Saturday, January 15, 2011

Off-Grid: When the Power Goes Out

So, what do you do when you arrive at your off-grid property, and you have no water and no power?
  1. Panic
  2. Drink
  3. Book into a hotel
The answer, as one might expect from my family, is none of the above (although #2 seemed rather appealing at the time).  The massive storm systems known as Nor’easters which feature torrential rain coupled with near hurricane strength winds, tore through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick just before Christmas, causing immense damage.  The worst-hit areas were coastal, with New Brunswick bearing the brunt of the flooding.  In our neck of the woods in Cape Breton, the Margaree River burst its banks and there was extensive damage to the bridge and road. 

The Margaree River bridge, from an article in the Cape Breton Post, here:

Here`s a stunning picture of the flooding in St. John, New Brunswick:

A few scenarios ran through my mind during our flight from Toronto to Sydney.  What would we find?
  1. A tree through the roof of the house
  2. A tree through the power house
  3. Massive flooding and water damage
  4. The road washed out and impassable
As we turned into our road, we had to push our way through overhanging branches so heavily laden with snow they touched the ground.  There were a couple of small trees down across the road but nothing that our four wheel drive truck couldn’t push past.  As we drew nearer to the beaver dam area, we slowed right down – but to our amazement, the road was high and dry!  Not only that, but the water level each side of the road was so low you could see the bottom.  When we got out to take a closer look, we saw that the beaver dams had been completely washed away.  Water had blown through with such force it had scoured out the river bottom, heaping up gravel as it went, and busting open the beaver dams in the process.  The culverts which Paul had waded up to his chest in water to clear out, were now two-thirds above the water line.  As we peered over into what was left of the waterway, we realized that most of the gravel from our road was now in the river!
Continuing on up the road, I held my breath as we passed the pond and the barn came into view – no damage.  Then around the curve of the driveway to the house and I could finally let out my breath: no tree through the roof.  The location of the house is such that it's protected on three sides by mountains, and we are high and dry (i.e., we are not in a flood plain).  My worst fears had proved unfounded; so far so good.  The moment of truth would come, however, when we got inside and flicked the light switch: no power.  We then tried the taps: no water.
When you’re off grid with a micro hydro system, no water equals no power.  The storms had washed so much gravel down the mountain, it had plugged the intake.  Even though the intake is fitted with a screen to filter out debris, this was simply not up to the job this time.  Now, when the water stops flowing, it freezes – and when there’s not enough flow, it doesn’t generate enough electricity to power the house.  This was our problem in a nutshell, and Paul had to keep hiking up and down the mountain to clear out the line.
Luckily, we have a back-up generator, but it’s noisy and burns through a lot of gasoline.  If storms of this intensity are going to become the norm, then our system is going to need a bit of a re-design in order to cope. 
Now, there’s one thing you really look forward to after a long cold hike up and down a snow-covered mountain, and that’s a hot shower.  Unfortunately with no water coming out of the tap, I assumed we were out of luck.  Not so fast!  Apparently our brilliant little battery-powered Coleman propane camping shower comes with a pump; all I had to do was gather enough water to fill a plastic storage bin. 
Honestly, I never realized how far away our pond was until I was on my sixth trek uphill carrying two containers half-full of water.  When I say “uphill”, it’s really just the gentle slope of our driveway – but it sure feels like a hill when you’re carrying water.  Finally the bin was full, the Coleman hooked up and presto: a hot shower!  Ah, luxury!
If I had one piece of advice to give people looking at off grid properties, it would be this: make sure your heating and cooking devices don’t rely on electricity.  Even with no running water and no power, we were able to cook meals and make hot tea, as our stove runs on propane.  We didn’t even have to worry about the milk turning sour, as we have a propane fridge!  As well, with a choice of an oil or wood burning stove, we are always guaranteed a source of heat – and we can boil a kettle on those too!* 
Being without power for a while gives you pause for thought.  Maybe the way our grandparents lived wasn’t so backward after all?  They didn’t just plug something in every time they wanted, say, a piece of toast, or a cup of tea.  The old kettle on the fire boils water just as well.  An iron skillet on a wood burning range will fry an egg or cook a steak just as well as the top of the line stainless steel electric hob.  Of course I’m not suggesting we go back to the stone age, but I think it does us good to realize that we can get by with less.  And when the power does come back on, we’re even more grateful for the miracle of electricity!

So, let's review.  What to look for in an off grid property?

1. A year-round source of fresh water within walking distance of the house.
2. Plentiful supply of wood and a wood-burning stove or fireplace.
3. A secondary heat and/or cooking source not reliant on electricity, i.e. oil or propane.
4. The house site is sheltered from the prevailing winds, and high and dry.

Our system is not perfect, but the basics are in place and I think with some judicial tweaking and replacement of some older parts, it will end up working well.  After all, this was a record-breaking storm. 

 *I can just hear someone saying “Ah, but if you had no running water, how did you make tea?” – well, remember my trek uphill carrying containers of water from the pond?  Fresh spring water it may be, but you can’t just drink it like that – we have a hand-held water purifier which easily and quickly turns fresh untreated water into potable water suitable for human consumption.  A kettle-full is produced in only a few minutes – and it’s simple enough for even me to use!