Living off the grid: By choice or necessity


Irene Torres, KP News

During the windstorms of last December, all power subscribers on the Key Peninsula were off line for their electricity. That harsh reality brought back memories of Dec. 25, 1926, when Peninsula Light first energized the area. Long-timers remember when the entire local population lived off the electric grid.

Greg “Bull” Dravis is fully sufficient off the grid, but is fighting to get his meter back for medical reasons. Photo by Mindi LaRose

In a 2002 issue of a PenLight newsletter, Dulcie (Van Slyke) Schillinger recalled her family in Vaughn was one of the first to have electricity, as her grandmother recorded in her Perpetual Datebook the day “the wiring went in: July 1926. The lights were turned on Jan. 8, 1927. The meter was installed on Jan. 10,” on Jan. 19 she “used the electric iron for the very first time to do a stack of laundry… (and) on Feb. 5, 1927, Grandma paid the first bill for the electric current: $4.82.”

Some estimate the number now off the grid to be less than 2 percent of the KP population. Many residents choose to live with alternate power for environmental reasons, and some live with it because of financial necessity. But not everyone is willing to admit their circumstances.

One KP resident who lives off the grid has been trying to get power to his sleep apnea machine. But he has run into problems with PenLight — because he lives in a bus. Unless there is a structure on the property, the light company insists the power cannot be hooked up.

“I used to have electricity, but I couldn’t afford to pay the bill, so I had them take out the meter,” Greg Dravis told the KP News. “Now I need power for medical reasons, and they are fighting it.”

Another KP resident who lived off the grid until a few years ago is Jon Forseth. In an email to the KP News, he wrote, “You start to want the luxury of flipping a switch as opposed to grabbing the axe and saw every morning just to perk the coffee… and filling the lanterns every morning so you can still see what you’re doing after the sun goes down…  (It was) a time for the rediscovery of battery and hand crank operated radios and flashlights, a time for reading into that pile of books I was always going to find someday…”

Living green

Those who desire to make the move back to rural independence can take a first step by determining the part-time use requirements it would take to power their conveniences off the grid. This can be accomplished one room at a time. A gadget called Kill-A-Watt,™ manufactured by P3 International, costs about $30-$40, and will indicate the battery capacity, size and number of Photovoltaic (direct conversion of sunlight to electricity) solar panels needed to support the load. And for most homes, that can be quite a load.

Just walking around the house, one can see dozens of small devices that require current to operate: television, CD and DVD player, satellite box, radio, computer, printer, hair dryer, electric razor, fan, toaster, microwave, coffeemaker, telephone, cell phone charger, lights, lamps... There are also larger appliances, range and oven, washer, dryer, water heater, furnace, dishwasher, refrigerator, freezer, and water pump. Then there are the power tools.

Forseth said, “I still have everything a fellow needs to get along off the grid, except for pumping water out of the well. For that I have to cheat and use a generator. I like to think of it as my dual system. Even my tools are the same way. Power or not, I can still cut, carve, saw, and turn any piece of wood into whatever shape I desire; sometimes I think it’s a better way to work, and it is certainly easier on the old ears.”


Rick Sorrels of Glen Cove said, “My first bachelor of arts was in power transmission, conversion, and utilization, which covered everything from solar to nuclear to a lot of things still not utilized… Until 75 years ago kitchen wood stoves were either the primary or only source for heat for cooking, hot water, and room heat…(and) make excellent room decoration, conversation piece, and backup source for these same essentials…Wood would still be available here even if all our petroleum supplies are cut off or rationed.”

Other options for power generation include a gas-, diesel-, or propane-fired generator, solar, wind and hydro power, according to Longbranch resident Dale Sandretsky, who lives completely off the grid. In his single-wide mobile home — a work in progress — he uses several sources to meet his energy needs. His full-size propane-fired recreational vehicle refrigerator keeps food cold and makes ice. He cooks with propane gas and in a conventional microwave oven. He heats the home with a wood stove and a propane space heater, and uses his propane-fired generator for other power needs, such as lighting and watching sci-fi movies on his television. He maintains a backup energy system, which includes a gas-fired generator, batteries, and liquid propane stick lights.

Ed Bressette was not available for comment, but in an earlier KP News article he said he learned ways to lower energy costs from his father, who found many options, but little advice available. For the last few years, Bressette has been active with the Northwest Solar Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching conservation and renewable energy usage. In his home, which he built largely from recycled materials, he managed to create a sustainable life for his family. There is a lot to learn from Bressette.

He converted his conventional water heater to a solar panel system and added a passive solar greenhouse on the southern, sunny side of the home. During the day, the sun heats the brick floor. Heat rises from the bricks to warm the space.

Bressette uses cellulose to improve the home’s insulation. According to Build it Green (, cellulose is made from 80 percent recycled newsprint material, and “seals all cavity spaces very effectively, greatly reducing air infiltration and higher frequency sound transmission.”

Bressette’s “on demand” water-heating system can save up to 75 percent over a regular water heating system. Its sensors detect alternate sources, and it only runs when hot water is needed. A tank in the attic stores water, connected through the wall by copper tubing to the wood stove. The copper coils around the stovepipe a number of times. When the stove heats the tubing, hot water rises up to the tank to be available as needed.

The costs

Recent estimates to fully convert a home to alternate energy sources average about $30,000. According to Mother Earth news, “Buying a renewable energy system is more affordable than ever thanks to rebates, tax breaks (personal tax credits and property tax exemptions) and low-interest loans from state governments, local utilities and even private companies. Depending on where you live, renewable energy subsidies can reduce the cost of a wind- or solar-powered system by more than half of the total expense.”

Net metering, a U.S. Department of Energy policy, is one cost-saving incentive that makes it possible for an enterprising homeowner to receive credit (at retail power rates) on their utility bill. Washington is one of 35 states with this program. Washington State University’s Website describes the program: “Specifically, net metering is a special metering and billing arrangement between you and your utility… A net metering arrangement allows you to first use any electricity your own generating system produces to offset the amount of electricity you would have to buy from your (utility), and, secondly, to put any excess electricity you produce, but cannot use, back into the electrical grid. When this excess electricity flows out of your home or business into the grid, it turns your meter backwards…”

Safety and preparedness

When generating your own electricity, Sandretsky cautions, “Never plug your generator panel into a wall plug to excite your house panel system…When using the generator, turn off the main panel breakers. That way, you can’t accidentally back-feed your generator to your transformer, which will excite the street power lines.” He also warns of the fire danger from candles and of suffocation from the carbon monoxide gas that can build up without sufficient ventilation.

Sorrels said people “need to wake up before it’s too late.” “The government is not their ‘Mama’; they have to learn to plan and provide for themselves. The worse the disaster, the less help they get,” he said.

Forseth, while back on the grid, is reminiscent: “I miss the old ways sometimes, like the race to be the first one to the woodpile, to chop the wood for the breakfast fire. Hollerin’ over the neighbors, and far beyond, has become a lost art these years, lost in the noise of the tremendous power and noise of the great machines of civilization…Too bad we can’t get everyone to shut off everything some night, so we could see the stars. Even out here, the glow from the city blocks most of them from being seen.”



Northwest Solar Group:

Passive solar:

Net metering:

Alternative energy: