Living Unplugged
Part 1: One family's valiant quest to kick the oil habit--and how you can (try to) do it, too.

Photography by Ben Stechschulte

Published in the December, 2005 issue.


The author, who lives off the electrical grid in rural Vermont, will experiment with alternative energy systems for POPULAR MECHANICS over the next six months. Currently, his household 1) burns four to five cords of wood for heat each year and 2) uses about 600 gal. of propane for cooking and heating water. Electricity is supplied by 3) an array of four solar panels, which generate up to 285 watts apiece, supplemented by 4) a 5800-watt, gas-powered generator. According to the Department of Energy, the average American household uses 29-plus kilowatt-hours per day; the author uses fewer than three in his 2200-sq.-ft. home.

Energy independence is a compelling concept these days, not just for nations but for individual homeowners as well. But it's not easy to achieve. My wife, Penny, and I have spent the past eight years living on 40 rolling acres of northern Vermont in a house that's not connected to the electrical grid. We run a fairly labor-intensive mix of solar panels, a gas-powered generator, propane tanks and a wood stove to meet our energy needs. Our system has become more efficient over the years, though there's still room for improvement.

Increasingly, we have company, as alternative energy becomes more mainstream. Jim Grundy, owner of the solar-panel company Elemental Energy, in East Montpelier, Vt., says his business is up 400 percent since 2002. Other suppliers across the country report similar increases. Take your pick of reasons: rising energy prices, patriotism, concern about global warming or drilling in wilderness areas--or all of the above.

Over the next six months, Penny and I will act as guinea pigs as POPULAR MECHANICS explores how close an American family can get to self-sufficiency when it comes to household electricity and heating while maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. In this DIY project, there will be no cold showers or hitting the sack at sundown to save on electricity. The lessons learned will apply to the many people interested in trimming their utility bills, as well as to the few who want to try weaning themselves from the electric company altogether. We'll be publishing the results in the magazine and in PM's Energy Family Blog.

Generators Won't Solve the Oil Crisis
When Penny and I bought our parcel of land, we weren't thinking about energy independence. We were just trying to scrape by. She was doing day labor on a farm and I was splitting my time between repairing bicycles and banging nails. We were bunking in a one-room cabin that had no running water other than what came through the roof during storms. Besides the glorious ridgeline views, we chose our parcel because it was cheap--and that was largely because it wasn't connected to the electrical grid. Estimates for bringing power 1200 ft. from the road to our planned house site ran in the neighborhood of $15,000--approximately $14,000 more than we had in the bank. So we dropped our remaining $1000 on a 3000-watt Honda generator and filled a 5-gal. gas can, enough for about 8 hours of juice.

Ironically, we were now more oil dependent than our neighbors who were connected to the grid. Although 70 percent of the country's electricity needs are met by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, that number doesn't hold in Vermont. Thirty-five percent of the state's juice is generated by the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, while another third comes from Hydro Quebec, a Canadian supplier that operates 53 dams throughout the province. Perhaps we'd have gotten a few kilowatts courtesy of the wood-fired power plant in the small Vermont town of Ryegate.

We weren't helping the fuel crisis any, but at least we had power. We plugged in our saws and started building.

Solar Cells Are for Tinkerers
When a house draws all its electricity from the national grid, the homeowner needs only enough time and skill to screw in a light bulb. Install some solar cells or a windmill, and the workload goes up. Our initial foray into photovoltaics was humble, but it still took a good deal of wiring and improvisation. We scored two 50-watt panels for free (new panels typically average about $5 per watt) because one was cracked and operating nowhere near capacity. We borrowed a couple of used deep-cycle marine batteries, and bought a 250-watt inverter to change our direct current into the alternating current that's required by common appliances and gadgets. The system provided enough power to put a shine into a few compact fluorescent light bulbs and charge my laptop. But the batteries held a charge only feebly; any time the sun went behind the clouds for more than a few hours, we'd be out yanking the start cord on the Honda.

Six years--and hundreds of gallons of unleaded--later, we'd saved enough for an upgrade. I installed four 285-watt panels on a homemade rack about 100 ft. from our house, facing them due south and angled at 45 degrees to maximize their exposure to the sun during the short days of winter. (I connected the panels to the house using buried wires.) Ideally, solar panels are mounted on racks that can be adjusted according to the season. But since those are expensive, and since we have ample power in the summer, we set up ours for winter.

While people imagine solar cells crowning rooftops, that's a solution for yard-challenged suburbanites in warmer climates. Here in the north country, if you have the room, it's far better to place the panels within easy reach. Snow and ice can build up on them, and failing to clear off even a small portion of the surface cuts output sharply.

That's about the only maintenance the panels demand, but the batteries must be checked every few months to ensure adequate water levels. With proper care, they'll last five to 20 years, depending on the quality.

Our system has been utterly reliable--and we've smugly enjoyed electricity at times when the larger region suffered blackouts. But it's just a matter of time before something in the photovoltaic system malfunctions. And when it does, it'll be my problem to fix, not the utility's.


The author's family makes do with one laptop--and nature's air conditioning. Not a bad tradeoff for freedom from electric bills.

The Grid Is Good
Our neighbor Lee Richards recently installed a 3-kilowatt photovoltaic system on his grid-connected house. Richards points out that his system has an important advantage over ours. "We're basically using the electrical grid as our batteries and generator," he says. "That eliminates a lot of the cost and hassle. When it gets cloudy, we still have power, without having to run an engine. And if something goes awry with our solar system, we have instant backup."

Here's another benefit: Since installing his system this summer, Richards hasn't paid an electric utility bill. In fact, he's been sending electricity back to the utility company. Vermont and 38 other states require utilities to compensate homeowners for power they produce; the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 will extend such rules nationally. This winter, when Richards starts using the utility's electricity, he'll be drawing on credit he built up during the sunnier months.

Energy Isn't Free
While our initial system was done on the cheap, our current setup cost us almost $15,000--about what it would have cost to bring grid power to our house. That's for 1.14 kilowatts' worth of panels and a 24-volt, 12-battery array that can store 1100 ampere-hours. Only about half that is usable, however, given that regularly draining lead-acid batteries below 50 percent significantly reduces their life span. Since our batteries cost over $3000, we'd feed them caviar if it would make them last longer.

The sad fact is that all that hardware is still not enough to meet our electrical needs. In fact, there's a good chance that as you're reading this, we're listening to our generator. (The old Honda died, and we now have a $650 5500-watt Generac.) During the short days of November and December, we run it about 10 hours each week.

Wind Power Beats Solar
Our ridge-top location would be ideal for a wind-powered turbine. Unfortunately, our town has a 20-ft. height restriction on permanent structures. Too bad. While photovoltaic panels convert up to 18 percent of the sun's energy into electricity under perfect conditions, wind turbines offer up to 40 percent efficiency. Because the wind tends to blow stronger on stormy (i.e., cloudy) days, turbines are a great complement to photovoltaics. And, the wind still blows at night. Hydro is even more efficient than wind--but one thing our land doesn't have is moving water.

What's Next
Complete self-sufficiency is unattainable. Oh, sure, we could hibernate in a bunker and get pretty darn close to a net-zero energy draw. Thanks, but no thanks. We do think there's still room to cut down our fuel consumption while actually cranking up the frills on our frugal lifestyle--and that's what we'll be attempting over the next few months.

First, we'll add more solar panels. We also plan to install two solar hot-water collectors to preheat our water before it gets to our propane-fired tank. Last year, we burned 556 gal. of propane to heat our water and cook our food. Solar collectors should cut this total nearly in half, for an annual savings of around $600. The savings could even lead us to warm our floors with the luxurious radiant-heat system we installed years ago but stopped using because of the expense.

I'm even more eager to take on another project. Our efficient, Energy Star-rated refrigerator accounts for nearly half our electricity load--partly because we're so stingy in other areas. The fact that we're running our generator to cool our food in a region where below-freezing temperatures persist into June has long irked me. (Remember: We live in Vermont.) That's why I'm working on a cold-box design that would utilize a thermostat and a low-watt, 12-volt fan to maintain a fridge-like internal temperature of about 38 F. I'm also planning to convert a chest freezer--via an external thermostat--into a refrigerator. According to energy conservationist lore, such a design demands only 10 percent of the power required to run a conventional, upright fridge. We'll see.



Four 100-gal. propane tanks feed a kitchen range, a hot-water heater and--potentially--a radiant-heat system.


The display shows that the solar panels are at work, with the batteries at 25.9 volts. Ideally, the value stays above 24 volts.


The author tops off his 12 lead-acid batteries with distilled water. This task has to be done once or twice yearly.


The inverter, the white box at right, converts the batteries' 24-volt DC into 120-volt AC. Other boxes control the charging of the batteries. The wiring on the right leads to the house's electrical box.


Read PM's Energy Family Blog written by Ben Hewitt.

To subscribe or visit go to: