The Winter We Went Without Power

If you know me at all, you know I hate winter. Yeah, I know–‘hate’ is a strong word. You know what else is strong? My desire to stay indoors where it’s warm and curse the frozen wasteland that is Alberta during the winter months.

Basically, I do my best to avoid the outdoors and dream of the days when I’ll get to sink my toes in to the gloriously warm soil in the garden once more.

If you live in a town or city, you likely get your power from a local electric company. Your heat and hot water is likely fueled by natural gas. The same goes for most rural homes. Off grid is not very common. How many off grid households are you aware of personally?

If your household relies heavily (or entirely) on solar for power like ours does, summer is mostly a walk in the park. Here, in Alberta, those of us who are starting out off grid with solar as the primary energy source require a back up energy source for days with less sunlight. In our case, a generator.

Our first winter on our property was fucking horrendous. When I say ‘horrendous’, I 100% mean that a weaker person (or less stubborn person) would have peaced out.

December 2017 started the same as any other winter. 85% hibernation was in full swing. The other 15% was when we were forced to leave the coziness of the indoors when we had no choice but to do animal chores, bring in fire wood, or go to school or work. (Looking back, I wish we would have appreciated that ‘easy time’ while it lasted, because the generator Gods had plans for us!)

We quickly got smart and divided up the outdoor chores so that each of us only had to spend a minimal amount of time outside each day, and we developed a routine that was working for us. [Again, I want to be clear. By ‘working for us’, I mean if we could have stayed close to the wood stove and watched Disney movies on Netflix, we would have done that. But, since we had to go outside, at least we didn’t choke on our frozen boogers and die in a snow bank. I call that a win!]

We knew going in to the winter that things might be challenging. It was a new home, and what’s more, being off grid was new to us, too. But, December came and was on its way out without a hitch. Dave left for camp a couple days before New Year’s Eve, and the kids and I had planned an oh-so-glam New Year’s Eve bash of our own: I loaded up on frozen appy’s and we had plans to marathon Harry Potter. We were going for the long haul. Accio, ability to stay awake all night!

At dusk, as was routine, we checked the battery level on the wall panel before using the oven and TV. It was pretty low, so the boys geared up and trudged outside in the -29 degree weather to fire up the generator.

After five minutes or so they came in with red cheeks and hands to tell me they couldn’t get the generator started. I assumed the generator was simply cold and went outside myself to start it, but I quickly realized there was a bigger problem. I went back inside to put on additional layers of warmth before heading out again to try to solve the problem, but after more than half an hour in nearly -30 and zero progress or signs of generator life, I decided to call it quits for the night and to try again in the morning once I’d had a chance to chat with Dave about it.

What that meant–for that night, at least–was that we seemingly had no way to fill our battery bank. We would soon be without lights, running water, wifi, phone chargers, and a furnace.

It also meant that the oven and TV would be off limits and we’d need a new New Year’s Eve plan. It was disappointing, but it certainly wasn’t our focus.

First things first: Heat.

The kids and I bundled back up and hurried outside together to gather as much wood as we could before we couldn’t stand the cold anymore. [Side note: Running while wearing boots, snow pants and a big winter jacket is probably akin to how Baymax looks and feels while running.]

When we got back inside, I delegated jobs to the kids while I rushed to light a kick ass fire in the wood stove. Our power was fading quickly, so we had to hustle. The wood stove would provide us with heat, but since our house is old and drafty and we didn’t know what to expect, we decided we’d be better off to make a bed near the wood stove and all squeeze in to it under a pile of comforters and afghans so that we could ensure we’d stay warm through the night. So the kids ran to collect as many blankets and pillows from around the house as they could find and we took all of the couch cushions off the couches and built a giant bed in the middle of the living room. That took care of the heat.

My favourite place to be in the Winter, is parked right in front of the wood stove. Last year I had a partially melted ponytail to prove it.

Next up: Light.

Once the fire and bed were taken care of, we gathered up every single wax and wickless candle, every flashlight, every lantern, and every strand of battery operated twinkle lights we could find and we placed them strategically around the main level of the house. A lantern in the bathroom. Candles on the TV stand and end tables. Twinkle lights on top of the cupboards. Then we filled in the blanks in between the living room and bathroom so that we wouldn’t trip and die when somebody inevitably had to pee a thousand times. Okay, that was me.

Finally: Food and water.

Luckily we had a stash of bottled water, so the water wasn’t an issue for the night. Food, though. We had food, but because the power was due to go out, we wanted to keep the fridge and freezer doors shut to hopefully keep everything from spoiling.

In the end, I decided to risk burning the heck out of the appy’s I’d bought and plopped them on a cast iron griddle on the wood stove. [As it turned out, the kids loved them and request wood stove Spanokopita often! Go figure!]

So, we were surviving. Except…if you basically force siblings to have an impromptu sleep over in the middle of the living room and don’t have some sort of entertainment as a buffer, ain’t nobody surviving the night.

Luckily, we have an extensive stash of board games. And, when that stopped being fun, we fell back on the alphabet game. [You know, the game where everybody is a different letter in the order of the alphabet on a various topic? If the topic is ‘animals’ I might say ‘Antelope’, the next person might say ‘Bear’, the next person might say ‘Clam’, and so on until you use up all the letters.]

That first night was fine. We even managed to have a little fun. But, the next morning we realized the generator was simply pooched. We arranged for someone to pick it up for repairs, but we would pretty much have to repeat the previous night for a couple of weeks!

Thankfully, Dave was not as much of a dumb ass as I was, and he reminded me that we had a smaller generator buried under a snowbank somewhere. He also pointed out that we could manually light the stove top and cook on it. Huzzah!

That generator wound up being a blessing! Sure, it didn’t solve our problems when it came to running water or the furnace, but you have no idea how grateful we were to run an extension cord through our window. I wish I had a photo or two to illustrate the tangled maze of power cords that ran all through our house at that time, but as you can imagine, it wasn’t a priority. We had the extension cord coming in through the window which led to a power bar. The power bar had a cord from it running to the fridge and deep freeze, and then it also powered a lamp, the TV, xbox, wifi, and a cellphone charging block.

You have no idea just how much you rely on electricity until you’re without it–let me tell you!

During the first initial time that we were living with next-to-no electricity, it was hard. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t. More often than any of us cared to, we had to boil water on the stove just to bathe. Drying our laundry took forever because it was so chilly and drafty in our house. We relied on bottled water during that time period because our running water was severely limited. We wore shoes and toques inside the house. None of that was easy or enjoyable, however, I have to stress that we were fucking handling it!

For the most part, people were very supportive. People started asking how they could start out off grid. That being said, we also got comments belittling our choice of lifestyle.

“Why would you suffer like this?”

“Why wouldn’t you just move back to town?”

“Why would you choose to live like this?”

Bitch, just because you couldn’t hack it if you tried to live off grid, doesn’t mean we can’t. This is what we want, and Rome wasn’t built in a day. And, you know what? It’s none of your business, anyways.

When Dave was home, things were so much easier to handle. He has a completely different skill set than I have, and he got things moving with our generator repair. Straight up, being assertive is not my forte!

Of course, escalating the repair didn’t fix the fact that our generator was a friggin’ LEMON and it certainly didn’t help the fact that the company that made our generator wouldn’t back up their product.

We got our generator back in May of 2018. By June, it was back in the shop. It was incredibly disheartening, but we’d made it through the winter with next-to-no power so heading in to summer was far less intimidating. As Summer faded in to Fall, though, we knew we couldn’t count on our current generator to support our power needs. In November we purchased a diesel generator shortly before the first generator was returned to us. Surprise! The first generator still would’t work!

Since we wired in our diesel generator it’s been virtually smooth sailing, with the exception of a few minor hiccups that are bound to happen when any major machine is stretching its legs.

I said it before: Going without power for so long was hard. When we were in the midst of it, it truly felt like it would never end, but we came out on the other side of it stronger, more capable, and more appreciative than we were going in.

For that, I’m thankful.

6 Replies to “The Winter We Went Without Power”

  1. Good for you! You’re family has true grit. I fucking hate those comments – “Why are you choosing to live like this? You could just move to a city.” We’re not off-grid, but getting closer. We get electricity from SaskPower, but our heat is woodstove (with a propane furnace for backup), and we use a combo of well water, and hauled water for our household and drinking water. Yes, of course I could move into the city and it would be soooooo much easier, but I love living out here, and if shit ever hits the fan, I know my family will survive. Love your blog!

    1. Thank you! And yes—drives me batty when people say that! It’s like they don’t think we can hack it. Your plan is to go off grid then?! So exciting!

      1. I would love to go off-grid, but I was resisting solar because of SaskPower’s net metering program and having a grid-tied system installed (which is what my husband was pushing for). I couldn’t wrap my head around producing electricity that I couldn’t access if the grid went down. What would be the point? And SaskPower cancelled the net metering program last week, so I think I made a wise decision. I’d want a system with batteries like you have with a generator backup. Also looking into wind energy, but all I’ve found so far is grid-tied as well. The search continues . . .

        1. Is wind power an option? We’re considering that, too. You sound like you’re probably feeling the same way about the grid as we are.

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