A Do-It-Yourself Mountain Cabin SOLAR Installation
by Leaf Running-rabit
Having never even seen an outhouse before, let alone having heard of the term “off-grid” before ever in my life, at the ripe and young age of 21 I stumbled into the Indian Peaks Wilderness area in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado and found what they call a “squatter’s shack” leftover and abandoned from the mining days, and I moved into it. And now, 25 years later, I am still here. All it took was one long winter of burning candles, early bed times, experiments with gas fuel lanterns and nausea, AA battery-powered radios, and no ability to use a power tool, vacuum, or even a light bulb, and I started exploring what living off-grid could really mean. I heard of a little bitty hole-inthe-wall solar store in Boulder by the name of Jade Mountain, and I paid them a visit.
I walked into the store that day not knowing a single thing about photovoltaic power, what was needed, how to put it together, how to store the power, or how to use it. But in only about two and a half hours of time with super friendly and knowledgeable employees of the store, I walked out of there that day with two solar panels, several different types of wire, a charge controller, a fuse, two batteries, a 12 volt DC light bulb and fixture, a hand-drawn diagram on notebook paper of how to put it all together, and pure joy and excitement. I was heading back up the mountain on my way to capturing the sun! To having clean and healthy light! And to listening to the radio as loud and as long as I wanted!
With a receipt in hand, a total of about $650.00 spent, and my tiny yellow Subaru hatchback filled with equipment, I left the store that day with the beginnings of the rest of my off-grid life: a small solar system that provided me power for the next 19 years, and enough experience to last me an entire lifetime of living off the grid, comfortably, forever and always.
Before nightfall, and with just a few simple hand tools, I had unpackaged everything, followed the diagrams to the T, turned on a pullstring light, and listened to the radio using the power already stored in the new batteries, and anxiously went to bed like a little kid waiting for Santa. I could hardly wait for the sun to come out the next morning to see what would happen. And when it did, I watched the charge controller lights come on, I watched the battery voltage jump up, and I could even hear subtle gurgling inside the batteries. I was doing it. I was capturing the sun! It was an amazing feeling, and I will never forget it.
At the same time, however, I don’t want to make it sound like a simple walk in the woods. Living off the grid is not totally or always easy, it is not always convenient, and even though rewarding at a core level in my soul, at times it can also be as frustrating as hurricane force winds when all you want to do is hang your sheets out on the line to dry them in the sun.
There were times I found myself strapping my two solar panels down to tree trunks so they didn’t get picked up, slammed down, and end up broken on the ground. I changed their positioning sometimes three times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening, just to get all the sun that I needed in order to keep up with my use. I often times had to get up early, and no matter the weather, in order to brush the snow off the panels so it wasn’t blocking the sun. And the biggest lesson I learned was simply that I could not control the clouds, for days or weeks at a time, and thus, I had to control and regulate my own use and consumption of the power I was working so hard to capture and store. There certainly were times when I could not use electrical devices that I wanted to use and when I wanted to use them. Which, in the end, made me appreciate the sun and ALL of the earth’s resources that much more. And I stopped being such a gluttonous user of them.
Together with my wife at the time, we raised two children and ourselves to respect light usage by not using them when unneeded and turning them off when done. We also learned to not use toasters, hair dryers, curling irons, or any other heating elements except for when the sun was out, and the same went for vacuums and power tools. We taught ourselves to pay attention to exactly where the sun was directionally and how high it was, or was not, in the sky at any and every time of the day and season, how much snow there was, how much snow there was going to be, how windy it was, etc etc etc. For the first time in our lives, and only because of major dependency, we became literally IN TUNE with the environment in which we lived and were a part of.
Let me repeat that: THE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH WE LIVED AND WERE A PART OF!
Yes, by living this way, we suddenly recognized, and became aware of, an extraordinary part of our existence we had not really known or acknowledged before. We were a true and real part of our environment! Of nature! Of the earth and the sky and the sun! And as a result, we were hooked. I could not believe, and still do not, that there is any other way of living on this great and round planet than 100% inclusiveness.
In the end, I became a general contractor and builder owning a company specializing in green building and straw bale homes, and the owner of a chimney sweep company, serving Boulder County, Colorado. After those initial 19 years, I built us a new straw bale home on the same property, and to this very day I continue living almost 100% off the grid using solar electricity. I say “almost,” because these days we now have satellite internet, which technically speaking, even though it runs off of solar power, means we are a part of the grid. And my solar system is now 10 times bigger in panels and storage capacity, but the basics are still the basics and we still follow nearly all of the original and well-learned lessons that we learned the hard way, which are now, and always will be, displayed as beautiful feathers sticking out of our hats.
That first little system I purchased 25 years ago for $650.00 has now been replicated in the form of a $22,000.00 system in my new straw bale house, and even though I had to hire a solar electrician to install and wire it, it is still the same exact system, only larger. And the $650.00 system still exists too, in the old squatter’s cabin that also still exists. And my now 20 year old daughter who was born in and grew up in that old cabin, well, she has returned from a year in college and now rents that cabin from me and uses that same little ol’ solar system that I did when I was practically her same age.
The tradition carries on.
And so does the sun.
Love it. Live it. Use it. Respect it.
And do it with the lights on!