Running on the sun's juice

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Where the asphalt ends on the road to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, so do the electric wires. Beyond that line where the paved road turns to dirt, everything changes. Where there are no power lines, the mindset is different and so is the lifestyle.

A small sign nailed to a tree at MB Warner and Jim Weishaar's house reads, "Welcome to our solar powered neighborhood."

Weishaar bought the land -- 17 wooded and isolated acres -- in 1982 because it was "off the grid," a phrase referring to homes that are not plugged into the power grid.

The first building he put on the property was meant to be a tool shed, but when he had to move out of his house downtown, the shed became his home out of necessity.

The Hobbit House, as it is known around town, grew onto the tool shed like a climbing vine, one room at a time.

Every year, they add something to the house -- a stained-glass window, a winding wooden staircase, a bathroom (four years ago).

"This house was built by hand, from scratch, by us. We build when we have money," Warner said. "This house won't be finished until we're dead."

Weishaar made the decision to power his home with solar energy, partly because he couldn't afford the price Yampa Valley Electric Association would charge to bring wires to his house. But also because living off the grid was something he had wanted to do since his childhood in the suburbs of New York City.

"I never wanted to hear a lawn mower again," Weishaar said.

The solar-powered Hobbit House is powered by two 400-watt solar panels with two backup generators they use a couple of times in the winter. A propane tank powers their stove and refrigerator.

The house was built for maximum energy efficiency. A wall of windows face south to bring in the warmth from the sun, the walls on the north side of the house are thick and well-insulated, and every appliance has been purchased according to the amount of power it uses.

People who live off the grid, who provide their own power, have a deep awareness of every kilowatt. Their heads are full of knowledge about things such as "phantom power," the amount of energy an appliance uses even when it's off.

"I don't preach to people about switching to solar power," Warner said. "It's a lifestyle choice and quite a change. When my (friends) visit from the city, I see them walk from room to room turning on lights and leaving them on. You can't do that (when you supply your own power)."

Rick Turner's story

Rick Turner has been living off the grid for six years. In comparison to Warner and Weishaar's house that grew organically over decades, Turner's house was pre-planned with every energy con-

cern in mind.

Turner bought a remote piece of land near Cow Creek with no power, no water, no phone lines and a dirt road that he had to plow himself. Without power, the land was in Turner's price range, he said, but YVEA wanted $60,000 to bring in an underground line.

Instead, he built an off-the-grid system, complete with solar panels, wind power and a backup generator for $30,000, and he hasn't had an electric bill in six years.

Before beginning a house, Turner went out on his land on the longest and shortest days of the year to watch the way the sun moved across his land. He built cardboard structures that simulated different house designs so he could choose the shape of the house and the proper placement for windows.

In the end, Turner built an elongated, eight-sided house with a flat roof. The roof was designed to bear 100 pounds of snow and siphon melted snow into waiting holding tanks under the deck.

"Out here, water is an issue, and I save every drop," he said.

Turner's home is powered by one 900-watt wind generator and 12 80-watt solar panels. He rolled the cost of his system into the cost of his mortgage and built a high-end, state-of-the-art system. But technology for alternative energy production is advancing every few months, and Turner's system, he said, already is outdated.

Staying off the grid

The longer Turner lives off the grid, the more he learns about alternative energy. He goes to conferences and trade shows to learn about the latest equipment, and his belief in this lifestyle continues to grow.

In Routt County, Turner knew of more than a dozen people who were living off the grid, and he envisions a county where that number grows.

"We're going to change people's ideas one house at a time, one lightbulb at a time," he said.

"This is a different way of life," he said. "You are aware of everything you plug in. You find out where every kilowatt goes." Turner looks to the incentives that Aspen has put in place to encourage the use of alternative energy as a model for Steamboat Springs, and he offers himself as a consultant for anyone who wants to build an off-the-grid system.

Kent Eriksen's story

To Kent Eriksen, who built his house off the grid in 1987, he sees other ways that people can conserve energy, especially if they live in town.

If more people don't become aware of their energy consumption, he said, future generations will have a hard time.

When he built his house, the road to the hot springs was not plowed, and he was fulfilling his dream of living in a house he had to ski into.

But it wasn't too long before the road was plowed and became a busy thoroughfare for sightseers and hot springs visitors.

He watches all the SUVs pass his house daily and wonders.

"Instead of building a solar house, you could spend your money better by looking at the appliances you use or buying a hybrid car instead of an SUV.

"Or just pretend you're off the grid and conserve electricity," he said.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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