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ff The Grid

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5/2/2011 - Off The Grid
by Rick McDaniel, Asheville Citizen-Times Correspondent

didn't pay their water or electric bills last month. They didn't have to.

Raye and Sheppard live "off the grid" in a house that makes its own electricity, collects rainwater from the roof and heats it with solar power. But if you have visions of some primitive cabin, think again.

Casa Solara, as the couple call their Black Mountain home, is a stunningly beautiful 3,868-square-foot home built with state-of-the-art "green building" technology. They moved into it in December.

"Green building is building to minimize the negative environmental and health aspect of construction," said Mark Bondurant, of Rare Earth Builders of Canton, the home's builder. "We do that by using recycled materials, making the structure very energy efficient and using nontoxic materials and finishes."

"Marina was the reason for the house," Sheppard said. "She has a lot of allergies, and we wanted a house that didn't have all the toxic fumes coming off the paint and materials." All the paint used on the interior of the house is clay-based and doesn't give off fumes.

"Regular plywood can out-gas formaldehyde, and some paints can release volatile organic carbons, which is a cancer risk," Bondurant said.

The couple's commitment to green building started when the land was being cleared. All the trees Sheppard cleared to site the house were milled into lumber that was used to build the garage. Any leftover wood was dried and burned in the high-efficiency wood stove that heats the house. "We hardly used any supplemental heat this winter," Sheppard said.

The house has radiant in-floor heat throughout. Water for the radiant system is heated mainly with solar collectors mounted on the roof with a propane-fired backup boiler.

The house generates electricity by way of a photovoltaic power system, where solar power is collected and stored in two massive batteries in the home's basement, then used to run the electrical system for the house.

The exterior of the house is made of aerated autoclaved concrete, a material ideal for passive solar heating.

"The exterior blocks are 12 inches thick," Raye said. "It creates a thermal mass that keeps the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

"These are high-mass walls that are ideal for passive solar heating," Bondurant said. "They absorb heat during the day and release it at night almost like a battery."

The couple made use of wood throughout the house. The floors in the upper level are recycled hardwood pallets. There are tongue-and-groove pine ceilings in much of the house and in the carport. These, along with the kitchen cabinets, are sealed with a nontoxic citrus oil and bees' wax sealant made by Earth Paint of Asheville. "It smells so good that it makes you hungry to put it on," Sheppard said.

The house uses the metal roof to catch rainwater, which is stored in a 500-gallon tank. Plumbing fixtures are low-flow which save some water but, more to the point, save the power required to pump the water hundreds of feet out of the ground.

Other "green" features found in the house include a high-efficiency refrigerator and compact fluorescent lighting, low-flow showerheads and toilets and all appliances are Energy Star certified. Solar tubes in the stairwell and bathroom provide lighting without the heat loss or heat gain of a regular skylight. "This is a project that a handy homeowner could easily take on," Raye said. "We never need to have lights on in these areas, even on cloudy days."

"There are a lot of ways homeowners can incorporate green and solar technology in their houses that don't require spending a lot of money," Raye said. "Things like the efficient refrigerator and the compact lighting can save money, and they're good for the Earth".

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