Well, we’re not entirely without electricity at the cabin. We do have some electrical function through batteries. But we’re still off the grid which means we have a mere fraction of the electrical output that most people use on a regular basis when connected to major electrical companies. And it certainly has its challenges. But we consider it an important challenge. If we’re going to live the Tiny Life, we’ve got to be onboard with living more intentionally.
I think some urbanites feel that living without utilities somehow crosses a line into primitive living but new alternative energies have improved so much in so short a time that being hooked up and paying exorbitant amounts of money to a big corporation for electricity is starting to feel like the unenlightened path.
We are at the beginning of our journey – just over one year in. We still have several years of upgrades before living out at the cabin full-time is an option. By the time we are ready for really big upgrades, the off-grid technology will be even better, cheaper and easier to use.
If I make a quick list in my head of the major things we need electricity for in order to live comfortably at the cabin, it would look like this:
- hot water
- tech (we are living in a digital age now)
Everything else is superfluous in the Tiny Life. If you think of something, please let me know.
While our system isn’t perfect or complete yet, we have installed and adopted a few simple yet sustainable ways of living without electricity. Now, our cabin feels a bit more like a cottage and a bit less of a quaint shack.
Light was one of the first things we worked on because it was the easiest. Not only did our tiny cabin come equipped with a basic 12V battery set-up but solar energy has come a long way in powering simple lights. The marine battery that came with the cabin was dead so we opted to buy a deep-cycle battery. These batteries are meant to be run down to empty and then charged up again. We installed it in the spring and it hasn’t run out yet. This runs the equivalent of one 60W light in the main room and one 60W light in the kitchen. Of course, these lights aren’t on all the time because we spend so much time outside and during the day, there is enough natural light in the cabin to function. As the days become shorter, this light becomes really important.
But often, we really don’t need that much light. If we are just grabbing a glass of water or looking for insect repellant, we don’t need to turn the main lights on. I know in the city house, we turn the main lights on for everything. But really, what a waste! For these times, we have a variety of different lighting options. These include a solar light over the kitchen door, a solar hanging light in each of the bedrooms, strings of solar fairy lights, Luci lights, battery tea lights (especially in the privy), battery-operated LED lights, and good old-fashioned candles. These smaller lights can be quite effective and they add to the ambience of cabin life. We didn’t buy a retreat in the woods to feel like we were living in the city.
We haven’t winterized the cabin yet so heat is only an issue in the spring and fall. For this, we have the cookstove. The cookstove is not the most efficient use of wood because the firebox isn’t very big and it wasn’t designed to heat a space for a long period of time; it was designed to cook food and heat water. However, in the mornings and evenings, when the temperature drops, it does a fine job of taking the dampness out of the cool air after only a short time burning. In the colder temperatures, it can take a while to heat a space but once the space is heated, it doesn’t take much to maintain it.
If you’ve never heated with wood before, you may not realize that wood is a very effective way of heating a smaller space. Our main room is only 100 sq feet and so even the cookstove can raise the temperature in the cabin to well over 20°C if it’s been going for a few hours. In the late spring or early fall, sometimes it feels cold enough to light the stove but once the stove gets going, we usually end up opening the windows and doors to let out some of the heat.
This spring, my brother found us a really small, gently-used wood stove that we are planning to install into the big bedroom (that has not been finished yet) to heat more efficiently in the winter. When the wall is taken out and two bedrooms become one, after everything has been insulated and finished, the stove will be able to heat the cabin for longer periods of time with less wood. This is essential for overnight. As it is right now, the cookstove dies out within 20 minutes, the heat quickly dissipating through the old windows and the thin walls. If we stay at the cabin in the winter (which we don’t do often because being cold all the time is actually exhausting), we are dressed in our thickest thermals, in military-issue sleeping bags, with rocks heated on the stove wrapped in socks stuffed in our sleeping bags, with the two dogs on the bed for all the warmth we can muster. With all that, we have not frozen, but getting the stove started in the morning is one of the most unpleasant things we have to do at the cabin. The iron is so cold, it burns.
There are a lot of good reasons to heat with wood, other than the fact that you aren’t paying someone else to heat your house. The warmth from wood is like no other. It really connects with something ancient within us. It warms us to the core both physically and emotionally. It’s also sustainable for places in the country since every year there is new deadfall in the woods. You can also buy from local suppliers which helps out your fellow community members. Burning wood is also better for the environment. Burning any fuel creates carbon dioxide but burning wood creates carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the trees and doesn’t linger in the air as pollution and contribute to global warming like burning fossil fuels does (or so says WoodHeat.org).
Since we’re on the topic of wood, let’s talk about cooking and hot water. When the cook stove is on, it’s easy to heat water. We don’t have a hot water reservoir like many of the bigger and higher-end stoves have but we always have a massive kettle on the stove. This makes hot drinks always an option (so good in colder weather!) and doing the dishes a lot more palatable. And while we mostly just do basic cooking or reheating on or in the cookstove, it works just fine. I haven’t tried actually baking anything from scratch because we don’t make or eat a lot of baking anyway. We have in the past bought chicken pot pie and reheated it in the stove. It comes out with a lovely smoky flavour that obviously does not happen in a conventional stove. Delicious!
If we don’t have the woodstove on, the hot water and cooking happens on the propane BBQ. There is a propane stove in the cabin that we are hoping to resurrect but we don’t have it hooked up as of yet. Our BBQ has a large grill as well as a side element for pots. We have been able to concoct a myriad of delicious meals on the BBQ. In fact, because the cooking is simpler, the meals are made with real, whole and local ingredients. A friend even bakes her pizzas on the BBQ! Which reminds me, I have to get the details on that!
Our only obstacle so far with heating water is being able to heat an amount larger than the kettle. But we’ll get there. I’m sure in a few years, someone somewhere will come up with a great idea using new and sustainable technology.
Which brings us to refrigeration. This we have not tried to conquer yet. We are still in the cooler stage. There are small fridges available that run on propane or battery but we haven’t researched them yet. We don’t spend much more than weekends at the cabin at this stage so the cooler works fine for now.
The last thing that we needed to figure out was how to manage all of our devices. The easiest way was to buy a battery pack. We have three now that hold several charges worth of power for our phones. We also have a battery pack that can hold enough power to boost a car so we can use that to charge pretty much anything that needs to be charged. It comes with a USB port with chargers for an iphone 4, iphone 5, an android, a mini USB, and a 12V jack. It has a flashlight, red flashing safety light and tells you how much power the battery has left. We also have a Eton solar charger that charges android phones but has great difficulty charging an iphone so I can’t say that I would recommend it for the price we paid. (We had a different solar panel first and it wouldn’t charge iphones either. It might be an Apple thing.)
When we want to listen to music, we have a solar-powered bluetooth-enabled speaker. And if I need to connect my laptop to the Internet, I simply hot-spot off my phone. If I need to charge my laptop, I usually connect it to the car charger and charge it off the car battery since we don’t have the capacity for 120V power yet. That being said, I do most of my online work on my phone so I don’t use the car battery very often, posts like this being the exception. When we hook up our solar panels, we will be getting an inverter so that we can plug in and charge a laptop or run small appliances using the standard 120V current. But that is not on our list of priorities yet. Because, let’s be honest, tech doesn’t matter if we freeze or starve to death.
So after two full summers spending as much time as possible out here at the cabin, we feel that our life here without traditional electricity is fairly comfortable. In fact, it has become so manageable and – dare, I say – natural, that the amount of electricity we use while in our city house seems almost gluttonous. Since having the cabin, we have cut down our energy bills doing simple things like being more diligent about turning ALL the lights out when we are not in the room, if we need a nightlight we use a Luci light, cooking more one-pot wonders, BBQ-ing more in the summer (though, I think BBQ-ing everything in the summer is pretty standard for Canadians) or even eating more raw foods, like salads or charcuterie spreads. Our Hydro bills are always under $100 now (usually well under $100), even with air conditioning this summer (because oh my god it was a hot summer).
I read a quote from becomingminimalist.com that said: “Mindless consumption always turns into excessive consumption.” This is so true. And now it factors into every action we take. All it takes is a little mindfulness to reduce our carbon footprint and make the world a healthier place.