Cottagers look to go it alone for power

PORT SEVERN, ONTARIO - In the early 1990s, Joe Johnson and his wife, Carolyn, bought a cottage near Port Severn, Ont., as a sanctuary far removed from the stresses of their working lives in Toronto.

But Mr. Johnson found the quarterly hydro bills for the small lakeside dwelling anything but relaxing.

While their actual usage charges amounted to little more than $4, the bills regularly topped $100, the bulk of which came from "surcharges, monthly fees, paying down Ontario Hydro's debt and all these other charges they load on," said Mr. Johnson.

"I thought to myself, 'I really hate this. I'm paying all this money for a few dollars worth of electricity.'"

Mr. Johnson felt he had no choice. He needed to pull the plug.

Cottagers have long upheld a tradition of making do off the electrical grid. But while forgoing hydro was once an obligation of shacking up in remote locales, it's becoming a popular choice even for those living along established power lines.

A host of wind and solar products have flooded the cottage market over the past decade, most aimed at supplementing hydro, or replacing it altogether. For cottagers looking to counter a prevailing trend of well-heeled vacationers building bigger cottages featuring more of the modern conveniences of the city, the glut of energy-saving technology couldn't come at a better time.

"It's all about choice," said David Masters, a conservationist who runs seminars on how to convert cottages to wind and solar power. "Going to the cottage should be about relaxing and seeing the scenery. With electricity you start bringing in all the gizmos of city life and you lose your connection with the elements."

Mr. Johnson, a civil engineer, started from the ground up, demolishing his old cottage and designing an ultra-efficient replacement.

Two and a half years after Mr. Johnson started working on the blueprints, the Johnsons had a cottage they could use year-round with solar panels and propane as the only power sources.

"My bill might be $100 a year for propane," said Mr. Johnson. "I have to chop some wood, too, but that goes with the territory."

The solar panels cost the Johnsons $10,000 and they had to buy a gas fridge and stove, but they expect the panels to pay for themselves in under 10 years.

Just as the Johnsons were putting the finishing touches on their dream cottage, Mr. Masters was abandoning the life of a high-paid commodities broker in Toronto to experiment with off-the-grid living in a yurt near Hamilton, Ont.

In the three years since, he's become something of a guru to energy-conscious cottagers. At a recent Cottage Life conference, his presentation on wind and solar energy was standing-room-only.

"The interest right now is amazing," said Mr. Masters, who runs his basic appliances off a small wind turbine and a $7,000 solar system.

Most cottagers who come to Mr. Masters own either isolated cottages for which hydro service would be exorbitant or thin-walled cottages for which they'd like more heating or cooling without additional hydro costs.

Above all else, Mr. Masters advises them to shed their inefficient modern conveniences. Next, he tells them to find a reputable alternative energy dealer.

He speaks from experience. His first solar system was a dud that stopped working within a year.

"It's easy to get ripped off," he said.

Cottages that draw energy from wind and solar sources remain a rarity, but Penny Caldwell, an editor with Cottage Life, predicts they will become increasingly common as their cost continues to drop.

Ms. Caldwell and her husband installed solar panels in their Georgian Bay cottage five years ago after an old generator finally died.

"At one time we considered installing hydro to our place, but it was going to cost ($14,000) or $15,000. We're pretty happy with what we've done instead."

The Caldwells' panels provide just enough juice to run a vacuum and help hedge any temptations to stock the cottage with energy-sucking conveniences.

"We don't have a microwave or anything like that," said Mr. Caldwell. "You're going to the cottage to get away from all that."

Want to take your cottage off the grid? Here are a few items you might want to invest in:

Solar panels - Running anywhere from $300 to over $60,000, solar systems can replace hydro entirely in the most energy efficient of cottages;

Wind turbine - Canadian Tire sells wind turbines for as low as $800, but most need to be above the treeline in areas where the winds average over 14 km/h;

Gas-powered fridge - At around $1,500, they cancel out the huge 24-hour energy demands of the average electric fridge;

Voltmeter - "It's like a gas gauge for your batteries," alternative energy expert David Master says;

Generator - In case your batteries run out of juice, a 13-horsepower gas generator will power most essential appliance.


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