Off the Grid in Lost Valley, Part 2

Feb. 1, 2004

Editor's note: In the January issue, the author began his story of a search for the ideal location to construct a log home in the mountains not far from Dalton, GA. After months of exploring, Ray Anderson and his wife, Pat, chose a place near Highlands, NC, in a place called Lost Valley. The first article explored the initial decisions that were made in planning, designing and constructing their new eco-friendly log home, one they were determined would be both "gracious" and "off the grid," even though some experts doubted it could be done. This article profiles the myriad of decisions that subsequently followed.

Construction finally began in November 2001! With erosion shielding silt fences in place to protect Shoal Creek from construction run-off, and house plan and topographical survey in hand, we positioned the house and decided its orientation astride our narrow rib of land and atop the magnificent knoll that first took our breath away. We marked three major trees for protection: a sourwood to the northeast, a maple to the southwest (to shade the house's western wall from summer's afternoon sun) and a magnificent 24-inch diameter, 60-foot-tall yellow pine to the south. We then slotted and oriented the house among them. The south side of the screened porch was oriented to face about 10° west of true south. The valley extends in that general direction and so this would be our primary view.

That orientation also gave the best solar exposure. The ridge that defines the east side of Lost Valley has high trees on that side, which dictated that we favor the afternoon sun for PV and solar collectors. So the PV site was selected on the south side of the house at ground level, with the same orientation (parallel with the house), while the solar collectors were assigned to the south-facing roof, with the same 10° west-of-south orientation.

As construction proceeded, major subcontract items included:

  • Septic system: as approved by the Health Department; capacity 600 gallons a day (enough for a small hotel).
  • Foundation: digging, forming and pouring concrete footings and walls, including providing a basement area for the mechanical room.
  • Carpentry: framing, exterior sheathing, erecting logs (inside and outside), installing doors, windows, floors and trim moulding.
  • Stone work: foundation façade, two fireplaces and chimneys (one in the living room, one on the screened porch), outside walkways and extensive retaining walls to control erosion.
  • Insulation: blown-in cellulose for exterior and interior (for sound deadening) walls; also floors and ceilings.
  • Sheetrock: providing Dennis's air tightness and a cavity for the insulation.
  • Roofing: steel, standing seam construction and red in color to meet Pat's requirement.
  • Plumbing: all the usual for water usage and sewerage disposal, plus interfacing with the solar heating system.
  • Electrical: all the usual, but with compact fluorescent lighting wherever feasible, plus interfacing with the photovoltaic power sources and adding a few efficiency "wrinkles" such as timers on the bathroom exhaust fans so they could not be left running inadvertently.
  • Logs: shaped (nominally 11-inch by five- inch cross-section), then split into three- inch and two-inch widths, cut to length, and numbered by Wind River to facilitate precise location and installation.
  • Photovoltaic: 3.9 kWp PV array, battery bank, inverter for AC current, propane-powered back-up generator and controls. The PV array included 26 panels (expandable to 32), mounted on an aluminum frame, which is anchored in concrete footings, and fixed at 55° from the vertical (the complement to Lost Valley's latitude of 35° north), and facing 10° west of south.
  • Solar heating: Five roof-mounted, four- by 10- foot solar collectors, two 110-gallon tanks for solar fluid (a water and non-toxic propylene glycol mixture that prevents freezing on cold nights) and domestic hot water storage, heat exchangers, supplementary heat (propane), circulation pumps, buried coils for radiant floor heating (pressure tested for air tightness at 100psi), and controls for nine thermostatically regulated heating zones, including one for the separate battery enclosure in the mechanical room.
  • Appliances: all electric, except propane gas for stove, oven, grill and clothes dryer; everything selected for best efficiency, commensurate with reasonable convenience, including such luxuries as trash compactor, instant hot water dispenser, microwave oven and garbage disposal. As Steven Strong had said, "For gracious living in the mountains."
  • Cabinets and closets: all conventional.
  • Garage door: electrically operating, façade constructed from quarter-inch-thick Engleman spruce salvaged from the log splitting procedure, sanded and stained to match exterior logs exactly.
  • Satellite: one dish for both television and computer (amazingly fast, with perfect television reception, down-linking and up-linking for the computer).
  • Telephone: our other concession to the grid, telephones are on a land line for the security system's sake. In contrast to the power company, the telephone company made us an offer we could not refuse: buried land lines, installed for $135! Go figure.
  • Lightning protection: an afterthought, but an invaluable peace-of-mind addition. (While waiting for the system's installation we saw a photograph on the front page of the local newspaper of a million-dollar home going up in blazes from a lightning strike.)
  • Painting, staining: for every square inch of surface, inside and out, to meet Pat's exacting shade requirements, including the chinking, a rubberized cementitious material that moves with the logs, rather than cracking or separating as the logs react to temperature or humidity changes. Even the aluminum PV framework is painted dark green to help it "disappear."
  • Paving: 1,000 feet of asphalt, 10 feet wide, for a very steeply sloping, winding driveway.
  • Parking: rocks and pebbles to provide a porous parking area, together with drainage piping to minimize run-off.
  • Landscaping: to create a minimum maintenance yard, meaning no grass to cut, and to plant a half-acre wildflower meadow alongside Shoal Creek. We have taken special care to preserve the small wetland that buffers Shoal Creek from the wildflower meadow and captures run-off from the approach road.
  • Fencing: at precipitous edges along the mile-long, winding approach road and driveway, for safety and to say "Welcome" to our approaching guests.
  • Gate: at the driveway entrance, access code-controlled, and also solar-powered by its own small, stand-alone array.
  • Screening: windows and porch (including underneath the porch to prevent insect entry through the cracks between floorboards, which are necessary for drainage).
  • Security: every window and door protected.

Construction, from beginning to end, required a year and a half, though we moved furniture in and began to use the house after a year (with work going on around us). Near the end of construction, there was an especially amusing moment that epitomized the entire experience. The guard rail for the rather elevated screened porch was yet to be built. Discussing its construction details with our general contractor, John Williams, we asked him how we should think about this, and he replied that it was really a code issue (as to height and spacing between the vertical slats). So we asked what the consequences would be if we varied from code. He answered, "You won't get an occupancy permit." We then asked what the consequences would be of not getting an occupancy permit. He blushed, realizing the absurd irony of his answer: "The power company won't turn on your power." We had a good laugh, and then agreed to his building the railing to code.

During the first winter of use, the big yellow pine tree on the south side cast an energy-robbing shadow on the roof-mounted solar collectors, and we decided not to tolerate this for another winter. With the tree's removal, we expect significantly less usage of propane for supplementary hot water heating in cold weather. Thus, we will release far less CO2 from burning propane than the pine tree's carbon sequestration capacity we have sacrificed. That magnificent southerly view from the screened porch, frankly, is much enhanced, too, by the absence of the 24-inch tree trunk in the sight line down the valley to Georgia.

The buried propane tank, representing our primary reliance on the outside world for utilities, was filled for the first time on August 15, 2001, requiring 850 gallons. Subsequent refills over the first year totaled 1,354 gallons with an average use of 3.7 gallons a day. With work still going on during the first winter and the tree shadowing the solar collectors, propane usage was initially unusually high, but declined to nominal amounts for cooking and clothes drying during spring and summer as the sun supplied practically all the energy for domestic hot water. We expect significantly better performance in the winter of 2003.

The very slow "thermal lag" of log construction, enhanced by the air-tight sandwiched insulation, enables the house to hold its temperature very steadily in all kinds of weather. The night's coolness lingers through hot summer days, and the day's warmth lingers through cold winter nights. We had heard this about logs, and it has proven to be true. Radiant floor heat is nice, too, and very different. The floor never feels really warm; it just never feels cold. Radiating upward, the gentle heat negates the normal settling of cold air, and an entire room is kept uniformly comfortable from floor to ceiling.

The back-up electricity generator did not have to run at all the summer of 2003 as the PV system met all our electrical needs, in spite of an unusually cloudy and rainy summer. At peak summer sun, the PV system generates about 52 amps of direct current to the batteries, while the house's usage fluctuates typically between three and about 20 amps of alternating current, after some 15 percent is lost in conversion: three amps in shutdown mode, usually around six to eight amps in normal operation, and as much as about 20 amps (sometimes more) with momentary surges if several motors come on at once.

Large electricity users include the well pump, refrigerator-freezer, garbage disposal, compactor, instant hot water dispenser, microwave oven, garage door and hair dryer (strictly limited to models with 600 watts, rather than standard 1,800-watt units). However, all these run for relative short durations (amp-hours is the key usage metric).

Compact fluorescent lights and ceiling fans are not large users, though they stay on for extended periods. Average daily electrical usage, occupied, is about 20 kWh; unoccupied about eight kWh, both pretty much as originally calculated. With average sunshine, the PV system supplies this without help from the generator; and several days without occupancy assure that the batteries recharge fully. Setting the generator to come on optimally was a particularly important exercise. One wants to give the sun a chance all day long, but not let the batteries be over-drawn. One also has to be conscious of generator noise during sleeping hours. So we set operating hours from sundown to bedtime, and trigger points for low battery voltage that allow the sun to work over a wide, but safe, range of battery voltages.

Off the grid, there is no garbage collection, either, so whatever garbage we accumulate, we haul out. We separate glass, aluminum and newspapers for the recycling center, which is handily located a mile or so from the entrance to Highland Gap.

Furnishing a new home from scratch is a very big undertaking, and Pat did it by herself and with relish. I cannot even begin to do justice to her efforts. She picked every piece of furniture, every picture, every picture frame, every mirror, every fabric (draperies, upholstery, bedspreads and curtains), every linen item, every lamp, every light fixture, every vase, every bookend, every house plant, every rug, including the all-weather rugs for the porch, every accessory, and all the paint colors.

We love our log house in the mountains—off the grid, in our own forever wild slice of the watershed called Lost Valley. We enjoy it mostly for weekend getaways, about every other week. It accommodates guests well, too, as many as 10 at a time, plus us. We are happy with the space, even the small bedrooms, the arrangement of rooms, the "mountainy" furnishings, the appliances, the PV, the solar heat and the natural cooling during summer, with occasional help from the ceiling fans. Nobody has run out of hot water yet. And, thanks to Pat, nobody has gone hungry or had to sleep on dirty sheets or use dirty towels, either.

In a word, it works!

Ray Anderson is founder and chairman of the board of Interface Inc., Dalton, GA. He is the 2001 recipient of the George and Cynthia Mitchell International Prize for Sustainable Development awarded by the National Academy of Sciences, and author of Mid-Course Correction (Chelsea Green, 1998).

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