|Off the Grid, 37 Years and Counting||| Print ||
copyright by REX A. EWING
(originally published in Log Homes Illustrated in 2007)
Off the Grid, 37 Years and Counting
Life at 10,200 feet can get interesting. The snow that drifts up to the rooftops in the dead of winter can still bury you in May, return to annoy you in June, tease you in July and, in some years, begin to fall again in earnest by the end of August. The savage wind that whips down through the passes in the high Rockies from the Continental Divide has been likened to an icy-fanged beast, capable of chewing the shingles off your roof, or snapping nearby power lines in a single, swift bite. And then there's the lightning...
It's great to have electric power if, like Ken and Glady, you live at that altitude, but you'd never want to be so dependent on it that you couldn't survive comfortably without it. This leaves you with two choices: either you can install a backup generator to tide you over while the REA crews scramble to get the power back on, or you can make your own power from the sun and wind. Or if, like Ken and Glady, you live four miles from the closest power line, you can install both—solar energy, coupled to a reliable backup generator. Just for peace of mind.
Actually, these days Ken and Glady are living pretty high on the hog. Back in 1969 when they began construction on their 1,370 square-foot home near Como, Colorado, photovoltaic panels capable of turning sunlight into appreciable quantities of usable electricity were—along with hydrogen fuel cells—technological oddities used only in Space. But that hardly mattered at the time. Ken ordered logs milled to his specifications at a sawmill in nearby Buena Vista, and he and Glady went to work. Over the course of two years they worked mostly weekends and vacations, with only an old pull-start generator for electric power. By 1971 the couple had brought their cozy log cabin, nestled on 20 acres within a towering stand of Engelmann spruce, to a state of completion suitable for part-time occupancy, though it would be several more years before Ken considered the home—the first stage, at least—finished.
The second stage occurred over several summers in the early 1980s, when Ken and Glady and their three teenage sons dug a basement beneath the house—one shovelful at a time. Then they began thinking about electricity.
By 1985, solar technology had progressed to the point where it was economically feasible to install a small system to run a few lights, a radio, and a small TV. Their first system consisted of a small bank of batteries they trucked to town for recharging every week or so. It was a tedious process that became no less so as the years progressed. So, in 1988, Ken bought a few Arco photovoltaic (solar-electric) modules to keep the batteries charged, providing the home with its first source of quiet, sustained power.
The lights were, and still are, 12-volt DC, but for the home's AC loads Ken installed a Heart modified sine-wave inverter. "We weren't real happy with it," Ken recalls, "but it did allow us to operate tools and appliances we couldn't run before, so you could say it did its job."
The year 1990 was pivotal for Ken and Glady. Ken retired from the Bureau of Reclamation where, as an engineer, he'd worked on many of the water diversion projects so ubiquitous in the West. And Glady—very reluctantly, she will tell you—gave up a lifelong nursing career. Then they sold their suburban Denver home and headed for the hills, fulltime. "Even though I was sorry to leave nursing, I was delighted about moving to the mountains," Glady confides. "The peace, quiet and freedom were a dream come true."
As for Ken, he was left with a lot of time on his hands. And what does an engineer do in that situation? He adds a garage. Then, with the help of a neighbor (of the type we would all like to have), he widens the house by 12 feet and builds a new roof to cover it. Finally, he sets his sights on beefing up the renewable energy system.
The Heart inverter was retired in 1995, replaced by a Trace (now Xantrex) SW4024 sine-wave inverter, quite possibly the most popular off-grid inverter ever made. (LaVonne and I have one, as do most of our off-grid friends.) Finally, in 2001, they added a pair of Siemens PV panels to the array, which is positioned 150 feet from the house in a homemade ground-mounted frame. This brought the total array wattage up to 716 watts, which effectively charges a bank of eight Trojan L-16 batteries in 3 to 4 hours on a bright day.
This is a small system by almost anyone's standards, capable of generating maybe four kilowatt hours of power on a magnificently sunny day. And yet Ken will tell you that his 12,000-watt Generac propane-fired generator, wired for automatic start, "will not kick on for months at a time, though I do start it up every so often, just for a little extra power on cloudy days."
What's the trick—conservation with Draconian strictness? Not hardly. To be sure, every appliance that can run on propane does, including two refrigerators, a clothes dryer, and the kitchen range. But Ken and Glady also have the normal stuff most of us do, including a TV, VCR, computer, stereo, and a microwave oven. They even pump water directly from a 110-foot well with their small PV system. What they don't do, however, is use their system to drive the home's heating system. Instead, they rely on a fireplace insert and a half dozen or so strategically placed propane heaters.
This helps in a couple of ways. First, they have neither zone pumps nor fan motors to demand tribute from the daily watt harvest. That in itself is a huge savings. But it also allows Ken to keep the inverter in "Search" mode, rather than "On" mode, reducing the inverter's continuous draw on the batteries from 16 watts down to 1 watt, resulting in a savings of 0.36 kWh per day. What is Search mode, exactly? It's an energy-saving mode in which the inverter sends out a small surge of power every second or so to see if anything gobbles it up. If it finds a taker—like when someone turns on the TV—the inverter instantly awakens from its quasi-slumbering state and goes to work. It doesn't even ask for coffee.
In order for Search mode to work, every electrical device that can draw a continuous "ghost load"—such as the TV, computer, or VCR—must be on a power strip that can be turned off. And, to keep the inverter in Search mode as much as possible, the DC lights are wired directly to the battery bank, effectively bypassing the inverter. So when Ken and Glady want to read at night, the inverter can take it easy.
It's a clever system that has evolved over several decades. And, just like a fine wine, or a long, fruitful marriage, it gets forever better with age. Most importantly, it's a system that ensures Ken and Glady will be warm and cozy when fierce nor'westers rip through the Rockies in search of power lines to snap. Like the unneeded power lines, 21,000 feet away.
Rex Ewing is the author of Crafting Log Homes Solar Style (ISBN 978-0-9773724-4-7)