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Arizonans living 'off the grid', in the desert

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Otis Mallory of Whispering Ranch gathers the sun's rays in solar panels behind his home to generate power. The Mallory home runs off only solar and generator power.

Ryan Randazzo

The Arizona Republic

Tucked amidst the cactus and coyotes, nearly six miles off paved roads and 60 miles from downtown Phoenix, is Gordon Briggs' humble desert home.

Visitors might be too busy watching for potholes and pack rats or glimpsing at Vulture Peak while driving in to notice as they rumble past the last power line.

Once in the driveway, three arrays of solar panels on the roof and ground reveal the extreme effort required to live off the power grid, in the desert.

So do the two small wind turbines that cut the air overhead, the battery assembly on the porch, and the small refrigerator covered with insulation in the house.

Families living in the far reaches of the desert face the challenges of 50-mile round trips to the grocery store and pumping their own water, but nothing separates them so much from the city as their continual quest for energy.

For them, using compact-fluorescent light bulbs isn't a political statement but a necessity. Repairing diesel-generators is a highly coveted skill, and solar panels get passed along to friends in wills.

Briggs knew what he was getting into when he moved to the remote Whispering Ranch area south of Wickenburg 11 years ago, joining about 200 families spread among the hills.

"I wondered if you could do it, and it's worked out good," he said. "I can keep it under 80 degrees in the house pretty much all summer."

The retired correctional officer and truck driver from Oregon uses a combination of handiness and conservation to keep his 800 square feet of space livable.

Unlike off-the-grid homes in cool places, where people can bundle up and burn inexpensive wood, heating oil or even coal to stay warm, desert dwellers only have the choice of electric cooling or sweating.

Many choose lifestyle

Briggs' particular corner of the desert is a virtual hotbed of energy-independence experts because the land was subdivided and sold to investors in the 1960s and 1970s, long before utilities considered serving the region.

Now bringing public power to the area is much more complicated than with master-planned housing and commercial development, considering there are hundreds of five-acre parcels. Each property owner has a different opinion about development, who should pay, and where the lines would go. Community planners usually decide those things before people more to an area.

Some of the people appreciate the seclusion and prefer utilities stay out of the nearly 19,000 acres they call "The Ranch." Others have been waiting years for power lines to arrive, including real estate agents who want to see land values and sales commissions rise.

Meanwhile, the people who have moved in over the years have learned to cope.

Some residents have air conditioners, but they are mostly used as a backup to swamp coolers. And everyone out here already knows swamp coolers run more efficiently by replacing the fan with one borrowed from a car's radiator.

Briggs' solar panels and small wind turbines spinning their 2-foot blades charge 12 golf-cart batteries that he says can store power to keep the place lit for three days if he needs.

"We don't get a lot of wind," he said. "Solar is really the thing out here."

He's got a diesel generator for the air-conditioner if he needs to run it.

He's also conscientious about using other appliances like the television. After finding a reliable satellite provider recently for high-speed Internet service, Briggs had to buy another solar panel because his e-mails required more electricity.

Count Briggs among those not interested in public utilities.

"I'm happy the way I am," he said, conceding it would raise the value of his 10 acres. "I didn't come out here to make money on real estate."

Not everyone living off the grid is as inauspicious as Briggs, but it doesn't make those people any less focused on energy.

Big spread, big bills

Eddy Hudson and his wife, Susie, have a pond with koi carp nipping at the water's edge under their large, shaded front patio. Visitors don't hear the gurgling water until they are at the doorstep of the 6,000-square-foot home in Whispering Ranch because of the large generator running in a nearby building.

Hudson bought his 10 acres of desert more than 24 years ago for about $15,000. Shortly after he bought it he was laid off from a job in Phoenix and lost his apartment.

He packed up his camper and moved to the desert. He eventually found another job, but stayed on the land to build a house, which has seen substantial additions.

He fills a 55-gallon tank with diesel weekly - for about $185 at current prices - to power the home, and each addition takes more electricity. The couple is living in a more conservative corner of the house, reserving the larger add-ons for parties, but summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month, not counting the gasoline he and his wife use to commute into the city.

"People complain about $200 or $300 power bills," Hudson said. "That's nothing to me."

When he first started dating Susie seven years ago, she lived in Chandler, but she quickly adjusted to the lifestyle.

That meant learning to run the generator so she could work from the house.

"I used to say, now I've passed Generator 100, or, now I know Generator 101 whenever I learned something else about the system," she said.

But passing the course was only the beginning of the desert energy education required before marrying Eddy and moving to the ranch.

She also had to learn about propane-powered refrigerators. And when the generator goes off at night, so do the lights. Every countertop and bed stand has small, battery-powered flashlights so they can get around until morning.

With a wood fire burning in the winter, the generator isn't always necessary.

Hudson has built the home with energy-savings in mind by placing the well-insulated air-conditioning ducts under the home, rather than in an attic where they'd be susceptible to heat, he said.

With diesel prices setting new records in Arizona last fall, the Hudsons would be willing to lose some of the desert's seclusion if it meant getting reliable electricity to the area.

"I'd love to get power out here," he said.

The last time Hudson asked Arizona Public Service Co. about extending power a mile and a half from the existing grid to the house, the estimate was about $300,000.

That makes connecting to the grid far out of reach for Hudson and many others who move to distant places and later decide they would like to be connected to power.

Some people are more fortunate because they live closer to the lines, and as they add power, they bring it closer, both literally and financially, to the others.

Changed lives

Claudia Gomez and her husband Francisco Javier lived with a generator and solar panels for more than a decade before they chipped in with some nearby property owners to extend power lines to their land.

The neighbors took advantage of the 1,000 feet of free extension per house offered by APS, and got 3,000 feet free and had to pay a few thousand dollars each after that. APS no longer offers those extensions after regulators directed the utility to make growth pay for itself.

"It's hard living," said Gomez, who raised three children in the house before it was connected to the grid. "I couldn't do it again."

When the children would return from school (busses picked them up at 6:45 a.m.), the family would turn on the generator so they could watch television and take baths, she said.

"Our batteries only held power until about 3 in the morning in the summer," she said. "Then you'd start sweating and you'd get up and open the doors."

They spent more than $500 a month fueling the generator before connecting to power five years ago, and learned to conserve.

"Your small appliances take up incredible amounts of electricity," she said. "With solar only, there's no pulling out your blow dryer."

Tying to the grid presents different challenges for people who have installed solar on their homes. Utilities such as APS require solar systems that tap into their network to be installed by qualified contractors if the resident is to receive credit for the energy their homes produce. Few of the rural do-it-yourselfers are willing to pay for that.

"Everyone who lives out here knows what a solar panel costs," Gomez said. "There is a huge markup on installation. For $30,000 you could get something you'd never have to worry about."

Gomez and other rural energy experts scoff at the $30,000 to $70,000 price tag for residential solar systems without batteries that supplement homes on the power grid, which produce energy during the day but draw from the system at night.

Sun cheap, plentiful

Otis and Katie Mallory paid about $650 each for the eight solar panels hiding behind their small trailer home and about $1,200 for an inverter to make the electricity usable.

Like Briggs, who helped them put in their system, they use golf-cart batteries to store power for the night, and said they wait for them to go on sale at Sam's Club for $50 each.

"Ordinarily, the solar panels make more energy than we use," said Otis Mallory, who is retired from the Air Force and various public school positions in Arizona and California.

"We are kind of surprised," added Katie, also a retired educator. "Even with thin clouds, the solar panels make energy."

Their system wouldn't power a full-sized house, but if they quadrupled the size and the cost of about $7,000, they'd have enough for a swamp cooler and appliances for a modest home.

The couple has only owned their rural land a few years, but quickly had to replace a faulty inverter on their system. They said the manufacturer honored the warranty, but would not have had the damage been caused by mismatching the positive and negative connections on the batteries, making that step in the installation the most critical.

They need to fire up a generator if they want to run air conditioning, but find they can get by with just a swamp cooler.

Living without a guaranteed supply of electricity is hard, but hardships are relative. The couple wouldn't trade it back for city life and the freeway congestion they gave up but still watch each day on their small television, they said.

"If we wanted to be in a retirement community, that's what we would have purchased," Katie said before Otis offered his take:

"I'd rather be hit in the face with a dead rabbit than drive though downtown traffic."

http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles...nch0210-ON.html

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He fills a 55-gallon tank with diesel weekly - for about $185 at current prices - to power the home, and each addition takes more electricity. The couple is living in a more conservative corner of the house, reserving the larger add-ons for parties, but summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month, not counting the gasoline he and his wife use to commute into the city.

here's a thought, quit adding on to the house! git...sheesh!

If you're going to live "off grid" do it manageably. Diesel generators aren't very effecient for constant every day use. Does this guy even have solar panels or a wind turbine? He's in the middle of the dessert! There's ample sunshine! And he wouldn't have to drive to town to get it!

We plan to go off grid sometime, and we'll have a combination of solar, wind and hydro power. We just have to find the right spot. Its totally do-able though.


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Filed: Country: Philippines
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He fills a 55-gallon tank with diesel weekly - for about $185 at current prices - to power the home, and each addition takes more electricity. The couple is living in a more conservative corner of the house, reserving the larger add-ons for parties, but summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month, not counting the gasoline he and his wife use to commute into the city.

here's a thought, quit adding on to the house! git...sheesh!

If you're going to live "off grid" do it manageably. Diesel generators aren't very effecient for constant every day use. Does this guy even have solar panels or a wind turbine? He's in the middle of the dessert! There's ample sunshine! And he wouldn't have to drive to town to get it!

We plan to go off grid sometime, and we'll have a combination of solar, wind and hydro power. We just have to find the right spot. Its totally do-able though.

LOL...no kidding. For all the money he's spending for the deisel fuel, he could be buying some solar panels.

That's awesome, Reba! I hope to get to that point one day. :yes:

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Eh, there is another way to live off the power grid (FYI, this method IS used in many of the swampier parts of Louisiana; and also by strict Amish in PA and OH)--basically, use NO electricity.


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Filed: Lift. Cond. (apr) Country: Egypt
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Wickenburg was nice. I could and would live south of there in a New York minute if it was more affordable.


Don't just open your mouth and prove yourself a fool....put it in writing.

It gets harder the more you know. Because the more you find out, the uglier everything seems.

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People that live off the grid have a much different outlook on energy use than people on the grid. Turning on a light switch and mailing in a check every month is relatively trouble free. Out of sight...out of mind. When you have to actively fuel and/or maintain equipment to maintain your standard of living you get a better understanding of how precarious our modern world really is.

I've been working offshore (and off the grid) in the offshore oil industry for nearly 25 years. Most offshore production facilities use natural gas from the wells on the facility to fuel our electrical generators. Sometimes we use diesel generators and the diesel is pumped to facility storage tanks from boats.

One thing is certain...when the lights go out...you are back in the Stone Age. Being standed in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico without electricity sucks! Been there, done that, and wasn't happy about it.


"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave."

"...for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."

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Filed: Country: United Kingdom
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I can understand the fascination and pull of being "off the grid". However, I think the people in that article would have my admiration a bit more if they were doing it in a more environmental fashion. ;)

Peejay ~ You must have had a wonderful view of the night sky though, stuck in the middle of the ocean with no artificial light. :D

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Peejay ~ You must have had a wonderful view of the night sky though, stuck in the middle of the ocean with no artificial light. :D

Unfortunately the lights of the production facility drown out the the celestial lights in the same way the city lights do. However, I remember one night several months ago we lost power at 1AM and the view of the moonless cloudless sky was magnificent while I scurried about in the pitch dark trying to find out why the electrical power generators went down.

I also have vivid memories of viewing the Hale-Bopp Comet in 1997 while working the night shift at East Cameron 322-A production facility 100 miles from shore. The first time I saw it I didn't know what it was. I pointed it out to the day shift guy at 6AM shift change and he told me what it was.

One of my favorite memories of celestial viewing was sleeping outside in the middle of the Canyonlands of Utah in the early 1980's. It was a crystal clear sky with no moon, clouds, or any appreciable artificial lights for hundreds of miles. You could easily see the Milky Way and the constellations vividly with the naked eye. I layed awake in the pitch dark for hours taking it all in.


"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave."

"...for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX)

Testimony to the House Immigration Subcommittee, February 24, 1995

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Filed: Country: Philippines
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Peejay ~ You must have had a wonderful view of the night sky though, stuck in the middle of the ocean with no artificial light. :D

Unfortunately the lights of the production facility drown out the the celestial lights in the same way the city lights do. However, I remember one night several months ago we lost power at 1AM and the view of the moonless cloudless sky was magnificent while I scurried about in the pitch dark trying to find out why the electrical power generators went down.

I also have vivid memories of viewing the Hale-Bopp Comet in 1997 while working the night shift at East Cameron 322-A production facility 100 miles from shore. The first time I saw it I didn't know what it was. I pointed it out to the day shift guy at 6AM shift change and he told me what it was.

One of my favorite memories of celestial viewing was sleeping outside in the middle of the Canyonlands of Utah in the early 1980's. It was a crystal clear sky with no moon, clouds, or any appreciable artificial lights for hundreds of miles. You could easily see the Milky Way and the constellations vividly with the naked eye. I layed awake in the pitch dark for hours taking it all in.

Awesome. I've sat under the moonless night sky on the beach where the town lights were minimal...eerily beautiful.

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Filed: AOS (apr) Country: Mexico
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Aw, peejay...you're making me nostalgic for my brief stints in the Southwest, where the only thing to keep us entertained was watching meteor showers.

Here in the Northeast, you can never get away from manmade lights.


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Filed: Citizen (apr) Country: Brazil
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summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month

---------------------------------------------

i just don't see that being cost effective.......


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summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month

---------------------------------------------

i just don't see that being cost effective.......

No - that particular guy isn't using solar...he's completely generating his electricity using diesel fuelled generators.

Edited by Mister Fancypants

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summer fuel bills still top $1,200 a month

---------------------------------------------

i just don't see that being cost effective.......

No - that particular guy isn't using solar...he's completely generating his electricity using diesel fuelled generators.

while it may give him something to toot his horn about, i'd think he would save money by being on the grid.

don't know the cost of it, but making a home in the side of a hill can lower heating and cooling bills too.


* ~ * Charles * ~ *
 

I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.

 

USE THE REPORT BUTTON INSTEAD OF MESSAGING A MODERATOR!

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