Renewable Energy Expert Builds Off-Grid, Debt-Free Home

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Photo courtesy Paul Scheckel
The author, renewable-energy expert Paul Scheckel, scavenged used solar panels to power his house.

In the spring of 1991, I bought a piece of land in rural Vermont with a friend, which we split into two lots. I set up two tent platforms — one for sleeping and the other for a shared kitchen tent. The kitchen tent had a propane gas refrigerator and cookstove. Thankfully, there were no codes or building inspectors to please in this rural area. I had very little money to work with, and my only power tool was a circular saw. All proceeds from my two or three part-time jobs went to food and lumber. I thought perhaps I could have an enclosed shell to live in before winter. Doing 90 percent of the work myself, I was way off on that estimate!

The design was as basic as my carpentry skills — a two-story, 1,500-square-foot rectangle with a triangle on top, and very simple trim details. I scavenged old windows, leftover materials from large construction sites, and kept a close eye on garage sales for deals. Much of the lumber I used is rough-cut material from local trees and local sawmills. The property is far from utility power, so for both financial and altruistic reasons my home is now powered by sun and wind. I was even able to scavenge used solar panels, a DC water pump, and batteries from other off-grid homeowners who were upgrading. The experience of designing and installing my off-grid power system gave me the confidence to go into the renewable energy business on my own.

My home and my friend’s home share a common water well and pump, septic system, driveway, and land. We also shared labor and other resources among friends in what I now call “the homesteaders club.” The camaraderie and assistance with the hard, heavy and thankless jobs were the seeds of a lasting community. It’s difficult to estimate the cost of building because it was accomplished one stick and one dollar at a time over a period of about 20 years. In fact, it’s difficult to tell whether the house is complete yet, or whether we have slipped from construction phase into maintenance phase without noticing. We’ve changed, modified or upgraded many things as time and money allow.

Building your own home is a huge challenge. Nothing is ever as fast or as cheap as expected. For me, living on a construction site for 20 years was a reasonable alternative to paying a mortgage for 20 years. I recall spending lots of time dealing with rainy weather, and dealing with the stress of the overwhelming amount of work ahead of me. At one point I was tempted to take the money I had saved for my roof and invest it in buying a Civil War-era submarine with a fellow homesteader. It was a great piece of history that we thought might have greater value than the asking price. Thankfully, I chose to invest in my home rather than antiques. The trick I finally learned to deal with the stress was to not look at the giant pile of material and to take things in achievable, bite-sized bits: “Today I will frame one window.”

I’m glad I had the experience, and it’s gratifying to see tangible accomplishments at the end of each day. I really got to feel into the space I was creating without being rushed to make decisions required of a fast-paced construction crew. If I were to do this again, I would spend a little more time and money to do things properly rather than quickly. The shortcuts I took 20 years ago are the things that have created the most headaches today. Oh, and I would have put the porch on much sooner!

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Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook: Your Guide to Getting Off the Grid. He and his family have lived off-grid in Vermont for more than 20 years. Visit Paul on the web.