Deliberate, Not Deprived: Comforts of Off-Grid, Michigan Life
Ask Joe Trumpey to describe life in his off-grid, straw bale home in the dead of a Michigan winter, and you might be surprised by his answer: “Comfortable.”
Nestled on a 40-acre farm in Grass Lake, Michigan, about 25 miles west of Ann Arbor, Trumpey, his wife Shelly, and their two daughters are modern-day homesteaders who are just as thoughtful about where their energy comes from as they are about sourcing their food. On their farm, the Trumpeys raise chickens and heritage breeds like highland cattle and giant American chinchilla rabbits. The idea of working with local folks to build a new home with local materials seemed like the next logical extension of their locavore impulses.
Joe Trumpey estimates that 90 percent of the materials for his home came from within 10 miles of their property—that includes straw from a farm “just across the way,” 40 tons of hand-mixed adobe, 60 tons of stone drawn from the family’s fields, and 20,000 board-feet of lumber milled on-site and salvaged from trees killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. The resulting self-built home has two-foot-thick walls composed of compressed straw bales covered in adobe plaster. The property rests a third of a mile from the nearest power lines and is entirely off-grid, making the Trumpeys’ property one of just 180,000 American off-grid homes, according to 2006 figures from Home Power Magazine.
Making the family’s home, garage and woodworking shop energy-independent was a philosophical decision. Though Trumpey says he admires people who put solar panels on their homes, he feels that for those who keep conventional energy as a back-up “the grid is a bit of a crutch in some ways, because you don’t have that threat of running out.” While the family relies primarily upon solar energy captured by 12 photovoltaic panels on a heliotropic tracking device that follows the sun throughout the day, when clouds cover the sky for four or five days at a stretch, or in November and December when days are shortest, the family can and sometimes does run out of power.
Their solar energy is stored in 60 golf cart batteries, which, on cloudy days and at night, the family draws on until the sun returns. It’s enough to keep normal household appliances running, including a television, dishwasher, fridge and freezer. An iPhone serves as an internet hotspot. But in the winter, managing the house requires some behavioral adaptation. The Trumpeys abandon the microwave. The family turns off lights when they leave rooms. Laundry occasionally stacks up.
“Around here we pay attention to our energy use just as much as we pay attention to how much food is in the refrigerator.” Trumpey often finds himself explaining precisely this to his students at the University of Michigan, where he is a sustainable design professor. “Just as much as it is possible to run out of milk in your fridge, it is possible for us to run out of energy if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing.” And that’s just the way the Trumpeys want it.
The threat of power shut-down keeps the family mindful about power use. That said, “it’s not like we’re crying, sitting in a corner, huddled around a candle in here,” Trumpey jokes. An Austrian-made wood gasifying boiler heats water for the home’s radiant floors and everyday use; a wood-burning cookstove and high-efficiency fireplace in the middle of the home radiate heat. In the event of total power run-down, Trumpey has a “cheapo generator” that can run on gasoline, and he estimates that since January, he’s had to use 10 gallons of gas to recharge his batteries when the sun failed to shine.
Of course, as any farmer knows, in so much as there are seasons of want, nature also provides seasons of abundance. In the summer, the batteries are usually all charged up by nine or ten in the morning. It’s open season for the microwave. The family cooks and heats water with electricity. Laundry tends to get done with faster turnaround. While in the winter, the Trumpeys might use just three or four kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy each day to meet their electricity needs, they use upwards of 18 kWh in the summer. (According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American residence uses 958 kWh per month.) When I asked Trumpey if he ever considered selling the family’s excess energy in the summer, he pointed out “to sell it we would have to be tied to the grid.” That would require an $18,000 infrastructure investment, plus, he explains, “we’d have to give up our batteries and we wouldn’t be thinking about power in the same way.”
What’s interesting about the Trumpeys is that being so diligently thoughtful about energy use has made for a comfortable way of life. In taking on a homesteader philosophy, Trumpey explains, “people learn to make things themselves, and take pride in what they make. They don’t have to be perfect.” The Trumpey home isn’t exactly rustic, but some walls aren’t quite straight. It takes some real mental energy to live there. Yet, says Trumpey, “So much of our American home lifestyle is the perfect American dream, and the perfect American home.” It’s perfect kitchen cabinets and complimentary granite countertops. But the Trumpeys’ home, farm, and the energy that supports it is an effort managed and sustained by the family. “It’s stuff that we’ve done,” says Trumpey. “That notion is very comforting to us.”
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images courtesy of the Trumpeys