Off the grid: Wilderness home combines luxury with solar power

You don’t have to give up luxury to live in a solar home.

This beautiful house in the mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona has every amenity – yet it’s extremely efficient, using far less energy than comparable homes.

This note from Tim the Owner:

Our electrical consumption is about 100 kilowatt hours per day.

We produce about the same amount on a sunny day. Our Propane consumption is a lot lower now than it has been during the year due to the extra solar panels. I think we need it to run for a few months before we can say.

Located beyond the reach of utility companies, the home is, by necessity, built to create its own electricity and to minimize the use of trucked-in fuel. “We’re excited about this project,” says Andy White, partner with his brother Charlie in the Sedona-based home automation integrator AVDomotics. “The best way to protect the environment and wean ourselves off foreign energy sources is simply to conserve. With projects like this one, we are optimizing production and consumption of energy with technology derived for the luxury home. The result is less consumption and better return on investment on renewable energy sources. With homes like this one, we’re pushing the envelope not only on how much energy we can save, but how reliable and luxurious solar systems can be.” 

Rustic luxury

If you were to visit this beautiful home, it would be hard to tell it was solar unless someone pointed that out to you.

The setting is striking. Deep in the Ponderosas pines of Northern Arizona, Although there are neighbors, this home is surrounded by 40 acres of forest, so you do not see them. The interior is rustic but large and comfortable, reminiscent perhaps of Yellowstone Lodge, but with very high-tech systems.

Though the homeowners love the wilderness, they enjoy their creature comforts. AVDomotics installed and programmed several systems from Crestron, the world’s leading provider of home automation hardware and software, to help make the home more comfortable and the technology easy to use.

Because the homeowners appreciate music and movies, AVDomotics engineers designed a whole-house audio and video system based on a Crestron ADMS Intermedia Delivery System, which provides simplified access to movies, music, satellite television, and streaming sources such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. They also installed an all-digital fiber based network and switching system to ensure the best possible picture and sound quality. It uses Crestron DigitalMedia technology to provide a very high-bandwidth IP network for high definition audio and videoinaddition to gigabit ethernet network

The home also features automated lighting and shading systems, which simplify life for the homeowners by illuminating whole sections of the house or specific pathways, for example from the bedroom to the kitchen, at the touch of a button.

These systems are operated, like the audio, video, security and energy systems, by easy-to-use touch-sensitive panels also from Crestron. “We pride ourselves in providing simplicity for the user,” Charlie White CTO explains. “If the least technical person in the household can’t figure out how to play a movie or change the thermostat just by touching a couple of buttons, then we’ve failed in our most important service.” 

Because of its rustic setting, the homeowners did not want the high-tech gadgets to stand out. “In this case we also would have failed if you noticed the technology when walking into a room,” White adds. For example, the TV in the great room is hidden in a cabinet, rising up into view only when you’re ready to watch. Control panels are positioned conveniently, but where they might not be noticed. Most of the time the homeowners use their iPads or iPhones to control the electronic systems – AVDomotics programmed and installed a Crestron app which mirrors the features of the dedicated panels.

Living off the grid

To provide the power for its luxurious systems, this mountain home uses a combination of solar electric panels, solar-assisted heat, and very careful programming of its Crestron systems.

Power for the home is a hybrid of electric and liquid propane gas. On sunny days, all needed electric is generated by solar photoelectric cells located alongside the house, with the surplus stored in an array of high-tech batteries, providing electricity at night and on overcast days.

To minimize the backup generator use, AVDomotics implemented a strategy known as electrical load shedding, putting off non-essential tasks until daylight hours. “For example, we have a deep-well electric pump for drinking water and additional pumps for septic and gray water systems. We are able to do all of the pumping while the solar cells are active, unless we run into several days of bad weather.”

If demand exceeds the solar system’s capacity, a back-up propane generator kicks in but, the goal is to limit the use of the generator to only when it is nessesary

The Crestron lighting control system plays a large part in this strategy. “We have found that simply automating the lighting will save 10% or more on electric bills,” White explains. “In a larger home and commercial buildings, adding lighting automation can pay for itself in a very reasonable amount of time.” 

A second solar system circulates water through solar collectors on the roof. The sun-heated liquid passes through a heat exchanger in the mechanical room, preheating water for a boiler. A propane jet takes the water up to its final temperature for circulation through the heating system plus hot water for the kitchen and baths. Much of the time, the auxillary water heater isn't even needed to meet hot water demands

“It’s important to understand,” Andy White explains, “that the homeowner is giving up nothing to accommodate solar power. The heating is a high-end Uponor radiant system, which warms the floors in every room – really, the nicest way to heat a house. At 8,000 feet, we don’t need air conditioning, but we do have fans to circulate outdoor air on the warmer days. The fans are automated on the Crestron system as well so, the home can intelligently turn on and off fans to adjust temperature without turning on HVAC units unless absolutely nessesary.

“The shift between the solar electric and the generator is completely seamless, switching back and forth so quickly that there is no effect on electronic systems – not even a flicker to the lights.”

Very secure

One issues the homeowners do have to deal with is security.

Since this is mainly a summer and weekend getaway, the home could potentially be prey to people who happened on the property and who attempt to break in. “We integrated our systems with the standard security system,” White explains, “but it’s about a 30-minute trip for the Flagstaff police, assuming the roads are clear.” 

For that reason, the general contractor installed Roll-a-Shade security shutters on all the doors and windows, which AVDomotics integrated with the Crestron automation system. “It’s kind of like closing a garage door over every potential point of entry, and that makes it a lot harder to break in.” Because the system is integrated with the security system, it can automatically alert the home owner to an open window or door. This way the system can make sure each door and window is closed and notify the user where the problem is.

Another nice feature–the homeowner can open and close the shutters remotely using his iPhone or iPad, so he can allow contractors or a cleaning service into the home as needed, even if he’s traveling abroad.

Security cameras also provide for local or remote monitoring of the perimeter of the home which is useful for simply checking in on the house visually but can also be fun for watching wildlife. All of the cameras are visible from any of the TVs in the home.

No need to be an engineer

One of the important functions of the Crestron processors is to monitor the health of all the home’s systems. “We get an email twice a day reporting on the various sub-systems, battery levels, water and LP gas tank levels, and the health of the solar inverters. If a problem is developing, the system flags that for us. If there’s an emergency, it sends a special alert.”

Circuit level energy consumption is monitored with the integrated eMonitor solution so, real meaningful data can be observed and provides feedback for improving efficency.

AVDomotics has monitoring contracts with other clients, but this one is especially important because the home is so remote. “We’re the first point of contact if there’s any problem,” White adds. “It does help that we get warnings well in advance. During the winter, the only access is by snowmobile.” 

Because one of the homeowners has an engineering background, he gets the same monitoring information within the home and he can get it by email if he desires. “At his request we loaded up the touch panels with all kinds of information about the functioning of the home and its systems, but normally we would not do so,” White explains. “It's part of what we do as a custom integrator with the tools Crestron can provide.”

“The watchword on this home’s systems is ‘easy,’” he adds. “The whole purpose of this getaway home, and its automation systems, is so the homeowners have a place they can relax.”