Inside Segway Inventor Kamen’s Off-the-Grid Island Home


ColorGraze lamps downlight the brick exterior. Credit: John Brandon Miller

Energy-saving LED lighting—plus solar, wind and geothermal systems—have turned Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s second home into a net-zero island.

Dec. 15, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

He calls himself Lord Dumpling, and his island “nation” has a zero-tolerance policy for incandescent lights. In fact, he claims to have the first fully self-powered nation. He is Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway electric scooter and other devices, some of which are responsible for making his island home self-sustaining—along with a lot of LEDs (light emitting diodes).

Kamen’s vacation home is a lighthouse on North Dumpling Island, off the Connecticut coast but technically a part of New York state (click here to view a slideshow). In the 1990s Kamen jokingly seceded in a zoning dispute over the installation of a wind turbine. He was later allowed to install the 10-kilowatt turbine, and signed a “non-aggression pact” with former President George H.W. Bush.

All was well between the “countries” until a couple of years ago, when the U.S. Coast Guard decided to cut the undersea cable that powered the lighthouse. Kamen’s island would have to be self-sustainable, with solar panels powering the lighthouse.

“I applaud the decision to do that and to be greener, but I realized that within a few months, I was going to be entirely cut off,” Kamen says. “Lighting is my major need for power on the island.” So he talked to his friend, Fritz Morgan at Philips Color Kinetics. Philips is one of the country’s leading LED makers, and was awarded a grant for LED development by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I wanted to design and build the world’s neatest home lighting system, and at the same time make the island more plausibly zero-carbon and a net producer of energy,” says Kamen.

More efficient lighting had to be a big part of that. Only there was one problem: “Not until last year was the technology available to do a whole house with LEDs,” says Morgan. Even Philips’ advanced LEDs were sold largely for low-light solutions under cabinets or for highlighting exteriors, for example. Reliable and efficient overhead recessed lighting just wasn’t widely available. In fact, Kamen’s house is using some of Philips’ PAR 38 recessed LED lamps, which won’t be available commercially until 2010.

Whole Lotta LEDs
According to Morgan, roughly 350 lighting fixtures on the island will be replaced with LEDs when the project is complete. Several 13-watt PAR 38 LED lamps replaced the existing 60-watt recessed incandescent bulbs in the living room, kitchen and hallways. Philips’ eW Profile lighting strips went under the cabinets in the kitchen. Surface-mounted downlights were installed in the basement, and soft eW Cove lighting was installed in the soffits.

Outside, Philips’ ColorBlasts replaced flood lighting, and some ColorGraze lamps were used to downlight the brick exterior of the house. Some Color Blasts were placed around the replica Stonehenge—yes, Stonehenge—on the property.

“We wanted to accent details throughout the island, so we added a bunch of accent and effects lighting,” says Morgan. “Even after adding that, we still use a total of about half the consumption he had before,” from about 10 kilowatts to 5 kilowatts.

“I have to admit that going in, I thought we would have some problems with lighting everything, and there’s a lot of wood tones in the house,” says Morgan. “The downlights worked better than expected. Some were actually too bright, so we installed dimmers. Some of the PAR lamps we made were for medium floods, so we had to put some diffusion films on them, because the beams were too narrow.”

An LED Light System Manager from Philips controls the island’s color LEDs, and can modulate each bulb to control the brightness, generate different colors from the red, green and blue LEDs, and use less power.

The LED lighting is also programmed to illuminate the wind turbine, with the color of light depending on how much energy it is producing: red for 1 kilowatt (kw), orange for 2 kw, yellow for 3 kw and so on.

White LEDs inside the house are on individual dimmers, a commercial-grade Teletrol energy monitoring system can remotely turn them on and off. The Teletrol system also provides information on the amount of power each utility is using on the island, the status of energy stored in batteries, as well as the amount of power produced from the solar panels and wind turbine.

Innovative Power
The savings provided by the LED lighting enable the wind turbine and 10 kw of Evergreen solar panels to power the island. Also helping to power the island is another Kamen innovation called the Stirling engine, a no-emissions power source that can produce electricity from virtually any fuel source. The Stirling engine is nothing new; it drives its piston by forcing gas from one chamber to another in a perfectly closed system.

The Stirling system can also help heat the house by separating its waste heat from combustion gases and using the waste heat to warm water. A geothermal system also contributes by pulling seawater from a sea well. The warmth of the seawater helps heat the air of a forced air system and the glycol of an in-floor radiant heating system. The seawater is also desalinated by a reverse osmosis system so it can be used for domestic water.

For generating fresh water on a pile of rock surrounded by the sea, Kamen also plans to turn to another of his inventions, a vapor-compression distiller that he claims can produce purified water from any source, even toxic waste. His goal is to use his vapor-compression distillers to desalinate the salt water for drinking, washing and domestic use.

Together, Kamen’s Stirling engine and water purification system is known as Slingshot, which he looks to provide to Third World villages, with his island serving as a test-bed for the technologies. “We’ve got a big, rolling physics laboratory here,” Kamen says.

Dean Kamen’s off-the-grid island will always be a work in progress. Plans are under way for another 10 kw of solar panels on solar tracking systems, so they’ll follow the path of the sun, as well as another wind turbine. And you can bet this prominent inventor will always be tweaking the system to get the most out of his island home. 


Philips Color Kinetics
Burlington, Mass.

Lighting and Renewable Energy Systems Installation
Demand Electric
Manchester, N.H.

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