Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.
Before we even began the discussion about solar panels vs. wind turbines vs. ground-source heat pumps vs. woodstove, Tyler and I first considered design and efficiency. We chose to build our house smaller than the average new U.S. home, because the less space we build means the less space we have to heat and cool. We are modeling our house design on passive solar design principles, including in selecting the house site and orientation, window placement and overhang, and insulation. We know that having an efficient, well-insulated structure will reduce our need for energy consumption. (Don’t worry: How to select and choose from the many renewable energy sources will get more play in later posts; this is meant to serve as an introduction to the topic.)
Currently, we are looking into renewable energy sources. Based on the cost of connecting a pipe to the natural gas line and running it our future home, and our general distaste for fracking and drilling for natural gas in the area, we are going to have a propane tank put in for the two items we need gas to run (our stove and the water heater’s pilot light). To power everything else, and to really minimize how much propane we need to use, we’re looking at a mix of wood, solar and maybe even wind to supplement.
A quick note: We did consider staying off-grid entirely; however, we don’t have the capital or the skills to outright purchase and install the systems that would be required. Kansas currently allows for net metering, so we’ll be able to “sell” out home-produced energy to the grid.
Wood heat. This, to us, is a no-brainer. We own several acres of woods and are committed to sustainably harvesting from this space to supply our woodstove and heat our home (see the beginnings of Tyler's wood-splitting accomplishments above). With a 95-percent efficient propane furnace as backup, and with the incredibly clean-burning and efficient woodstoves on the market, we’re totally sold and have planned the stove’s central location into our house design. Coming home and building a fire in our woodstove is something we’ve wanted to do for comfort and enjoyment, in addition to the self-sufficient, practical reasons. We will move in to a house equipped with a stove, which is one of the “really cool things about our house” that gives us the energy to work through the more hairy details. We have yet to begin the search for the best woodstove.
Solar panels. A local company, Cromwell Solar, has partnered with a local bank to provide leasing arrangements for solar panels. We are planning to pursue this option, as the upfront cost of solar panels, while declining steadily over time, is possibly too high for our budget. However, with the leasing, we will have the option to buy out the panels at a later date. We are looking into the options with Good Energy Solutions, and a combined solar-wind system that incorporates products from Pika Energy as well.
Wind turbine. Our land has a hill; a large, steep hill surrounded by open space on all sides. Our woods are a good distance from the top of the hill, so the site seems nearly ideal for a home wind turbine. We haven’t looked into the details of this option much, but we have done some reading on home wind power and are currently exploring Bergey wind turbines. Ideally, we’d have both wind and solar, so we have a variety of renewable energy sources to run not only our house, but our future barn, electric power equipment and tractors, and so on. By having more than one option, we increase our energy security and, obviously, the amount of renewable energy we provide for ourselves and back to the grid. This would likely be installed at a later date, due to cost limitations, but we are looking into federal tax credits to make this a more feasible option (keep reading for more on these credits).
Geothermal. Right now, as we’re still not to the point of pouring a foundation, is an ideal time to consider ground-source heat pumps. The initial cost is steep and, even with a federal tax rebate incentive, out of reach financially for us. If you are interested in geothermal, however, this incentive, as I read it, would provide you with a good chunk of change back as part of your first tax return after you install the system.
For information on tax credits for all of the renewable energy sources considered above, you can refer to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE). We plan to continue to look into the credits and other incentive options as we move forward. Stay tuned!
Photo by Tyler Gill of the wood pile he has started. He is cutting up a fallen oak tree so that we'll have a stockpile of dry wood ready for the woodstove next winter.
Next in the series: How Do We Finalize Our Home Construction Loan?
Previously in the series: Land Survey Plat Update: How Did We Work with a Planning Department and 2 County Commissions?
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!