How We Purchased an Older Rural Home and Transitioned to Self Sufficiency

Reader Contribution by Paul Kuenn
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In 1987, my fiancé Jude purchased a 1960s house surrounded by grass within walking distance of city center in an Appleton, Wisconsin. The house and yard were not my ideal vision of a home. I was raised as a farm kid and spent the previous seven years as a climbing guide. It was a drafty, cold house with nothing to look at outside.

Faced with a tight budget, we started with interior repairs, added extra insulation in the attic and dug a small garden in the backyard. Looking back, this would be considered “bliss”.

Soil-Building and Solarizing

Transforming the yard. Armed with a spade, I turned over the compacted clay yard while adding compost. Fiberglass pods I had built served us well by extending the growing season. While trees I planted grew, I had to be more selective so plants would find maximum sunlight. Over the years, half of the yard became native perennials — the other half was used for food. For color, hundreds of tulips and daffodils brightened spring.

Energy efficiency and solar heating. In 2000, double-pane windows were installed while replacing roofing and siding. Jude was smart enough to hire a contractor even with my building-trade background. She wanted it done quickly. In 2006, I took solar installation courses at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. I befriended Rob Ryf of Solar Heating Services who helped me install our solar-domestic hot water (SDWH) system with a gas-fired, on-demand unit as a back-up to the new solar thermal collector and 50-gallon domestic hot water (DHW) tank.

One winter day, I noticed cobwebs waving in the basement. On investigation, I saw the backyard through a gap between the sill band and concrete. “I’m heating the backyard!” Running to the garage to find caulk, I noticed the wind swinging power lines across shingles. Changes were needed to make this a comfortable home and keep hard-earned pay in our own pockets.

Solar PV. During the 2007 summer, I added an adjustable rack to the garage for a 1.5-kW PV system. I’d also started removing the siding and digging a 5-foot-deep trench around the basement. Tools were powered by my portable solar teaching display.

Adding much-needed insulation. In the attic, I sealed all holes with my 32-inch foam gun. Keep in mind: With a hip roof, the nails from the roofing are sticking into your head even while you are laying prone five feet from the outer walls. It was a filthy and tiresome job.

I didn’t have the ambition to dig down to the basement footings, so recycled EPS 8-by-4-foot sheets were glued sideways to the upper foundation. I also laid down 2-inch XPS outwards from the wall just under the top layer of dirt surrounding the basement. After attic sealing, we blew in 16 inches of cellulose. I installed 2 inches of EPS on all outside walls. We had enough leftover old vinyl siding to make up for the new dimensions of the house. By September, I was building the PV array rack.

While upgrading our main electric panel, I dug a 100-foot-long trench for utility lines, avoiding my plantings. With cold hands, I completed the PV rack on the garage roof and wired up the array. Our solar power was commissioned on December 7th and the next day, 8 inches of snow fell.

Water harvesting. The following year, I built a hoop house out of recycled materials with a straw bale north wall. All could be removed in spring. We count on food storage for winter use. We also directed rainwater into two buried recycled tanks along with above ground barrels to give us 1,600 gallons of storage for hot summer days and a credit on our water bill.

We were locked into a 10-year utility contract that did not permit me to increase solar output. I could counter that by adding a 2-kW, non-grid-tied system with battery storage. We also decided to add three solar thermal panels for heating.

Completing the Transition Off Fossil Fuels

2010: Biking to work every day, I wanted to rid ourselves of fossil fuel. The 1988 furnace would be given away. The unfinished basement provided an opportunity for in-floor radiant heating. It took friends and Jude to get the under-floor tubing in place and insulated.

One collector came damaged, so we would start winter with three collectors. The fourth would eventually show up the next spring. An air-source heat pump was added to supply heat to the DHW tank while the on-demand unit would temporarily back up the floor heating.

By the spring of 2011, two tanks were installed for floor heating. In summer, hot water from these tanks could be cycled through a radiator to cool tanks and dry the damp basement. Rob added an electric on-demand mini boiler to replace the gas unit. With the cold season approaching, I asked the utility to remove the gas meter.

Roofing on the house and garage were replaced with recycled rubber/plastic slate tiles that would provide clean runoff for garden water storage. They are also hail proof! By November, the fourth solar thermal collector arrived just as roofers where wrapping up.

The first quarter of 2012 was very mild and allowed me to use remaining tiles to re-roof the garage. The new PV system ran the heat pump when cloudy. An adjustable rack allowed me to tilt the panels to absorb more sunlight when the sun is as low as 23 degrees above the horizon and easily shed snow. With the additional PV and solar thermal, we had more cash on hand and enjoyed warm feet and no dust bunnies.

Winter 2013 to 2014 was one of our coldest winters. I logged 15 days below -17 degrees Fahrenheit riding to work. North bedroom walls were cold. Alaskan’s use REMOTE walls (Residential Exterior Membrane Outside insulation Technique). Well, we have about the same weather as Anchorage. It took a bit of courage to plead my case but Jude knew what it meant to me.

By March, I had found recycled EPS. Yes, history repeats itself. Off went the siding and a new shallower trench was dug along the foundation. I purchased a pair of heat recovery ventilators as I was going to be sealing the house even tighter.

A contractor sprayed the entire perimeter of the attic with closed-cell foam. I added two additional layers of EPS to the outside walls for a total of R-35. By August, I was building out the windows and doors. With zero temps by mid-November, I had to be careful nailing on the siding so it wouldn’t explode into pieces.

Time to Step Back and Assess

After three years, the hot water systems are efficient and effective. With 4.7 hours per day of solar isolation, the PV system does well covering our energy use. All systems are automated so there is not much thinking involved.

I captured more solar power in 2016 when I moved my old grape vines away from the garage. I built a new arbor for them to shade my van and block the view of my neighbor’s house. This new array has its own charger for the existing battery storage. With this additional 2.1-KW system, we’re able to power more household appliances during the winter.

I feel fortunate to have the time for gardening again. With extra solar power in summer, I added a pumped water feature in the garden.

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