The Transylvania Times -

By Eric Crews
Staff Writer 

Mike Carrick Lives 'Off The Grid' - Brevard NC

 

Mike Carrick sits in front of his home located off Kim Miller Road. photos on (Times photo by Eric crews)

For most people, colder winter weather brings with it the dread of higher energy bills. But for Mike Carrick, a local real estate agent who lives in a solar-powered home in Transylvania County, winter weather is nothing to worry about.

Carrick has been living "off the grid" since 2003 when he purchased an 11-acre tract of property near Kim Miller Road and built a home that relies solely on electricity generated from the sun to power all the electronics in his house, his well pump, lights, refrigerator and other items. One might think that living without access to unlimited electricity could be an inconvenience, but Carrick insists otherwise.

"I hope when people see my house they don't feel like it is far from a normal home and those experiences," he said.

Upon pulling into the half-mile-long gravel drive to the home, visitors are given a view of both the home's unique architectural design and the two solar panels that power many of its amenities. Once inside, the open layout of the home matched with the seemingly endless windows offers visitors a chance to take in the views of distant mountains from nearly every vantage point in the house.

As he stoked the fire in a Danish-designed Morso wood stove, Carrick said he likes the idea of being self-reliant. The solar panels provide him with enough electricity to live comfortably, while the heat from the wood stove warms the house so efficiently that he often opens the windows during winter months.

But a big reason Carrick said he built the house the way he did, and the lifestyle that goes along with it, is the practicality of it.

He bought the property from a Black Mountain couple who dreamed of building a solar-powered house. They hauled in materials via a trail and framed in what is now the central portion of Carrick's home before they ran out of steam and sold him the property.

When he started, he envisioned the property would become a home-away-from home. But little did he know that it would turn into his primary house.

While he started the project with limited knowledge, by the end he'd learned enough through his research to decide what type of solar project he wanted and how he'd accomplish it.

The first step, and one Carrick said is most important for homeowners considering solar, is to learn about their electricity needs.

"When you're running your home on a battery bank like I am, you not only need to design a system for your needs, you also have to have a reserve storage designed for cloudy days, snow days and those kind of things," he said.

He suggested working out how many lights are needed during the day, how much electricity is needed at night for entertainment and lighting, as well as the baseline power for things such as a well pump.

"The hardest part in the beginning was really taking the time to figure out my consumption needs," he said.

While Carrick said he is content to live off the grid at his home due to the cost of running power lines to his home, if he had an option that wasn't so costly that would allow him to tie into the grid, he would. But he said he never regrets not having built his home where he did.

"To me, it was worth it to be able to build in a remote area," he said. "But I would highly encourage alternative energy tied into the grid. There are things in my life that could be more comfortable if I had steady, grid power. For example, when we have really strong, wet seasons, it would be nice to have things like an air conditioner to help remove the moisture from the air."

Walking around the home, Carrick showed off different design elements he has picked up over the years. He said his interest in this type of architectural design piqued during a three-month stay in Finland where he studied Nordic design.

"Everything in this house is all based off of one heat source," he said. "One thing I tried to do was to not obstruct the views, but also allow the heat to move throughout the house."

When it comes to building a home, Carrick suggests people stay within their budget by building what they can afford first, and then expanding as needed. While he started with a simple square living space, he was able to add on two additions that increased the size of his home considerably.

"I didn't have this plan all worked out when I started," he said. "But, looking back, I would suggest people design a home that they can either afford or need and design a plan based on the future needs."

One area that Carrick recommends investing money initially is in a quality solar system. He did, and he still uses the same solar system he bought when the home was first built.

"I think a lot of people get caught up in thinking that solar is such a big upfront cost that it won't pay for itself in its lifetime," he said. "Even if I only used $100 each month in electricity, that's $12,000 in savings over 10 years. I think there is a higher upfront cost for people going to alternative energy," he said. "But I think the payback is a lot sooner than people think."

But it isn't just the solar panels that make Carrick's lifestyle free of an electric bill. Carrick pointed to the efficiencies around his house as examples of common sense improvements that could help others cut down on their power costs even if they chose not to go solar.

He uses an on-demand hot water system that only provides hot water when needed.

Likewise, in his kitchen, Carrick uses a chest-style deep freezer that he modified to work as a refrigerator to keep his perishable food items cold.

His first refrigerator operated on propane, but Carrick said knowing that it was always burning fuel didn't sit well with him. When it quit working he switched to an electric refrigerator. When asked about why he uses a chest style freezer for his refrigerator, Carrick said he likes to visualize cold air as ping pong balls.

He said when the ping pong balls are stacked inside a standard refrigerator, the moment someone opens the door most of the balls quickly fall out and spill into the room. However, with the chest style refrigerator very little cool air is lost when the door is open.

"It just boils down to being efficient," he said.

The refrigerator is hidden away in a wood cabinet. The top functions as a nice kitchen cabinet when not in use. In his nearby mud room is an identical unit that operates as a freezer. When asked what he is most proud of, Carrick said that it is easy to point to his self-sufficient lifestyle. But he believes one of his crowning accomplishments is that his daughter has gotten to experience something very unique among her peers.

"At some point she'll look back and think, 'Wow, I lived in a completely solar-powered home,'" he said.

Carrick said his experiences in both building and living in an off-the-grid home has taught him so many things, many of which he believes he's been able to pass on to his daughter, who is now in high school.

"She's learned about conserving power, about turning lights off that aren't needed, how to stack wood and do so many things that are really important things to learn," he said. "It's going to be inspirational to see how she uses that in her life. One day she's going to be shopping for a new hot water heater, or windows or a car, and I think she's going to be more focused on making sure she's making a smart purchase.

"It's a little bit of a mindset, but it's also just a common sense approach. A lot of people think that I must have done this because I'm really into green building. I'm actually into common sense, smart building. If I'm making a decision on whether to buy something that is cheap versus something that is really well made, I'm going to go with the well-made product. To me that's a perfect example of a smart choice."

Carrick believes more and more people will begin using solar power to supplement or offset the cost of electricity. Likewise, he has begun to see a shift in the real estate and building industries already.

"The building industry is changing," he said. "Being in real estate, so many of my phone calls are from people wanting a smaller, more energy efficient home. It's exciting to me that that's what's in style right now. People aren't as worried about affordability. Instead they want something that is nice and small and efficient. People are looking at it and saying, well it may cost a little more per square foot, but it only costs $40 per month to heat instead of $120 per month. In the long-term, it just makes sense."

Carrick said he hasn't reinvented the wheel, but instead rediscovered many things that people in the past incorporated into their homes.

"If you look at old farm houses, most of them were sited in the right direction to maximize their sunlight, they have large covered porches that offer shade and a cool place to hang out in the summer; things that are natural design elements that people are starting to come back to because they realize they were good ideas," he said.

Carrick said there is lots of great information out there to learn from.

"You don't have to be an electrical genius to figure out how to do this type of stuff," he said. "It's not like I'm down in my basement taking apart alternators and rewiring them. This stuff is really pretty simple, plug and play technology."

While his primary job is as a real estate agent, Carrick does offer consulting for homeowners who are interested in learning about different ways they can improve the energy efficiency in their homes, as well as add alternative energy sources.

"There are things that each of us can do to make our cars, homes or office spaces more energy efficient immediately," he said. "These things can be as easy as learning about how some electric devices in your home can draw phantom loads even when they are not in use."

Carrick plans to build another home that will incorporate many of the things he learned in building his current home, but also add other things that he learned he could improve on. One of those things, he believes, is to hook the home to an electrical grid. If Carrick's next home is hooked into the electrical grid, that will mean that during the day time when little to no electricity is needed, the solar generated electricity will go back into the grid where he will earn money from the power company or help offset his electric costs.

"I believe we're going to see much more of this type of thing in the coming years," he said.

 
 

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