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Go Off The Grid Like These Families

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Go Off The Grid Like These Families

Go Off The Grid Like These Families
October 26
20:02 2018

Heather and Phillip Steyn’s 35-acre mountain ranch, deep within Colorado’s Roosevelt National Forest, is 5 miles from the nearest electric utility pole. Yet their gourmet kitchen is loaded with built-in appliances, there’s a hot tub on the deck and the hand-distressed Brazilian oak floors are warmed by a radiant heating system—all powered by solar and wind energy.

The Steyns, veterinarians who raise sheep and keep horses on their ranch, never planned to live off-grid. “We fell in love with the property and where it was located—we didn’t do it to be green, we did it out of necessity,” Dr. Steyn, 47, said of her home. “It was cost-prohibitive to put the house on the grid.”

The Steyns, who are veterinarians, on their ranch.
The Steyns, who are veterinarians, on their ranch.Jimena Peck for The Wall Street Journal

Whether they want to live in rugged locations, create a hedge against power failures, or to reduce their utility costs while shrinking their carbon footprint, homeowners are investing in a range of renewable-energy technologies. Solar panels, which have become more efficient and affordable, are already the norm in some neighborhoods. But a range of new off-grid innovations—from sensor-activated solar systems that power homes through blackouts, to ultraviolet filters that sterilize rainwater for drinking and bathing—are finding their way to the residential market.

Heather Steyn in the kitchen of the solar- and wind-powered ranch that she and her husband, Phillip, built near Fort Collins, Colo.
Heather Steyn in the kitchen of the solar- and wind-powered ranch that she and her husband, Phillip, built near Fort Collins, Colo.Jimena Peck for The Wall Street Journal

Nearly 2 million U.S. homes will have some form of solar power by the end of this year—compared with just over 138,000 homes in 2010—according to a study by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, and Wood Mackenzie, an energy-research and consultancy firm. And the price of residential solar systems has fallen by about 70% since 2008, said analyst Ben Gallagher.

Dr. Steyn oversees the mechanicals of his system.
Dr. Steyn oversees the mechanicals of his system.Jimena Peck for The Wall Street Journal

The Steyns’s Colorado ranch runs off a computer-automated system that harnesses power from a variety of sources. A 5.7-kilowatt array of photovoltaic panels in a pasture, supplemented by a hillside wind turbine, charge a large battery bank that provides electricity for the 3,240-square-foot main home, a ranch manager’s apartment and a bunkhouse. Rooftop solar panels heat water for the radiant-heating system in the floors, the showers, dishwasher and hot tub. The batteries can provide enough electricity to last three or four cloudy days. Failing that, the Steyns have a 1,000-gallon propane tank that can fuel two backup generators. The entire system cost about $250,000, Dr. Steyn said.

The couple spent about $1 million on the ranch, completed in 2005. They are now building a new solar home in Cotacachi, Ecuador, where they founded a nonprofit veterinary clinic and have listed the Colorado property for $1.7 million.

Austin and Randall Slimp, who live in Santa Fe, N.M., bought a two-bedroom solar home on in Taos, N.M., for $295,000 last November. Partially wrapped in corrugated metal, the 1,250-square-foot house has passive solar features, such as doubled-paned glass walls that face south and dark, acid-stained concrete floors that work in tandem to absorb warmth from the sun during the winter. The home’s butterfly-shaped roof collects rainwater for home use, and there’s an array of 6 photovoltaic panels by the driveway, feeding power back into the main grid.

“As soon as it popped up on my phone I called our Realtor,” said Ms. Slimp, a 27-year-old web designer who bought the house—designed by Solstainable Builders—sight unseen, vying with two other bidders.

The home’s spiffy off-grid features are also practical. The cost of drilling a well in areas of Taos can run between $80,000 and $100,000, according to David Fries, a real-estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty who represented the Slimps in the sale.

The Slimps use the home as a weekend retreat—but also tout it as an “off-the-grid luxury rental” for $250 to $300 a night. “We are tapping into that market for eco-tourism,” said Mr. Slimp, a 28-year-old entrepreneur and investor.

Randall and Austin Slimp bought their weekend house so they could go hiking,  mountain biking and skiing.
Randall and Austin Slimp bought their weekend house so they could go hiking, mountain biking and skiing.Gabriella Marks for The Wall Street Journal

The home’s two bathrooms, washing machine, dishwasher, kitchen sinks and ice-maker all run on harvested rainwater, which is funneled from the roof into cisterns and purified by multiple filtration systems. Like many homeowners with solar-powered homes, the Slimps earn utility credits for the unused power their panels generate.

Other homeowners are installing hybrid solar systems that can also be used as a backup in the event of grid failure. In March, John and Sandra Hedlund, both 74, invested $80,000 in a hybrid system for their home in Virginia’s Tidewater region, with 84 rooftop solar panels linked to a LG lithium ion battery. The system has two inverters, which convert the direct current (DC) output from the photovoltaic panels into appliance-friendly alternating current (AC) power. One inverter is tied to the grid and earns credit from the electric company. The other can power a cottage on their property if there’s a blackout.

Mr. Hedlund, a retired database engineer, said his solar-powered backup system gave him greater peace of mind. “We are not going to run out of power from the sun.”

It’s a different story in Vermont, where Ashley and Jack Adamant own a solar-powered 1,400-square-foot home with 12 rooftop panels on a 30-acre property outside Montpelier. The solar panels power all the appliances, the radiant heat and the air conditioning—as long as the sun is shining. The Adamants’ 24-volt battery system doesn’t have enough capacity to power them through extended periods of cloudy weather.

“For nine months of the year, we produce way more electricity than we can use,” said Ms. Adamant, 32, a writer with two children who dispenses tips on off-grid living on her Practical Self-Reliance blog. “But from Thanksgiving to the end of January, days are so short and the sun is so low, not much is being generated. There are ice storms—if even a small part of the panel gets covered, the rest is much less efficient.”

The Adamants—who had moved off-grid so they could ditch corporate jobs for an active outdoor lifestyle—found themselves running inside to shower and do laundry in rare moments of winter sunshine. “It was a constant thought—‘Can I do dishes now?’ ” Ms. Adamant said.

In 2016, they spent about $20,000 to connect to the grid, bringing power lines up from the main road and installing new equipment that allows them to tap in by flipping a switch.

“Now, if my 3-year-old dumps a jar of jam on herself and paints her body with it, she can have a shower on a cloudy day,” Ms. Adamant said.

Currently, there are approximately 4,800 homes for sale in the U.S. that include “solar panels” in the property description—or 0.3% of all listings nationwide, according to an analysis of August data by Realtor.com. The most listings were in California—one of the states that credits homeowners for the excess energy they put back in the grid.

However, in the top 10% of the market in metro areas where listings with solar power were most prevalent, luxury homes with solar tended to list for 6% less than homes without—a finding that suggests that photovoltaic panels have yet to attain the cachet of marble countertops for wealthy home buyers. News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates (Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.)

“Solar doesn’t necessarily add value to the sale price of a house,” said Kristine Wood, an associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services in Taos, N.M., who is listing a 5,000-square-foot solar home set on 30 acres for $1.8 million. “The sellers realize it is a specific type of house and that we need to find a specific buyer for it,” she said.

New technologies and home design elements bring all the modern conveniences to off-the-grid living. Rooftop solar thermal panels heat water for radiant heating systems, as well as washing machines, dishwashers, showers and hot tubs. Residential wind turbine kits, designed for backyard installation, supply additional power to storage batteries. Butterfly-shaped roofs funnel rainwater to cisterns, with multiple filtration systems to purify the water for drinking, bathing and cooking. Graywater recycling devices can irrigate vegetable gardens and landscaping. Satellite broadband internet service for TV and communications. Composting toilets that turn waste into safe, odor-free fertilizer for the garden.

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