Preparing To Live Off Grid: How To Conduct Research and Plan Effectively

The old adage “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is critically important in your journey to living off grid. I’d like to chat a bit about my process and thoughts around this by discussing these four points:

  • Sources
  • Bias Check
  • Value Systems
  • Practical vs Theoretical Knowledge

Sources

To research and plan, you need sources of information. The internet is a massive library, but it can be difficult to vet information validity – anyone can sound like an expert in a subject or even BE an expert in a subject but not be correct about a particular point, or have information which is out of date. The same applies to people you talk to in person and books you read.

So how do you deal with this? Firstly, just like you do with news nowadays, check where the information is coming from. Are they reputable? Are they trustworthy? How long have they been around? What is their relationship to the information? Secondly, vary your sources. Don’t read one or two articles saying the same thing and think you’ve got it down. Keep going – look for government and non-government funded studies in different countries, old books vs new books, people in slightly different professions who approach a subject in different ways, and so on.

Make notes of points you agree with AND points that you don’t, notes of facts you think you’ve learned – things about what to do and what not to do, what works and what doesn’t. You might also want to write down your sources for various bits of info in case you want to revisit it later when you learn something new.

As you progress through this process, you’ll most likely find that the question you started off trying to answer is actually a massive subject with differing opinions and solutions. At this point, you might find that there are other questions that need to be answered and understood before you can actually even begin to tackle to your initial question. Sort of like discovering your initial question is a twig on a giant oak tree – you first need to get to grasps with the trunk, then the branches.

It can get overwhelming pretty quickly. Notes are your saving grace here – you can highlight subjects that you’ll need to come back to for further study at a later stage, and subjects that you’ll need to tackle first before looping back.

There is a danger of getting stuck in this research mode forever. My advise is to keep going until you reach a point where you feel you’ve gathered a wide array of information and you’ve got some solid facts and options written down that you’re feeling fairly confident about.

Bias Check

Ok, you’ve got your notes and you’re feeling fairly educated about the subject, you’ve probably also by now formed some opinions. You might’ve really liked a particular source of information for the way they delivered it, or maybe it just seemed like the solution requiring the least amount of effort or resources to achieve. Most likely you’re completely unaware that you’ve favoured one point of view over another, so now is the time to run a BIAS CHECK.

Take your notes and examine the main facts / points, and research the OPPOSITE of what those conclusions are. If your notes say ‘doing x is bad’, research ‘doing x is good’ and apply the same rigorous source validity checks and variety of sources as you did before. It is incredibly important to perform this step as part of your research – and be honest with yourself about it! Rather be wrong at this stage than during or at the end of the project. Keep making and updating your notes and sources.

Value Systems

Throughout all of this, its important to bear in mind that you have a particular value system that is unique to you, your circumstances and your goals. And the same applies to every person out there providing information. If you keep this in mind, you’ll start to be able to sift through information points more easily.

In most cases, you won’t find a lot of solid ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ points. You’re mostly going to find ‘partly true’ points. Two experts in their field, both of whom have kept up to breast with the changes in their area of expertise and have tons of practical experience, can hold two completely opposite points of view they claim to be ‘THE right way’. In most cases, neither of them is wrong. They are simply coming from different value systems where one outcome or risk or situation or goal or environmental factor is more important to them than another. Being clear about your own value systems will further help you clarify your direction.

Practical vs Theoretical Knowledge

Whose opinion is more valuable: Someone who has practical knowledge (hands on experience) or someone who has theoretical knowledge (has studied the subject extensively)? This question comes up because once you’ve conducted your rigorous research process and settled on a direction, you are bound to encounter a few people who are going to tell you why you’re flat out wrong, since they’ve actually physically done it. What do you do?

For starters, remember to apply the research points above. Is the person a reputable source of information? What biases (bar the obvious) may be coming into play? What are the differences in value systems? As always, its usually a case of ‘partially right’ and you should be able to identify in what ways the circumstances and values result in different conclusions.

That said – anyone with practical experience is a super useful information point for you. Knowing something and doing something are vastly different. They might be able to teach you things that didn’t come up in your research, or help you avoid costly and time consuming mistakes they’ve already encountered. No matter how extensively you research a subject, you will never know everything – always be open to learning new information and applying the same process!

Example

“Should I put plastic sheeting between the timber walls and the insulation of our wendy house?”

I begin by trawling the interwebs. I watch a few YouTube videos of builders installing the plastic sheeting so I can see the different ways its applied. I read a government funded study from Finland about the longevity of timber houses with various applications of vapour barriers vs vapour retardants vs air sealing. I read articles by builders and architectural firms from different parts of the world. I read up on the science and physics behind condensation. And so on and so forth. Turns out, the question I’d started with opens up a far more complex discussion (as always, sigh). I now have way more questions:

  • Should I put plastic sheeting between the timber walls and insulation, or should I put plastic sheeting between the insulation and the inner wall cladding? Or both?
  • Should the plastic sheeting be applied throughout the whole structure, or only be applied to the wall that gets the most warmth in winter, or only on the flooring, or the warmest wall and the flooring?
  • Should I forgo plastic sheeting entirely due to my climate zone and rather opt for a vapour retardant which slows down the transfer of moisture rather than blocking it completely?
  • Can vapour retardants and / or plastic sheeting actually lead to a higher chance of wood rot / mould due to a larger amount of water retention?
  • Is airflow in fact the biggest contributor in the collection of condensation?
  • Should I forgo any / all of the above solutions and focus solely on airflow elimination in the structure?

During my initial research I ran a bias check. I had a look at my notes and saw that I seemed to be leaning towards plastic sheeting. Its cheap, its quick and easy to install, the right thickness would keep out termites – it seemed great. My research had been starting to slant towards confirming this. So I googled ‘don’t use plastic sheeting in a timber house’. You can see from the progression of questions that grew above, how noticing and addressing my bias early on had shifted my area of research into a more useful and beneficial direction.

I come to the conclusion that the last question and its predecessor is where I actually need to move my research area to:

“Is airflow sealing more important than moisture blocking, and is the argument that moisture blocking is irrelevant and harmful / counterproductive to sealing and ensuring longevity of a timber structure true, false or partly true (ie true in some circumstances/applications/areas)”?

I know that ‘partly true’ is the most likely outcome of the investigation, and that will lead to needing to examine whether it is applicable to my set of circumstances (i.e. understanding what those circumstances/applications/areas are and whether they apply to us).

I also need to consider and be aware of value systems coming into play. For example, a builder in Canada and a builder in Miami are going to have a different set of problems they’re focused on solving. Moisture content in the air is higher in Miami – people are far more likely to use an aircon inside the house (circumstance), so the Miami builder would naturally value lowering condensation and hold rot and mould as a much higher risk than the Canadian builder would (value system). Value systems can be obvious or oblique – someone might not mind a solution that requires ongoing maintenance if its cheaper (cost over comfort), or favour a more effective solution over a greener solution (comfort over environment).

Finally, I’ll want to approach people who have timber structures in my particular area and find out what they did and why. If I’m able to, it would be extremely beneficial to see their structures (inside and out) and find out how long they’ve been standing, how they’ve handled winters and summers, etc. I would then be able to apply this practical knowledge to what my research has lead me to believe and see whether it all fits together or whether I need to research a new area.

In Summary

Researching and planning are immense undertakings that probably never end. Always be open to new information and always apply the four checks above: source, bias, value system, practical experience. And when you share information, quantify it for others to more easily understand these four points too.

Good luck!

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