The quiet of Paul Pilon’s Tsawwassen home is interrupted only by the twittering songbirds and chattering squirrels playing outside the bay window which looks onto the front yard.
“This is our television set,” jokes Pilon, who moved here from Kitsilano with his partner Linda two and a half years ago.
Most houses have a low frequency hum as the electrical current within flows from appliance to light switch to electronic device, but this house is not like most houses. This house is off the grid.
The couple decided to pull the meter in September to avoid BC Hydro’s smart meter installation.
Instead, they paid $60,000 to retrofit their house with natural gas appliances and solar panels on the roof that generate their own electricity.
“We felt we were forced into not having any other option other than cancelling the hydro,” says Paul, adding the decision was not made lightly.
It all began a year and a half ago when Linda read an advertisement in the newspaper that smart meters were going to be installed in Tsawwassen. After reading up on the devices, the couple felt there were risks that would make their home unsafe. And there was no way they were going to live with that feeling.
“If you’re being chased by a tiger, you’re going to run like hell,” explains Paul. “And even if you just think you’re being chased by a tiger, you’re still going to run like hell.”
The worst part, Paul says, is there’s BC Hydro on one side telling people it’s perfectly safe and critics on the other side saying it isn’t. Ordinary people get stuck in the middle trying to choose who’s right. Only, until recently, there was no choice. Installation was mandatory, and since smart meters are a province-wide initiative, moving away from Tsawwassen wasn’t an option either.
“When they force a smart meter on you there’s no more decision,” says Paul, frustration etched across his face.
There were many challenges to going with solar panels. The house doesn’t have a south-facing roof where the sun’s rays would be maximized, their neighbours’ trees sometimes cast shadows across their roof, and of course the predictable weather of a Lower Mainland winter did not make the retrofit suitable.
It didn’t change their minds.
Paul Pilon holds a Electrosmog meter which measures the radiation output of devices that give off electromagnetic energy, such as televisions and cell phone transmission towers. Adrian MacNair photo.
“We said, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s perfect, we have to try it. And if we have no electricity, we’ll sit around the candle and keep warm,” says Paul, laughing.
The house had to be completely retrofitted before the solar power system was even installed. They had to get a natural gas-fired stove and clothes drier, and a gas heater in the bedroom. Their hot water tank is now on-demand natural gas.
Now they can’t just vacuum or wash their clothes whenever they want. Everything has to be carefully planned.
“You really start living consciously,” says Linda, adding they now use three kilowatt hours per day, whereas they used to consume the BC Hydro provincial average of 30. “But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops for us.”
Beginning in October they had to start running a propane generator for three hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or when the solar panels are low in power.
Energy costs are now down to $70 a month for natural gas and $20 a month for propane, compared to the $110 a month under BC Hydro. Paul expects those numbers to decline as the weather gets better and they use their solar stove for cooking.
The couple is surprised more people don’t go with solar power. Paul thinks it may be due to a lack of tax incentive. South of the border, retrofitting their house might only have cost between $13,000-$18,000 with government rebates and tax deductions.
The couple is taking other steps to make their home sustainable, using farmers markets and supporting organic farming practices.
“We were city dwellers our whole entire lives until about two and a half years ago. My tomatoes came from a can,” says Linda, laughing. Back when they lived in Kitsilano it was a rare occasion to fire up the stove, and with the plentiful choice of restaurants eating out was the norm.
“I was always keenly aware of the fragility of our food security living in the city and seeing the changes that are happening in the Lower Mainland and our agricultural land being swapped out and paved over,” says Paul.
By having a garden to grow their own food and creating their own electricity, Paul and Linda feel prepared not only to face daily life, but the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“I didn’t like the idea of becoming a refugee somewhere,” says Paul.
“You can build a little forest garden on a balcony,” says Linda. “All you need is some sun and some water. There’s really not much of an excuse not to start that, even to just grow your own herbs.”