Life Off The Grid: How A North County Couple Avoids Using Fossil Fuels
This is the second in a two-part series on local homes designed to minimize environmental impact. Read the first part here.
Down a winding dirt road, through rolling hills and regrowth forest, there's a small community near Julian called Cuyamaca Woods. To enter, you have to punch in a code and then wait as a solar-powered gate slowly opens.
Here, everyone lives completely off the grid. That means their water comes from a set of three wells and they don't buy their power from San Diego Gas & Electric.
Gary and Robyn Waayers have been living here for about seven years. They power everything in their home with nine solar panels. When the sun's not shining, batteries provide reserve power that can last 36 to 48 hours. They also have a propane backup generator for multiple cloudy days.
"We all have to provide our own power, and we rely on ourselves," Gary said.
Gary, 63, and his wife, 48, are an extreme example of the San Diego County families who are using as little energy as possible in their homes.
To conserve energy, their walls are filled with straw, which provides very effective insulation.
But if you're picturing The Three Little Pigs, don't. Aside from having walls that are more than a foot thick, the couple's house looks completely normal.
"The first evidence that it might be a straw-bale home is the thickness of these walls, how far the door is inset," Gary said, pointing to an exterior wall as thick as the length of his forearm. "Because otherwise from outside you wouldn't know."
Gary and Robyn are both community college biology professors and like living close to nature. But they also have other reasons for living this way.
"I'm very, very concerned that if we don't move away from a fossil fuel-based economy real soon then basically the planet Earth is going to be very difficult to maintain a sane and functional society," Gary said.
Despite supplying all their own power, Robyn said their lives are pretty normal. They have every modern convenience, including TV, a microwave, computers and a vacuum cleaner. But if they want to turn on multiple high-energy appliances at the same time, they have to switch on their generator.
"I'm going to be honest and say that it's nice when you can run everything simultaneously, but if we put the generator on, if we're OK with that, we can run everything simultaneously," Robyn said. "We can vacuum, run the big appliances, and it's all handled by the generator."
But that doesn't mean the the couple isn't always looking for ways to conserve energy. They have an on-demand water heater that they control with a panel in the bathroom. Unlike most homes where the water heater is always on, theirs only starts once they push a button.
"So if I want to use it, there'll be a little red light that comes on, and it'll start to heat up the water," Gary said. "That's the only time it's using any energy."
Working with an architect, Gary designed the home to make the most use of the sun's rays. In both the upstairs and downstairs, the home has south-facing windows that allow sun in during the winter but not during the summer.
"You'll have a lot of sunlight coming in in the winter to heat up the house, and there's not a lot of sunlight until the fall comes," Gary said.
They also warm their home with dead oak and Manzanita wood that Gary chops and burns in a stove. They keep it cool in the summer with ceiling fans.
Despite this summer's hot weather, it's never gotten above 80 degrees inside, and usually stays in the low 70s, the couple said.
"As soon as the sun goes down, we open up all the windows and it starts cooling down," Gary said.
Their home is also surrounded by a sprinkler system to guard against fires. When activated, it sprays a wall of water from the eaves under the roof.
The couple said there isn't much they miss about life on the grid.
"I don't have to pay anybody money to use electrical power," Gary said.
"When the big blackout occurred, it was so pleasant to relax and have TV and have energy and San Diego was in chaos," Robyn added with a laugh.
But their biggest motivation is to do what they can to reduce their impact on the environment. Gary said the excuse that one family's choices won't make a difference doesn't work for him. He hopes everyone will do what they can to conserve energy, generate renewable energy and demand their providers offer alternative energy sources.
"Those individuals accumulate to a large degree," he said.