Living Entirely Off the Grid

  • Solar panels aren't just for rocket scientists anymore. Consumers are now starting to use solar and other alternative energies to power their homes. (Photo courtesy of

With no power lines in sight, one western Pennsylvania couple lives pretty much like the rest of us. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has this story of a home “off the grid”:


With no power lines in sight, one western Pennsylvania couple lives pretty much like the rest of us. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has this story of home “off the grid”:

Ted Carns is busy hanging art in the foyer of his house. While he holds a picture in place against the wall, he plugs in an electric drill.

(sound of drill)

Ted and Kathy Carns’ entire two-bedroom house uses electricity powered by the sun or wind. Their rustic stone and plank home sits on top of a steep wooded hill, miles from the nearest neighbor.

“There’s no water, there’s no soil, there’s no public utilities up here. So everything that we designed, you have to keep in mind, was done in this harsh condition.”

It’s taken the Carns twenty years to design and expand their alternative energy system. Ted, a self-described scrounger and handyman, has found many components through flea markets and friends. In fact, Kathy says their off-grid system began with a gift of shoebox-sized batteries.

Kathy: “Somebody gave us a bunch of batteries-nickel cadmium batteries. And then we started thinking about how to recharge the batteries. Thinking wind. The windmill came first.”

Ted: “It took me eight climbs to install the new windmill, I had a different one up there. The bottom of the tower I built.”

Murray: “How tall is that?”

Ted: “Seventy-six feet.”

(sound of chimes)

The metal tower now looms over the house, outbuildings and organic garden. As the wind whips the chimes at its base, the turbine blades whirl and drive an alternator to generate electricity. The electricity is stored in a bank of batteries.

Murray: “Is the wind consistent here?”

Carns: “Winter good. Summer not. Then in summer the solar panels kick in. So it just sort of balances out.”

The Carns’ rooftop solar panels accept sunlight into silicon chips and convert the light into electricity. Because it’s sunny today, Kathy can run their specially manufactured clothes washer with solar energy. First, she pushes a button on the living room wall and a red light starts to blink. The light indicates that stored electricity is being converted from a DC to AC current.

“That means the house is on 110 power. Turn the water on and then just… It’s on.”

The Carns also vacuum when the sun shines or the wind blows. They run their TV, stereo and lights off 12-volt DC batteries, much like a car. They heat their water with solar energy in the summer and wood in the winter. And warm their house with a wood stove. They also capture air from underground and use it to refrigerate food and cool their house. All told, Ted and Kathy have spent about 3,000 dollars to upgrade their alternative energy system. Ted says, except for burning wood, the system is nonpolluting. He believes it’s also pretty much hassle free.

Carns: “There’s no inconvenience that we’ve seen… There’s maybe two or three days that we don’t have ample hot water. The nice thing about that is that it – you never stop appreciating the conveniences because periodically for a very short time sometimes you have to do without.”

Perez: “More and more people are discovering that they can power their homes and small businesses using solar and wind.”

Richard Perez is the founder and publisher of Home Power Magazine. Perez says states are doing far more than the federal government to encourage the residential use of renewable energy.

“There are tax credits, there are rebates, there are buy-downs. Every state has a slightly different scheme but most states have some sort of financial incentive for installing small-scale renewables in your home.”

Perez says homeowners don’t have to wait wait for government support to set up a system. Ted and Kathy Carns agree.

(sound of plates and silverware)

As the couple gets ready for dinner, Kathy says they want to inspire the many people who come to see how they live off-grid.

“We have a friend who has a solar lawnmower now. We have friends in Philadelphia that took some solar panels; it’s not their total system, but it’s a little part of their system. If we get enough company and enough people have been here, it sort of branches out, and goes off.”

An estimated 180 thousand households in the United States generate some or all of their own electricity. But alternative energy systems aren’t for everybody. For people who are downright afraid of technology or inconvenience, life off the power grid isn’t a real option just yet.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Murray.

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