Though a green lifestyle for Minot residents Norm and Louann Gauthier was certainly fundamental, the decision to live off the grid, or without dependence on conventional power sources, was based just as much on Norm’s past achievements and strong instincts about how things work.

Building his first house at the age of 19 with no previous experience, Norm, 45, who is director of maintenance and transportation for Clover Health Care in Auburn, had begun experimenting with solar power even earlier at the age of 13 or 14. Using it to power light bulbs, radios, fans and just about anything else he could find at the time, the original solar panel is still in his possession, according to wife, Louann, 42.

“I can’t figure him out,” Louann said of her husband’s abilities. “He looks at something, he can build it, and he can build it better than the original. He just works it out,” she affirmed, identifying a tiny solar panel outside their home that Norm developed to operate the invisible fence for dogs Kia and Zeus.

Married in 1998 and residing in another part of Minot, the couple initially spent vacation time at a tiny log cabin Norm had built in the woods near Skowhegan. “I set that up solar, and we’d go up on weekends,” he said, “but it was very small-scale solar.”

In 2004-2005, when the time came to purchase the 19 acres of land on which they currently live off Marston Hill Road, Norm said they learned it would have cost $17,000 to run cable and bring electricity from Central Maine Power down their 1,000-foot drive, precipitating the decision to invest in green energy instead. “We gave ourselves two years to try it,” Louann said, “and I wouldn’t go back.”

A monitor runs through it

Surveying the interior of the Gauthiers’ 1,400-square-foot log home, one is hard-pressed to find what may be considered intrusive elements of an alternative power lifestyle. (Visions of “Living with Ed” on HGTV, with giant arrays of bars, barrels, tubes and gauges come to mind, but they are not evident here).

With a traditional dishwasher, microwave, refrigerator, freezer, washing machine, multiple TVs (connected to satellite), VCR, DVD player and computer, the only obvious suggestion of alternative “power” is a wood stove the Gauthiers prefer for heat. Besides that, on the main living level a small, nondescript box with digital display (almost resembling a burglar alarm system) on a wall opposite the kitchen table indicates how fully the home’s batteries, which are powered by solar panels, are charged.

“If you look at the monitor now, it says 24.5, which means I’m full – I’m overcharged,” Norm said, noting he had .5 volts more than he needed. If a spate of bad weather blocks sunlight, and the solar panels outside his home cannot collect it, with the system dipping below 22 volts, it will shut itself off in order not to hurt itself, he explained. That said, he added that anyone who employs solar power has a backup generator (his is actually fueled by its own solar panel), and he can program his system to automatically start the generator, though he chooses not to.

“I like to be able to hear it because things can always go wrong, and I don’t want it running if I’m not home,” Norm said, noting that by design the computer wants to keep the batteries full at all times. Without human intervention, it will work to achieve that.

“But if the news says it’s going to be sunny again all day tomorrow, I can wait a day to charge the batteries, but the computer doesn’t know that,” Norm explained, reinforcing why he eschews an automatic connection to the generator. If batteries are low and the choice is made to wait, doing laundry or running the dishwasher are usually put off until the batteries are full again.

Sky-scraping sun catcher

Building their log home together, the Gauthiers sited it to repel the summer sun’s heat with a steeply angled roof and a porch, with a southern exposure, that acts as a first line of defense and deflects heat from the home. Walls are 6-inch-thick pine, and insulation throughout the structure has a high R-value (a measure of energy efficiency), which helps keep it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

“One of the drawbacks for solar power here is the fact that we live at the bottom of a deep hole here in what is called Death Valley,” Norm said. Poised initially to build along the top tier of their land, the couple elected instead to live alongside Lapham Brook, which traverses the property, and enjoy its beautiful vistas.

In summer the sun is high and plentiful, but in winter months it barely skims the tops of the trees that crest the property, and many days are devoid of sunlight altogether, making it a challenge to collect necessary solar power. So instead of conventionally placing solar panels on his roof, which wasn’t quite high enough, Norm built a 27-foot pole upon which he secured eight 175-watt, 24-volt solar panels.

Using his tractor to dig so he could run wires underground from the solar panels, the wires enter a circuit breaker through a basement wall. At that point, captured energy goes into a regulator, which decides whether to channel it directly to an inverter (which Norm calls “the brains of the system” and which converts the 24 volts up to a standard house current of 120 volts for immediate household use) or send it into a massive bank of 12 batteries at 350 amps/six volts apiece for storage. If the batteries are fully charged and the inverter is in play, the house runs directly off the sun.   

The couple purchased a used solar-power system when the house was first being built, but its inverter failed within the first year. Through trial and error, the Gauthiers learned it was too small to support a home of their size. Nevertheless, the old system worked to power the tools the couple used to build their house, with the exception of a compressor, and the new system now powers all of the tools in Norm’s garage workshop including welders, table saw, skill saw, chop saw and the compressor.

Charged by the sun, not CMP

Following an initial undisclosed equipment investment (Norm would only say it was less than the $17,000 CMP would have required, but largely because he did it all himself), the couple has no utility bills except for propane, which powers their stove, the occasional use of a gas clothes dryer and on-demand water heater. Inclement weather does not signal a possible power failure, which only happens if a component malfunctions.

“It’s happened once in five years,” Norm said, “when the first inverter died.” With maintenance virtually nonexistent except for keeping the water level up in the batteries every few months, and the expense of replacing the batteries every decade or so, the Gauthiers advocate their way of life — with the admonition that it’s not for everyone.

“If you live with solar power, you have to pay attention,” Norm said. “You have to know what the weather’s going to be the next day, glance at your power levels and maybe put off laundry or the dishwasher.”

Louann also mentioned the power strips, which the couple turns off as often as possible, though the TV is affected.

“Every time we want to watch TV, we have to turn on the outlet strip switch and wait three or four minutes for it to boot up,” Norm said. “Most people don’t want to do that, but if you get into a routine and remember to do it when you come home from work so it’s ready for you at night, it’s easy, and at least you haven’t been running it — wasting power (known as a ghost loads) — for 24 hours.” 

Ghost loads are the constant leeching of power from appliances left plugged in when not in use, especially smaller items such as microwaves (their clocks draw power), computers, radios, electric toothbrushes, rechargeable flashlights and cell phone chargers. “If you decide to live off-grid, you try to eliminate ghost power,” Norm explained, adding that he’d like to help others in the area understand the process and benefits and convert them to solar power.

Acknowledging they have a “bare minimum” system, Norm said if they upgraded again and doubled their number of solar panels and size of their battery bank, they’d not have to police their power usage to the extent they do — though they really don’t mind. Also using solar power to operate Louann’s small beauty salon in the basement, alongside a bedroom suite for her daughter — aspiring pastry chef Ashton McIntosh, 21 — the Gauthiers say large system or small they will never return to conventional power.

 “People can do this – they really can,” Louann said. “We’re careful. We live like everybody else should.”

How it works

Solar panels capture the sun’s energy;

Energy is channeled through underground cables, through a circuit breaker and into a regulator;

Regulator decides where power is going — either to an inverter (if batteries are fully charged), which will change the 24 volts of power to 120 volts of standard household current for immediate use, or into the battery bank for storage;

If sun is unavailable, the inverter will start drawing from the batteries until the next time it can draw directly from the solar panels.

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