Disconnecting from the grid
Solar and wind provide power to home
Asimple wooden house on 1.6 hectares of land just south of Montreal is home to a back-to-the-lander who’s using the latest technologies to make it happen.
The one-and-a-half-storey gableroofed house — its eastern white pine posts and beams held together with pegs rather than nails — sits near the bank of a marshy river near the Chateauguay Valley, surrounded by stands of oak, elm and maple and handmade shelters for a winter’s supply of logs.
These are examples of old-fashioned skills, joined to the 21st century in the form of a massive solar panel near the front door, and a windmill rising beyond the peak of the roof that can pump 400 watts of power into the house.
That — together with the wattage from the solar panels — comprise the 1,600 watts held in the eight batteries in the home.
It’s enough to light the interior for longer than three weeks, says the homeowner, who requested anonymity.
He uses this energy for lighting, as well as to power the pump that brings him water from the nearby well. This homeowner, of Mohawk descent, is one of a handful of Quebecers who are experimenting with living off the grid: no gas or hydroelectric lines.
He still has a little way to go, he admits, using a gas barbecue to cook and powering his stove and fridge with propane.
And he will fire up the generator to power the washer and dryer, or when his 11-year-old twin sons visit, so they can watch TV.
But he prefers to be self-sufficient, collecting white ash from his property and chopping logs that are then air-dried in his opensided woodshed and finally moved to the closed winter shed near the house. “I need to get this wood very dry to use in the Pyromass stove in the house,” he says.
The house was built nearly four years ago by Hamlet Heavy Timberwork in Rigaud, Que., a company that specializes in timber frame houses, and it was constructed with the natural in mind.
“We used different native hardwoods for the knee braces, which are naturally curved and will stabilize the frame,” says Hamlet Heavy co-owner Daniel Addey-Jibb. “We used cherry, ash and oak in this construction, and the base is white pine.”
Hamlet installed the pegged timber frame with mortise and tenon joints, as well as the walls and roof and the outside siding, which is vertical boards and batten.
They insulated the house with cellulose, which is recycled newsprint treated with a natural preservative that keeps rodents out and is a fire-retardant, and also installed Quebec-made cherrywood windows and doors for the homeowner.
“It’s very well-insulated,” says Addey-Jibb: “An R-28 — and an R-40 roof — compared to the standard R-16 to 20.”
“I was tired of being in debt with all these monthly bills,” says the homeowner. “I wanted, for my own health, to move every day.”
So he spends a lot of time keeping himself and his house running, following the sunlight by turning his solar panels, chopping wood, feeding his stove, and putting the finishing touches on the home’s interior.
The rough stone path, made with stones taken from the property, leads up to double glass doors that look out onto the marshy riverbed, its banks studded with ancient trees.
Inside the house, burnished dark oak floors are used in the kitchen and dining area and around the fireplace, while floors in the living area are finished in a rustic style.
With its peaked roof and cathedral ceiling rising from the main floor to the bedroom loft spaces on either end of the house, the house is an open plan with a central fireplace and chimney, designed to keep the heat moving throughout.
“Flooring is solid wood, as is timber framing and interior walls,” says Addey-Jibb.
“He wanted non-toxic materials, to be super insulated and to live as simply as possible.”
Inside, the focal point is a woodburning masonry heater made by artisan Marcus Flynn of Pyromasse in Montreal.
Crafted of recycled clay brick (the bricks from a 19th-century city building) in the Finnish style, known as a contra-flow heater with upper chamber oven, it burns hot and quickly and will absorb and radiate heat for eight to 12 hours, the homeowner says.
“The thermal charge will be slowly dissipated up to three days,” says Flynn.
From one fire per day using about 14 kilograms of wood, he says, the heater will be hot 24 hours a day, even without flame or active fire in the system.
The sunken hearth surrounding the fireplace is surrounded by slate tiles, which also form the floor of the cosy hearth.
The homeowner has paid for this connection to the natural world.
But even though he has given up his hectic life of a chef for a more deliberate, home-based activity of an artisan, and despite the $50,000 for the frame of the house and $20,000 for state-of-the-art windows, he is now debt-free.
“I just got here three years ago,” he says. “I succeeded now in taking care of the heating and drying the wood, and I am able to machine my own lumber from wood taken on my land. I have red and white oak, elm and ash.”
But this lifestyle change means more to this homeowner than getting off the grid.
His plan, like the homesteader Richard Proenneke in his favourite DVD, Alone in the Wilderness, is to wean himself off all amenities and go live in a cabin on the land with no electricity, no generator and no solar heating.
“Our forefathers did it and stayed healthy for a long time,” he says.
The centrally-located fireplace bricks absorb the heat and radiate its warmth long after the fire has been extinguished.
A windmill on the roof and a solar panel on the side of the house help generate electricity. The house is completely off the grid and surrounded by nature.