Royal Roads University professor Phillip Vannini is exploring the lives of people living 'off the grid

Falling off the grid

It worried Phillip Vannini when he struck out to find people in B.C. living “off the grid” that he might meet a cliché

It worried Phillip Vannini when he struck out to find people in B.C. living “off the grid” that he might meet a cliché: self-righteous idealists or Luddite-types who ignore technology.

It turns out neither was true. What Vannini, a Royal Roads University sociology professor, found were rugged people interested in trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle and on their own terms, but who were also deeply interested in staying connected with the world.

“I was hard pressed to find a TV, but I met only one family who didn’t have the Internet,” Vannini says. “A couple in the Yukon used Facebook to have wood delivered to their house. That’s one grid you can’t get off.”

As part of a $500,000 federal research grant, last fall Vannini and photographer Jonathan Taggart set out to explore what life is like for people living off the power grid, off the water grid and for the most part, off the highway grid. Vannini expected to find a small handful of people scratching a living off the land, but found there more out there than he ever imagined.

“I had planned to talk with 16 people, four per province (and territory),” he says. “I’ve spoken with 75 people at 39 off-grid sites and homes.” Last fall he crisscrossed B.C., Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. This month he spent a week in Nunavut and the Arctic.

Cleverly, he started his hunt for “off-gridders” by contacting solar panel distributors for coastal B.C., which drew him into a loose network of people living, for the most part, in backwoods areas with minimal power and on well or lake water. Many blog about their experiences and were eager to share with Vannini.

“The fair share are environmentally mindful and aware of their carbon footprint and the need to consume less,” he said. “But I didn’t meet hard-core environmentalists or neo-Luddites.

“There is a lot of work and compromises, and it comes with inconveniences and complications. But at the same time its very rewarding. People get great satisfaction being self sufficient.”

Typically, “off-gridders” enjoyed tinkering with technology, including at Vannini’s first stop at a home in East Sooke. The owner built his own high-efficiency washing machine. Other off-gridders dabbled in micro-hydro projects, built windmills or found novel ways to insulate their homes – one person in Alberta amassed 5,500 four litre jugs of water under his floor.

Vannini visited an older couple in Lake Laberge in the Yukon, who had moved from Duncan years back. They wanted to get away from urban life and operated a goat farm and made cheese. In the winter the husband, Brian, would drill holes in the lake ice to pump water.

“We visited the man who was warm when speaking, but wouldn’t make a great deal of eye contact,” Vannini says. “After a while he mentioned casually he was 100 per cent blind.

“People develop skills and adapt to places they want to be. It speaks volumes about the fact that others can do it.”

Off-grid lifestyles promote a rugged individualism, but Vannini points out almost no one can be truly self sufficient, or free of consuming fossil fuels. Most off-grid people had a truck, backup generators and propane stoves.

“You can’t be completely self sufficient and grow all your food,” he says. “And everyone needs propane. I didn’t meet anyone without propane.”

Many people he met weren’t sure if staying off the provincial power grid and using renewable resource technology was more cost effective in the long run. “Some say yes (solar power) has saved them money, but most say at best they are even.”

Ultimately, he said people living off-grid are engaging in a kind of lifestyle experiment that leads to consuming less and connecting more with the environment. At the same time, most haven’t sacrificed a great deal of comfort.

“I ask whether they feel they are missing out. The answer is always ‘no,’” he says. “It’s satisfying to live life on your own terms, to determine when how we connect with the rest of the world. So far everyone has a very good life being off grid. The story so far is a very positive one.”

Check out Vannini’s blog at


Just Posted

No charges for three West Shore RCMP officers after woman’s jaw broken while in custody

After IIO investigation, B.C. Prosecution Service determined case did not meet its charge standard

Giants draw first blood in WHL playoff series vs. Victoria

Home ice advantage non-existent for Royals against arch-rival Vancouver

All-female taxi service eyed for the West Shore

The goal is to help women feel comfortable

Elizabeth May arrested at Kinder Morgan protest

Randall Garrison, MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, speaks out against pipeline

New Galloping Goose overpass at McKenzie could open next week

Drivers reminded to watch the road in McKenzie construction zone

Vancouver Island’s Best Videos of the Week

A look at some of the best video stories from the past week ending March 23, 2018

Canucks sing the Blues as they fall to St. Louis 4-1

Berglund nets two, including the game-winner, to lift St. Louis over Vancouver

Calving season brings hope for Cariboo ranchers

Still a lot of work ahead to recover from the wildfires

Canada’s Kaetlyn Osmond wins figure skating world title

The 22-year-old fwon the women’s singles crown with her Black Swan routine

Vancouver Island pooches celebrate National Puppy Day

Check out some of the submissions we received from around the region

MLA Report: Lowering the voting age to 16 in BC

By Andrew Weaver On March 13, I introduced for a third time… Continue reading

Alberta tells B.C. to stop opposing pipelines if it doesn’t like gas prices

John Horgan said he would like to see the federal government step in to deal with high gas prices.

Comox Valley hospital operating above patient capacity

The new healthcare facility averaged a 110 per cent patient volume between October and February

B.C. mother hit in truck rampage dies

Family confirms mother of four Kelly Sandoval dies almost two months after being hit.

Most Read