THE GREEN HOUSE
Living off-grid poses challenges, but offers some advantages
PUNA, Big Island » When the Big Island experienced 6.7 and 6.0 magnitude earthquakes last October and most of the state plunged into darkness, Julie Mae saw the light.
"When you live off-grid, your power doesn't go off -- no matter how bad the storm or the earthquake," said Mae, a former city girl who lives in a little two-bedroom jungle shack set on 29 acres in the wilds of Opihikao.
Coming through Hawaii's worst earthquake since 1975 with complete access to water and power was confirmation to Mae that living off-grid -- despite the challenges of being away from the network of water and power lines that many people take for granted -- was the right way to go.
"I've come to realize that the universe provides everything naturally," Mae said. "I have a definite respect for what it means to live off the earth and sunshine. I'm the bodacious goddess in the jungle and I have everything that I need."
Some of Hawaii's most strict conservationists, loners and advocates of frugality have long chosen to live off-grid away from electricity, water and communications.
These people, either out of choice or necessity due to the remote location of their homes, depend on few of the modern conveniences that most take for granted. Often they live without standard electricity, phone/Internet services or, in some cases, modern water or plumbing.
Living off the grid allows people like Mae a way to satisfy a desire to save money, actively participate in conservation, or achieve independence. It used to be that living off-grid was for Hawaii's hippies, loners and true believers, but it's rapidly moving into more mainstream circles.
"If I can do it, anyone can," Mae said.
Although Mae makes living off-grid sound easy, like many of the off-gridders she has experienced a fair share of challenges. There's a steep learning curve when you can't depend on modern conveniences.
"I showered in polluted water for two months before I realized that there were dead animals in my catchment system," Mae said, adding that her sunshine yellow home in the jungle with its rainbow-colored steps once boasted molded carpeting, rats' nests and leaky propane tanks.
"There were many days that I went without clean water, hot water or power," she said. "My city friends thought that I had lost my mind. It took me six months to figure out how everything worked and what I needed. Now, it just feels smooth."
Living green doesn't have to be about making sacrifices, and most people living off-grid prefer independent living, said Jay Winslett, who lives in a $279,000 high-tech green house surrounded by ohia trees, ornamentals and fruit trees.
Winslett, who enjoys living away from paved roads, power and phone lines, said that he plans to continue the lifestyle after he sells his home and moves to North Carolina to be with his aging mother.
"I prefer living green so that I can be as independent as possible," he said. "I've been a sailor all my life and I came to be the kind of person that wanted to live way out."
The key to living green comfortably and maintaining independence through functioning equipment is to be honest about consumption needs and plan accordingly, Winslett said.
"Before you set up a solar system, you have to determine how much juice that you use," he said. "It's really quite simple."
Primary power for Winslett's house is provided by 16 64-watt Uni-Solar panels located on the south-facing side roof. An Onan 6-kilowatt diesel generator provides backup power.
"I have all the power and water that I need," he said, adding that he ran a successful potted herb and contract nursery on the site.
Beverly and Dallas Jackson use power tools at the custom $1.25 million off-grid oceanfront property that they have owned in Waa Waa on the Big Island since 1979.
Solar panels are built into the home's design and backup generators are hidden in buildings that blend into their tropical Asian garden setting.
Life at the Jacksons' green estate is like life at any other luxury home because their hybrid solar-generator commercial grade system with two sine-wave inverters provides ample power.
"We can do anything here that you could do in any other home," Dallas Jackson said.
But it's been a learning process for the couple. In the beginning of their off-grid journey, the Jacksons would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night without electricity because they had forgotten to ensure that all of their systems were up and running. They learned that bathroom windows and showers can't have screens or they'll mold, and that if you don't want to haul water, two water tanks is best.
"We had to figure most of this out on our own," said Beverly Jackson. "It was definitely a learning experience. Now, there is more information for consumers."
New products and lowered costs have made living green more appealing for people. However, lack of knowledge is still the greatest challenge to the spread of green homes, said Charles Lockwood, an environmental and real estate consultant in Southern California.
"Today, the price of a rooftop photovoltaic system is half of what it cost 10 years ago," Lockwood said. "Government and utility company rebates and grants lower that cost even further.
The rollout of a LEED certification program -- which rates green levels at residential homes -- this summer by the U.S. Green Building Council will further encourage the spread of green living and work to dispel the myths that green living is for pioneers or the eco-chic, Lockwood said
"Most home buyers and renters still don't know about, or fully understand, the many financial, health, and environmental benefits of living in a green home. So, they don't choose -- let alone demand -- green," he said.