This is the story of living in our AAE house during Super Storm Sandy. One might ask, “So why are you writing about this and why would your story be different than any one else's story?” This question will be answered and you will see that living in an AAE house is very different than living in a conventional house.
We live in Lebanon, NJ which is in Hunterdon County. About 50 miles west of New York City. Closer to PA than to the NJ shore that was devastated. But the winds and rain were very strong. We moved into our house in 1995. The house is all electric including backup heat and the kitchen stove. There is a wood stove for additional heat in the winter.
The first energy system is our AAE house. Designed with passive solar gain in the winter and high R-value insulation, it is a very comfortable house to live in.
In 2004 we installed our second energy system. A 9.8KW PV dual axis tracking system. The PV system is grid-tied with a 200 AmpHour battery bank. There are 8 large car-sized lead-acid batteries that make up the battery bank. The PV system is split into two parts. One half is grid-tied and the other half is grid-tied with battery backup. The reason for the battery bank is to keep that half of the PV system up and running when the grid fails. When the grid goes down the PV system must shut down.
In our case one half of the system shuts down and one half disconnects from the grid but remains on. The battery system then powers the critical loads in the house and will automatically switch from grid to PV/battery power as needed. The critical loads are the refrigerator, freezer, PV trackers, solar hot water system, well pump, kitchen outlets and a couple other outlets for convenience. The battery backup system was sized to get us through a day or two without grid power. Little did we know that it can do much better than that.
In 2007 we installed a 110 tube evacuated tube solar hot water heater. The original 80 gallon electric hot water heater was re-used by a neighbor. The solar hot water system has two 60 gallon hot water storage tanks. These can provide enough hot water for up to 4 days if it's cloudy. The system has a pump and so requires electric power to work. It's hooked up to the battery backup system so always has power.
Between the passive solar gain of the house for heat, the PV system for electric and the hot water system for hot water, we have no energy bills to pay. The cost of these systems was about the price of a new car. So we went without the new car. The PV system paid for itself after 3.5 years (along with state incentives) and the hot water system was paid for by the continued savings from the PV system. A new car will be worthless after a few years while our systems keep paying us...every day the sun shines!
The storm started on Monday October 29 and lasted until the next day. We lost grid power early in the storm at 2PM on Monday. A tree on our street fell and took down the power lines. Grid power was out until Saturday November 10 at 5PM. That's 12 days and 3 hours.
The damage in our area from the storm was extensive. The best way to describe it was that it looked like a war was just fought and lost. Trees down everywhere. Power lines down. Many houses were damaged from falling trees or shingles ripped off. It was impossible to drive anywhere since there were trees blocking roads in every direction. Miraculously, we still had phone and DSL internet. Even though the phone wires were ripped from the poles in many locations on our street, the signal still got through. And the local switching station had power to run. During the storm the house shook and the large windows in the living room bowed so much we thought they would shatter. Many 3 tab shingles broke and blew off the roof. But not enough to expose the plywood. No water leaks.
We made it through the storm in great shape. But we had 12 days to go without grid power and many things to learn. I kept thinking about how people got along without power not that long ago. But today we are spoiled. Grid power has changed our lives forever. And now we find it a hardship to live without it.
Living Without Grid Power
Most of the time after a storm there are sunny days. I was counting on these sunny days to keep the house warm, charge the batteries and make hot water. But not this time. The storm's clouds stayed for a couple days and then very slowly cleared. It was cold outside. I was worried the batteries would not get charged on the cloudy days after getting run down overnight. So on Tuesday we borrowed a gas generator from a neighbor to run the critical loads while what little PV power could be used to charge the batteries. And sure enough, by the end of the day the batteries were fully charged. But running the refrigerator and freezer overnight used about 50% of the battery capacity. I soon learned that even on cloudy days the PV system can run the critical loads and charge the batteries.
Without the sun we had to heat the house with the wood stove. I found that the stove was hot enough to cook all 3 meals on it. We only went out to eat once. Being able to cook at home saved a lot of money compared to eating all meals out like some people did. What was interesting was how the house felt without the blower running. The blower is part of the solar heating system. Even without the blower, the excellent insulation of the house and open floor plan allowed the wood stove in the living room to heat the entire house. It was comfortable. And when the sun finally appeared we no longer needed the wood stove for heat.
We had enough power from the PV system to run computers, TV, well pump, clothes washer and all critical loads. The solar hot water system produced all the hot water we needed. We could take showers, wash dishes and wash clothes. But we did have to be careful to conserve electrical power. At night we ate by candlelight and used flashlights and lanterns for lighting.
In the end, we lived a fairly normal life. The biggest challenge we faced was cooking. Cooking on the wood stove is slow. In the future we will have a propane powered camping stove or an electric skillet to cook on.
Let's contrast this almost normal lifestyle to what I saw in house after house in the area. For those that had generators, they could get by. They could run anything they could plug in. Things like heating systems could not be run without modification. I spoke with many people who had a generator but did not know how to power the heating system. Their house temperatures were typically in the 40s. Many people ran these generators 24 hours per day. Costing $50 to $100 in gasoline per day. There were long lines at the gas stations to get fuel for generators. Most of the time the gas stations were closed due to lack of gasoline or did not have power to run the pumps. They would get a tanker delivery and run out in hours. And most of these people I know drove to areas that had power to eat in restaurants. At least $100 per day for a family. The 12 day cost for those with generators was at least $2000.
For those without generators the picture was even worse. I heard from many after two days without power that they could not live in their house any longer. It was cold and dark. They could not cook, use the phone or internet and so they chose to go to a hotel for the duration and abandoned their houses. The closest hotel to us was charging around $150 per day. Add $100 for food on top of that and you are at $250 per day. The bill for 12 days without power was at least $3000.
Staying with an AAE house that provides an excellent insulation envelope, bright daylight lit rooms, and passive solar gain is an excellent choice. Adding alternative energy systems for the price of a new car and you can now live off-grid quite easily. Compare this to the typical energy intensive conventional house and we are so glad we live in an AAE house. Every day the sun shines we get free energy that everyone else has to pay for!