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Off-grid float cabin: retirement tiny home in BC wilderness

Margy and Wayne Lutz were camping in Coastal British Columbia when they discovered their dream home: the float cabins of Powell Lake. They’re a special breed of floating homes; they’re not houseboats, but “float cabins”, that is, they’re permanently anchored to shore.

Float cabins as 19th Century portable homes

Since the heydey of logging and fishing in the area, float cabins were built on Powell Lake as inexpensive and portable homes for loggers and fishermen. Since then they’ve become regulated and the 200 float cabin owners here these days lease their water lots from the BC government for $500 per year.

The Lutz’s bought their retirement home in 2001 for 35,000 Canadian dollars (about $25,000 USD, at the time), what they considered worth the risk if their experiment in off-grid living didn’t workout.

Off-grid, no plumbing

A few years later they retired early from their school district jobs in Los Angeles, anxious to start living their dream, and moved into their small (420 square feet, plus a 200-square-foot sleeping loft) floating home. At the time it didn’t have indoor plumbing so they hiked 4 flights of stairs up the granite cliff to an outhouse (they’ve since installed a composting toilet indoors).

Today, the Lutzs live completely off-the-grid. There’s no water heater (they boil it on the wood stove as a luxury) and no plumbing. They hand-pump water from the lake (for washing dishes, they remove most food first and use only biodegradable soap and the water is returned to the lake).

No garbage, composted everything

There’s no trash pickup. They compost nearly everything- kitchen and garden waste, ashes from the wood stove- in their hilltop heap. Even their toilet biodegrades their waste so it’s clean enough to be dumped in the forest- or an ornamental garden- every few months.

Solar, wind & thermoelectric-rigged wood stove

For their energy uses, the Lutzs rely on solar, wind, and thermoelectric power. They have 3 main solar panels, each one for a specific function. Two panels (200 watts & 125 watts) feed into the main cabin, charging six 6-volt batteries (wired in serial pairs to produce the requisite 12 volts they need to run most of their cabin. There’s also a 300 watt panel on top of Wayne’s floating “writer’s retreat”, a boat called Gemini (it can be switched to feed the boats’ needs or the cabins’).

For heat, they rely on a wood stove (fueled mostly with driftwood) that has been rigged with an experimental thermoelectric system that uses the cold water from the lake for a good differential in temperatures. Whenever the stove surface is about 300 degrees C, they are generating a trickle charge to their batteries.

Since the Canadian winter days are short in sunshine (as short as 2 hours of direct sunlight per day at their spot on Powell Lake), the Lutzs use propane for their refrigerator and stove and some additional lighting.

A floating veggie garden

Their buoyant home doesn’t make gardening easy, but Margy has found a way to provide much of the summertime produce. In addition to a hillside potato garden, she (with the help of the cabin’s builder and all-around-handyman John) created a floating vegetable garden.

It’s on a pulley system so that it can be pulled away from their dock so that no land-based animals can make a meal of it. To make it as convenient to water as a conventional garden, a 15-watt solar panel connected to a bilge pump feeds a hose.

An off-the-grid author

Wayne has turned the couple’s experiences with self-sufficiency and off-grid living into a book series. He self-publishes his Coastal British Columbia Stories under the couple’s imprint Powell River Books and he writes from their small cabin (with no Internet access), or his adjacent floating writing studio the Gemini. Margy also writes about the more mundane experiences of off-grid living on the affiliated blog.

Floating simple life

The Lutzs still refer to themselves “city folk” (Margy is originally from Los Angeles), but once aboard their floating home (accessible only by boat), they are transformed by the details of providing for themselves.

“Living off the grid makes for a very simple life… just all the things I don’t need is what I think about when I’m here. I don’t need a lot of light, I don’t need a lot of electricity. I need a little propane to cook with. So I’m not without comforts of home I guess you could say. But I’m with all the comforts of living in the middle of nature.”