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Living off the grid

Owner of energy-efficiency company builds self-sustaining home

Joe Bowling attributes his longtime affinity to a self-sustaining lifestyle to his mother’s Depression-era childhood and her subsequent belief in the motto “waste not, want not.”

Joe Bowling installed three large solar panels to provide electricity at his newly constructed "hybrid" house in Bessemer City. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

Joe Bowling installed three large solar panels to provide electricity at his newly constructed “hybrid” house in Bessemer City. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

The 49-year-old Air Force veteran and airplane mechanic even started a company 10 years ago, Energy Wise Solutions Inc., installing solar power systems and performing energy audits on homes. He also sold composters. But it wasn’t enough.

So he took a plunge about a year and a half ago, deciding to build an off-the-grid house on his 10 acres in Bessemer City.

And it’s changed his life.

Staring through the large living-room windows that overlook green fields, Bowling said all the sweat and planning that went into constructing his 2,400-square-foot concrete home was well worth it.

“I found peace of mind,” he said.

Safe and sound

This off-the-grid house at 138 Kiser Street in Bessemer City features a metal roof and stone facade. A conversion system will allow the owner to store power from electric cars. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

This off-the-grid house at 138 Kiser Street in Bessemer City features a metal roof and stone facade. A conversion system will allow the owner to store power from electric cars. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

Security and energy efficiency are the hallmarks of Bowling’s digs, he said, and they go hand in hand.

Armed with general and electrical contracting licenses, Bowling built the one-story structure with insulated concrete forms, using a system of interlocking modular blocks between which he positioned strengthening rebar and poured concrete. Depending on the type of forms used, the blocks provide soundproofing and insulation. In addition, they are ideal backing for drywall and stone facades, which Bowling said is maintenance free.

“You could sit here and a bad storm could go by and you’d hardly know it,” Bowling said.

Three large photovoltaic solar panels feed electricity into a battery that, in turn, powers the house’s energy-efficient appliances.

Bowling doesn’t like leaving things to chance, such as several cloudy days depleting the home’s energy storage. So he plans on installing plug-ins for electrical vehicles in the two-car garage. A conversion system will allow the cars to provide power to the house should the need ever arise.

Just to be safe, though, the house also features a 500-gallon propane tank that can fuel a back-up generator. Other than filling up that reserve tank, Bowling said he won’t see any utility bills. And that means big savings over the life of the house.

Homeowners across the United States spend a median of $111 per month on electricity, $50 on gas, $167 on fuel oil, and $42 on water, according to the 2015 American Community Housing Survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That comes to $4,440 per year.

“If the cost of utilities shoot up, it won’t be a big deal,” he said.

The house features radiant flooring, which both heats and cools the house. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

The house features radiant flooring, which both heats and cools the house. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

Nothing goes to waste in the house, which runs on a septic system. Water comes from a well, and Bowling designed and installed a backup 5,500-gallon gravity-feed rainwater tank for emergencies. He’s also put in place a grey water storage system to nourish outdoor plants and vegetables.

The house remains remarkably cool during even the hottest of days, requiring only a ceiling fan to circulate the air. That’s because Bowling constructed an underground hydronic system that pumps chilled groundwater through coils under the tile floor. In the winter, the house’s solar-powered water heater will warm water that is solar-pumped through the system.

Radiant flooring, Bowling said, is preferable to central air systems because it provides a much more even temperature throughout the house.

Bowling said another key aspect of his new home is the ventilation system. It has a large central dehumidifier to combat mold, and a filtered system to weed out spores.

Off the grid

Bowling is one of many who have opted for a more renewable lifestyle.

Reasons vary, but the movement has evolved from a back-to-the-land counterculture living on remote, inexpensive land that ran generators off of car batteries, said Doug Puffer, data manager at Home Power magazine. The cost of solar panels has drastically fallen over the last several years, and consumers have long been able to “tie into the grid” under a system in which individual power generation can be “sold” back to a utility in the form of credits for future use.

Those choosing to live sustainability, he said, are still looking for inexpensive land or have environmental concerns.

“They want to independently control their own production and consumption,” Puffer said.

Puffer said the cost to become energy self-sufficient varies from as little as $1,000 for setting up power in a small cabin to $50,000 for solar panels and wind generators at a commercial enterprise or luxury home.

Puffer said it is hard to gauge how many people in the United States live off the grid. The U.S. Department of Energy also could not provide statistics.

But Kevin Haley, communications director for the American Council on Renewable Energy, said he has seen a “major uptick” in the use of solar power among those tied into the grid.

A solar battery stores power from the photovoltaic panels outside of the house. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

A solar battery stores power from the photovoltaic panels outside of the house. Photo courtesy of Mike Stricklin

He said costs to purchase solar technology have dropped 60 percent to 70 percent over the last eight years, and retailers have shifted their business models to include third-party financing.

“The lenders put the money up front,” Haley said. “Savings on utility bills help pay for the system.”

Being completely off the grid, he said, can be prohibitively expensive for some as it requires much more equipment.

Bowling, meanwhile, said he plans to expand his business to include the building of energy-efficient homes for others.  He hopes to begin marketing soon, and said he wants to offer prospective homebuyers comfort, security, and independence.

There won’t be anything rustic about the design, with plans to offer granite countertops, a central vacuum system that filters dust directly outdoors, LED lighting, and a central sound system.

Prices would start below $400,000, Bowling said.

“I’ve had the most fun in years doing this project,” he said. “It’s been a creative process, and it feels good to know I can do many more.”

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