It didn't take long for Joel Davidson to fall in love with Pettigrew, Arkansas. Visiting a friend in the area, he was immediately taken by the rugged, green beauty of the Ozark mountains. Compared to Oakland, California, where he'd been living for several years, the remote, crossroads town, 40 miles from the nearest city, seemed the ideal place to fulfill his dream of finding a place to homestead and raise a few horses. A few months later he bought 32 acres atop 2,200-foot Boston Mountain in Pettigrew and said good-bye to the city. Joel built a 1,300-square-foot passive solar, post-frame house on the land. By cutting much of the lumber from their woods and hunting down used materials, he completed the house for less than $1,000.
All the work was done before Joel called the Ozark Electric Co-op to find out how much it would cost to get a power line to his house from the nearest pole, more than a mile away. If he cleared the land for the line himself, and if he would agree to pay a minimum electric bill of $45 per month for the next five years, he was told, the utility would gladly string the cable for $1,500. Joel said, "No, thanks," and hung up.
For the next three years, he did without electricity. At first it was an adventure, a test to see if he could live comfortably without a bit of technology he had always taken for granted. He wasn't alone. As late as 1950, less than half of the houses in the county were wired and many still aren't. Joel had only to look to his neighbors for advice on life without power outlets.
To run the stove, refrigerator and water heater he used propane. By turning off pilot lights and conserving, he kept gas consumption down to 350 gallons a year. A 500-gallon rainwater cistern on the roof supplied water by gravity. Kerosene lamps provided light. And with 20 acres of hardwood right outside the front door, fuel for the wood stove was never a problem.
The south-facing windows that cover much of the back of the house also provided lots of heat and light during the day, but the kerosene lamps used in the evening never seemed bright enough for reading and sewing. Tired of squinting, Joel bought a couple of fluorescent lamps designed for campers and ran a wire from the house to his truck battery. During the week, the battery would get recharged on the commute to work. But on weekends, he had to be careful not to use the lights too much or the truck wouldn't start on Monday morning.
After one too many jump starts, Joel began to look for a better way. Through his job as Solar Projects Supervisor for the state's Office of Human Concern, he became interested in photovoltaics - the process of generating electricity from the sun.
"I knew a little about photovoltaics, but I thought of it as something that was going to happen in the future," he recalls. "Like a lot of people, I figured a system would be too expensive to be practical. When I looked into it, I realized there was no reason to wait."
He bought his first photovoltaic system for $1,000. In a single day he mounted the panels on the roof, installed the storage battery, and wired more lights throughout the house. That evening the lamps stayed on until late and no one worried if the truck would start.
Joel's enthusiasm for photovoltaics grew and do did his system. He replaced his first three panels with six larger units. The system could put out 198 watts at noon on a sunny day. He added a larger battery array and voltage regulator. For the old and new equipment and special household appliances, he still had spend under $2,000. After deducting his 40 percent Federal tax credit, Joel had spent less for his photovoltaic outfit than the cost of bringing in a power line. And all the electricity he was getting came free - with the sunrise.
"I own my own power company," says Joel. "Maybe I've got to conserve a little more than the people hooked up to power lines, but I'm use to that. I never have to worry about power failures, and I don't get a bill every month."
That doesn't mean that you can run out today with a check for $2,000 and buy a setup like his. Joel built it the same way he built his house, by locating used materials and cutting corners where he could. Bought new, a comparable system would easily cost twice as much.
The first place Joel saved was on the panels. At retail his six panels would have cost more than $2,000. He got a 15 percent price break by getting together with a group of friends and placing a bulk order with a California distributor. The informal buying club has since blossomed into a full-fledged co-op with members around the country. Joel collects the money and sends it to the distributor, who ships the panels out to each buyer. (If you're interested in joining the co-op, send $1 and a legal sized envelope with two 18-cent stamps to Joel at General Delivery, Pettigrew, Ark. 72752.)
The second largest expense was for the batteries needed to store electricity for use after sundown. Although ordinary car batteries will work, special "deep cycle" models, built to take many charge and recharge cycles, are best. They're the type used to power golf carts and electric cars. New, they cost about $1 for every amp hour of storage. Joel bought a used, 200-amp array for $100 from a friend with a wind generator.
"If I were going to buy more, the first place I’d check is the junkyard," he says. "I know a guy who got a set just like mine for $60. A lot of perfectly good batteries are sold for scrap. Most of them come from hospitals and factories that use them for emergency back-up power. The telephone company uses them for their remote installations. They routinely replace them every seven years, even though a good deep-cycle battery will last 20 years."
Photovoltaic panels generate DC power, but household appliances usually run on AC. An inverter can change DC into AC. But in the conversion, up to 20 percent of the power is lost, and inverters generally used for solar electricity cost $1,500 or more. Joel turned instead to recreational vehicle appliances, which are made for DC. The only thing that wasn't available in the J.C. Whitney automotive catalog was a record turntable. Joel solved that problem by hooking up the motor from a car tape player to his old AC turntable.
However, he still needed AC for his power tools. With his AC needs whittled down so greatly, a much smaller inverter would serve well. He got a camper model for $140. Since he uses it only for power tools, the 20 percent loss is a very small portion of his solar electricity.
Inside the three-room house, there's very little evidence that the electricity comes from an unconventional source. All the lamps are fluorescent because they use far less power than incandescent bulbs, but there's always plenty of light. To conserve electricity, Davidson waits until sundown before turning on any lights. There's a small black-and-white television. A radio provides most of the entertainment, but you can't tell by looking that it runs on rechargeable batteries. A small DC fan and shade from the trees outside keep the house cool. An air conditioner, of course, is out of the question. It would use too much power. Stoves and refrigerators also have big appetites for electricity, so Joel stuck with propane.
The only appliance that didn't work out was
the small car vacuum cleaner. The machine is so tiny that cleaning the
carpet with it involved crawling around on hands and knees. The motor burned
out and Joel is shopping for a larger model.
"I'm probably like everyone else," says Joel. "If the power was there, I’d be tempted to use it. Being forced to conserve has taught me how to live with less, and I can't say that I miss any of the electric appliances I had back in California."
He has yet to run low on power. In fact, the voltage regulator, which monitors the batteries, has to shut the system down regularly or the batteries would be damaged by overcharging.
Since Joel would rather spend his free time gardening or riding one of his horses, he appreciates what little maintenance time photovoltaics requires. "Twice a year I check the batteries and occasionally I dust off the panels," he says. "I bet I spend less than ten hours a year working on the system."
That also leaves him time to answer the dozens of letters he gets every week from people who have heard about his setup from co-op members and want to know more. "I tell them not to wait until the experts say photovoltaics are ready," he says. "They're ready now if people don't mind conserving."