We connected with Sarita Harbour, a former banker and city-dweller, who is the owner of Off Grid Life, a website dedicated to living off the grid, and Harbour Content Development Inc., a business and finance content production business.
Sarita homeschools, homesteads, and runs her businesses from an off the grid cabin on a lake near Yellowknife, NWT.
- Please describe for our readers what you mean by ‘off-grid life’. That is, what does this lifestyle entail?
“Off the grid” is a phrase generally used to mean “not connected to the electricity grid”. And that’s what I write about on our site, Off Grid Life.
This lifestyle requires either living without electricity at all, depending on a diesel or gas generator, or generating your own electricity using alternative energy forms, such as solar, or wind. So it requires more awareness of your family’s energy consumption and production. And we’re completely responsible for our generating our own power – so no one but ourselves to blame if there’s a power outage.
2. How many years have you been living this lifestyle, and what is its biggest impact on you as a wife/mother?
Our home is on a one-acre lot on a lake off the grid about a 35 minute drive outside of Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. We bought this property five years ago, and lived here for just over a year at that time. Then my husband’s work took us to other parts of Canada.
We kept our home though, with the idea that we would move back when he retired. We’ve lived all over Canada, and this is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been. So we moved back last year. It’s been about two years in total living here.
The biggest impact of an off grid lifestyle on me as a wife and mother has been on how I structure our days, based on the amount of power we have — and the outside temperature, which dips down to about -40 Celsius in the winter and up to 30 Celsius in summer.
We generate electricity through solar panels and we have four generators (a main one and three spares) for backup. The solar panels or generator charges up our batteries, and that’s how we power our lights, computers, and the boiler we use for our in-floor heating.
Through the winter months, when we only get about four hours a day of sunlight, we run the generator for an hour or so each morning and each evening. So if I want to use the vacuum, run the dishwasher, or do laundry (washers and dryers take a lot of energy), I may run out to the generator shed to turn it on so I can complete my housework.
And since I homeschool my two youngest children, our lessons are punctuated by checking battery levels, adding wood to our wood stove in winter, monitoring our indoor and outdoor temperatures so I can turn the boiler off and on (it’s a propane boiler that heats water lines in our floors). I think my kids may be more cognizant of energy consumption than many of their peers – as in they know that watching television uses a lot of power! We don’t even have satellite or cable – though in the winter we watch DVDs twice a week for family movie nights.
Note: Recently I’ve seen “off the grid” or “off grid” applied more loosely to mean “living undetected” – as in when people may stop using credit cards or bank machines, filing taxes, or doing anything else that would indicate their whereabouts. This isn’t the case with us!
3. Give us an idea about your biggest challenges and successes.
The biggest challenge at first was getting used to monitoring everything, and learning about how the solar panels, generator, inverter and batteries work. I grew up in and around the Toronto area, which is definitely ON the power grid, so I never had to pay any attention to how much energy a coffeemaker or microwave used. Although I remember my mum used to get really annoyed if I left a room without turning the light off and she would say “Turn off that light! Do you you think your grandfather owns the electric company?” I knew very little about anything electrical.
My biggest success was simply managing through the first winter and summer when my husband was away for weeks or months at a time.
When we first moved here in 2013, I was in my early forties and pregnant. And when my husband had to travel for work, I was here alone with my then-three-year old and a newborn.
During the winter our closest neighbour was about a kilometre away down a rough gravel private road. This is bear and wolf country, and I was very aware of that – especially when Dan was away! I was a little nervous every time I had to go outside (in the dark and the cold most of the time) to bring in firewood or start the generator.
And I was nervous about following the right steps for getting water. We pump water up from the lake, and it’s stored in a massive water tank up at the house, and there’s a whole process for heating up the lines, starting the pump, etc. Pumping water in the winter in -30 to -40 degree weather takes several hours and a lot of power, which means running the generator and setting an alarm as well so the tank doesn’t overflow.
Now, however, the children are older and I’m more confident in my ability to handle the daily chores and troubleshoot problems.
4. Is living off grid for everyone? Are there any special characteristics that one must have to live this lifestyle?
Living off grid is NOT for everyone, lol! Now I must say that we have a very comfortable off grid lifestyle – for example we have central vac, a dishwasher, indoor plumbing, and all the typical main appliances you have in the city or suburbs. So we aren’t really roughing it, like some of the people we know of who live without electricity and who have to chop holes in the ice and haul water up to their cabins in containers. But it’s definitely more work running a household off the grid, especially if you have a family.
It helps that I work from home (I’ve been a business and personal finance writer for the past seven-and-a-half years) and homeschool. I’m here to keep the systems humming along through the day.
The main characteristics someone should have to live off the grid are a willingness to learn, good problem-solving skills, and good old determination.
5. What is your message to mid life women who are attracted by your lifestyle?
My advice to mid life women attracted to this lifestyle? Do it!
But first, learn everything you can about solar or wind power, and basic small engine repair so you can fix/maintain your own generator. Get physically fit, especially if you’re going to carry wood, garden or homestead, or haul water. Do lots of research before hand. There are many great online resources, including our website, that can help you learn about what’s involved in living off the grid.