Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Conversation With...Mike & Debbie Cameron

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 12, by Sara Mattinson.

Driving along the winding one-kilometre lane through the woods, you can imagine this drive is lovely in any season, even in winter. It’s not a lane you’d want to plow out after a snowstorm but the lack of power poles is a hint that perhaps that doesn’t matter to the people who live at the end of the lane. There is no power where I’m headed. Well, there is but it’s a different kind of power and I’m not talking about just solar.
When the woods open up, the view becomes panoramic as Debbie and Mike Cameron, plus their two Golden Retrievers, greet me at their small, picturesque home along the shores of the Northumberland Strait .
“We’d been coming back here since 1998 in a tent trailer, May to October, which they aren’t technically designed for,” Debbie says. “It was getting the crap kicked out of it so we were thinking of getting a serious 5th-wheel when Mike suggested we could put up a small cottage.”
Right from the start, the 600 square foot cottage was off the power grid. They never had any intention of hooking up with Nova Scotia Power.
“Even if there was a power pole right over there,” says Debbie, “we still wouldn’t hook up. We made a conscious choice to be off-grid.”
Looking back, that was the start of a journey they never expected to make but one riddled with road signs they could not ignore. 
In 2004, Debbie spent two weeks in Guatemala and it made her aware of how precious our water resources are. Here in Canada, we use fresh water to flush our toilets. 
“There are people in third world countries who would give anything to have this water to drink and wash with,” she says. “In Guatemala, I saw women who had one pot of water for the day.”
Then Mike started working at the salt mine in Pugwash in 2006; the cottage was only five minutes away compared to the 30 minute commute to their home on Tatamagouche Mountain. But the final sign, what Debbie calls her epiphany, came in 2008. 
“We were sailing with Mike’s relatives through the Gulf Islands off the BC coast,” explains Debbie. “They live on their boat and they were so happy and free and liberated and basically, I had a meltdown. ‘I don’t want my house, I don’t want my cottage’. Something had to go. I was so overwhelmed. I lived for the house. It was a log house that we’d built ourselves in the 70’s as newlyweds. It was unique and it became our identity. Our home and our lifestyle became our identity.”
Since they already had a cottage they enjoyed (they were able to weather out Hurricane Juan there comfortably when everyone else had no power), the decision to simplify their life was made easily. According to Debbie, the hardest part of it all wasn’t selling the house but the reaction of people when she told them what they were doing. 
“When you make an internal decision to make a change, you’ve processed it but when we blurted out to people that we were going to sell the house, people couldn’t get over what we were walking away from. But for us, the beach won.”
Expanding the existing solar system to take on the added appliances for living at the cottage year-round was Mike’s special challenge since he’s an electrician. Apparently, some people find it ironic that an electrician would not want power; yet he has power, he just sources it another way, being an electrician allowed him to do much of the work himself.
When Mike explains the whole system, it becomes apparent it’s not complicated, or expensive.
“We have four deep cycle batteries and those batteries are charged by solar panels and a small wind turbine. Off the batteries we have an inverter that changes DC voltage to AC voltage. That’s 12 volts to 120. That runs any 120 volt appliances that we have, satellite TV, washing machine, fridge and deep freeze. Everything else is 12 volt: our lights, the water pump. We have a back-up furnace that runs on propane. Our furnace and our hot water tank are RV-style. Our full-size range is propane. Our main source of heat is wood; we have a fireplace that heats the entire house in the winter time.”
Mike admits he prefers solar over wind power. 
“The turbine is more of a bonus to pick up wind at night,” he says. “But this summer we’ve had, the solar panels have worked great. We do have a generator for back-up, if we get too many cloudy days in a row. We’re probably good for four or five days if there is no sun. Solar panels still work when there is no sun, they’re just not as efficient.”
Their former house netted an annual power bill of about $3,000. Setting up the energy system at the cottage-turned-permanent residence was a one-time cost of $7,000 so their savings are considerable. 
“Of course, the bigger the home and the more you want to run, the price is going to go up,” Mike says, estimating the average home (running several 240 volt appliances) would cost about $20,000 to convert to solar power. 
“Everyone seems to think we’re doing without something,” Debbie says, the decorator of their cozy cottage, “so I say, tell me what it is that we’re going without. We have lights, satellite TV, refrigeration. We have everything we need, we just don’t have to pay Nova Scotia Power anything. There is a savings but even if there wasn’t, it’s still nice to outsmart a monopoly.”

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