Admit it, you cottagers who are tethered to the electricity grid: as much as you hate paying the utility bill, some of you secretly think cottagers who generate their own power are a bit eccentric, even downright weird.
At worst, perhaps you think they’re apocalypse-any-minute-now preppers who look like Duck Dynasty extras and want to swap recipes for squirrel stew and tips for booby-trapping the property line. At best, they’re quirky tinkerers who go to bed early because both lightbulbs are flickering and they’re exhausted from a day of chopping wood and analyzing battery chemistry.
In fact, almost everything about off-grid power generation is getting more efficient and more reliable—from the solar panels and the battery systems to the appliances that use the power. Maybe it’s time you reconsidered. Here’s why the 2020s will be the decade of off-grid cottaging.
1. Storing electricity is getting easier
The sun may not shine, the wind may not always blow, and even a stream’s flow may drop in late summer, so any off-grid system needs to bank electricity in a battery array—most cottagers will need enough for two or three “days of autonomy” without any power generation.
A typical off-grid cottage battery bank will use lead-acid technology, although lithium-ion technology is rapidly improving. The oldest, and still the most cost-efficient, off-grid battery technology is flooded lead acid (FLA). It’s the same chemistry as in most car and marine batteries.
As FLA batteries charge, a tiny bit of water escapes from the liquid electrolyte in the cells, so you need to add distilled water from time to time to protect the metal plates inside. Until you figure out how often to refill, which varies with usage, check once a month. Topping up a large number of cells is finicky; to save time, single-point watering devices (about $100 and up, depending on the number of batteries) fill them all at once. You also need to clean the terminals and equalize the charge (if cells aren’t equally charged, battery life suffers).
Properly charged and maintained FLA batteries can last about a decade, says Sage Energy’s owner Rob Sedgwick, a renewable energy specialist who installs off-grid systems across Atlantic Canada. On the other hand, he’s seen neglected batteries fail within a couple of years.
Absorbed glass mat (AGM) technology became familiar in car batteries in the 1980s. These batteries also use a lead-acid combo to generate electricity, but they require far less maintenance. AGM and gel batteries, a close cousin, are valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA), meaning the gases produced are recombined inside the battery, so they lose significantly less water. You should do a visual check of the battery terminals for corrosion about twice a year, but that’s about all the maintenance that’s required. The catch? You’ll pay roughly 30 to 50 per cent more for AGM batteries (and even more for gel) than for conventional FLA batteries and you’ll get a lifespan that’s 20 to 30 per cent shorter.
Lithium-based batteries, like the ones in electric cars and some forklifts, hold a lot of promise for off-grid cottagers. “Lithium is the new golden child,” says Brian Douglas, a former board member of the Canadian Solar Industries Association and the VP of sales for HES PV, a solar power system distributor with locations in Victoria, B.C. and Barrie, Ont. Low maintenance and compact, lithium batteries tolerate almost total discharge, so you don’t need as much capacity as you would with other types. You can easily spend up to four times as much as for lead acid, however, and lithium batteries can’t be charged when they’re cold.
That limitation doesn’t stop Andrew Macklin in the winter. He uses a lithium battery at the off-grid cottage he and his family are building in the Kawarthas, a process they share on their YouTube channel, Ontario Lakeside. “You can’t charge a lithium battery when it’s below zero, but you can use it,” he says. “When the battery is warm enough, I flip the cut-off to the solar panels and start charging again,” he says. Some lithium battery types can be housed safely in a living space—his is in a cabinet drawer by the woodstove, where it warms quickly. Lead-acid batteries, which can release gases such as oxygen and hydrogen, must be stored in a well-ventilated area.
While you might pay several thousand for a new lithium battery array, Macklin’s was salvaged from an electric car, a Chevrolet Volt. He got the 4.5 kW battery through a connection on small-cabin.com, an online forum for going off grid. Over time, electric vehicle batteries can’t give the quick burst of power that cars occasionally need (but buildings don’t). These batteries still have about 80 per cent of their original storage capacity and, according to General Motors, another decade or so of useful life. This isn’t some renegade survivalist hack; GM itself is reusing Chevy Volt batteries in a demonstration wind power system at a vehicle testing facility.
“The next battery technology will be really exciting,” says Douglas. “Could be lithium polymer, could be another chemical. We really don’t know, but every year lithium is getting less expensive and safer, with higher capacities. We’re moving in the right direction.”
2. Off-grid land is cheapish
But that may be changing. With easier power generation and more efficient appliances, says Rob MacDonald, more cottage buyers—especially those who like isolation—are open to off-grid places. MacDonald, the CEO of the Canadian National Association of Real Estate Appraisers, says you should be open to water-access if you want off-grid. “It would be rare to have road access and no power lines,” he says. That said, Rob Serediuk, a sales rep for Chestnut Park in Muskoka and Haliburton says he sees plenty of off-grid places with road access.
“If it’s drive-to, it’s probably going to have hydro, at least at the lot line,” says Gwen Price, a realtor with Keystone Real Estate in Sudbury, Ont. But if you’re willing to boat to the cottage, she adds, “the farther you are from the marina, the less chance of power.” Some buyers want to be completely self-sufficient, she says, but most are still looking for on-grid places and a few even “suffer from Kardashian syndrome: they want the best of the best, and off-grid is so far removed from what they’re looking for.”
Buyers like having no utility bills and no dependence on the electrical grid. A 2015 U.S. Department of Energy analysis of 22,000 house sales found that buyers were willing to pay about $4 per watt more for homes with solar panels. Different country, different energy costs, admits Brian Douglas, but he feels that “every dollar that you put into your roof on solar comes back when you sell.”
3. Solar panels are cheaper now and faster to install
Fifteen years ago, you could rough out the installed cost of a grid-tied solar power system at 10 to 12 dollars per watt. That’s come down to about $2.50, says Brian Douglas, thanks largely to increased supply and less expensive solar panels, racking, and inverters. Some labour costs have dropped too, especially as better roof racking systems speed up installation. Micro-inverters that convert DC to alternating current (AC) right at each panel are also simplifying the wiring, according to Douglas. While all electricians learn to work with high-voltage DC, few encounter it often in the real world. Wiring solar panels, previously limited to a small pool of electricians with the equipment and experience to work with high-voltage DC, is now easier for any knowledgeable electrician.
Does that mean the electrical work on a multi-panel cottage system is within a DIYer’s capability? Probably not, says Douglas. Small 12V setups to run a couple of lights or plug-and-play kits made for RVs can be DIY-friendly, but installing a complex, multi-panel power generation system requires more know-how than most DIYers have. And, he warns, if you try to get by without a permit and inspection or don’t use a licensed electrician, you may have problems later with insurance. “We work with reputable installers that are going to do it right and not catch a house on fire,” he says, wryly.
Even with the drop in panel prices, off-grid systems overall still cost about the same, says Rob Sedgwick. In part, that’s because the cost of other equipment (charge controller, inverter, and batteries) has not dropped to the same extent. Regulators are more aware of these systems now too, and require more safety equipment. He suggests a budget for an off-grid system of between $5 and $10 per watt. At the low end, you’ll likely do more battery maintenance, find used batteries online, and reduce your days of autonomy. You could even draw down more power from your lead-acid batteries, reducing the number you need but shortening their lifespan. There are lots of choices you can make.
4. Tiny self-contained systems bring a little light almost anywhere
Even if the cottage is on the grid, the bunkie or the woodshed need not be. Instead of trying to lay underground wire and conduit from the cottage through the thin soil of the Canadian Shield, consider a small self-contained light system. For $190, Biolite’s plug-and-play SolarHome 620 gives you a 6W solar panel plus three lights (one with a motion detector) and a control box, with another light, that can charge your phone and play your tunes. On a full day’s charge, you can power all the lights on medium brightness for about seven hours.
5. Appliances are getting more efficient
“Fridges used to consume three to four kilowatt hours a day,” says Brian Douglas. “Now, they’re down to one to two kilowatt hours.” Some, such as Unique Appliances 13 cu. ft. DC fridge-freezer, use even less: about 0.6 kWh per day. Douglas—and this is the guy who sells off-grid power systems—advises cottagers who think they need to upsize their system that “buying a new fridge makes more sense than adding two or three more panels and more battery.”
6. For some, there’s an even better alternative than solar
First the bad news. Even in Atlantic Canada, where wind resources are good, small-scale wind power is rarely an attractive option for cottagers. Rob Sedgwick has installed or serviced more than 100 off-grid power systems in the region. While he does repair existing wind systems, the demand for new turbine installations, he says, is very low.
The efficiencies of the large wind turbines that produce power for the grid don’t scale down easily to cottage size. No matter how small the turbine, to catch enough steady wind, it should sit high off the ground on a strong support structure that’s taller than surrounding trees—making the tower a serious engineering effort and something most cottagers don’t want to look at. “By the time you put in the infrastructure, the economics are through the floor,” Sedgwick says. With little demand for wind micro-generation comes a very limited supply of small turbines. Most now are imported from the U.S. or the U.K. He says Canadian manufacturers have come and gone, leaving “a lot of orphans out in the field, and then people are stuck with products that can’t be serviced.”
Micro-hydro, on the other hand, can be very economical. A small turbine set in a stream on your property will generate power 24 hours a day, so you don’t need a large battery bank for evening power use or any days of autonomy. Even if the stream’s flow changes seasonally, solar and micro-hydro in a hybrid system complement each other. The stream probably flows abundantly in spring and fall; the sun is strongest in summer. The biggest hurdle? You do need a stream, which only a few lucky cottagers have.
7. You don’t need to live like an ascetic
Gord Potter’s cottage is at the end of a long driveway—and beyond the power lines—on Billings Lake, south of Haliburton, Ont. He doesn’t say so, but he seems to enjoy busting myths about off-grid cottaging. First, he’s not just there during the long, sunny days of summer. “I’m up here for a couple of days a week, 50 weeks of the year. The only time I’m not here is if I’m travelling for work,” he says. He’s not into tiny house living. For a four-season cottage of 1,300 sq. ft., with “all the features of a home,” he needed eight 250W solar panels (the most his south-facing roof could fit). And although he’s in the habit of turning off lights, he says, he’s not frugal. “I don’t make the house cold to save energy. I listen to music. I use hot water when I need it. I don’t change my lifestyle to the point that it’s no longer comfortable.”
He’s also not interested in micro-managing his system. If the image of the alternative-energy cottager is an engineering nerd who loves watching electrical meters and testing battery banks, he’s the opposite. “I love cutting wood, taking care of things. I don’t want to play with an electrical system.” He doesn’t have to. The inverter charger monitors the panel’s electrical output, the battery bank’s charge, and the cottage’s electrical draw, balancing supply and demand 24-7. If the sun’s not shining and the batteries get low (“after about two days,” he says), the propane generator starts up automatically to recharge them.
His off-grid, site-generated electricity, he says, is actually more reliable than the power his neighbours get from the grid. “Every couple of weeks, I watch the entire lake go dark. I’ve got friends across the lake, and they see my cottage lit up in winter. Sure enough, they’ll knock on my door: ‘Hey, Gord, our power’s out and it’s cold. Let us in.’ ”
8. But you may enjoy living more like an ascetic
Last year, Marie Kondo’s popularity (and the backlash against her) made it clear just how anxious we feel about consumerism. Her approach to clutter draws heavily on the spiritual practices she learned working in a Shinto shrine. The Eastern Orthodox Church also addresses over-consumption, counselling enkrateia, or self-control, in using resources. Bartholomew I, the church’s leader and a prominent environmentalist, writes, “Consuming the fruits of the earth in an unrestrained manner, we become consumed ourselves by avarice and greed. Excessive consumption leaves us emptied, out-of-touch with our deepest self.” The antidote is a modern asceticism, “not a flight from society and the world but a communal attitude of mind and a way of life that leads to the respectful use, not abuse, of material goods.” Not the isolationism of a prepper planning to survive without society, but the mindful consumption of, say, an off-grid cottager.
Pulling yourself off the grid is part of a long theological tradition, says Robyn Boeré, a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s School of Theology. She has also worked as a carpenter building high-efficiency net zero homes. Being off grid, she says, “makes you really aware of how much you consume. It’s a lot easier to moderate your consumption if you are constantly reminded that you’re using energy.” Even for those who are off grid on weekends only, the experience can “call them to better behaviour when they’re in the city with everyone else.”
Cottagers often have an innate sense that connecting with nature can mitigate what’s wrong with how we live. Living off grid, she says, is “being witness to what people have believed to be true: that it’s a shared creation, and we are most human when we’re most in touch with nature.”