By Nick Worth
“A long time ago I figured out that it wouldn’t be my income that would be important when I retired, but my overhead,” says Don Maher.
Maher and his wife Sandy live an “off the grid” lifestyle now on their property on Horse Run Road outside of Holbrook. Their house is heated by a wood stove and a pellet stove, and they use propane to cook with, but everything else is run by solar power.
There are no electric or phone lines running to the property. Maher said when he looked into getting power run to the land, the costs of running the lines “just kept going up and up.”
“When it got to the point where solar was cheaper, I decided to go that route,” he said.
Maher made his living in the automobile industry, starting out as an auto mechanic in the mid-60s and working his way up to general manager of several dealerships in Los Angeles by the mid-80s. When he saw the car business going downhill, Maher went to work for AAA in 1990.
In 1998, he and his late wife Majorie visited Holbrook and decided they would like to retire in the area.
Maher and Sandy have been married for five years.
“I brought her out here to the ‘Big City’ to see if she would like it after living in the ‘little town’ of Laguna Beach, Calif., and she decided she could enjoy living here,” Maher said.
The key to the Mahers’ energy independent lifestyle is the solar system, which Don designed.
“I designed it. I built it. I work on it and when something goes wrong, I fix it,” he said.
Solar panels abound on the property. One shed contains an eight cubic foot D/C freezer, powered by a single car battery, which is kept charged by a small 205-watt solar panel on the roof of the shed. The building is heavily insulated to keep the temperatures in the freezer shed from fluctuating too widely.
“I’m a big believer in insulation,” said Maher, noting that it is necessary for energy efficiency.
Another outbuilding contains the heart of the solar system. Two large boxes house six $100 golf cart batteries, each of which receives its charge from a large array of solar panels mounted on a post in the yard.
In order to optimize the energy-gathering ability of the panels, they are mounted on a dual-axis tracker, which keeps them pointed at the sun as it travels from east to west across the sky. The mount also adjusts the panels for the optimum angle throughout the year when the sun is at different heights in the sky.
The system nearly runs itself. Once every 90 days, Maher opens the battery boxes and refills the batteries with distilled water–about a gallon for all 12 batteries–and cleans any corrosion off the batteries.
The stored electricity from the batteries runs through an inverter, which changes it from D/C to A/C and runs the entire house. The Mahers have television, computers and a standard refrigerator, as well as the usual complement of household lighting, so the solar power lifestyle doesn’t leave out any of the modern amenities…except one.
“Solar will not support air conditioning,” said Maher, “so I installed ceiling fans.”
He said savings on his “overhead” more than makes up for the lack of air conditioning.
“I like not getting an APS bill,” Maher said. “I fill my 150-gallon propane tank once per year.” He purchased the propane tank, rather than rent one, in order to save more money.
The propane is used for cooking in the house, but there is a solar alternative available in the solar oven that sits outside the back door.
Although not as fast as traditional cooking methods, the solar cooker works nicely.
“I put a pot of water on there and in 36 minutes it was boiling,” said Maher. He said a big advantage of the cooker is that meat will not dry out when cooked in it.
Another unique feature of the home are the two “heat walls.” They consist of a floor to ceiling window on the outside, with a mesh of screen wire on the inside of the space, backed by the interior wall.
A vent at the bottom of the interior wall draws air into the hollow space with the screen, assisted by a computer “muffin fan” that runs off its own 10-watt solar panel. The air then travels up the space, past the screen, which has heated up from the sun’s rays and comes out into the room through another vent as warm air. At night, the vents are closed to keep cold air from coming into the room.
Maher also has a wind generator that he has not yet bothered to hook up.
“I don’t need it yet,” he said. “By 7 a.m. the solar panels catch the sun and by 8:30 a.m. the (battery) system is at 100 percent.”
Maher said he has plans to use the wind generator to run a hot water heater.
“You have to be constructive in your thinking,” he said.
The inevitable question that arises when considering solar power is “What about cloudy days?”
“I have two days worth of stored power in my batteries,” said Maher. “If the batteries run out, then I have two generators.”
He said since he put the solar system in, he has only had to use the generators once, when an electrical storm “fried” several of the components of his battery system.
According to Maher, on cloudy days the solar panels generate about 30 percent less power than on bright days, when he sometimes runs using only two panels in the array.
Maher said he has offered solar power lessons at the library in the past and recommends that those interested in the “off the grid” lifestyle check out Home Power Magazine, which can be found online at https://homepower.com.
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By Nick Worth