

I needed to run the generator more often than I cared for, but I was providing my own power needs.

Since then I have upgraded to include more solar panels and better batteries (and more of them).  I have an upright fridge, which is SO much better than a chest fridge. I can run the laundry without running the generator.  I only have to use the generator after 3 or 4 cloudy days. Overall it coast me $4k, slowly added to over time.

For the price of the initial cost and replacement of solar equipment, I have computed my power bill to average around $60 a month, which is half that of the average local grid supplied electricity bill here in Hawai’i.

9.  Dealing With Your Waste

One of the most important questions for the homestead, but often underestimated.  Legally, all homes in Hawai’i now need to install a septic system onto their property, costing close to $10k.

But this is why sustainability should be legalized. Utilizing Compost toilets for human waste and greywater for waste water is much more cost effective and proven to be more environmentally friendly.

In some parts of the country, commercially made compost toilets are permitted and Hawai’i is starting to catch on to that.  You can also create your own humane waste or “humanure” compost system with a simple 5 gallon bucket. This method has been proven to work.

Not only does it deal with your waste, it creates a value added product in the form of nutritious soil once it has all been broken down.

My compost toilet cost me only $40 to make but returns probably $500 in soil product to the garden every year.

Wastewater is another common issue that gets resolved with septic systems.  Just pipe it all into the septic and be gone with it. Except it never really gets a proper chance to break down so that it can responsibly be released back into the environment.

I used to install greywater systems professionally in CA and have seen how well they work.  By leading water from the sink or tub through a pipe to a mulch basin in the garden, you find a simple low cost way to dispose of waste water, treat and filter it naturally and water your garden at the same time.

These systems work well in Hawai’i and only cost about $100 to set up for the most basic system.

10. Create a Garden that Will Feed You.

For some reason this is getting mentioned last, but should be by no means put to last on the to do list.

As long as you have your plan in place for construction and you allocate enough room to get your work done on your home, you can begin planting a garden that can feed you.  I like to start off with Nitrogen Fixing trees and Fruit Trees right away.

Nitrogen Fixing trees grow quick and provide much needed shade and fertility for young fruit trees.  At the same time plant your fruit trees. Do this when you first clear or move onto your land, before you do any building.

This way you get a one or two year growth period while you are building.  You’ll be so thankful in the end, it only takes a day or two of work for a small property.  As you go on you can begin to bring in more soil, compost, mulch and form some raised beds as an understory to your fruit trees.

I like to start with Kalo, Sweet Potato, some perennial greens such as Okinawa spinach, cassava, banana, and papaya as they can all begin producing within the first year and are super easy to grow while you’re focused on building.

When you’re done with building, that’s when you can start with more traditional veggie gardens or include animals onto the homestead.

Budget about $1000 per half-acre for this portion of your garden and then scale up from here.  It can be done for less if you’re more frugal, we probably spent $200 and have 20+ fruit trees on half an acre with other layers of food producing crops mixed in.

So What’s Stopping You From Going Off-Grid?

Fear.  Uncertainty.  Doubt. That is what is stopping you.  If you are ready for a change, yearning to get free from the rat race and escape the trappings of modern society, then you should wait no longer.

Eliminate your debt, save a small portion of your income to start you off and begin a new life!  The new you will thank you for it.

 

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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