Learning to live off grid: 'Every little thing counts'

Peeter and Kate Vihvelin's house looks like the average country home, except there’s one major difference: they live completely off the grid.

The Vihvelins' home in Charlotte County is powered exclusively by solar panels and a wind turbine

The Vihvelins first built a cabin on their property, but their long-term plan was always to build a larger home. (Submitted by Peeter Vihvelin)

Peeter and Kate Vihvelin's house looks like the average country home, except there's one major difference: they live completely off the grid.

The Vihvelins live on approximately 39 acres in Bobabec, a community in Saint Patrick Parish in Charlotte County.

When they bought the property about eight years ago, it was an abandoned farm. Now, it features a house, cabin, workshop and barn — all powered by 20 solar panels and a wind turbine.

"It was very much a [learning] experience and going step-by-step," said Peeter in an interview with CBC's Shift.

When the Vihvelins bought their property about eight years ago, it was an abandoned farm. Now, it features a house, cabin, workshop and barn - all powered by 20 solar panels and a wind turbine. (Submitted by Peeter Vihvelin )

They began building a cabin on the property eight years ago, putting up one solar panel and then adding three more.  

"The cabin was very small, sort of like a tiny house by today's terminology," said Peeter.

The Vihvelin's long-term plan was to build a larger home. They began sketching out plans for a house and started construction on a barn with a large south-facing roof topped off with solar panels.

The last step in the process was to add a wind turbine on the property to compensate for the reduced electricity supply from the solar panels in winter.

The Vihvelins' home is part of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick’s 'Passport to a Low Carbon Future' EcoHome tour. (Submitted by Peeter Vihvelin)

The Vihvelin's home is part of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick's "Passport to a Low Carbon Future" EcoHome tour, an event taking place Saturday.

Participants will get a chance to see what homeowners from St. George to the Kingston peninsula are doing to live more sustainably.

Kate Vihvelin said she wished she could have seen how other people were constructing sustainable homes when they decided to build their cabin. She said being able to see something in reality is different from looking at pictures in a magazine.

"That's why I thought that this idea that hatched for the conservation council would be of particular significance to people who are thinking of doing something like this … if they could draw on a group of people who have experience and are using earth friendly ways forward."

A lifestyle

Kate Vihvelin said it doesn't feel like she and her husband have made any sacrifices for their lifestyle.

"It just becomes a lifestyle that we do, things like turn off the lights when we're leaving the room if they're not needed. We do not waste hot water, and we live very much in tune with the weather," she said, adding she opts for sweeping or mopping to save energy on grey days with no wind, instead of using a central vacuum.

The Vihvelins don't have a clothes dryer, so they hang all of their clothes on a line outside.

"Every little thing counts," she said. "It just gets used to being a way of life that's very agreeable."

Going off grid

Part of the reason the Vihvelins went off grid was because grid power isn't available where they live.

Peeter Vihvelin recommended that those who are already on the grid who want to live more sustainably install solar panels so that the leftover energy they generate can be used to help provide power to other people connected to the grid.

"One thing we've realized is that the solar panels generate amazing amounts of power and we can't use it [all]."

For anyone without a technical background, he recommended hiring someone to design the system because faulty designs can be expensive to fix.

"It's really a question of balance," he said. "You have to balance your loads and your generation so everything works out."

The Vihvelins are happy with their decision to go off grid. 

"It's been wonderful overall, I'd have to say," said Kate. "Everything little thing that a human can do to ease the burden on this planet is important … anything that can be done will be great and it feels great."