Kids Day on the River

Off-Grid Three Ways

as seen in "Solar Today Magazine"

An Alabama neighborhood proves there's more than one way to go solar.

Text and photos by William H. Stevenson III
Published: Feb. 2, 2010

Tucked away in an idyllic tract of woodland in central Alabama is a unique neighborhood of energy-efficient houses. It began 30 years ago as a dream in the minds of a few people. They wanted to build a sustainable community of like-minded individuals. Today that dream is a neighborhood near Blountsville, Ala., with half a dozen eco-friendly homes, three of them powered by the sun. Although the homeowners share a commitment to solar power as part of a sustainable lifestyle, their house designs are as different from each other as are the owners themselves. Truly, there's more than one way to skin a cat, or save a kilowatt! A quick tour of the three solar-powered homes shows some of the many ways in which solar panels can be incorporated into an energy-efficient lifestyle.

Stephen Guesman's converted yurt. When Stephen Guesman erected a yurt on his property in 1981, he little thought that he would one day live in it full time. "It was a weekend cabin," he says. "But I put it on the prime site for a house. So, when it came time to build a permanent structure, I built the house around it." His choice for a house was a modified dodecagon which included the yurt. The house evolved over the years, and he still considers it a work in progress. His use of solar energy also evolved. Starting out with an array consisting of one solar panel and a car battery, he now has a 1.5-kilowatt (kW) array of 12 solar panels. As his needs changed, so did his array. 

"We doubled our energy use when we replaced our propane-powered refrigerator with an electric model," he said. "So we doubled the array." His wife, Martha Hunter, did the research to find the most efficient refrigerator. "I drove the salesgirls crazy with my questions," she recalls. "But it was worth it. The one we bought was so energy efficient that it was beyond the top Energy Star rating." 

The solar array was placed not on the roof but on the lawn. "We're in the country," says Martha. "There's plenty of room. And it would be hard to put solar panels on a conical shaped roof." The ground level location of the array also has the advantage of allowing its orientation to be changed with the seasons to make the best use of the available sunlight. Besides the solar array, the couple has a solar water heater on the roof, and they cook with a solar oven whenever possible.

The solar array produces adequate electrical power because the couple keeps their energy use low. As a green building contractor, Stephen knows the tricks of the trade. "Phantom energy usage is a major consideration for an off-the-grid house," he says. "We have the entertainment unit set up so that when it's off, it's really off. We even use a microwave oven with an analog dial instead of a digital readout." As with all well-designed off- grid houses, this one has generous window area on the south side to take advantage of passive solar heating during the winter, with overhangs above the windows to block direct sunlight during the summer. A generous layer of grape vines on the south walls provides shade during hot weather. "When people visit us in the morning," says Martha, "they say, ‘I didn't know you had air conditioning.' We don't."

The couple doesn't feel that they make any real sacrifices by being off the grid. They have the usual amenities, including TV and stereo. But they have definitely altered their lifestyle in some ways. "When you're off the grid, you become very aware of your energy use," says Stephen. "You are always turning off appliances you aren't using. You don't waste energy."

Daryl Bergquist's clerestory house. Keeping cool in an Alabama summer is a challenge. But given the high energy requirements of air conditioning, an off-the-grid house needs to keep this to a minimum. No one knows this better than Daryl Bergquist, a solar system designer and installer. When building a solar-powered house for himself and his wife Sara Rose, he used passive heating and cooling as much as possible. "We have clerestory windows to bring in direct sunlight in the winter for heat," he says. "And in the summer, they give diffuse light without heating up the house. Above the windows there is a cupola for ventilation. We also have two screened porches at either end of the house for cross ventilation." One of the porches doubles as a sleeping room in mild weather. 

All of Daryl's solar panels are installed on the roof, 12 on the lower roof and nine on the cupola for a total output of about 2 kW. "There are a lot of trees near the house," he says. "Putting the panels on the roof gives them some elevation, out of the shade, into the sun." 

Like the Guesman house, the Bergquist house has evolved over the years. "We started out as a passive solar on-the-grid house," Daryl says. "But we always planned to add solar panels." Although still on the grid, the house used a total of only 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) from the public utilities in 2008. "We're going to use more in 2009," Darryl says. "Probably 300 kWh. After years of dry weather, this was a rainy year." One feature of the house is its use of low-power LED lights, such as a 3-watt desk lamp, a 6-watt kitchen sink lamp and a string of lights under the ceiling. LEDs furnish about half the lighting. Traditional lamps do have their uses, however. A 250-watt heat lamp warms the bathroom in winter. A solar water heater also helps minimize their electrical use. "We have a DC-pumped drain-back system," Daryl explains. "It provides all of our hot water with a little help from our wood stove in the winter." Although Daryl and Sara do use an air conditioner occasionally during the summer (more for de-humidifying than for cooling), they find that their refrigerator is their biggest energy hog. Along this line, our final example of a solar-powered house has one feature that pushes refrigerator technology about as far as it can go. 

Alden Brindle's straw bale house. Viewed from the outside, this house appears to be a charming adaptation of a southwestern style design. Look inside the walls and you'll see something unusual. "We chose straw bale insulation for several reasons," says owner Alden Brindle. "It's a good insulator, insects don't eat it and it's fire resistant. Compressed straw bale won't burn. Ever try to burn a phone book? This is like a phone book covered with concrete." Like the Guesman house, this one has its solar array on the lawn. "The concrete tiles on the roof are too fragile for mounting solar panels," Alden explains. "And there are some trees nearby that would have shaded them." 

Alden started out with eight solar panels. He now has 30, for a total output of 1.8 kW. Twice a year, he adjusts the angle of the panels using a system of his own design. "It's a two-man job," he says, "but easy to do. Just take bolts out of the frame, move the panels, and put the bolts in different holes."

Alden took his time designing the house. A nuclear engineer, he went about it in an analytical fashion, jotting down ideas, making sketches, and talking about them with neighbor Daryl Bergquist. "It was a long process," he recalls. "Perhaps I overdid it. Sometimes my brain hurt." 

Be that as it may, the inside of the Brindle house shows the ingenuity of the owners as well as their commitment to green homebuilding. Much of the interior wood was harvested on their own property, beautifully polished but left in its natural shape. This is a house with character. The Brindles adapted their house as they learned more about living off the grid. Adding an air conditioner to combat humidity required beefing up the solar array. Finding that their household refrigerator was a major energy consumer, they put a custom-built, super-efficient 40-cubic-foot refrigerator/freezer in the basement cold room, which doubles as a root cellar. 

Unlike the other solar-powered houses in the neighborhood, this one doesn't have a solar water heater. The solar array heats the water when there is a surplus of power, and there is a propane heater backup for particularly inclement stretches. The backup heater doesn't get much use, averaging only about one week a year. 

Alden doesn't think he gives up anything by being off the grid but does make some allowances. "During the winter the hot water may not always be hot," he says. "But it's warm, as warm as we need it to be."

As we have seen, the Blountsville solar-powered houses have very different designs: a converted yurt, a clerestory window design and a Southwest-style straw bale house. As different as they are from each other, all of these houses share certain features that are essential in making an off-the-grid house practical. Some of the most important design elements:

Minimize heating and cooling requirements.

Orientation. Passive solar heating is provided by generous glazing on the south side. Overhangs are placed above the windows and are deep enough to block summer sunlight but shallow enough to let it stream in during the winter. Further summer cooling can be provided by the shade of leafy vines growing on the south walls and roof. Or deciduous shade trees can be planted near the house. But not too near! Remember, trees grow, and you don't want them growing through walls and foundations. When planting trees, allow an offset distance from the house appropriate for a full-grown tree. 

Ventilation. Cooling during hot weather is enhanced by cross ventilation. Windows should be double- or triple-paned to minimize heat loss during cold months.
Insulation. It doesn't have to be straw bales, but it should be efficient. A well-insulated house takes less energy to heat and cool and doesn't experience extreme temperature swings during the twenty-four hour day-night cycle.

Minimize energy consumption.

No vampires. What could be more useless than an appliance that sucks electricity when it's turned off? This is like a faucet that drips hot water. Fortunately, well-placed power strips make it easy to keep phantom energy drains out of a house.

Energy-efficient appliances. If a refrigerator keeps food just as cold with half the power, why not buy it? If a light bulb gives off the same amount of light on one-fourth the power, why not use it? Even after considering the higher upfront cost of some energy-efficient alternatives, a homeowner is usually better off going with them; the savings in lower energy costs more than pay him back in the long run. The advantage to an off-the-grid homeowner is even greater; not only will he save money, but he will be able to rely more on solar power and less on backup systems. 

Lifestyle changes. As Stephen Guesman points out, living off the grid leads inevitably to a mindset geared toward conservation. This is not a matter of getting by with fewer amenities; it's a matter of living just as well with less energy. Turning off appliances that are not being used is easy to do, once you are properly motivated. And nothing motivates energy conservation like living in an off-the-grid home.

As our brief tour of the Blountsville neighborhood shows, solar energy is versatile enough to be incorporated into a diverse array of homes. The three houses surveyed are only a small sampling of possible designs, but their variety gives some idea of the promise and potential that solar energy holds for the future.

About the Author: Bill Stevenson is a chemist and freelance writer living in Huntsville, Ala. His articles have appeared in "Baltimore" magazine, "Toastmaster," "Mother Earth News," and "Today's Chemist at Work." There are no solar panels on his house, but he does have solar-powered footlights on his driveway and geothermal cooling helps keep him cool during Alabama summers.


Editor's note: The first subjects of this article are FLFR's past and present board members Martha Hunter and Stephen Guesman. Their home is close to the Locust Fork in Blount County.