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A Different Way of Life
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Taos is a welcoming place for souls in need of soothing. It's a beautiful area filled with funky, eclectic people. Ten years ago, I had a house built on two acres of land outside town in the middle of the high desert sage-brush. As the realtors like to say, it has 360-degree views. Translation: no trees. Further translation: big sky arching over the valley ringed by mountains. From my bedroom window, I could see Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico. Ten minutes west took me to the Rio Grande Gorge, where bald eagles nest in the winter and kayakers run the rapids in the summer. Fifteen minutes south, and I found myself in town. Thirty minutes east up a steep, winding road deposited me at the Taos Ski Valley. And an hour north brought me to the pristine Valle Vidal wilderness, home to the largest elk herd in the state.
It was the perfect place for a much-needed retreat from the stress of modern life. But what set the house apart from most vacation homes (I built it with the intention of only using it on weekends) and what set the wheels in motion for the most extraordinary year of my life, was the decision to have it be as inexpensive and environmentally friendly as possible. It was the culmination of a childhood spent largely outdoors in the mountains of Colorado and my father's lessons on energy-efficient architecture. He was a creative thinker in terms of home building and energy use, and my formative years were spent living in a house my dad had built himself during the last energy crisis in the '70s. I grew up on the phrases put a sweater on and close the door, I'm not paying to heat the whole outdoors. I learned about south-facing windows, sun angles, and insulation early on, and the term R-value entered my vocabulary before the age of ten.
When dreaming of a second home in Taos, I researched the most far-out ideas I could find: straw bale construction, passive solar design, off-the-grid living, and self-sufficient renewable resources using a photovoltaic system and water catchment. The concepts were new and exciting, the perfect antidote to the bland sameness that characterized the rest of my life. When I was looking for land near Taos on which to build, I painted my vision for the real estate agent. She didn't bat an eye, nor did she think I was some kind of crackpot; she didn't even need me to define my vocabulary. That's when I knew Taos was the place for me.
When I describe my house, I use words like off-the-grid (not connected to the national power grid); active solar (generates its own energy from the sun); passive solar (oriented to the south to optimize the heating potential of the sun); straw bale (has walls made of bales of straw); water catchment (catches water from rain and snow on the roof, drains it into a cistern and then pumps it back into the house and filters it for daily use); and self-sustaining (does not rely on anyone else to function). All six of those characteristics make it vastly different from the average American home, such as the one I formerly owned in Colorado, but it was exactly what I wanted. I wanted a retreat that was inexpensive to build, run, and maintain and one that I could lock and leave without worrying about it. I wanted a house with as small an ecological footprint as possible. When all was said and done, I wound up with a charming house that had no utility bills and a life lived in closer connection to my natural surroundings than I had since my childhood.
If you are anywhere close to the grid, the cheapest option for power is to connect to it, assuming you think of cost in terms of dollars rather than cost to the planet. But if your state's energy comes from a dirty source such as coal (i.e., one that destroys ecosystems and creates pollution, as most states' energy does), then spending a few extra bucks on a personal solar energy system is the cheapest thing you can do for the planet in terms of resources. It is always a tradeoff.
But when you are a mile from the grid, as my house was when I built it, it is cheaper both in terms of dollars and environmental cost to use an active solar energy system and stay off the grid entirely. Pulling power out to my land from the grid would have required digging a mile-long trench (at two dollars per linear foot, plus seventy dollars an hour to backfill it), stringing the line out (at three dollars per linear foot), and installing a box and meter (eight hundred dollars), for a total cost of about thirty thousand dollars. By contrast, the active solar energy system cost roughly five thousand dollars. That was a simple decision. In my case, it was easy on the earth and on my wallet.
When you hear the term solar energy, you may think of banks of solar panels attached to someone's roof or soaking up the sun in an empty field somewhere. The collectors may look passive, but this is active solar energy. It requires an active mechanical system to collect sunlight and store it as electricity.
For a house the size of mine in Taos, the active solar energy system is called a photovoltaic system, named for the kind of photovoltaic (solar) panels I have mounted on a pole out back. The photovoltaic (PV for short) system consists of two solar panels to collect energy, four batteries to store it, and an inverter. The batteries are essentially car batteries, and the inverter is necessary to invert the electrical current from the direct current (DC) as it is stored in the batteries to the alternating current (AC) needed by the electrical outlets. Virtually all electrical appliances in the United States require AC power.
When my builder, Charlie, walked me through the house upon my taking possession, he showed me how to use the inverter. It had three modes: on, off, and search. If I left it on, it consumed a tiny amount of electricity and made a constant buzzing sound, which is how I knew all my outlets and lights were powered. If I turned it off, it went silent and I had no current. If I left it in search mode, which was the most energy efficient, it sent out an intermittent pulse searching for anything that wanted to draw power. When it detected something, it kicked itself on. If I had actually kept a TV plugged in all the time so that it continuously drew a low level of power (called a phantom load), the inverter would stay on and slowly drain my batteries even if I wasn't watching TV.
What Charlie didn't mention was that certain items didn't draw enough power for the inverter to detect them and turn itself on. My cell phone was one example. When I plugged it in to charge it the first time, the inverter cycled on and off, confused and unable to decide whether something required power or not. It even did this if my charger was plugged in alone without the phone itself.
So, if I wanted to charge my cell phone, I had to manually turn the inverter on or turn on a light, which would keep the inverter on. That led to a search for the lowest-wattage bulb, something I had never paid attention to before, and subsequently to my decision to charge my phone only at night when the lights were already on so I wouldn't run the inverter unnecessarily. I had never before been this conscious of how my actions, however innocent seeming, affected the amount of electricity I used.
When designing the house, my architect, Joaquin, sized the PV system to accommodate its projected use. I told him I intended the house to be a weekend retreat— in other words, I wouldn't be leaving appliances on for longer than three days at a time—and my electrical needs were minimal anyway. Most of my large power needs, such as the stove and the tankless water heater, were fulfilled by propane. I required electricity for lights, the occasional kitchen appliance such as the toaster, the electric pump for water, and the refrigerator.
When my house was built, we installed a small, under-counter electric refrigerator. The PV system was sized with a propane fridge in mind, but we couldn't find one of the right size in time, so I bought an inexpensive bar fridge instead. I purposefully bought a small one because I intended the house to be a vacation home, and I figured I would never have that much food there. In my daily life back in Colorado, I didn't have much food in the fridge anyway. Like a lot of single people, I kept my full-sized refrigerator full of alcohol, leftovers, condiments, and virtually nothing else, effectively paying the utility company to run an empty appliance. When I began living in my Taos home full-time, I asked Charlie how long the batteries would last with the electric refrigerator running. He said I would know the first time the power went out.
In addition to being a mile from the grid, I was even farther from a county water source. The options when I built the house were to dig a well or to do water catchment. Wells cost eighteen dollars a foot at the time, and I had heard of people in the area drilling hundreds of feet for water. I chose water catchment because it cost less, and a cheap streak runs in my family.
Water catchment is simple: my water supply is caught on the roof and drained off into a three-thousand-gallon plastic cistern for storage and future use. My house has a slightly angled aluminum composite roof that drains into gutters that attach to a PVC pipe leading underground to the cistern. It is buried in a deep pit out back by the solar panels, beyond which lie the septic tank and leach field. To get the water into the house, Charlie installed an electric pump, my most consistent and necessary use of electricity. The pump is hooked to a pressure tank inside and kicks on automatically when the pressure drops to twenty pounds per square inch (psi). It runs for a few minutes, pumping water from the cistern inside until the pressure reaches forty psi. When I turn on a tap, water passes from the pressure tank through a filter before flowing out the faucet.
When Joaquin designed my house, he asked me questions about water that conventional architects don't ask, such as whether I wanted a flush or composting toilet. In the Taos area, nonstandard plumbing was common enough that his question to me wasn't unusual. For example, my neighbor Olive had an outhouse. If she had to go in the middle of the night, she grabbed a flashlight (or not, as the path was very familiar to her) and wended her way through the sagebrush.
A composting toilet uses no water and is thus a more conservation-minded choice than a flushable one. Nevertheless, I considered that my future guests would include my mother and her septuagenarian friends, who have been using standard toilets for decades and would be more comfortable with the familiar, and I opted for the flush toilet.
Another question was whether I wanted to install a gray water valve in the plumbing system. It would cost a little more, but if I didn't have it installed up front, I couldn't retrofit it in later.
There are two types of "used" water: gray and black. Black water is used water from the toilet, and gray water is used water from everything else, such as the water that runs down the drain when you take a shower or water from other sinks in the house. Gray water will contain soap or shampoo, food residue, and anything else you put down your sink whether you are aware of it or not. Municipal water authorities are starting to find traces of prescription medications, including endocrine disruptors (i.e., hormones) in their water supplies. If you limit what goes down your drains, gray water will mostly contain soap and traces of dirt or food. These materials don't affect plants, so gray water is a great environmental choice for watering them, either indoors or out.
Some houses are designed with indoor gray water planters, so that all gray water is diverted into them, where they simultaneously serve to nourish the plants and filter the water before it drains outside. The water is used twice before returning to the earth, a significant conservation feature.
In my case, the question was whether I wanted to be able to turn a valve and have either all used water flow into the septic tank, or only black water. In the latter case, gray water would come out a spigot on the exterior of the house where I could collect it and use it to water the garden. I said yes, I wanted one.
Initially, however, I opted to have both gray and black water flow into the septic system where it would be passively treated before seeping into the leach field to the north of the house.
Because I had a closed water system that included a septic tank, I had to be careful what I put down the kitchen sink. Besides, as I had no garbage disposal, I absolutely couldn't put food waste in it. But it also made me extremely cautious about disposing of chemicals, including household cleaning products. In my previous main-stream life, like most Americans, I didn't think twice about what I put down the drain until it got clogged.
In Taos, to be on the safe side, I cleaned my house with baking soda, white vinegar, Ivory soap, and nothing else. No bleach, no chemical cleaning products, nothing with ingredients I couldn't pronounce. This was partly out of concern for my health and the health of my surrounding environment but mostly because I didn't want to mess up my septic system. I figured that if I took care of it, I wouldn't have to pay to have it serviced or repaired as frequently. That cheap streak runs deep.
Another conservation decision we made was to install an on-demand water heater, also known as a tankless water heater. You can find these kinds of water heaters all over Europe, and they are starting to make an appearance in the United States as well. Instead of having a tank of water that is kept heated to a certain temperature at all times, which most conventional homes in America have, this kind of water heater draws in cold water (in my case from the pressure tank) and heats it on demand via pro-pane. In other words, it heats water only when I turn on a hot water tap in a sink or the shower, so it uses propane only when I require it.
Yet there are definite idiosyncrasies to the self-contained water system of my house. One is that the tankless water heater will heat water only a certain number of degrees above ambient air temperature, roughly thirty degrees if I had to guess. During the summer, that isn't an issue. But during the winter, the season for steaming hot showers, I am forced to take lukewarm ones instead because the interior of the house is in the sixties, since I have no central heating.
Another, which I discovered accidentally, is what happens when I am taking a shower and the pump kicks on, meaning the pressure (and therefore the water level) in the pressure tank has dropped. The first time it happened, I wondered whether the flow of water out of the pressure tank to the shower would exceed the flow being pumped in. Out of precaution, I shut the water off and stood there a couple of minutes, soapy, wet, and shivering, until the pump switched off. Then I finished my shower.
The next time it happened, I tried a little experiment and continued my shower, wondering the whole time if I was going to be left with shampoo in my hair. As it turned out, the pump outpaced the shower, although toward the end the water pressure dropped, as did the temperature. My house is one big physics lesson.
I decided that in the future I would take a shower only when the pressure tank started off full, and I would limit my time so I would finish before the pump kicked on. Until I moved off the grid, I had never had to act so conscientiously or plan water use so carefully.
The most prominent characteristic that I still must be aware of, though, is that there is a finite water supply for all my water uses. I can walk out back and look at it. At least, I can look at the opaque lid of the cistern, but I can't tell how much water is in it. Uncertainty forces me to conserve water out of prudence. I never know when I might run out.
Water is the resource whose conservation I worry about most in my house (and in our country). I can live without electricity, and I can live without propane, but I can't live without water. Except that electricity and water are linked in my setup. The pump that pumps water from the cistern outside to the pressure tank inside is electric. If I run out of electricity, I can't run the pump. Therefore, if I run out of electricity, I run out of water except for what remains in the pressure tank. I have to conserve this extremely limited amount (twenty gallons or less) until the batteries recharge and I can run the pump again.
Excerpted from Thrifty Green by Priscilla Short. Copyright © 2011 Priscilla Short. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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1 A Different Way of Life
3 Power and Light