Morgana Wyze and Matt Stoll saw how dramatically solar panels could increase a home’s value when their grid-tied solar-powered northern California Victorian sold for top dollar in 2006. With those profits, Morgana and Matt bought a larger piece of property where they could garden and build the off-the-grid home of their dreams.
“We could have put in a connection to the power lines, but the cost for hook-up would have been the same as a solar system,” Morgana says. “We opted for the solar system and never regretted the decision. We had power, water pumped from our well, and heat in the winter storms when our neighbors didn't. We became the place for them to shower and refill their water bottles as we fed them hot soup during these storm periods.”
In winter, Morgana and Matt used about 7 kilowatt hours per day to power a jacuzzi tub, refrigerator, clothes washer and dishwasher. The home heating system, water heater, dryer and stove were propane. When they sold that house in 2009—again for a premium because of the solar system—installing solar at their new, much more remote site (where summers are cooler) was never a question.
Now seasoned solar veterans, Morgana and Matt say batteries are the secret to off-grid living. For their first off-grid home, they paid $6,000 for two sets of massive batteries that had been used as the back-up power system for a failed dot.com. When they moved, they left half of the batteries at the old house and took the rest to their new home, built from aerated auto-claved concrete (Hebel block) with passive solar orientation and clerestory windows for day lighting. “We oversized the solar system this time to better run a separate shop and supply pumped irrigation to the gardens in the summer,” Morgana explains. “We were completely amazed at how far solar technology had evolved in just a few years. Our panels cost less and provided more power.”
Morgana and Matt’s solar system typically generates 22 kilowatt hours on a sunny winter day, and the family uses uses about 6 kilowatt hours per day. Their hefty batteries allow them to operate using stored electricity for six days before they have to turn on the propane generator. Morgana says a 200-gallon propane tank has lasted the family more than a year and shows no signs of needing to be refilled.
A wood stove supplies heat, and an on-demand propane water heater handles water. While the family’s appliances are standard, Morgana and Matt chose them carefully—with an eye toward energy usage. An Amana amoire-style refrigerator uses less energy because the freezer is on the bottom. A separate chest freezer, kept outside, uses very little power in the winter. “We have so much excess power in the summer that we 're thinking of adding another freezer,” Morgana says. The Blue Star gas stove has no electronics, and Morgana turns off the Kitchenaid dishwasher’s heat dry function because its stainless steel interior conducts heat to dry dishes.
“We use LED light bulbs, with some compact florescent, and we never stress about leaving lights on,” Morgana says. “We use kill switches for items such as cell phone chargers, which can create phantom loads. They plug into a power strip, which shuts down when items are charged.” The family rarely watches TV, but they’re constantly on their laptops and, Morgana says, “my son has a video game habit that can chew through extra power.”
Video gaming aside, the family is careful—without being crotchety—about their energy use. They run the washers during daylight hours, and no one uses blow dryers or curling irons, although Morgana says “the electric kettle and toaster get a daily workout.” The family’s biggest energy expenditures—running a food dehydrator and pumping irrigation water—occur in summer, when sunshine is abundant.
“Our only bills are for cell phone and auto insurance,” Morgana says. “We love living off grid and would never go back to energy dependence.”
Morgana Wyze and and Matt Stoll’s year-old home is a work in progress. Right now the yet-to-be-finished front porch houses garden equipment, fertilizer and seeds for planting season. The family gardens an acre and a half of the 160-acre northern California timber farm that they call home.