Living Off the Grid, Forever

The Hanron homesteading family learned how to live off the grid, cutting their connection to commercial energy sources and utility bills forever.
By Tom Moates
June/July 2001
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The Hanron family (Betsy, John, Duncan and Amelia ) enjoys a spring day atop the hill above their home.
PHOTO BY PHIL SCHOFIELD
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When night falls, John Hanron enjoys the inner peace that comes from switching the inverter in his utility room to search mode; the buzzing transformer goes quiet and is replaced by a faint but perceptible click ... click ... click. Hanron is one of a growing number of middle-class Americans making the financial investment and lifestyle commitment to living off the grid. The ticking is a tiny electrical pulse the inverter uses to seek a load; the moment an electrical circuit is turned on, the inverter powers up, supplying electricity throughout the house. But this ticking tells Hanron nothing has been left on anywhere in his house and that the power harnessed by his solar panels and stored away in the battery bank is safely resting, along with his two kids.

Hanron his wife Elizabeth Russell, and children Amelia, 9, and Duncan, 6, live in a passive solar house designed and largely built by him. The homestead is situated on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains in Twisp, Washington. The home is designed to function off-grid with a modest photovoltaic system in an area that Hanron describes as "the sunny side of the state." Twisp, however, is not without its bad winters.

Even though initial costs for some renewable energy systems may outweigh the short term costs of going with grid power, many middle-income folks, like the Hanrons, are making the investment anyway. For many, the up-front expense of living off the grid is compensated by the knowledge that the electricity powering their lives has been generated by a non-polluting power source. Also, with the grid being subject to the financial and environmental costs of fossil and nuclear fuels, government regulation, outages and shortages, the initial expense of owning a local power source, free from the point of purchase forward, can spare the owner the grave inconveniences and severe economic strains down the road.

Hanron and his family settled in the Twisp area for many reasons. It provides great opportunities for the outdoor activities they enjoy, like cross-country skiing, biking and hiking. The homestead is within biking distance of the nearest town, which again cuts the Hanron's dependence on fossil fuels. John works in town as an editor for the Methow Valley News, a local newspaper, four days a week. Elizabeth is a physician's assistant and treks to town three days a week. Once a week she drives to another town farther away to work in a clinic for migrant laborers.

The family gardens organically and has been fortifying the soil in their half-acre garden while building the house. Though time has been limited for growing and putting up food, they have made a start at preserving some food in jars and in the root cellar connected to the back of the house.

The Hanrons have lived in both mainstream houses and in off-grid, alternative homes, so the transition to their own homestead hasn't been extreme. While they have not yet installed a washer and dryer, the family uses many regular household appliances like a computer, TV, VCR, food processor and stereo.

The design of both house and homestead was guided by a strong desire to work with nature and tread lightly on the earth. But building is a destructive process by nature, no matter how environmentally friendly the future dwelling may be. "That first day the bulldozer made a cut into the hillside," Hanron reflects, "we realized we were still leaving a footprint."

Home Design

The Hanron-Russell home is a hybrid of several building styles combined to make a unique, if not experimental, structure. "It was a metamorphosis over time of many building techniques," Hanron says. After living in Taos, New Mexico for many years and being exposed to its vibrant alternative-building culture, he was aware of the many architectural possibilities. Hanron initially considered building an earthship-type home, and even participated in the building of one, but he was put off by the extreme labor intensity of ramming earth into more than 900 tires. His own home, however, takes a few cues from that style, incorporating a 200-tire, rammed-earth retaining wall where the structure sets into a hillside. The home also contains a few U-shaped interior rooms, a hallmark feature of energy-efficient homes in general and tire homes in particular.

When asked what motivated the family to build such an ambitious off-grid passive-solar home, Hanron explains that it was his own need to build something that made architectural sense. "My wife would have preferred something turnkey," he confesses." And I suppose, looking back, I could have built a chicken coop to fill [my] need."

But the independent home he has been constructing for the past two years (and designing for two years prior to construction) is no chicken shack. Nestled into a southern-facing slope, it boasts a view of mountains with evergreen forests. Its passive-solar design includes an impressive, 50-foot-long, south-facing wall comprised almost entirely of windows, allowing the sun to enter the structure. The sun's radiant energy passing through the glass warms the room temperature inside while internal structures, such as the brick-on-sand floor that runs inside the length of the south wall, store thermal energy. As the room temperature drops, the floor acts as a radiant heat source, slowly releasing the stored heat into the house and maintaining a warmer living temperature inside as darkness falls and the outside temperature drops.

Since moving in, the Hanrons have recorded the interior temperature, which hovers between 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees with no additional heating or cooling assistance. During the coldest months and extended cloudy spells they have a woodstove to take the edge off, but during sunny periods the house stays warm as long as the family is diligent in covering the large windows at sunset with insulated blankets. Also, Hanron offers brightly, the insulation and sealing work on the structure isn't complete and he anticipates even better results as the construction work continues.

Aside from the rammed-earth tire-retaining wall, Hanron incorporated heavy timber framing for the house's skeleton. The post and beam frame is like a work of art, all intricate and compound angles intersecting and dueling with each other. The Douglas fir timbers were logged and milled locally and a local blacksmith made the metal fasteners for joining the timbers. A crew of three to five men worked full-time for three months to complete the job.

Straw bale building techniques and some wooden framing were used to enclose the walls between the structural posts. The straw bales, finished off with a simple plaster or mortar, enclose large portions of the house's exterior and provide insulation. Amelia and Duncan even got into the wall-covering work routine, becoming skilled mud choppers.

The house has eight sides, but it isn't the symmetrical octagon one might imagine. Rather, the south side is one entire 50-foot-long wall. To the east, the house does have a somewhat yurt-like section that meets with a rectangular outcropping to the west. The overall floor plan resembles a key. Inside, the space is divided into three bedrooms, one bathroom, a utility room (which houses the inverter and battery box), a root cellar and a great room that combines living, kitchen, dining and sunroom spaces.

Even with so many natural-building materials and techniques incorporated into the house's design, Hanron speaks apologetically about the project. "I wasn't able to make the house as green as I wanted to. I had to make compromises in order to keep the building affordable. For example, the south and west walls are insulated with fiberglass instead of cotton batting, which I would have preferred." Hanron looked genuinely embarrassed by the admission.

House Systems

The Hanron-Russell homestead's water comes from a 125-foot well. During sunny spells, a Solar Jack pump powered by two 55-watt photovoltaic panels (separate from the house array) pumps water from the well uphill to a 1,500-gallon storage tank buried in the ground. This water is then piped back down to the house, providing gravity pressure for the family's needs.

Electricity is provided by a 720-watt array, comprised of six 120-watt Astropower panels, which are temporarily on a ground mount. These panels are wired for 24 volts, and charge 12 Trojan L-16 type batteries storing 900 amp hours of electricity. The batteries are located in a vented battery box in the utility room. The inverter is a Trace 4024. The house is wired completely at 120 volts AC.

Grid power already crosses the homestead's land, but the family has chosen not to tap in. However, Hanron hasn't completely written off the possibility. Some day soon he will have the option of selling excess power back to the utilities. "An opportunity worth considering," Hanron offers.

The home's greatest dependency is on propane. The cookstove, water heater and refrigerator are propane appliances, although the fridge can be switched over to 120 volts AC. This is an increasingly perilous habit, as propane has more than doubled in price in just the last year, but the alternatives are few at the moment.

While the Hanron family is making homestead choices unique from the mainstream, they represent a growing number of middle-class Americans who are taking personal responsibility for making their homes more environmentally sound. Through no small strain to finances, relationships and hours in the day, more and more people are building and converting dwellings that simply and wisely incorporate passive-solar architecture and utilize such renewable-energy sources as solar, wind, and microhydro. Any blow felt by a grid-power energy crisis, or spike in the cost of heating fuels, can thus be greatly softened. As for John Hanron, soon his sturdy passive-solar home will be complete, and it will likely meet the majority of his family's needs simply and efficiently for generations to come.

Passive Solar Design

Passive solar refers to design elements in structures that, by the nature of their placement relative to certain environmental factors, are able to heat and/or cool a dwelling without the aid of power appliances like pumps or fans. The most recognizable aspect of this is the greenhouse effect where sunlight passing through a glass or plastic barrier into a closed space raises the interior temperature.

This illustrates the greatest aspect of passive solar systems: their simplicity. By altering the configuration of conventional architectural elements (like walls, floors, eaves, etc.), much of a structure's heating and cooling needs can be met before the first wire is run or the first gallon of heating oil is purchased.

The first step is to consider the environment when choosing a building site and selecting house design and orientation. Keep in mind that the sun rises in the East, spends most of its day in the South and sets in the West, and that the sun travels low across the horizon in winter and higher overhead during the summer months. Taking advantage of this is easily accomplished by, for example, stretching the house lengthwise east/west (as Hanron has done) directing the largest surface of the house toward the sun.

Typical passive solar dwellings incorporate eaves and cantilevers to the south. These overhangs allow the low winter sun full exposure to the glass below them but shade out the higher-traveling summer sun. Likewise, placing a house just north of a deciduous tree provides leaves to block intense summer sun; the same tree's naked winter branches will allow light to reach the house during the cold months.

During daytime hours, solar gain can easily provide all of a house's heating needs. However, glass, with its low insulative value, allows rapid escape of the warmth gained when sunlight isn't present. Covering windows with insulated materials (like quilted curtains) during dark times and adding thermal mass to rooms with solar exposure can overcome this loss. Well-insulated floors and walls, constructed from materials like brick or stone that can store significant amounts of thermal energy, can be used for this purpose. Other thermal collectors, such as barrels of water, may be set into rooms. They slowly heat up throughout the day, and radiate back into the house during the night, maintaining a higher room temperature for longer periods of time.

Passive solar design also can cool a building. Since heat rises, a house equipped with low vents (particularly to the sunless north or attached to vent pipes leading underground before surfacing) receives cool air and, when coupled with high vents or open upstairs windows, also has a cooling interior draft.

John grimaces when asked if he would do it all again. "After two years and all the headaches and learning curves ... probably not. But then there isn't a much better way of learning than building for yourself. Now that it's almost finished," he laughed, "I'm really ready to build myself a house."


Sun

Of course, power usage varies for each family, but generally speaking, a conservation-minded, energy-efficient, three-bedroom home in 2001 could be powered by a $10,000 to $20,000 solar energy system (solar panels will pay for themselves in two to ten years depending on module type and amount of sunlight). There are many different programs available nationally to defray those costs, however. If you live in California, the California Energy Commission has a good buy-down program. Otherwise it is best to contact your local state energy office or go to the National Association of State Energy Officials to access info on your local/state energy department. Also, check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), a comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives and policies that promote renewable energy and energy efficiency.

 — Courtesy of ReaI Goods 


Wind

Total worldwide wind capacity in 2001 is approximately 17,000 MW, enough to generate about 34 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. This is about the same amount of electricity that 5 million average California households (containing 12.5 million people) use.

Wind energy was the world's fastest-growing energy source during most of the 1990s, expanding at annual rates of 25 percent to 35 percent. In 2000, about 3,500 MW of new wind capacity (close to a $4 billion investment) was installed around the world, but only 53 MW of that total, or a little more than 1 percent, was installed in the U.S. However, AWEA expects as much as 2,000 MW of new wind capacity to be installed in the U.S. this year.

Leading states in terms of installed wind capacity today are California (1,646 MW), Minnesota (272 MW), Iowa (242 MW) and Texas (188 MW).

U.S. wind potential is enormous. California could conservatively install an estimated 5,000 MW of wind capacity. Other Western states have much larger potential. For example, Wyoming has a capacity ten times greater than California's. The U.S. is, quite literally, a "Saudi Arabia of wind," with vast
resources throughout the Plains states.

 — Courtesy of American Wind Energy Association 


Water

If you could choose any renewable energy source, hydropower is the one. If you don't want to worry about a conservation-based lifestyle - always watching the voltmeter and basing every appliance decision on energy efficiency then you had better move yourself next to a nice year-round stream! Hydropower, given the right site, can cost as little as a tenth of a PV system of comparable output. Hydropower users are often able to run energy-consumptive appliances, like large, side-by-side refrigerators and electric space heaters, that would bankrupt a PV system owner. It may require more effort to install, but even a modest hydropower output over 24 hours a day, rain or shine, will add up to a large cumulative total. Hydro systems also get by with smaller battery banks because they need only to prepare for the occasional heavy power surge rather than four days of cloudy weather.

The most cost-effective hydro sites are located in the mountains. Hydropower output is determined by water's volume multiplied by its fall (jargon for the fall is "head"). We can get approximately the same power output by running 1,000 gallons per minute through a two-foot drop as by running two gallons per minute through a 1,000-foot drop. In the former scenario, where lots of water flows over a little drop, we are dealing with a low head/high flow situation, which is not truly a microhydro site. There is an effective turbine available for virtually any site.

 — Courtesy of  Real Goods

Read more about water-pumping windmills in Choosing Farm Windmills.


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