Living Off the Grid in Central New York

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

BERKSHIRE, N.Y. — More than 20 people showed up recently in the rain, which later turned to sleet and snow, for an outdoor farm day on off-grid living.

The event took place at One Earth Farm, the home of Erika and Mauricio Medina and their three children.

The family lives off the grid using a solar photovoltaic system and propane for their refrigerator and cooking during the winter. In the summer months, they use an outdoor clay oven which they made from local clay.

Since the Medinas currently rent the farm, it is not financially worthwhile to convert all appliances to use green power. They have lived on the 100-acre property, which is owned by several families, for five years.

Currently, they have about half an acre under production from which they provide for their family’s needs and have a CSA which supplies six families and a local primary school.

The Medinas showed visitors the solar panels, hot water system and wind turbine that were on the property when they arrived. Although he is a proponent of green systems, Mauricio said all three installations had problems.

“It is mainly related to sighting,” he said.

The solar panels and solar hot water system were both on the desirable south side of the house, he said, but were too low for adequate solar interception; the wind turbine needed a taller tower. None are currently providing the house with power or hot water.

For those considering installing their own solar systems, Mauricio recommended using a solar pathfinder to identify the best location. Erika also praised the tool, noting, “It is great for finding the best location for your garden.”

In addition to their CSA, the family runs a renewable energy business which installs solar photovoltaic and solar thermal systems with off grid/battery-based systems being the focus. They also give workshops on sustainable living skills, renewable energy and permaculture.

The weather held up just long enough for Mauricio to do a quick tour of their solar PV system, and the well-insulated area where the batteries are stored. Mauricio said people should look at energy efficiency first, and then consider solar and wind energy sources.

He said it is amazing how much energy can be saved by sealing up windows and caulking around doorways. He encouraged people to have an energy audit done for their home. In New York, the federally funded audit program is administered through New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). An application for the free or reduced-cost energy audit can be found at http://nyserda.ny.gov.

The Medinas have taken a close look at what they can live without and have made choices, such as not having a television.

When living off the grid, Mauricio said, one needs to be willing and able to live in rhythm with the season. For example, when the sun shines split wood, or do laundry.

They were relieved to find that their current 1,500-watt solar PV system was adequate for the ¾ horsepower submersible well pump during the summer demands of watering the crops. They will, however, be happy to have their planned additional 1,500 watts.

As for wind versus solar, Mauricio said solar was much more reliable, the panels were trouble free, and that if one purchases the inverter from a well-established company it should last at least 15 years.

“There are many things that can go wrong with a wind turbine, as there are just so many moving parts,” he said.

Next on the tour was a visit to the area where the batteries are stored. Purchasing the batteries and building a storage facility is a big expense for those wishing to install an off-grid system. The batteries routinely used in solar systems are usually lead-acid batteries. They rarely weigh less than 70 pounds and usually cost at least $200 each, Mauricio said.

Even with good maintenance, which is critical, the batteries will only last seven to 10 years. If one is looking for a battery with a longer life (20-30 years and sometimes more) and a virtually maintenance-free battery bank, nickel-ion batteries may be an option; however, they cost several thousand dollars each, which puts them out of reach for many.

Mauricio showed the well-insulated and vented chest he had constructed to hold the bank of lead-acid batteries and emphasized the importance of insulation venting and routinely checking water levels.

As the weather turned extremely wintry, the group moved inside to the welcome warmth of the Medinas’ home, a converted barn heated with wood. Over breads and cakes prepared by Erika and paired with local cheeses, the conversation turned to the farm and the CSA.

The Medinas currently have 13 registered Finn sheep which are providing wool primarily for family and friends, but the goal is to sell breeding stock and wool. Chickens and ducks provide eggs for the family and the six members of the CSA. They also have turkeys, which will be sold at Thanksgiving. A Great Pyrenees dog guards against coyotes and foxes, a big issue in the area. There are also a few bee hives on the land from which the Medinas extract raw honey.

The Medinas do some season extension by having a plastic greenhouse, which in early October had actively growing tomatoes and, until recently, peppers.

Later on in the season, Erika said, she will run the sheep through the greenhouse. “I did this last year and the ground was so wonderful and fertile for the spring seeding,” she said.

The field day was the second in a three-part program on sustainable energy on the farm organized through Cornell University’s Small Farm Program and funded through SARE.

For more information on One Earth Farm, visit http://oneearthpermaculture.org.<\c> Photos by Helen Margaret Griffiths

 

Grid-Solar

Mauricio Medina, left, discusses solar systems and the different mounting methods available for the panels. Mounting on the roof of a building is not always practical; mounting on poles is very expensive. For their location, he chose to put them on a wooden frame, using locally harvested wood.

 

Grid-Squash

Many types of winter squash are harvested from the farm, which uses no chemicals but is not currently certified organic.

 

 

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