Everyone out our road lives “off the grid”. But we off-gridders are not all alike. There’s a guy down the arroyo whose mantra is “gotta live normal” and he loves showing off all the high tech stuff he’s maintains and repairs regularly so that his family can not notice that they live off the grid. A lot of folks use propane for all their heating needs. Some hire a water truck to fill their tanks every week.
We keep it low-tech and as self- sufficient as we can. That means using the sun and the rain and the earth for everything possible. People ask, “But what do you do when it snows?” Well, it’s true our solar water heaters and ovens no longer collect the sun’s rays.
Here are examples of our solar technologies that work not-so-well in the snow.
Steve Baer at Zomeworks showed us how to use this panel from Energy Solaire, a Swiss company, to create a simple thermosiphoning water heater. The tank is installed above the panel. That way whenever the sun is shining, hot water rises from the panel and pours into the tank, displacing colder water from the bottom of the tank which goes back out to the panel. For this system it is important that we have low water pressure, around 30 psi. This allows us to use water directly in the panel, rather than having a heat exchanger. The stainless steel quilted panel is flexible enough that under low pressure itwill not break when the water expands as it turns to ice. The tank, a re-purposed 20 gallon electric water heater, is located inside the house, and insulated. This way when we get a cloudy or snowy day, the water stays cozy and warm inside the house, providing us with hot water from the day or two before.
All of the buildings we made at Ampersand have passive solar elements. They have windows on the south side, thermal mass, and insulation. But we made our largest building to be Super Passive Solar. That means that even when the weather is extreme, either hot or cold, there is one place on site where people can be comfortable- still without the help of fossil fuels. It is built into the Northwest side of a hill. The roof has 14 inches of blown cellulose for insulation (R51), and when the attached greenhouse is not being our solar heater, it buffers the most exposed part of the house from the freezing temperatures outside. Last night my neighbor’s thermomether read -2 degrees. The greenhouse still did not freeze at 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yesterday was a blizzard. The high temperature was 33 degrees Fahrenheit outside. The greenhouse was not producing heat for us, so we kept the windows and doors to the greenhouse closed. And we fired up the woodstove. We harvested the wood that we burn from our property. All the sunlight that grew the pinon tree, we harvest to keep our house toasty and to cook with at the same time. It’s a little woodstove and it doesn’t need to burn continuously to heat our house. We let a couple logs burn down to coals and then cooked a lasagna in this small pot that fits right into the woodstove. This pot is the perfect size to keep us in lasagna for a couple meals.
Our photovoltaic system also goes a bit dormant during snowy times. We have a small 400 watt array and we frugally use the electricity that is stored in the batteries during these times. After a few days without sun in the winter, we even turn off the 12 volt refrigerator and harvest ice from outside to make sure everything stays cold. Yes, it takes a little more attention to live with limited resources. But that is the way of natural cycles. Disturbance is part of natural ecosystems, and the revitalization that comes in it’s wake is something that is lost when one does not live in harmony with the earth’s rhythms. While we have wired our home to keep the lights on during periods of low voltage and clouds, we take a break from the music, media, and internet that are so easy to take for granted. These times remind us to be creators rather than consumers. And when the speakers start pumping the grooves once again, we dance.
Written by Amanda Bramble