||June 2012 issue
Life off the grid
An ethnographer and videographer meet the people whose homes produce all the energy they need
By Phillip Vannini
Lasqueti Island, British Columbia from InnovativeEthnographies on Vimeo.
What happens when you apply heat and cold to
a Peltier junction?” Don quizzes Jonathan and me.
“Come on, guys. Haven’t you ever heard of a
I bombed at high school physics. I underachieved even more
at shop. I recall my teacher pleading with my parents to keep
me away from any job that would require me to use my hands.
“Well, you get electricity!” Don answers his own question,
emphasizing the simplicity of it all.
“I did well in social studies,” I reply to save face.
“I concentrated on the visual arts,” adds Jonathan.
In fact, in a roundabout way, that’s how we ended up here
today in rural Alberta: not to practise
off-grid living but to document it
through our ethnographic work.
Perhaps by later next year, after we
have journeyed to every province and
territory to learn why and how people
live untethered to the electrical grid,
Jonathan and I will have acquired
enough confidence and skills to pull
it off ourselves. For now, we are
a long way away.
Don is unimpressed by our
answers, but he confidently soldiers
on to explain how a simple (sort of)
physics principle — a Peltier junction,
wood heat and a self-assembled geothermal
cold-water pump — might
eventually allow Don and partner
Maxine to generate electricity to supplement
their windmill and photovoltaic
system. And that should enable
them to put a dent in their monthly use of eight litres of fuel for
their backup Honda generator.
Don reminds me of a shop teacher, probably because he once
was one. Both former teachers, Don and Maxine live off the grid
in the Peace Region of Alberta, 65 kilometres from the nearest
corner store. They used to camp here during summers, on a double
quarter-section property that provided them with self-dug
pond water for washing and beetle-killed pine wood for heating.
Wilderness camping trained them for the lifestyle that would
await them after retirement. That’s when, at the stage when most
people look to settle into a life of ease, Don and Maxine moved
into the bush and signed up for a lot more work.
But it’s not a lot of work, they tell us, and they don’t sacrifice
on comforts. That’s the line Jonathan and I have come to expect
when meeting off-gridders. Interestingly, however, Don and Maxine began by building a shop first and filling it with tools.
Without spending one nickel on labour, they cleared the land
and designed and built a passive solar-smart 140-square-metre
home. A methodically computed Excel spreadsheet allowed
them to estimate precise age of retirement and daily needs,
down to the penny and watt.
From a series of basic try-this-at-home experiments —
the kind I never failed because I was too scared to even try
— they learned the techniques to conserve and generate
heat and electricity.
Their most ingenious creation was a collection of 24,000 litres
of water sealed in containers and stacked in the crawl space in
motley piles of different shapes and
sizes. The water is heated during
winter by a wood stove and during
autumn and spring by warm air
fanned down from the solar collector
by the blower from their old Datsun’s
car heater. The water absorbs and radiates
heat, reducing the need to burn
additional wood and stabilizing the
The kicker is that all the containers,
formerly used for soap, wax, laundry
detergent and soy sauce, were patiently
scavenged from schools, restaurants,
hotels and recycling depots.
Self-sufficiency, says Maxine, is the
main goal and challenge here.
Somehow, I lost that challenge
a long time ago. And I am not alone.
An entire generation of sad-sack shop
students like me has grown up learning
that gaping holes in basic DIY skills are no big deal. That’s
because corporate utilities are there to warm up our energy-inefficient
houses with rapidly vanishing natural resources and to
connect us to vast infrastructures designed, built and exploited
by ostensibly benevolent providers keen on making a buck off
our klutzy, spoiled selves.
“We just wanted to prove we could do it,” reflects the retired
shop teacher. This time, I take careful notes.
Phillip Vannini is a professor in the School of Communication and
Culture and a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and
Public Ethnography at Royal Roads University in Victoria.