Off-grid paradise

Foothills couple live sustainably and in style

Sun catcher

Sun catcher

Photo By greg kallio

Sustainable Space columnists Lori Brown and Greg Kallio are professors in the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management at Chico State University.

Jumping-off point
Living off the grid and producing your own clean energy can be an empowering and liberating experience. Think about it—no reliance on fossil-fueled power plants, no monthly electricity or gas bills, and no power outages. These are typical motivators that drive people to unplug from conventional power sources.

But sometimes the decision is a geographic necessity. Such is the case for Dr. Jeff Thomas, Tessa Vandermeijden and family, who found their Shangri-La in the foothills above Chico amongst the blue oaks, gray pines and springtime wildflowers. They were too far from the nearest PG&E connection, so going off-grid was the only viable choice for them.

Impressive abode!
The couple’s home is really the ultimate in energy self-reliance. Electricity is supplied by a 5,760-watt photovoltaic (PV) system, providing power to the house and to pump water from their 500-foot-deep well to a 2,800 gallon storage tank. A small wind turbine is mounted on the roof of their garage, but it is more of a novelty than a serious power-producer.

An impressive “control room” at the back of their garage houses a Solar-One 48-volt 1,690-amp-hour battery bank, two Outback MX-60 charge controllers, two 5,500-watt Xantrex inverters, and many other electrical boxes for fuse protection, switching, disconnecting and monitoring. The room also houses a back-up propane-fired electric generator that is used about 60-80 hours per year to maintain battery charge during long storm events.

Maximum efficiency
Above all, energy conservation is the key to living off the grid without breaking the bank. One dollar’s worth of energy conservation can save three to five dollars in energy-generation equipment costs. Jeff and Tessa certainly have taken this to heart by designing many energy-efficient features into their home—a single-story, super-insulated, square-footprint structure with a unique center courtyard that augments daylighting, summertime cooling and wintertime solar gain. The courtyard is covered with a 90-percent blocking sunshade in the summer to reduce the cooling load. Due to the energy-conserving design, a low-energy evaporative cooler is sufficient for air conditioning.

The building envelope consists of 10-inch-thick Rastra block walls (a concrete-polystyrene composite) and an attic space with 18 inches of blown fiberglass. A low-angle, concrete tile roof with 5-foot overhangs shades the house from the summer sun, while the plentiful south-facing windows allow the winter sun to passively heat the interior. A beautiful, acid-stained and scored concrete floor provides thermal mass and comfort for all seasons.

It is surprising that nearly all space heating is supplied by a small, low-emission wood stove. Supplemental heating is provided by a hot-water radiant system embedded in the concrete floor slab. Water for the radiant system is heated by roof-mounted, flat-plate solar collectors, which also provide hot water for other uses. The solar collectors typically provide 100 percent of all hot-water needs from late spring through fall.

Nature house

Photo By Greg Kallio

Respecting nature
Jeff and Tessa know that sustainable living also means adapting to the local environment. This is evident by drought-tolerant landscaping, natural hardscapes such as rock fencing, and having an adequate defensible space against wildfire. The latter was tested last June when the Humboldt Wildfire literally burned around their home without its incurring any damage!

La Dolce Vita
Jeff and Tessa’s home is a testament that one’s quality of life can be as good as—or better than—living connected to the grid. The couple hired a company to design and install a power system. If you are considering off-grid living, realize that it takes commitment: At least one person in the household must learn the function of all components in order to monitor and maintain its safe operation. For more information about off-grid living, check out the online Home Power magazine,