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 Independent Home glyph: home, sun, wind, water

The New Independent Home

     by Michael Potts
from chapter 5 :

Urban Energy Treasures:
Berta Nelson's story

     Berta is one of America's energy treasures. She lives right in the middle of a small town in Connecticut, yet she has taken firm control of her energy destiny. To accomplish this takes effort and consciousness, and Berta has plenty of both. She makes the point that careful attention to the energy we use, and attention to finding better, less wasteful ways, can make sense.
     My main issue all my life has been electricity. I was born and raised in Seattle, where my dad was an engineer. He loved rivers. He was always telling us about great construction projects. One I remember particularly was the Grand Coulee Dam. He worked for the state department of fish and game, and we used to drive all over the state looking at his fish ladders. I grew up thinking in terms of how many gallons it took to make a kilowatt, and about those fish ladders, so I've been really shocked to learn that they don't work. Oh, Dad, if you only knew! It just proves that we have to be more holistic in our thinking.

[[ picture: Berta, her PVs and house ]]

     I was ten or twelve and very excited when I finally got to Grand Coulee. When I got there, I was so disappointed! The technology was so brutal and archaic. All that cement! Huge machines! I remember thinking, there's got to be a better, gentler way to get electricity out of a river. I imagined some sort of cable that could be laid down the river so the crawdads and gravel could live right beside it, if we only had something sensitive enough to pick up the flow. I saw it as a problem then, and I still do, that engineers want to solve problems with bigger, bigger, bigger versions of the same old, same old.
     During the late 1970s, when computer chips started coming into common use, I figured we'd have less gross machines, and we could finally graduate to less electricity. I didn't think of this as a soft path, just something logical and inevitable. Early on, during the Carter era, when everyone was talking about the possibilities offered by the sun, I was very interested in solar stuff and PVs. Making electricity directly from sunlight seemed really cool, so it was too bad that only NASA could mesh on that. When Carter left, I went to sleep like everyone else, I guess. There were a few years there when I just stopped thinking and kind of gave up.
     I've lived in Connecticut for 25 years, and moved to Norwich in 1984, three doors down the street from here. I liked the neighborhood; you'd never know it, but we're three blocks from town, right over the hill, so you can walk to the Post Office and the bank. I hate having to drive everywhere. I knew the little old man who lived here, and something of the house's history.
     It's a small house, about 1,100 square feet, built in the 1840s by a millworker who took a great deal of pride in his workmanship. The sills and underneath structure are quite heavy and in good shape. He used traditional windows with recycled glass or seconds, so they were wavy. He was building as cheaply as possible, doing his best to save money. I like that.
     The last family to live here were the McCarthys. Mary McCarthy raised seven children, planted that big Norway maple, and had a big garden out back. I'm the seventh myself, and this is just like the little house I was raised in. The house's biggest defect is its perilously steep stairs, but I can handle that: I fall down, I get up again; I don't care.
     One day a "for sale" sign suddenly appeared on the place, and I thought, this is my chance to own in this neighborhood. Couple, three days later, the sign was gone: My landlord got it. Fortunately we were friends, so he let me look at it, and I watched him work it over, doing stuff I could never do. He took out the horsehair felting in the walls, replaced the spool-and-spindle wiring. He ripped out all the inside walls and threw the plaster down the well, which made me mad . . . but now it's all gone! I could see he wasn't doing the best job, but was just looking for the fast turnover. This was just before the real estate boom of the late 1980s. He bought it for thirty-six, sold it to me for sixty-five, and one year later I was offered ninety. Now it's probably back to sixty-five, even with the improvements. I didn't mind paying for his work.
     I chose this house for a lot of reasons, but as I said, my main issue all my life has been electricity, and it seemed to me this small house would be perfect. Right after buying it, we took a hot-air balloon ride over it, and we could barely see the house in amongst the trees: That was cool!
     About the time I bought the house, I did a self-realization course and realized that I like being Ms. Solar, and set about finding out what was new with that industry. I was driving a school bus, so I had plenty of time to call up everybody in the phonebook with "solar" in their name. Everyone referred me to someone else, so pretty quick I had quite a list of local sources. It must have been about 1988 or 1989 that I found a Real Goods Sourcebook at the Yale Coop, and I grabbed it. I still have it, too! Wow! all this stuff available to regular people. Of course this was twenty years later, but that's really a big change in such a short time. I could understand that PV would let you do your own electricity, but not too much. The real question was, would it take lots of tinkering? I didn't care. At the time, I was teaching gardening on the side, and had invented my pyramid greenhouse, so I was in touch with what the sun could do. I was thrilled to get back into electricity.
     I had a big garden, and was doing a lot of canning, and so I got this ancient beast of a second hand refrigerator, El Monstero, we called it: noisy but I needed the big freezer. Suddenly my electric bill was through the roof. I knew it couldn't be just the fridge. I read Joel Davidson's book, The Solar Electric Home, where he said to audit all your electrical uses. I was thinking that solar was perfect, because we hardly used electricity anyway . . . was I surprised! I thought we had single 40-watt bulbs, but we were burning double 60s, things like that. When I compared the audit with the electric bill, it came out pretty much right. They really have you by the nostrils! 300 kilowatt-hours a month, how are we using all that electricity?
     I'd already heard about Carol Levin and Richard Gottlieb, but I saw an ad for one of their classes, and signed up for a one-day class. It was early spring I remember, May or June, a blustery day. We spent all morning doing theory stuff, and that was all right, but we didn't get things wired up until ...well, first we set up under a tree, then there was a little shower, then pretty soon the sun was setting -- such a comedy! -- but we still made enough electricity to light a couple of compact fluorescent bulbs. ...well, maybe one and a half, but I was so impressed! Out of a class of seven or eight, I was the only one that was really excited; I was sold! I wanted some.
     See, I was afraid PVs would be fragile, with all that glass, and too expensive, but at Richard's workshop we were slinging modules around, turning them upside down. They're not fragile. I'm also sold on them because they don't make noise, and they're not dangerous. PVs are the most benign source of electricity I know about.
     I got into this because I wanted to know, can a person who's used to having electricity and who lives on a street in a city . . . could a person like me put in some PVs and a few batteries, and really live without being a burden to the earth? Or would it be a constant hassle? See, people don't have to mess with their electricity now, they just take it for granted. It seemed to me that was an experiment worth five thousand dollars. Hopefully, it would fit in as seamlessly as the old way.
     But the first thing I had to do was get my electrical consumption under control. I changed all the lightbulbs. A neighboring utility was doing a deal on compact fluorescents for $4 each instead of $20, but Norwich is a public-power town, so the utility sent my order back saying "nope, talk to your own power company." I got my friends out of town to send the order in for me, and when I got the bulbs, I put them everywhere. Luckily, they all fit. I liked using less power, but in the summer, less heat, too! I love that.

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     I wanted a super-efficient Sun Frost refrigerator in the worst way, and was going to have one. I like the design; if I had time, that's the refrigerator I'd build. I knew that building such things cost more, and I wanted to support the Sun Frost guys. If you like something, you've got to support it or else it might fail and you'd feel terrible. I talked my Mom into a little early inheritance money -- she always liked new technology -- and ordered the Sun Frost. When it came and we moved El Monstero out, we found that it had burned a big black hole in the kitchen floor!
     That took care of reducing my big electrical loads. We've got a washer but no dryer. Sometimes when there are days and days of rain like this August, the solar dryer -- some folks call it a clothesline -- is a problem, but in the winter the clothes freeze dry. Everything else in the house that uses heat runs on gas. We cut our electricity use from 300 to about 80 kilowatt-hours a month. I was pleased with that and figured I was ready for PV.
     My original idea was to wire up just the kitchen and laundry room and convert the fridge, washer, and kitchen lights. Richard came down and looked things over and said "I think you'll get more energy than you expect; let's do the whole house." I was skeptical, but said okay, and it works out fine. See, I was impatient. I wanted to see if this stuff really worked, and I was willing to support the industry. So why wait?
     I'd measured the distance from the power closet to the best solar exposure out in the yard away from the Norway maple's shadow. She's our air conditioner and saves more electricity than any of the rest of us. We had the perfect setup, with a 220-volt line for the dryer we didn't have running straight to the basement. Richard took charge, put in a new electrical distribution center in the power closet and the batteries, inverter, and instrumentation beside the washing machine. As long as I knew where the circuit breakers were, I didn't care. Nothing he did seemed too hard. If I'd had help sizing the wire, I could have done it all myself, except that it would have taken me a year, like finishing the sunroom has, to do what Richard did in three days. I wanted the electrical part done right, and I liked the way Richard and Carol do their work.
     When the system was new, I was tracking cloudy days, daily amps generated. We've produced more than a megawatt in the three years the system's been in place! I suppose I should take more time to maintain the system. When it's sunny out, I say "it's sunny, so let's go off-grid" and throw the switch. There's a little buzz in the boom box from the inverter, but that's the only problem. Once in a while I check the batteries, but mostly I'm too busy to mess with anything. It's so easy, it's transparent.
     Here, we're on a main with the hospital, so the grid never fails. Right after we installed the system in 1991, we went away for three days and there was a big outage, but when we came back, we could find no evidence that we'd been without power, so the system obviously saw us through. I think a lot about others. I have a friend who lives in Hampden, near New Haven. Every time the wind blows, she loses her electricity. She's electricity-dependent, with pumps and all. I've lived like that. I was talking to her last winter while a big storm was coming, and she was filling her bathtub so she wouldn't run out of water. I said, "Wouldn't it be great to have your own power if you mean to stay there?" There're lots of people in Connecticut like that. When I lived in Monroe, we'd get a little breeze and lose power. For five thousand, it's worth it.
     I have a problem with batteries even though I have a love affair with my PVs. We need some better kind of absorption and carry-over. I'd give this whole experiment a B+: quiet, safe, able to deliver what I need. It's easy flipping back and forth to the grid, which I don't even have to remember because it reminds me because the lights flicker. If we need something big, like a saw, we switch back to the grid. In the wintertime, we need extra electricity to run the fan for the heating system.
     That's the next project, now that the PV is finished. I've gone about as far as I can with electricity, so what else can I do? In the winter we pay between $150 and $250 a month for heat. That's too much, and I want to cut it down. Again, we started out by reducing our loads. The landlord took out all but two of the north windows, and I put in new double-paned windows all around, vinyl sash, low-E. I did the best I could to tighten up the whole house, although I can do an even better job blocking the wind through the baseboards. The winter of 1993 was brutal and there's no way to know how our bill would have compared if we hadn't made the improvements. This winter will be the test.
     There seems to be a big barrier between seeing that energy conservation is a good thing to do, and actually doing it. Maybe people think that what they do makes no difference, but I think that's wrong. If we do it, house by house, hundreds by hundreds, we can make a huge difference. I even got into a fight at church about plastic cups, my friends saying it's a lot of work to bring cups from home and wash 25 cups a week 52 weeks a year . . . but now they see it my way.
     There are two other barriers. Electricity is absolutely invisible. People are energy illiterates. They say, "do you use your solar panels for heat?" and I say no, for electricity, and they say "what do you use that for?" Well, . . . People have no idea what they use electricity for, and yet they still use enormous amounts. To conserve, you have to make a consciousness shift and even a lifestyle change. I don't burn as much electricity now, but I surely wouldn't want to give up the stuff I do use.
     The third barrier is "what's the payback?" Well, for me, knowing that I'm not supporting James Bay, not damaging the air or resources, knowing that our household contributes as little as we can to the destruction caused by generating electricity. The way we produce electricity wastes land and oil; spoils air, rivers, shorelines; reduces biodiversity. What, besides the car, is our main use of oil? Making electricity, that's what. Getting out of that loop is enough payback for me!
     My other payback: When I'm seventy, I'll already have electricity. Nobody knows what electricity will cost, or what my income will be. Buying PV seems like the most conservative investment I could make, as well as the smartest personally and most socially responsible.
     I'm fascinated by a new technology involving low-temperature phase change, invented by a guy down in New Jersey who's working with freon -- I know, that's a problem -- in half-inch thick four-by-eight foot panels which gather heat and store it as hot water. If we can produce heat for almost nothing like he says, and I know that's a big if, then we should be able to produce all the hot water and heating we need for only the cost of the equipment, just like the PV electricity which looks free to me. At least it's worth investigating.
     We had a contractor build a sunroom with heat-mirror glass on the roof, buffered to the southwest by our Norway maple. I had him build the shell only, so I could finish the inside myself. I'm disappointed with the work the contractor, who's a friend, did. I told him early on that I meant to do a radiant floor, which should have been a slab poured over gravel to make a good earth connection. He's just a sunroom installer and I guess most people just want a glass room and don't care if it really works. He stonewalled until we couldn't pour proper cement, and used the wrong kind of decking for a decent thermal mass. Right now I'm putting in a hydronic floor, with Wirsbo tubing under gyp-crete, working like a fiend to get it level. Amazing, how long it can take when you do everything yourself.
     I didn't like the glass sunroom roof at first, but now I can see my maple. I can't tell you how many people have said, "You'll have to cut that tree." But I love the way she lovingly drapes herself around the house . . . and I can see her so well through the sunroom roof. A lot of things happen when she loses her leaves in the fall. Her branches lift and she pulls into herself. In the summer, she fills back out into a wonderful canopy that keeps the house cool. She reminds me of what I want to do: find the most benign way to live on the earth, lightly, in cooperation and concert with everything, without giving up what I really need.


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The New Independent Home

People and Houses that Harvest
the Sun, Wind, and Water
a book by Michael Potts
paper   *     8x10   *     408 pages
8 page color section + 200 illustrations:
b&w photos, graphs, charts, and diagrams
ISBN 1-890132-14-4   *     $30.00

this book at Amazon.com

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