Time: 7:00 to 8:35 p.m.
Place: Canastota, NY
Canastota Public Library
Speaker: Mary Musacchio
I attended a lecture/discussion regarding living off the grid with Mary Musacchio, and approximately 60 people in the small back meeting room of the Canastota library. It was literally standing room only, as latecomers had to pull in chairs from the main portion of the library, and a few interested people lined the back wall. Many of the crowd in attendance was of "retirement age", I approximated 50-60% of the crowd. About 1/3 were from outside the Canastota area, and about 1/3 of those attending learned about the discussion from the Post-Standard.
Trish DeMauro, the Assistant Library Director, introduced Mary as the first in a series of lectures that are related to the country's energy dependence. Given the fact that the next lecture upcoming is going to be on emergency first aid, and emergency preparation, I'd venture to guess that she was versed in Peak Oil. She wanted to have a speaker on energy efficiency, and one who was a local example for others in the community. Mary, a former community college professor, fit the bill and agreed to share her experiences with the group.
Mary and her husband Frank have been living with out public power for the past 20 years, save a stint "in town" for 2 years that they quickly tired of, and once again went off public power and back to solar.
Mary told us the story of her "adventure" that began with a one-room hand-build cabin that had no power, plumbing or running water. They shared that cabin for many years, heating it with a wood cook stove and boiling water in the morning for laundry and washing up. She used a kerosene lantern to grade her school papers in the evening. A true outhouse waited for them outside.
An anecdote relayed the story (that resembled a recent episode of Arrested Development) where the cabin was being moved by flat bed truck to its new location in December. Her husband being "particular" wanted to keep hot coffee available and a hot meal, so the wood cook stove remained lit for the beginning of their journey.The wood cook stove provided ample heat, and allowed homemade breads and pies to be baked. (picture is only an example of a similar stove)
After initially spending years expanding the log cabin in its new location, they decided that an earth-berm home was their next step in furthering their energy efficiency and began its production.
Not having a hill to dig into, they opted to construct a log cabin and then built dirt up around 3 walls, leaving only a south facing wall of windows open to the world and the source of their natural light. A sharply sloped roof angled to meet the slope of the natural dirt wall can be seen in this sketch:
PV panels were located on the south facing roof line above the windows. 2 sets of 4 panels provided power to the home at 48 volts, and a smaller set of 3 panels provided recharging of the batteries for the GE Electrak lawn mower/tree dragger/snow plow/rototiller. Snow was removed from the panels gently with a long handled broom in the winter, and the entire home was heated by a tiny propane space heater. Apparently the earth berm home was so energy efficient that they would have literally baked under the heat of the wood cook stove.
Here is my sketch drawn from Mary's slide of the front of the first earth-berm home:
The front of the house allowed a passive heating of the home in the winter, and natural light year-round. The earth berm walls moderated the temperature, cooling in the summer and insulating against heat loss in the winter. Solar power now ran the well pump, lights (CFL) through out the home, and ran a super energy efficient refrigerator/freezer. Deep cycle industrial batteries held the days worth of energy of sun for use in the evening, and reportedly would last for 2-3 days worth of cloudy skies. A back up generator was purchased for emergency use.
(diagram that may be very incorrect, but helped me sort it out in my head as she spoke)
Mary sang the praises of super insulating not only the ceiling and walls, but the floor of the home as well, allowing her to go around "in her socks in the middle of winter". Engineering the home to be only one room deep prevented the feeling of being in a cave, and her uncle who was in attendance vouched for her, saying that her home had more natural light than his standard built home. A composting toilet provided waste removal. Her and her husband raised the level of the bathroom to keep the plumbing exposed and allow for repairs, instead of burying the pipes in the concrete floors.
Mary and Frank eventually moved from their first earth-berm home to an upgraded and slightly smaller version, which again they built mostly with their own hands. This home was built with cinder blocks, dry stacked and parged. The same solar panels were transferred to the new home. The composting toilet was swapped for an ultra-low-flush toilet made by SeaLand using only 8 oz.(!) of water per flush. An on demand hot water heater using propane heat was installed for maximum efficiency. The earth berm walls were extended over the roof, making the home even more heat efficient. Frank apparently has complained that he has to mow(!) the roof, so they plan to plant a ground cover next spring to replace the grass.
They continue to live in their second earth-berm home and conserve energy, living self-sufficiently except for the yearly propane delivery. She stated that there wasn't any doubt that they could get along if the propane truck "didn't show up one year."
Mary told the crowd in attendance, that she didn't live this lifestyle to "save money" it was to reduce their impact on the environment, and live a sustainable lifestyle. She was asked how long she thought that it would take to "break even" from the purchase of a solar system. She said she'd have to leave that question to the solar dealers, she never took that into consideration. She states that with 20+ years living off the grid she was sure that she'd made her initial investment back several years ago. She expected her solar panels to last "indefinitely."
Handouts taught basic energy efficiency in the home, were for replacing aging furnaces with new efficient ones, and gave "25 extreme energy saving tips." She touted the use of CFL bulbs through the home, and told of a easy way to save 1/7 of your energy bill:
Her friends that have children have an "off the grid" every Thursday. They have dinner by candlelight, and play board games and read until bed time. Sounds like a good idea to me.
She led a great talk, and the audience asked many pertinent questions. I think that many came for a quick lecture in how to save some money this winter with soaring energy costs, but heard a great example of how we can all live more efficiently and with less impact on the earth. I was truly impressed at the turnout (I initially thought that I might be only one of a handful of people there). Many more people are becoming aware of the high cost and high dependency we have on cheap sources of energy.
I will leave you with a quote and a few thoughts from Mary:
"I am not saying go do this (live off the grid), we do it because it is the right decision for us. Go home and start small, put in CFL bulbs if you haven't already, or insulate your home... If you are the position to start adding solar, start with just a few panels... It is amazing how it will change the way you think about your energy use."