Living Off The Grid
NAME: John Wells | AGE: 50 | HOMETOWN: Outside Terlingua | QUALIFICATIONS: Runs the Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory, a personal experiment in green living / Chronicles his experiences online at thefieldlab.blogspot.com
• After working in fashion photography and set design in New York City for twenty years, I moved upstate to work as a building contractor. I had a huge, beautiful house on 32 acres, but the mortgage and property taxes were killing me—I was paying $1,000 a month in taxes. I decided I would try a debt-free lifestyle. I knew a couple, Abe and Josie Connally, who were practicing sustainable living in West Texas, so in October 2007 I packed up and moved. Now I own 40 acres in the desert, and my property taxes are $100 a year.
• I had experimented with sustainable living in New York. In the summer I would rent my house to what we called “cidiots”—weekenders from the city—and live in this trailer out back. I had a couple solar panels, a hot-water heater, a gas grill, and that was it. I enjoyed the simplicity.
• As soon as I got here, I built the basic box of my house in ten days and moved right in. I used four-by-eight-foot panels of oriented strand board, which is like plywood but cheaper. There are seven little windows and a big glass door.
• My family was sure I was going to become a hermit. But once I got DSL and a phone line, they weren’t as worried.
• The solar oven works the same way your car does when you roll up the windows and park it out in the sun all day. It’s a double-paned black box, so it absorbs all the heat. I throw my food in at around four p.m., and by six-thirty or seven it’s bubbling away. The only bad thing is if you start something like chicken and after an hour it gets cloudy—then you’re screwed.
• I do a supply run to Alpine about once every ten days in my truck. It’s about an hour’s drive each way. I’ll stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables, but I’m a big fan of Spam and Dinty Moore beef stew and different stuff in cans. Ranch Style beans, those are my favorite.
• I’m building a greenhouse out of shipping containers and cinder block, to create a garden that will be my little oasis of food and wean me from canned goods. I’m going to try hydroponics and aquaponics, which is when you grow fish and vegetables at the same time.
• Out here, you don’t flush, because you don’t want to waste potable water and you can use the poop. There’s a book, The Humanure Handbook, that you can read for free online. My first compost heap has got to cook for another six or seven months, then it’ll be ready to use.
• Four wind turbines and fifteen solar panels charge my battery bank, so I can run a little refrigerator and my laptop. I’ve also got some lighting and some fans. I’ve yet to get a generator. I’m seeing how long I can last without one.
• There’s a woman in Study Butte who sells 5-gallon jugs of drinking water, or I’ll fill up in Alpine at one of those machines by the grocery store. I’ll also truck in water from Terlingua; there’s a big treatment place there. But by the time we get rains in the late summer, I’ll have enough tanks to store about 14,000 gallons of water.
• One nice thing about this kind of life is that I have friends and neighbors, but they’re out of eyesight. You appreciate them more when you do see them.