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Living Off the Grid: Creature Comforts Met by Sun, Wind and Forest

5/4/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: off grid living, solar power, solar home, wind turbine, wood heat, Colorado

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailThis post is part of a series on Living Off the Grid. If you're off the grid, send us your story. If you dream about living off the grid, read on.

When Cyndee and Tony Blenkush left the city to live in rural south-central Colorado in 1996, they quickly learned that they could count on two things from their power company: outages and rate increases. They loved living in the area, but they wanted off the increasingly expensive and unreliable grid.

In 2005, they found an 80-acre property a mile and a half from the nearest power—just what they wanted. The cost of tying to the faraway grid (if it were even possible) and the cost of installing solar panels would be the same, more than validating their decision to go solar.

With guidance from a local solar company, Tony sized and installed a 48-volt solar system. The couple’s initial calculations called for six 190-watt panels with 16 golf cart batteries for storage; they’ve since doubled the panels and added a wind turbine that provides about 200 kilowatt hours per month. “Size does matter,” Cyndee says. “You should always plan on at least one upgrade. Future-proof yourself.”

Cyndee and Tony learned the hard way that all the calculations and research in the world can’t compare to boots off the grid. Adding more panels and the wind turbine meant they also had to buy a larger-capacity controller. “You can invest a lot of time doing research about living off grid, but nothing means more than living with it to truly understand your needs,” Cyndee says.

The couple’s needs—and all their creature comforts—are now met by the sun, the wind and the forest surrounding their home, which provides fuel for the outdoor wood-fired gasification furnace and the cookstove. The wood-fired boiler heats domestic hot water through a side-arm heat exchanger connected to an 80-gallon storage tank and provides hot water for baseboard heaters in the metal clad-on-wood timber frame structure that they’re calling home for now.

Cyndee loves living off the grid because she believes it’s the right thing to do for the Earth. “You are self sufficient, you are not paying the big corporations who continue to increase their fees and rates, and you are acting in a responsible, green way,” she says.

Most importantly, Cyndee and Tony feel secure being in control of their own power and not ever having to worry about the rising cost of rural power. ”From time to time we hear about power outages and rate increases,” she says, “when people stop by to inquire about what it is like to live off grid.”

 blenkush landscape 

Cyndee and Tony Blenkush bought their 80-acre property in south-Central Colorado largely because it was so far from the grid. 

blenkush exterior 

They keep bees, make their own beer, wine and mead, and grow most of their own vegetables in a 50-foot by 40-foot garden. 

blenkush home from above 

Cyndee and Tony named the property Weeping Rock after the large rock behind the house. They’re living temporarily in a 650-square-foot metal clad-on-wood timber frame structure with a large utility/mechanical room and an 8-foot by 16-foot cold room that holds the 1,650-gallon water cistern as well as canned goods, root vegetables and extra pantry items. The exterior walls and underside of the home’s roof are spray-foamed with latex based insulation to keep it comfortable year-round. 

blenkush greenhouse and panels 

Cyndee and Tony are largely off the grocery grid as well as the power grid. Their 24-foot by 36-foot greenhouse extends the season so they can grow tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, pepper and eggplants, peas and spring greens. A four-season greenhouse attached to the house accommodates early seed-starting. “Living at 8,400-feet elevation has presented many gardening challenges from which we have learned what grows best outdoors versus in the greenhouses,” Cyndee says. (And yes, this photo was taken this week.) 

blenkush boiler 

An outdoor wood-fired gasification furnace keeps the couple warm during winter months. 

blenkush woodstove 

Until spring comes to higher elevations, Kodi the dog is staying warm in front of the wood cookstove that Tony refurbished. The couple found the stove at an auction. 

blenkush cyndee and tony 

Cyndee and Tony’s “back yard” is a 2,000-acre BLM holding. “Fortunately there are no vehicle/ATV/motorcycle trails into this area, so we are about the only ones who get to enjoy it,” Cyndee says. 

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