By Harley L. Sachs
What would you do if the power company demanded $37,000 to set up a
one-mile line to your house in the woods? Not only that, but the
specifications required cutting a 20-foot wide swath so that overhanging
branches wouldnt hit the wires, creating an ugly gap in the woods.
That was the problem faced by Sandy and Jerry Mitchell when they bought a
4,200-square-foot home at Cedar Bay, five miles from Calumet, Michigan in
the UP. Their three-story house is complete with a sauna and hot tub.
For the Mitchells, living off the grid provided the best alternative to
the power companys plan.
Their electric power solution was multifold: solar panels, a windmill, and
a diesel generator to charge up a bank of 12 hefty 6-volt batteries when
the sun doesnt shine or the wind doesnt blow. On a full charge, the
batteries can keep their home running for 20 hours.
If the wind is blowing and the sun shining, theres no need for the
Mitchells to start their generator. But when the batteries are running low
their equipment sends a signal to automatically start the generator, which
can charge the system in four hours and runs on an economical one quart of
fuel an hour.
A Xantrax conversion center is used to convert their 6-volt battery
current to 120 and 240 volts, with the latter voltage used to power the
pump in their well.
The windmill, made by Southwest, sits on top of two 20-foot sections of
steel well casing and is about 60 feet high to clear the tree tops.
At first the Mitchells had a 12-bladed windmill, but one dark and stormy
night, as the saying goes, a 70 mph wind howled so strongly that the
gyrating windmill lost three of its blades and popped two of the four guy
wires out of the ground. Jerry rushed out into the storm in a panic and
tied the wires to trees. A permanent fix came later when he bored holes
in the solid rock, set in anchors of rebar, and reattached the guys. Now
the original setup has been replaced with a 3-bladed propeller that can be
tilted to provide less wind resistance when those storms return. Their
power cost is about $2.60 a day. Compare that to your electric bill.
For heat the Mitchells burn wood in an outdoor furnace, using 12 to 14
cords of wood a year, costing between $80 and $95 a cord. The couple
expect to halve their heating bill with the installation of a Hardrock
masonry oven. Like the historic porcelain ovens of Europe, the masonry
oven warms up the rock which then radiates an even heat for hours. The
heat is distributed by a hot water system laid in the floor using a grid
of flexible Pextubing.
An advantage of the outdoor central boiler is it can be fed with logs, not
small sections of firewood. Another is that the chimney is separate from
the house, reducing the danger of chimney fires.
Of course, being off the grid the Mitchells are also not on a county road,
so they must plow a 1,500-foot driveway using their truck with its 360
Its an economical way to live, once the equipment is installed. Jerry
paid for the 40-square-foot solar panel, which is mounted on their deck,
with some 1919 commemorative gold coins.
Sandy and Jerry Mitchell own two Carmelitas Mexican restaurants, one in
Calumet and the other close to Michigan Technological University in
Houghton. The Mitchells spent many years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but also
lived for a time in Alaska. They also publish a local newspaper, The
Pilgrim. Look for it at www.thePilgrim.com. If in Houghton or Calumet be
sure to stop in at Carmelitas.
Visit the web site www.hu.mtu.edu/~hlsachs where you can listen to two
stories, read a third, read reviews, and find links to the publishers of