Debbie Cameron was enjoying the good life—wind in her hair, sun in her face, salt spray at her back—when she experienced an epiphany. In hindsight, an epiphany—at the time, it was a good old-fashioned meltdown.
In the spring of 2008, she and her husband Mike were sailing with his relatives off British Columbia’s Gulf Coast. The couple lived full-time on their boat and Debbie enjoyed the freedom.
At home in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, the Camerons owned a beautiful log home they had designed and built themselves. They also had an off-grid, 600-square-foot beachfront cottage on family land overlooking the Northumberland Strait near Pugwash, where Mike worked.
But the emotional cost of maintaining two properties wore thin. Not prone to envy, Debbie was surprised at the intensity of emotion she experienced when considering the confines of the life she had built. “I was overwhelmed,” she recalls. “I thought, something’s got to give.”
“The liberation of letting go of something you held so dear far surpasses the feeling of loss.”
She and Mike discussed options. Despite being half the size of their log home, a kilometre from a serviced highway, and requiring a major change in their lifestyle, the cottage won out. They put their cherished home up for sale, downsized their possessions and joined the ranks of folk who have adopted off-grid living.
“The liberation of letting go of something you held so dear far surpasses the feeling of loss,” says Debbie, who admits their home had been their identity. “A friend said that we have done what a lot of people want to do, but never will be able to do.” She delights in the idea that she is not beholden to a power utility.
People choose off-grid living for two reasons, says Robert MacKean, owner of Nova Sun Power in Pictou, N.S. “Some have a thing for being off-grid,” he says. “They don’t like the utilities and want to live differently. For others, it is necessity or a cost issue because they are too far from utility lines.”
The main source of energy for off-grid living is the sun. Solar panels mounted on a roof or on the ground feed into deep-cycle batteries that store the energy until it is needed. An inverter modifies the current for household use.
The Camerons maintain four deep-cycle batteries charged by solar panels and a small wind turbine. This provides enough power to run a satellite TV, washing machine, refrigerator, deep freeze, water pump and various small appliances. Their main heat source is a wood stove. They use a propane range and hot-water heater and also have a backup RV furnace and a gas-powered generator.
In our climate, you need an alternate energy source. “Most solar installations are backed up by a fossil-fuel generator,” says MacKean, “or some people may use wind turbines as a complement. Solar should be considered as your primary source and then wind as a secondary, along with a generator. It is cheaper per unit of energy and there is no maintenance required with solar. With wind turbines, there are multiple moving parts, so that would require some maintenance over time and use. “
Many people think that living off-grid means giving up modern conveniences. But MacKean has installed solar on everything from a one-room camp to a 3,000-square-foot home.
“Whatever you have in a regular house, you can have in an off-grid house—even air conditioning,” he says. “Solar works best in summer and that’s when you need the cooling.”
For Rob Elias in New Horton, New Brunswick, the choice wasn’t a moral issue, it was necessity. The power lines stopped 1.5 km from his property. He began homesteading on the land seven years ago with a log cabin, one solar panel, one battery and two vehicle fog lights. “I didn’t know anything about solar power until I actually tried to do it,” he says with a laugh.
He has improved on the power structure and home design over time. Now he sources all his electrical needs from solar panels and his heat from wood and propane. He uses a propane stove and a hot-water heater and has in-floor heat using wood-fired hot water.
Annually, for his 1,100-square-foot home, Elias burns about four cords of wood that he cuts himself and spends about $900 for propane and gas. Overall, he estimates the solar panels and batteries would have cost about $10,000 to $15,000, which is equal to the original quote to bring utility power to his home.
“The price of solar has plummeted in the last five years,” notes MacKean. “It’s now a third of what it used to be, largely due to the U.S. dollar being on par, and the demand and production worldwide.”
MacKean actually does not recommend converting to full off-grid living if electricity is financially feasible and available. “I encourage people to install solar panels but remain tied into the power grid.”
With this set-up, batteries are not required, so costs are less. The homeowner generates and uses solar energy as required, but when extra electricity is needed, it is supplied through the grid. The power utility’s distribution system absorbs the surplus solar and applies a credit against the customer’s account. This is called “net metering.” With this arrangement, the homeowner has a steady and reliable supply of energy.
Back along the Pugwash shoreline, Debbie Cameron remains grateful for the epiphany that led her to a better way of living. “For us, it’s about setting an example and becoming more aware about how we live,” she says.