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What It's Like Living off the Grid

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Rotating blackouts are a great thing. No, not for everyone, of course. While some of us can draw mild relief from a mandated break from our PlayStation, the truly happy Canadians during a blackout are off-gridders. It is on those discomforting (for the rest of us) blackout days that the power emitted by their Schadenfreude-filled laughter is strong enough to power up --i f their rubbing it in could be harnessed -- a whole city block.

Living off the grid means many things these days. Some say they're "off the grid" if they go camping and leave their mobile phone at home for a weekend. Others think being off the grid is living like hermits and runaways, stuck somewhere in between a bush and a hard place. Like the Canadian government we think that off-grid means being disconnected from electricity. Electricity, after all, is the mother of all grids.

As to why people do that, well, we're taking two years to find out. Seven provinces, 70 different off-grid sites, and 131 interviews into it, and we're still catalouging the endless diversity of the lifestyle in our attempt to understand what off-grid everyday comfort and convenience are all about.

But besides their being unaffected by blackouts, one thing about off-grid living is as clear as a 100-Watt light bulb: it is not bad at all. Even on days when utility companies are making our lives comfortable and convenient off-gridders say their disconnected life is as enjoyable as a day at the cottage.

The secret to off-grid comfort? Allow me to introduce you to an Ontario couple. Besides basic reduction in their overall consumption, Murray and Nan's secret to reducing dependence on large amounts of electricity is twofold. Take interior lighting for example. First, they say, light must be cast only where needed and not wasted elsewhere.

Their portable and adjustable "Air Canada" tabletop lights--that's the nickname they have given their 3 ½ watt LED lights -- work just like the reading lights found on Boeing and Airbus cabins. The spread of their luminosity is limited, but their rays are perfect for reading if aimed directly where needed. Their second secret is to utilize DC lighting instead of its AC counterpart. Nan and Murray have both AC and DC lights, but the former have been a significant source of trouble for them and are being gradually phased out from their house. The DC LEDs are much more efficient.

Nan and Murray are off the grid for environmental reasons. While they recognize that off-grid living is not a solution to global energy security, they believe that relative self-sufficiency and reduced reliance on the non-renewable resources fired up by many utilities across Canada can teach a lot about conservation.

Their philosophy also goes a long way toward explaining their thrifty use of their backup propane generator. "The game is to use it as little as possible," says Murray with a mischievous smile, "some years we manage to never turn it on at all." That is one impressive feat with a 1 meager KW solar system.

A wide and unusual menu of tactics is employed to pull this off. For instance, there are no curtains in their cozy, 900 square foot cabin-style home. Curtains block light from entering the house, and they're useless in their privacy-rich, virtually neighbour-free 400 acre property.

Their water pump -- generally a potential energy sucker -- is manually-operated. And use of "frivolous" technologies, like television, is drastically curtailed. In fact Murray has gotten into a unique "compromise with the devil" every time he is the mood to watch Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. His self-admitted waste of electricity is punctually compensated by a long ride on his stationary bike, which is rigged up to work as a grain grinder.

And not that I really think I must mention this, but instead of a rotating blackout a sunny day simply brings power for them, a lot of power.

To the casual observer the off-grid lifestyle would seem to be full of unbearable discomforts. Compared to the connected condition typical of the contemporary western home, living without access to providers of power would seem tantamount to Spartan or Luddite asceticism at best, or foolhardy masochism at worst. Yet, off-gridders do not reject the value of comfort. Indeed they enjoy it fully.

There may be a few adjustments required or some inconveniences to embrace, but as it turns out, surprisingly there is nothing inherently uncomfortable about living off-grid.

Comfort, historian John Crowley writes, took on its modern meaning of sensual satisfaction with commercial "domestic enhancements that provided more privacy, cleanliness, warmth, and light" only in recent times.

Previously, the idea of comfort stood for moral and emotional assistance. It was only after efforts to legitimize the hedonistic spirit of the popular consumption of domestic goods took hold that modern ideas of comfort eliminated moralistic distinctions between necessity and luxury. Comfort was thus progressively normalized and increasingly intended as a right.

Which explains why we now become so upset when utility companies switch us off during a rotating blackout -- like spoiled children who cry when their parents tell them they can't have chocolate pudding every night.

Though it explains much less how we have come to expect and depend so deeply on something we know very little about, and something we personally do nothing to procure.

The key to off-grid comfort, on the other hand, simply resides in off-gridders' capacity to generate power and create comfort on their own terms, independently from the utility providers designed to baby-feed the rest of us. I suppose it's easier to be content with dim lighting when you're the sunshine of your life.