Off the Grid

Winter 1998-1999

By Jane Lamb

“It doesn’t make sense for us to have a big garden when we have Dad’s right across the street,“ says Rebecca Haines, who grew up on her father’s, Austin Moore’s, Uncas Farm in North Whitefield. Instead, she and her husband, Fred, have put their environmental concerns into building a self-sufficient solar-powered home on a sunny hilltop on former family farmland. Rebecca also helps manage the farm store, which keeps her in close touch with the land and its organic produce.

“Building a self-sufficient home was in the back of my mind a long time,” says Fred Haines, “ever since I stumbled upon an environmental economics course in college.” Fred majored in business and minored in economics at UMass Amherst. He and Rebecca met seven years ago when she was earning a degree in communications at Emerson College. They were married four years ago “We’ve always tried to live fairly lightly on the planet,” Fred says. When they had the opportunity to buy “the most perfect” house site on family property and met Greg Roberts of Design Concepts at the Common Ground Fair, latent dreams moved quickly toward solid reality. Construction began in May of 1997, and the Haineses moved into their snug, off-the-grid home the following November.

“Actually, “ says Rebecca, “I didn’t move here till the end of May.” She stayed at her job in Boston over the winter, coming to Whitefield most weekends, unless Fred drove in the other direction. After seven years of working in banking in the Boston area, he had landed a job in the finance department of the Waldoboro Bank and was on hand to supervise the building process. “So we were sort of moving for a year,” Rebecca continues. “It was hard, but the weeks were so busy and we both had jobs so we barely saw each other anyway. We missed each other and it was hard to have a new house and not to be here much. But we knew it was temporary and would end. And it was worth it.”

Neither Snow Nor Ice

The Great Ice Storm of 1998 came along just in time to put the Haines’s 2,000-square-foot, super-insulated, independently-powered house to the ultimate test on its maiden winter. Although they bought a generator to run power tools during construction and in case of an emergency, such as long, sunless weeks, they never had to use it last winter. They even felt a little guilty enjoying life as usual while neighbors tried to cope with power outages. If needed, the generator could be used to charge up the solar system’s batteries or to run something such as the water pump or a power tool directly. “This winter will be a test, with two of us here,” Fred says, “but I still don’t think we’ll have to use it.” Their solar collector – twenty 75-watt panels mounted on two poles on the south slope beside the house – is considered a big one. “We wanted to try to do it so we could have enough electricity year-round,” Fred points out. “A lot of people use a smaller system with a generator during the winter to supplement the power demand.”

The panels generate four to six kilowatt hours per day (depending on the number of sunny days and the season) to run all the lights in the house, radio, television, computer, pumps, circulating fans and specially designed appliances. The only power source purchased from outside is propane for the kitchen stove, the clothes dryer (which requires electricity to start and spin) and the water heater. The latter also supplies the radiant floor heating throughout the downstairs and for the upstairs bathroom. Super insulation and the heat sink, provided by tile floors over the cement slab in which the pipes are embedded, make it possible to heat the house with 75- to 90-degree water, depending on the outdoor temperature. During the heating season, the floor surface remains at 82 degrees and a constant indoor temperature of 70 degrees is maintained. The entire floor of the house is one big radiator, Greg Roberts explains. No furnace required! Solar power runs the pump that constantly circulates water.

“It’s a nice system (from Heatway of Springfield, Mo.),” Greg says, adding that the Haines’s house presented more than the usual challenges. His custom homes are usually hooked up to the power grid, but even their highly efficient designs use too much power for a photo-voltaic system. “We had to find a lot of alternatives. You have to assess everything in a house to use less energy. Nothing is taken for granted.”

Unique Construction

Greg adapted the box-beam construction method to design the unique 12-inch “studs” that give the exterior walls an insulation value of R-45. Instead of the usual means of creating a deep cavity to be filled with insulation – double 2×4 walls or costly 2×6 or 2×8 studs – he rips standard 2x4s in half and nails 12-inch wide sheets of OSB (oriented strand board) on opposite sides to form a sandwich that is stuffed with cellulose insulation, as are the spaces between the studs. The result is greater insulation value (R-45) with less expensive materials, standard in all of Greg’s houses. Thanks to a special roof-joist design, the Haines house has 24-inch ceilings with an R-value of 84, even more than his usual designs (R-75).

Fred Haines likes the fact that OSB, which is stronger than ordinary chip board, offers the additional ecological benefit of using a waste product. “If there’s the possibility of gases escaping from the glue, the interior vapor barrier throughout the house prevents that,“ he points out. There’s also a vapor barrier underneath the slab foundation, which should keep radon from entering the house, a definite concern, since it sits on granite ledge. The slab design conveniently avoids the question of blasting for a foundation. Two-inch, closed cell polystyrene insulation under the slab and extending 2 feet beyond the walls replaces the conventional 4-foot frost wall. A spacious loft over the unheated two-car garage takes the place of basement storage space.

Besides converting solar energy into electricity, the Haines’s house is designed for as much passive solar gain as possible. The two big casement windows in the living room face magnetic south. (The solar collectors, which Fred has to adjust by hand four times a year as the angle of the sun changes, face true south.). Above the living room, smaller casements look out of the master bedroom over the same south-facing view of fields and farm, and two big skylights pour winter sunshine on the bed. “The bed is always nice and warm,“ Rebecca notes. The Anderson windows are double-pane low-E argon. While only the bathroom upstairs has a radiant-heated tile floor, the two upstairs bedrooms receive sufficient heat through the spruce-boarded living room ceiling that also serves as the upstairs flooring.

Light pervades the entire interior, with its off-white walls and blond birch floors, woodwork and kitchen cabinets, creating a sunny atmosphere even in north-facing rooms. However, the siting of the building is such that summer sunshine does not penetrate within, even though there is no roof overhang. The prebuilt trusses for its high, wide, classic farmhouse gables were installed with a crane. Greg Roberts and his three-man crew did all the building. Fred and Rebecca only took on the jobs of shingling and staining the siding and painting the trim themselves. They purchased shingles from Seven Islands Land Management Company.

Engineered to the Last Detail

This winter Fred plans to install a wood stove on the waiting hearth in the living room. Pipes are in place in case he decides to preheat water with the wood fire. A duct in the chimney stands ready to deliver outdoor air to the stove so that it won’t suck warm air out of the house. And that’s not the only duct. The business-like back wall of the ell that connects house and garage sprouts an array of hooded ducts worthy of an ocean liner, all emanating from the control center behind the wall. Fred identifies a few. “Those are the air intake and vent for the water heater, that one is the exhaust for the battery bank, that one for the dryer. The top vent is the exhaust from the heat exchanger. Greg always builds a fresh air and heat exchanger into his homes,” he adds. The vapor barriers and super insulation make such houses so tight that air quality is a major concern. Fresh air vents are located on upper walls just below the ceiling. Fans in the kitchen and bathrooms exhaust the warm air.

Behind a door in the entrance hallway, the up-to-date, high-tech complexity of the utility room contrasts ironically with the elemental simplicity of the energy source that powers it – the timeless sun. A small monitor on the wall outside the door offers a quick take on whether the system is charging or discharging. Inside the sealed room, with its own ventilating system, a maze of panels, pipes and wires belies the uncluttered tranquility of the house it runs with such quiet efficiency.

Electricity comes in from the solar collectors via underground cable. A big plywood box houses 20 deep-cycle lead acid storage batteries, designed to draw down further than the typical car battery before recharging. Since they produce a gas as they charge, the box has its own ventilating fan. Their main purpose is to store electricity for nights and cloudy days when the sun can’t keep up with household use. In the ceiling big ducts carry heated indoor air and fresh outdoor air into the heat exchanger, which recovers 75 per cent of the heat from outgoing heated air. The water heater occupies its corner, and a wall panel beggars the descriptive powers of the lay person. One thing it includes is the all-important inverter, which turns direct current (DC) coming from the solar panels to alternating current (AC) for most household purposes. And here things get interesting. Most of the house is standard AC wiring, but, as Fred explains, “When you have something that runs a lot, like the circulator pump [for the radiant heat] and the refrigerator, they run off DC, because the inverter uses 15 watts of power when its on.” The fans of the air exchanger are also DC, but the one-third horsepower well pump is AC. “You can get a DC water pump, but it’s more expensive and the maintenance is higher,” Fred adds.

Low-Energy Appliances

“All our appliances were bought for energy conservation,” Rebecca says. “They tend to cost a little more, but you can get much more efficient appliances, which will pay for themselves easily over a lifetime, regardless of whether you’re off the utility grid or not. Most [of them] you can buy at a regular appliance store, if you look for energy efficient ones.” The Haines’s appliances that are designed specially to run off solar systems were purchased through Peter Talmadge of Talmadge Solar Engineering of Kennebunk­port, who also supplied the entire solar electrical system.

The Sun Frost refrigerator uses about half the electricity of the most efficient one on the regular market, Fred says. Several unusual features help account for its $2,500 price tag. It has two compressors, while most fridges have only one. The compressors are located on top of the unit, not underneath as in standard models. Compressors put out a lot of heat, which goes up in the air instead of up through the fridge. “It makes sense,” Fred says, “and there’s no reason why the big manufacturers couldn’t put out ones as efficient as this, but mostly people don’t even think about it.” The freezer is also on top, so cool air comes down into the refrigerator. Insulation is extra thick (see picture). The Sun Frost is not self-defrosting. “I moaned about it at first,” says Rebecca, “but it’s pretty easy to defrost.” Fred notes that anyone looking for an efficient fridge should consult the American Council on Energy Efficiency (located in California), which lists a wide range of what’s available.

The propane cook stove has electronic ignition – no pilot to use up gas. The Asko dishwasher uses only eight or nine gallons of water, about half as much as a conventional dishwasher. In the laundry, the Staber washer is one of the first American-made machines to run on a horizontal axis. It spins vertically and uses about 22 gallons of water per load, a third of what a conventional washer uses. Its very high speed spin cycle leaves clothes much dryer, thus using less energy to run the dryer. Rebecca can’t wait to get an outdoor clothesline, put off until the exterior trim is finished.

Nearly every light bulb in the house is compact fluorescent. “The newer ones have gotten much smaller, with round bulbs,” Rebecca notes. “It’s a bit of a challenge to find them sometimes. The big ones look pretty funny, but we use them anyway.” Thrifty use of power in all its applications is ever on the Haines’s minds. “If you have cloudy days, or the weather forecast is for rain, you take it into account,” says Rebecca. “You think about it when you vacuum, wash, run the dishwasher, play music.” An unsuspected but important drain on energy is phantom load, “everything that uses electricity 24 hours of day and you don’t even think about it,” as Fred points out. “TV, stereo equipment, stove timer, alarm clock, cordless phone, answering machine, anything with cubes uses electricity even when off. It’s a significant amount of juice when you’re off the grid, so everything in the house that uses phantom load is on a switch. “There’s a switch next to the stereo outlet, another next to the microwave, the computer. They use a battery alarm clock. “Basically, when we go to bed at night, nothing is using electricity. We knew about it ahead of time so we designed the wiring with switches. Phantom load can add up to one to two kilowatt hours a day. On a smaller solar system, that could be your entire day’s production.”

Counting the Cost

Greg Roberts says he can build a super-insulated solar house, including the radiant core heating, for about the same price as a quality, conventional, custom one. “We compete very well in the market place with builders of custom homes, “ he says, “because that’s what we do. We can control costs because we’ve developed a system that we can duplicate from project to project. We don’t have to think about it.”

The Haines’s solar electrical system has an additional cost of its own, however. “It’s a big up-front cost “ Fred says. “ It’s tough to estimate how long it would take for the pay-back. In my opinion, our system is not cost-beneficial. To be putting in a solar system, you have to really want to do it for the environment.“

“We’re so far back from the road, “Rebecca adds, “that the cost of putting in lines would have been a major expense – $6,000 to put in a power line, $9,000 for underground. That would buy you a small system, that costs five to fifteen thousand, depending on the size and number of batteries. Over a long time, it could pay for itself maybe, depending on what the utility rates do. But certainly the appliances would pay for themselves, some of them in less than five years.”

“People ask how we can spend so much money to get off the power grid, but it’s all priorities,” says Fred. “Some people go out and buy a new car or truck and spend $25,000. We spent it on solar panels. We decided we’d rather put it into building a self-sufficient home. I think most people don’t understand where power comes from. The ice storm was quite an awakening.”

“The interesting thing,” says Rebecca, “is that none of the conservation measures have been any kind of inconvenience. You can use things when­ever you need to. Lights always come on when you flip the switch. You have to be more conscious of what you’re using, but that’s a good thing. You’re just more aware of what a lot of people take for granted. Solar power is not for everyone, and it’s not cost-effective for a lot of people, but …”

Fred completes her thought. “… but there’s promise there. The price of solar panels has been coming down. They’re finding new ways of manufacturing panels. From what I’ve read, photo-voltaic manufacturing plants in the United States are running full tilt. The majority of production is being exported overseas.”

Though they moved at a deliberate pace once they decided to build, the Haineses didn’t rush into anything. They did a lot of research and planning. Environmental and financial concerns were given thorough consideration. As Rebecca observes. “We haven’t made any big sacrifices, any major changes in our lifestyle.” She enjoys working with her father in the farm store where all the produce is organic and other products for sale are carefully screened. “I love being able to work with good foods and health issues,” she says. If she had it to do over again, she would have become a professional nutritionist. She expects to work at a temporary job through the winter so she can spend her summers in the store.

Fred continues in the banking business, but in a decidedly different milieu from metropolitan Boston. The Waldoboro Bank, established in the 1890s, remains a local entity, a low-traffic, pastoral commute from North Whitefield. His dream of self-sufficiency has become his reality and his avocation, as his enthusiastic guided tour of the house attests. “It’s great to let people know more about energy conservation, get them interested, see them using it” he says.

About the author: Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, is now retired in California.

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