Living Off the Grid in High Style

Mike Mitchell's home

Mike Mitchell’s house doesn’t generate utility bills. It uses alternative energy to power all the systems—including a modest home theater.

When Mike Mitchell found the perfect location for his home, he wasn't going to let a little thing like a lack of utilities get in his way.

Jul. 17, 2007 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

On 7-7-07, people around the world banded together to show their support for a greener environment—or did they just band together to watch bands? For Mike Mitchell, every day is 7-7-07. His home operates on solar and wind power—and occasionally propane, when absolutely necessary.

One mile up a dirt road, on a hill, somewhere near San Jose, Calif., there’s no access to utilities. But who needs them? “Once we did the research and realized it was possible to run a ‘normal’ house off the grid, we really got into the idea,” Mitchell says. “This was also during the time of Enron and brownouts in California.”

Instead of trying to achieve the impossible, Mitchell had his contractor, Tom McManus, install an energy kit made by Montana-based manufacturer Planetary Systems. Just as a precaution, Mitchell purchased a back-up generator off eBay. After a particularly cloudy winter, Mitchell added a windmill setup, which has drastically cut the need for the generator.

“Our current system is 2.7kW solar and a 900-watt max windmill,” Mitchell says. Currently, they are considering adding a few panels to boost the system up to 4.0kW—perfect for powering an air conditioner.

Even though Mitchell is always counting consumption, there’s still room for fun. A 56-inch Samsung DLP is used for daily entertainment and an InFocus IN76 projector pumps out a larger picture for home theater.

“I have to read the data sheets before I purchase items,” Mitchell says. “This has resulted in my passing on certain things that I would like, but it has also resulted in some pleasant surprises.”

For instance, Mitchell says he never realized how much power was need to crank out an image from a plasma TV. “You can easily find a 250-watt front projector that will give you a 108-inch-plus image,” he says. “Compared to a 400- to 500-watt plasma, this is an energy bargain!” He does acknowledge, however, that the image may not be as bright.

Other energy-efficient electronic features of the Mitchell home include a Vonage phone setup, a Mac with EyeTV software that functions as a digital video recorder, a networked DVD player, bookshelf speakers, a Denon 1705 amplfier, and the new, but not so environmentally friendly PlayStation 3 (380 watts). A microwave IP Internet connection supplies his home network, which is proprietary to Covad Wireless.

With the closest neighbors about two miles away, there’s even an InFocus 4805 projector, which gets whipped out for the occasional “ad hoc outdoor drive-in experience.”

Living off the grid does have its advantages. “We have fewer blackouts,” Mitchell says.“Out total downtime is probably around 10 minutes a year.” Of course, he also says that the lack of utility bills is also a nice perk. However, he says that between $26,000 for the initial kit, and then an additional $2,000 for the windmill, the savings isn’t very noticeable.

Even though everyone can’t (or doesn’t want to) live off the grid, it’s possible to do your part to conserve energy. Mitchell suggests going LCD over other displays, not “overdoing” your audio and shutting down all equipment when not in use.

“Also, install compact fluorescent bulbs throughout the house,” he says. “This is the best return on your money you can get.” Perhaps, it might even allow you to splurge on more equipment for your audio/video setup!

Mitchell has lived off the grid for three years now, and isn’t complaining—much. He currently uses a G5 Mac to serve audio and video, but he’s looking for something that’s more energy efficient. “Either a smaller Mac or something like the MonolithMC MythTV box,” he says.

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