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Going solar: Off-grid home in the High Sierras

How a California couple went solar
by Rex Ewing
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What goes around comes around, and often in the most peculiar times and places. When Carole Scott and her husband, Jim Corbelli, were unexpectedly—and, you might say, serendipitously—extended an offer to buy a prime piece of Sierra Nevada mountain land by a loquacious waitress in a Portola, California, restaurant late one night in 2001, they had no idea that 150 years of history were about to come full circle. But it’s the sort of thing that happens when a family puts down deep roots.

It seems that the 22 acres on which their 3,800-square-foot, off-grid log home now sits is part of an ancient volcano known as Beckwourth Peak, named in honor of freed slave and explorer Jim Beckwourth. In 1850, Beckwourth discovered what is now known as Beckwourth Pass, a 5,221-foot high-country opening through which flows the Feather River. Finding it a lower and safer route than the steep and infamous 7,085-foot Donner Pass 40 miles to south, Beckwourth often led Donner-bound pioneers through the pass that bears his name.

In the early 1850s, Carole’s great-great-great-grandmother and her family were traveling by wagon to San Francisco when they lost one of their oxen and became stranded east of Donner Pass. They were later found near death by Carole’s great-great-great-grandfather, who, upon hearing his family was in peril, left the gold fields near San Francisco to search for them. Knowing Beckwourth Pass would be an easier route, he led them north and, as fate would have it, hooked up with Beckwourth himself, who took them into his small cabin and cared for them until they were well enough to complete the journey. This old log cabin still stands as a museum in downtown Portola, a mere 5-minute drive for Carole, a woman who, ironically, just may owe her existence to the early explorer’s kindness and generosity.

These days, Carole, a retired law-firm administrator, and Jim, a civil attorney, enjoy the splendor and solitude that must have attracted Beckwourth to the area 157 years ago. And, like the mountain folk of old, they manage nicely without any telltale tethers to the outside world.

Living in California, the solar-energy capital of the United States, Carole and Jim are no strangers to solar energy. They had been using and supplying the electrical grid with solar electricity from the roof-mounted array on their Bay Area home for years. So when it came time to build their new house, they knew solar was the only way to go. Besides, hooking to the grid was hardly an option. “If we had obtained approval from the U.S. Forest Service to trench power lines along the one-mile road to our property, it would have cost us an estimated $100,000. Then we would have the pleasure of monthly bills,” Carole explains. “This was a no-brainer for us.”

The house itself is a stylish three-level affair with a walkout basement and a detached garage. It was erected and finished by a local contractor from a 6-by-8-inch D-style log kit provided by Kuhns Bros. Log Homes of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Solar Wind Works, a residential solar and wind installer from nearby Truckee, worked with the building contractor throughout the building process, setting up the battery box and the electrical conditioning equipment in the mechanical room, and installing the solar-array roof supports on the garage roof before the roofers arrived on the scene.

The garage roof is a 10/12 pitch, which is steeper than the main house. Since the property is at nearly 40 degrees latitude, the steep roof makes for optimal year-round solar performance from the non-adjustable solar array. It also simplifies the task of cleaning the often-heavy snow from the solar panels. The garage faces due south, cattycorner to the house, since, as Carole puts it, “We placed the garage to maximize the available sunlight, and the house to maximize the view.”

Because there are so many trees around the building site, Solar Wind Works used a clever device called a Solar Pathfinder to determine which trees could stay and which ones needed to be cut down. The Solar Pathfinder removes all the guesswork by accurately calculating the path of the sun during each season of the year.

The large AstroPower solar array takes up the entire south side of the garage roof and boasts a whopping 6,160 watts of rated output. On a day of full sun, it can send better than 35 kilowatt hours of power to the house—far more energy than most homes use on most days. Inside the electrical room, a pair OutBack MX60 charge controllers deftly handles the chore of charging 24 heavy-duty Surrette 2-volt lead-acid batteries. Wired in series for 48-volt operation, these premium solar batteries hold in excess of 45 kilowatt hours of usable power in reserve (half of their 90 kWh total capacity) and make it readily available to the dual Xantrex SW5548 sine-wave inverters supplying the house with clean, steady AC power—and lots of it. These Clydesdales working together can churn out a total of 92 continuous amps at 120 volts, or 46 amps at 220 volts.

Just in case the batteries ever do get dangerously low (an eventuality that has yet to occur), a stationary 18-kilowatt Kohler propane-fired generator, housed on the garage’s south side, is ready to kick into action to supply power to the house and recharge the batteries the second it receives an SOS from the inverters.

All told, it’s the kind of system that makes most off-gridders—myself included—drool.

 

This story ran longer in the July 2007 issue of Log Homes Illustrated.

Rex Ewing, author of renewable-energy books, including Got Sun? Go Solar and Power with Nature, lives with his wife, LaVonne, in a handcrafted log home powered by the sun and wind in the foothills of Colorado. He can be reached at www.pixyjackpress.com. If you live with solar or wind energy, we’d like to tell your story. E-mail Rex Ewing at LogsWindSun@starband.net, or write: Logs, Wind & Sun stories, PixyJack Press, P.O. Box 149, Masonville CO 80541.

Published in Log Homes Illustrated
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