Solar Powered Cabin
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solar facts
So how was it that Greg and I decided to build a house that was powered by solar generated
electricity? This was not something that was planned from the outset.  It was rather an idea that
formed over time as we fell more and more in love with the remote land that covered one half a mile
of ever changing creek yet was quite removed from conventional power sources.  We had the
choice to either go solar, or forgo the land.  We decided to go solar.

For two years we made weekend drives into the countryside, exploring the farm land in south
western Ohio, northern Kentucky  and south eastern  Indiana.  We would look for road side “for
sale” signs, check out newspaper real estate listings and drive to parcels of land that a real estate
agent friend had faxed to us.  We looked near and far, expensive and cheap, and learned what the
area had to offer, not only in terms of price, but we learned about geography and potential
neighbors as well.

After about two years, and having hiked around at least twenty different properties, we drove down
Straight Creek Road, in Brown County, Ohio  We knew that we were headed to look at sixty three
acres and a tobacco barn.  We knew that fifteen of the acres were in field and we knew that the
property had "access" to county water, but had no other utilities.  After a short while, the black top
road turned to gravel as it followed the meanderings of the creek down a beautiful secluded valley.  
We wondered who had named it Straight Creek, for it was anything but straight.  We passed three
other homes on our way down to the tobacco barn, each well over half a mile from the nearest
neighbor.  Finally, we drove over a culvert and knew that we were at the start of the sixty three acre
parcel.  Neither of us said a word to the other.  The gravel on the well maintained road crunched  
under the truck’s tires. The land was so beautiful.  The valley seemed pristine.  We drove in
silence.  We saw deer by the creek and hawk in the sky.  We got out of the truck and stood before
the old tobacco barn.  Three red tailed hawk circled on a valley breeze over our heads. I think that
we were both scared to be too excited for we knew that nothing in real estate is certain until
mountains of paperwork have been signed, sealed and delivered, but we both knew in our hearts,
the minute that we stepped out of the truck, that this was the place we had been looking for over
the past two years.

Well, the papers were eventually all signed, the real estate transaction completed, and we were the
owners of sixty three acres of beautiful creek valley.  There were no utilities on the property, which
helped to keep the price within our range, and the only water on the property was the water that
flowed down the creek.  We did have access, however, to the county water line that ran along the
road, (put in by virtue of a federal grant several years prior), but in order to tap into the water line
we needed to have an address, and in order to have an address we needed to have a driveway.  
So we spent our first few weekend visits camping on the back of our sixteen foot drag, parked
behind the tobacco barn for just a bit of privacy from the neighbor at the end of the road.

We immediately set to clearing the wildly overgrown fence rows that bordered the road.  We bush
hogged the fifteen acres of fields that the woods had been reclaiming for the past ten years, and in
the evening we would bathe in the creek and wave at the neighbor farmers who occasionally drove
by on their tractors. The spring and summer passed quickly.  The fields began to look like fields
again and that first fall we called in a gravel truck to lay down about one hundred feet of “driveway”
just in front of the tobacco barn.  At that point it was a driveway to nowhere, but we could then
apply for our address and once armed with an address we were able to get our water tap.  Greg
set a frost free spigot by the corner of the barn and we began to feel quite civilized, drinking tap
water and showering under a garden hose that Greg hooked up to the side of the barn.  The sun
even warmed our two hundred feet of water filled garden hose, so that at the end of a long day’s
work  we could have warm water, barn side showers.

The closest electric line to the barn was almost one mile up the road, back up north, towards
civilization.  Our one hundred and forty acre neighbor at the south end of Straight Creek Road had
their power run in from the other direction, up from the Ohio River.  In short, we were powerless, in
the middle.  I called the utility company and after a cursory, no cost to us survey, was advised that
underground cables could not be laid due to the rocky geology of the creek valley.  It would also
cost close to $30,000 to run the above ground lines.  We thought that even if we won the lottery, or
had the $30,000, that utility poles would look ugly running along beside the fields, so Greg began
to research solar power and to design an off the grid cabin.  Several good solar power resources
are, and

The first step was to chose a house site, with good access to a sunlight.  The upper field seemed
perfect.  It sits at a elevation of about forty feet over the creek, which local folk had advised us
flooded several feet deep in the tobacco barn during the 1997 flood.  A house in the upper field
would thus be safe from creek flooding.  The upper five acre field runs parallel to the creek, and
with the edges cleared of deadfall and new saplings, it has ample southern exposure.  We staked
out our house site, and the neighboring site for the cabin, which we set out to build first.  We
initially thought that the cabin would eventually serve as our guest house but after living in the
cabin for several years we now wonder whether we will build a larger house.  The cabin simply feels
like home and we have come to believe that small and simple are very good ways to live indeed.  
So friends and family now stay in tents or the sugar shed! Greg designed our small cabin, at first
measuring only sixteen by sixteen feet square with an eight foot front porch and a seven by sixteen
foot loft.  Once we moved out to the creek full time, we added a ten by eleven foot bathroom and
dressing room on to the back.  The cabin’s walls stand ten feet tall, before the roof starts it’s pitch,
so that the floor of the loft could sit two feet down inside the walls, giving us more head room and
allowing us to stand upright in the center of the loft.

The cabin rests on twelve concrete pillars that we set at least twenty four inches deep in the
ground, well below the frost line.  We dug the pillar holes with an auger run off of our 1957 Ford
850 tractor’s PTO.  We hauled water, for mixing the concrete, up from the creek to our construction
site, in a plastic garbage can strapped to the back of the tractor. Due to the slope of the hill, the
pillars all looked as though they were all tilted, but numerous checks with the level, confirmed that
they were in fact truly vertical and the laser level confirmed that their tops were on a horizontal
level as well.

Greg designed the cabin, with some aesthetic input from me, and we built it completely ourselves,
using power tools run off of a Coleman Powermate, 2000 watt, 4000 peek, inverter that we ran off
of the truck.  Our truck is a ten cylinder, 2003 Ford F-250.  We would not turn the truck on when
we ran the power tools, but we would periodically check the truck battery’s charge and occasionally
turn the truck on for a while.  We did not want to be stranded with a dead truck battery at the end
of the weekend.  I have no doubt that Greg might have chosen to let the battery run down and
would have happily remained stranded until a neighbor stopped by to see what we were up to.  On
the other hand, with two teenagers still living home with us in the city, I felt the urge to return to our
urban world, at least until the young'uns moved off into the world.

So with our city hands, never having done it before, we built our cabin from scratch.  Greg even
built the windows and the doors in our city basement.  We ordered a green metal standing seam
roof from Higgins Building Supply in Hillsboro, Ohio about thirty miles up the road in Highland
County.  I have always thought that standing seam roofs are very “country” and as soon as we
began to dream of our own farm, I envisioned it with every building topped with a green standing
seam metal roof. Our collection of buildings now includes the cabin, the sugar shed, the outhouse
a wood shed and the pole barn, but we did put regular barn siding on the roof of the barn.  The
standing seam was too cost prohibitive.  Still, I feel as though my dream is coming true!

As we built, Greg researched solar energy options, and finally designed a system that would work
for a weekend and summer cabin.  Now Greg had also never worked with solar energy before, but
if there is one thing that we have learned, it is to do our research, both on the internet and in
magazines and books, ask questions of any who might know more that we do, and then dig on in.

So we ordered two Kyocera KC 120 watt solar panels over the internet, four Trojan L-16H-7 six volt
batteries that weigh 121 lbs each, and waited for it all to arrive.  Greg wired the inside of the cabin
while we waited and when the panels arrived, we set them in place on a metal frame on top of a
galvanized steel pole that we set in concrete just to the left of the cabin.  Greg built a battery box,
replete with green standing seam and cedar siding to match the cabin, to house the four large
deep cell batteries.  We finished wiring the cabin, before putting up the finish siding on the inside
walls.  I asked the county building inspector whether or not I needed a building permit for the
electrical wiring and the inspector advised me that as long as the cabin would never be hooked up
to the county electric system, that no permits or inspections were required.  We could have had the
cabin’s wiring inspected, in the event that we would have wanted to connect it to the county electric
grid at a later date, but we opted not to, deciding that we would always keep the cabin running on
solar.  If we did ever decide to build a house, and the cabin became our guest house, we would
have the house electric system inspected so that we could opt to tap into the grid at later date.  
The house might then have more market value, once we are mere memories, if it were wired or
readily wired, to the grid.

The inverter, that powered our tools off of the F-250, was then permanently installed in the cabin
so that we could run both 12 volt and 110 appliances.  Greg initially housed the inverter in a box
that he built on the inside wall, just over the kitchen counter.  We now use a larger inverter that is
mounted to the wall on the way back to the bathroom.  In order to run a 110 appliance, such as our
washing machine, microwave, lap tops, television or a construction power tool, we simply flip the
inverter switch, plug the 110 appliance into a 110 outlet, and the 110 power flows.  When we
worked off of our original inverter, we left the door to the inverter box open so that the inverter
would not run too hot while the 110 power was on.  Now that the larger inverter is simply mounted
to the wall, we do not need to worry about accumulated heat.  And as for our 12 volt appliances, we
simply plug then right into their 12 volt outlets, obviously ignoring the inverter, as they run directly
off of the batteries.

The 12 volt and 110 electrical outlets are easy to distinguish.  The 110 outlets have the vertical two
prongs and a third plug while the 12 volt outlets have two horizontal prongs.  A 110  plug will simply
not fit into a 12 volt outlet. Greg also wired in a few 12 volt cigarette lighter style outlets, so we can
charge our cell phones and run auto accessories right off of the house system.  We have eight
light fixtures, one of which is on the front porch, and a Vari-Cyclone ceiling  fan that draws six
tenths of an amp per hour, that we run almost continuously both summer and winter.  In the
summer the fan serves to circulate the air and keep the cabin cool.  In the winter, the fan pushes
the wood stove heated air down from the vaulted loft area and helps to keep the warm air down in
our first floor living space.  I rarely use our micro wave oven, but it is fun to have, for popping up a
quick batch of popcorn or quickly baking potatoes.  Somehow the microwave seems more “pure”
and less decadent when I think that is it running off of clean solar power.

We also have two lap top computers that we use at the cabin (on one of which I have written this
site!).. The lap tops run off of the 110 system as does our wireless printer.  We have a washing
machine and a microwave oven.  We have satellite television, which we rarely watch, and satellite
internet, which we use a lot.   Before we had the satellite internet, Greg figured out a way to use his
Verizon cell phone as a modem so that we had lap top access to the cell phone’s internet service
at the farm.  The phone, a Motorola model #  E815  was not originally programmed to serve as a
modem, but once again, Greg did his research and found, which armed him
with the knowledge and downloadable programs that he needed to turn his cell phone into a
working modem.

Before we had the satellite television,  we watched a twelve volt Audiovox D1210 portable, 12 inch,
flat screen, LCD television, with a DVD player, that we run off of the cigarette lighter style outlets.  It
is quite a bit of fun to sit in our rocking chairs on the front porch on a summer evening and watch a
DVD movie, powered by the sun, but again, we have done this only a few times.  We usually find
that we are quite content to watch the fire flies rising at dusk from the summer field as we listen to
the evening sounds of the creek valley or in the winter to sit by the stove and read.  But we do
have the hi tech options, both to show others that off grid living can in fact be can be hi tech and
also to give us the option to enjoy hi tech if we chose to.

The original charge controller that Greg installed monitored the battery charge with a very
simplistic system.  Green meant that the batteries were fully charged, yellow meant that the system
was half charged and red meant that the system was undercharged.  Greg particularly liked this
model of charge controller, because it shut down the system, and would not let us draw power off
of the batteries, when their charge dropped below thirty percent.  This shut down feature helped to
preserve the batteries’ life, by not letting their charge drop too low, but in the year and a half that
we used this simple system, our charge never dropped into the red, even with power tools
humming, light bulbs burning, ceiling fan spinning and evening video watching.  Some days we
have actually tried to use as much power as we could, just to see if we could drain the system
down, but we have yet to do so.  As soon as the sun comes up over the hill across the creek, we
hear the charge controller start a gentle hum as the batteries charge. Usually within fifteen minutes
of morning sunshine falling on the panels, the simple system was back up out of the yellow and the
light shone green again at a full charge.

We now have a more complex charge controller that reads out the exact charge of the batteries,
and are now operating off of eight sour solar panels that produce a total of 1000 watts, ample
power for our simple lifestyle.  Our entire energy system, including grounding pole, wire and
outlets, cost approximately $10,000.  We do plan to have an independent solar system for the pole
barn, to power Greg's wood and metal shop tools in the barn.  This page will definitely be updated
with information about  the more powerful barn system once that is completed, hopefully sometime
in late 2012.

The kitchen in the cabin, is obviously very small and is really just the counter space that runs along
the southern wall, but is has all of the amenities that I need for our cooking. For several years I got
out the propane tank, attached it to our old Coleman stove and cooked dinner over two very small
burners.  Now I have the luxury of three burners, a very small oven and a sink, all right at my
fingertips.  Greg even hooked up our twelve volt television/DVD/CD player under the stairs, so that
I can watch the news or listen to music as I cook.  We are quite civilized indeed!

If you have any technical questions, please don’t hesitate to e-mail Greg at and he’ll get back with you.  I know that I have only written  a
very basic account of our first steps into off grid living, but perhaps the most important message
that I would like to share, which I have also saved for last, is that alternative energy is not only
effective, and need not cost that much to get started, but it is really very understandable.  At the
outset, I thought that not being connected to the energy grid would be an extremely complicated
adventure that I would never fully understand, but now I know that if Greg were called out of town
for a few weeks, I would be just fine managing the cabin without him.  It is really not much more
complicated than knowing that 12.5 volts on the charge controller means full charge!  So, as we
continue to follow our dream (hopefully living well into our eighties ) we will certainly be very
comfortable, living with all of life's modern conveniences and not paying any utility bills!
Straight Creek Valley Farm
In this photo you can see  
the sink, the propane stove,
and our twelve volt fridge.  
The oven is small, but it
works well for baking, and I
must confess, in the winter
the warm aromas from the
oven warm us as much as
the flames in the wood
This picture shows the
microwave, that I no longer use.  
I have learned that there is no
reason to rush!  But I wanted o
share this photo because it does
show the twelve volt CD/DVD
player television that we do
enjoy.  I like to listen to music as
I potter about the cabin, and we
do enjoy the occasional satellite
television show.  Greg mounted
the small TV on a hinge so that it
can swing out for use.  We just
pull up our rocking chairs for
easy viewing and when done,
tuck the tele back under the
stairs and out of the way.
Mother's Off Grid Living