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Living off the grid

Erin Crowell - February 22nd, 2010
Living Off-Grid
Devon O’Shea brings his alternative energy know-how home
By Erin Crowell
Around the age of 10, Devon O’Shea had a blueprint for an underground
house. He showed me while I was over at his parent’s farmhouse to play one
day. It was the year 1990 something, when the alternative energy boom was
in hibernation – the solar craze of the 1970s had passed and Al Gore was
just starting the legwork on “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Of course, we didn’t know that at the time; nor did I realize this was my
childhood friend’s first inclination to living “off the grid.” He was
always thinking of something different or crazy, going out into the woods
building forts and making a two-story Lego house for his hamster.
He never dug that underground house (he says he barely remembers planning
it), but a natural curiosity back then of the way things were built and
how they worked, led to a career and lifestyle today.

Now, at the age of 25, O’Shea has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical
technical engineering from Central Michigan University. He currently works
for the family business, Contractors Building Supply (CBS), in Copemish,
installing renewable energy systems such as solar hot water heaters and
windspires (see articles: Green Jobs 2/2/09 and Mariah Fights 7/13/09).
When he’s done helping make residential homes and small businesses a
little more environmentally friendly, O’Shea comes home to his work.
O’Shea lives in a two-story modular house on the Northeast corner of
Manistee County, nestled between the villages of Copemish and Kaleva. His
house—designed and built specifically to accommodate the alternative
energy lifestyle—is totally off-grid. No electricity or phone wires, just
a wood stove, six solar panels and a deep cycle battery.
“There are more people living off-grid in Michigan, and all over, than you
might think,” he says.
Every four years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration conducts a
Residential Energy Consumption Survey. Starting this month, interviewers
from the University of Chicago will visit a representative sample of
households across the U.S. This will be the first time the survey covers
homes that are “off the grid.”
The reason is simply because it seems more people are living off-grid,
says Chip Berry, survey manager.
“It’s vital to know if people are producing their own electricity,” he says.

O’Shea always had an interest in science. He spent his first year at CMU
getting the basics and figuring out what exactly he wanted to do in the
science field.
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I started to focus more on
renewable energy,” he says. “Part of it was there was a wind system at
Central. I actually just looked up one day. I’d gone a whole year and
hadn’t noticed the 80-foot tower behind the industrial technology
building,” he laughs.
So, being the curious creature he is, O’Shea asked one of the maintenance
staff to take him back there where he discovered an old renewable energy
“We went and looked at this old lab and there were two sets of solar hot
water collectors, a battery room, inverters—you know—all the necessary
That day sparked an interest to write a research project called “Renew a
New CMU,” which, in turn, inspired even more research.
“I started compiling data, looking into my family’s history with renewable
energy; and I started getting really excited about all the technology that
is coming forward,” Devon says.
That summer, O’Shea and his father, Allan (who is founding member of the
American Wind Energy Association), went to the Midwest Renewable Energy
Fair in Wisconsin where they teamed up with the Great Lakes Renewable
Energy Association to start Michigan’s own energy fair.
By his junior year, O’Shea was researching information on making the
Michigan Energy Fair a reality, which made its debut June 2006.
For his last two years, all of O’Shea’s advanced courses were personally
focused on how they would relate to a career in renewable energy.
Today, it’s not only a career, but a lifestyle.

“About six months after I was done with school (at CMU)—and at that time I
was well involved in renewable energy installations—we were doing projects
and it was just one New Years where I just wanted to do a little more
experiment personally. I never had a chance to work on some of these
systems after I installed them. I was already five hours from home and it
was late. So I would leave the project where it was.
“I decided to go off-grid in January, almost three years ago,” says
O’Shea. “I just said, ‘It’s my New Year’s resolution.’”
O’Shea used the solar panel display out of the office, recharged an old
battery from a customer, purchased a charge controller and put together
“this crude, small little system and installed it in the guest house.”
The total value was about $1,000, but because of the resources, he spent
just $350. He spent the year in that one-room guesthouse, running a radio
and a set of light bulbs entirely off solar power. An old wood stove
provided the heat.
Luckily, the guesthouse was located just a few yards from his parent’s
farmhouse where he could eat meals and haul water from.

After the New Year’s resolution, O’Shea wanted to move into a place of
his own.
Back in 2003, our dads had purchased a solar electric system from a
company in Michigan for installation in a new modular house that would be
the base for CBS – an alternative energy show home, if you will. It would
be a way to get a jump on the renewable energy bandwagon that they
anticipated would happen in the following five to 10 years, says O’Shea.
Originally, O’Shea was going to build an A-frame house after his off-grid
guesthouse project. But after CBS moved back to its original location down
the road, the modular was left vacant.
“If anyone has a house in their back pocket to use, well, I had one,” says
He bought the house, had it moved several miles north to some family
property, where he continuously works, to this day, on energy upgrades.
“It’s a really good feeling to come home and see a full-charged battery
and this little system waiting for me to come home to, and use power only
when I need it,” he says.
O’Shea designed his own well pump, went one year without a refrigerator,
and continues to run off the same system he started with.
“I’ve now taken a radio and a few light bulbs to a well, a refrigerator, a
laptop, a radio and four or five light bulbs, among other things.”
He currently uses a deep cycle 200 amp hour battery and a 300 watt Sine
Wave inverter. He hasn’t yet fully used the six 64 watt solar panels,
which measure the length of a car, end-to-end, in the backyard.
But, he gets by.
“Basically I’ve got a 50-foot well and a 40 gallon expansion tank,
pressurized at 65 pounds, which is enough water for a shower and a day’s
worth of water usage for one person.”
So, how much does it cost O’Shea to live disconnected?
“Well… a mortgage,” he says matter-of-factly. “And that’s it.”
Besides the initial upfront costs, O’Shea says the only expenses he has is
a little propane for his backup generator – an annual cost, he says, that
would mean having to fill the propane tank just once every three to five
O’Shea says if anyone is interested in living off-grid, it’s not
“I think someone can do a nice micro off-grid system like I have for about
Besides low costs, O’Shea says one of the most unique aspects of an
off-grid home is the silence.
“Most off-grid homes are quiet. It’s weird. But (the house) has become
more traditional since I put the fridge in there – when you hear it kick
on every once in awhile, that makes you feel like a regular person I
guess. But there are points where you can just shut the place down and
it’s silence.”

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