The House that Ted Built:
Going Off-Grid the Practical Way
Just the phrase “living off grid” brings thoughts of some bearded, tree hugging, granola eating, ex-hippie in some cold cabin living off the land, talking to himself and convinced he has it made. Maybe he does. I actually just described myself, at least when I was in my late-teens living in the Alaskan bush.
Fast forward some 30 years and many miles down the road. I am still living “off grid”, although not as romantically as my early Alaska bush years. Back then we were chasing off bears, avoiding charging bull moose, and walking over the backs of salmon in salmon-choked streams.
I was guiding throughout the Alaskan range, rubbing elbows with the greatest bush pilots of the time like Doug Getting, Jim Sharp, Brian Oknek, Buddy Woods,Cliff Fisher, and some of the greatest climbers in the world. My job was what one might refer to as a grunt: I called myself a sherpa. I climbed and guided for a living, sustainably living off the land.
When the climbing season ended, the “dudes” came up for trophy moose, big bear and salmon trips. We were paid to put them on big animals and fish. They always tipped us with all that wonderful meat at the end of their trips. Our heat was supplied by all the standing dead spruce, water from a spring or frozen lake, light from a kerosene lamp, and a cache full of fresh frozen meat. No wonder I have become more of a vegetarian these days.
Today brings a more comfortable “off grid” lifestyle. Our home, built by my good friend Ted Budd and all our talented contracting friends, has launched us into a world free of utilities and a feeling that we are doing something really innovative and important.
I realize this lifestyle does not fit into everyone’s comfort zone. It is not without its challenges and expense. It is a step in the right direction, not only for the health of the planet but a more independent and secure future.
I can actually take this complete building package from dwelling, waste water treatment plant (septic), power system both PV and thermal hot water, and put it anywhere on earth with very little impact to the surrounding environment.
That is a liberating and empowering feeling!
Lessons learned and learning…
When we purchased our beautiful 20 acres in Heber Valley, Utah, we had the intention of building our home within the next few years. Little did we know, almost twenty years later we would be happily living off the grid.
Our idea to build took a lot of twists and turns and patience.
Once we decided to break ground and commit to building, we began a very organic process of design-build. Using the required engineered plans, we sliced and diced the layout, square footage, and materials used to not only fit our lifestyle but our budget.
We were fortunate. We built as the economy crashed in 2008, taking advantage of discounted materials and having all our local craftsmen and women available. We completed our 3200 sq. foot home from excavation to move in, in less than 6 months and well under my anticipated budget.
Now, I am not a “do it yourself” kind of guy. It usually costs me twice as much when I get involved. I remember meeting with Ted, our general contractor and friend, and telling him about all these great “green” ideas. After a few minutes he took over the conversation and gave me a reality check.
His first question was “do you want to double the cost of the house or build a conventional, environmentally-friendly home and come in on budget”? Well, that set the course for the build-out. Ted was in charge and I felt really good about that.
The objective was to use sustainable and local materials, local contractors and friends. We wanted to take advantage of site, view and size of property. We tried to keep the house as sustainable and green as possible, within a working-man’s budget. We sourced local materials and our general contractor gathered the best subcontractors in the area.
It has been a great learning curve and I laugh when I think about all the green and expensive ways I originally thought about building. I learned very quickly that common sense, not green trends, build a better and more environmentally friendly house. By staying local, you are able to support local businesses and local contractors who are your neighbors and now friends.
By using local suppliers, we were able to negotiate fair pricing on top-of-the-line equipment to run the house. We were able to have all of our cabinets, custom doors and alder-wood trim locally milled, supporting our local tradesmen. We have always lived by the theory that less is more and this house speaks to that.
A design was established and ground was broken in the spring of 2009. It was the wettest spring in over 10-years. Building in a high water table area can be very challenging. It is critical you have an excavator who understands the local soils. Russ Witt from Witt Excavation was up to the task. Witt Excavation has been in the valley for decades and know how to handle anything he may come across. He is a master with his track hoe. We also decided once the hole was dug to bring out a geo-tech engineer, who advised us to oversize our footings.
The house was designed and engineered by a local firm, Mike Johnston and Andy Van Wagoner of Summit Engineering. Even using their plans, as in many cases, it turned out to be a design-build approach as the project progressed. Without the patience of an understanding contractor, this could have been a costly nightmare. The design changes only added to the functionality and sustainability of the house. Our house is 3200 sq ft, too big for just the two of us, but perfect for our needs with the extra space for future grandchildren and guests.
The distance from our site to any public power made the option of connecting to the grid cost prohibitive. At an elevation of over 5,600’, we are blessed with over 300 days a year of sunshine, perfect for a solar PV system.
We had a 1-kw fixed array system for few years before building our home, which was supplying power to our well and small summer cabin. We knew that solar was the way to go. Our search for a local solar power company ended when we found Doug Shipley, owner of Intermountain Wind and Solar in Woods Cross, Utah. They are a young, new, exciting, energetic and fresh company. Through the years, I have never felt comfortable with either the solar contractors or equipment that was on the market. Once I met Doug and his team, I instantly knew they were the right choice.
We called Doug and he promptly met us on site. He then asked us for our power loads. What in the world did that mean? After he patiently explained that he needed our house plan, any lighting and electrical plan, what appliances we were having installed and their electrical need. He did his site work and located the best spot for us to choose to install the array.
After furnishing him with the information he requested, he submitted his design and bid to us for the solar power system. His proposal well laid out. He explained the type of panels, inverters, batteries, how it all ties together and what we could expect. He also explained all equipment and warranties. Their bid also included a Kohler 12Res Power System generator, propane powered, to back-up the system on those short, dark, snowy winter days.
The solar array sits on a Wattsun Solar Tracker, dual-axis, azimuth drive solar tracker, which follows the sun from dawn to dusk, tracking north/south and east/west. From the base to the top of the uppermost panel it is approximately 25′. The tracker sits on an 8″ Schedule 40 steel pipe, bolted into an oversized concrete foundation. Our array consists of twelve 225-watt panels, producing over 2.2 kw. All this is tied into 16 FallRiver 6-Volt 415 amp-hour deep cycle batteries located in our crawl space. The d/c power stored in the batteries is converted to a/c power through two Outback inverters located in our utility room.
We sited the generator near the back of the house, far enough to not hear it when it was running but near the propane line to the house. Kohler generators come in a weather proof box, vented and sturdy. With our cold temperatures, we did have the carburetor heater option installed to help with starting in cold temperatures.
Our county has a pristine water designation, and has very strict rules in the building code regarding water tables and septic systems. With our water table too high to meet the county standards of separation of the ground-water table from grade, a conventional system was out of the question. It took years of meetings with the county and alternative septic contractors, perc tests, year-long water table metering, until at last an alternative septic system was approved by Wasatch County.
It was critical for us to have someone with a very high competency level to help interpret the system for the county. We contacted Ben Witt, Alternative On-Site Solutions in Heber Valley, to help get us through the process.
If you are in an area where you need to install your own wastewater treatment system as your site won’t pass code for a conventional septic system, there are a variety of choices out there to meet your needs. After many years of negotiating with our County Health Department, there is one system they accepted which is the Orenco Advantex recirculating filter treatment system. There are two 1500-gal recirculating tanks and a 500 discharge tank. We would not have been able to build on this site without this alternative septic system.
There was just one more hurdle: two 1/2-hp pumps needed to be powered by the solar system. The biggest drawback to this type of septic treatment is the high energy demand. This system, more than anything else in our home, draws the greatest amount of energy. The recirculation pump runs every 20 minutes for 20-seconds, to keep the aerobic microbes functioning to break down the effluent. The discharge pump runs on demand by the amount of water used and recirculated through the treatment system and then discharged into the drain field. We needed to add this power demand into the design of our solar system.
Plumbing and Heating:
Our water supply is from a well. Robert Armstrong from Armstrong Drilling has installed several wells for us and is a great guy. We installed this well before we began the building process. Your well needs to be over 100′ from the septic drain field. It is deep and has wonderful clear water. The pump is a Grundfos SQE at approximately 110′, also powered from our solar system. We have a Grundfos constant pressure control unit and expansion tank. The soft-start well pump does its job very well. Robert explained why we needed the CPC controller and how it would all work to keep our water pressure constant in the house. This is more power demand to add to our solar design.
A qualified HVAC/plumber with a background in alternative energy can make or break a project. You would be burning furniture for heat with the wrong contractor and equipment. We found our expert in Ron Eastin with Graham Plumbing and Heating. He is not only very knowledgable in all aspects of alternative energy systems but one of the most amiable guys I know.
I had a three zone control board built with a Navian on-demand water heating system. We lost confidence in our first HVAC/plumber and I had already bought the equipment when we met Ron. He gracefully installed it and and has been there to handle any glitches, even though it was not his pipefitting work or equipment. If I were to do it over again, I would have Ron design and install his own. I honestly feel he has confidence in the equipment I gave him. This proves the point of doing your research first and talking with as many contractors so at the end of the day you know the job will be completed right.
Our heating system is radiant base board, a far more superior heat source than forced air. It is both comfortable and clean. Radiant heat warms objects, not just the air for an even and consistent heat. Our system uses a Navian on-demand water heater instead of a boiler. On-demand hot water systems are the most efficient. By not having a pilot light burning 24-7, the gas saving is enormous. We installed two Navian propane on-demand units, one for the heating system and one for culinary use. As we currently reap the benefit of the sun for our electrical power, this spring we will have a solar hot-water system installed. A solar hot-water system will help us cut down on our propane use in the winter months by as much as 70%. Thinking ahead, we had the panel for our heating system designed to be ready to tie in a solar hot-water system.
We had our local propane supplier, Big T Propane in Duchesne, install tank our propane tank. We decided on one tank, 1000 gallons. We located it away from the house where it could be easily accessed by the truck for refueling and it is fairly well hidden. We use propane for hot water, our baseboard heat and in our kitchen.
As an additional heat source, we installed a pellet stove in the great room. The pellet stove is energy efficient, having a small electrical load to turn the auger and run the fan. The pellets are a by-product of the timber mill and are produced locally. They are made of compressed sawdust that is extruded into inch-long pellets which are then packaged into 40-pound bags. We use about a ton of pellets per season, which is one pallet of 50 bags. The stove is perfect as it adds heat and ambient warmth to our great room. We sourced the stove from a local supplier, who also runs the lumber mill. Harman Stoves are very efficient. Our model, the P68 Pellet Stove, has the widest BTU range available. It burns very efficiently (the ash pan needs to be emptied when approximately one-ton of pellets has been burned) and has amazing heat output. It also has a thermostat to keep the desired room temperature.
Siting the House:
We live in a region that has huge weather swings, from 90+ in the summer to zero and below in the winter. The winds and the sun take a toll on the exterior of any home. We decided to go with a steel roofing material for siding, cedar trim facia and soffit, and a high quality aluminum clad window. We know we have lost some energy savings in our design due to the amount of windows installed. We have large vaulted great room that takes advantage of our area’s spectacular views. It is a home that you truly feel all four seasons.
Siting the home properly really paid off. On some of the coldest winter days, the passive solar enters and warms the home and your spirits. On the hottest day of summer, our morning deck catches the early sun and by afternoon, and the hottest part of the day, it is shaded. At our elevation and having lived in the valley for over 15 year now, we decided air conditioning was unnecessary. We simply open the hatch in the crawl space allowing the cool subterranean air to rise. Ceiling fans circulate the warm air in the winter and also allows for some extra cooling in the summer. We have a small irrigation pond located about 60 feet from the house which gives us a nice evaporative cooling effect as the sun drops below the mountains to the west.
We thought originally of installing a geo-thermal heat pump system. Our building site is perfect. The problem is currently an off grid solar system cannot keep up with the demand of the heat exchange pumps. The system you would have to build for the power demand would be cost prohibitive for most people.
We decided to go with a 2.2-kw system, not only to stay within our budget but also to keep us in a more energy conservation frame of mind. You can always add more power by increasing the panels and battery capacity, but as long as we followed our own philosophy on energy conservation, we felt a 2.2 kw system was adequate. By using lamplight vs. recessed ceiling lighting, for example, we save an incredible amount of draw on the batteries. We set our thermostat at a comfortable winter setting and, on occasion, throw a sweater on instead of turning up the heat.
Even though our house is off grid, we use regular standard appliances. We have an energy-star washer and dryer, refrigerator, range, microwave and dishwasher. People always ask if we have “special” appliances, not knowing that the Outback inverters do just that, invert d/c power from the batteries to a/c power for our use in the house. The power is inverted to true-sign 60 Hz, 120 or 240 power. Our appliances don’t know the difference. The electricians wired our house just like a grid-tied house, with the electric panel and breakers for all the different zones, appliances and well.
Doug and his crew communicated with the subcontractors, especially the HVAC contractor Ron Eastin at Graham Plumbing and Heating, Ben our septic system contractor, as well as Robert our well driller. All have specific power needs and there was a lot of load to consider on this small system. Everything had to be designed and calculated for the most efficiency.
When you decide to go off grid, be prepared for a very steep learning curve. As with any mechanical system, there will be challenges. That is why it is so critical to have a company that knows how to design the system, is competent with their design, and also stands behind their system.
I recall the first year we were in our house. It was New Year’s night. It was going to be a cold one, 10- to 15 below. As midnight came around, our system completely shut down. Being the type of person I am, I wanted to get that system back up and running. So here we are, at 1:00 am, no power and no heat. We decided to call Doug. As it would happen, he was at this father’s cabin, which has the exact same system we do. They were having the same issue. He promptly figured out there was a simple glitch in the computer in one of the inverters originating at the factory. With his walking us through a few resets on the system, we were up and running again. That is service.
We have always been very conservative with our energy use. After three years, we have appreciate and understand the real power and freedom of living energy efficiently.
It is such a liberating feeling knowing you are living off grid and knowing that you are in control of your power needs.
I was intrigued by the vision of a sustainable life style. Although sceptical of converting the masses to join in on your vision, I’m all in. It would be great if we could all see the simplicity of life and were able to enjoy it without dismantling Mother Nature along the way. Good luck, and let me know what I can do to help. — Ted Budd