The simple life - off grid

By JAN KATZ ACKERMAN, Hays Daily News, December 1, 2002)

OAKLEY - Imagine parking a golf cart outside your house and running all of your electrical appliances off the energy stored in the cart's battery.

It's a little more complicated than this image, but for the past 17 years, husband and wife Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton have supplied electricity to their house and nearby business exclusively with wind and solar power.

Utility companies refer to this process as being "off-grid."

In 1980, Bonner and Shelton, along with their son, Logan, reclaimed part of the Kansas prairie when they purchased a 1-acre tract of land located 26 miles south of Oakley on U.S. Highway 83. It's just 8 miles from the limestone formations called Monument Rocks.

"We are conveniently located in the middle of nowhere," Bonner said about the drawing card for the couple's art gallery and fossil museum.

Devoting the next five years to turning the 1917-era limestone buildings once used as the sanctuary and parsonage of the Pilgrims' Holiness Church of Pleasant Ridge into their home and business, Bonner and Shelton made the decision to be as independent as possible from traditional utility sources.

"We could have run electric poles in, but it would have meant miles of poles. We have friends on wind power, and we've kind of always liked the idea of being independent. We like being our own energy island. Plus, the place looks good as an island without poles," Bonner said.

The couple's system includes a wind charger mounted atop a windmill tower, a set of six six-volt batteries housed in an insulated box, an inverter to convert direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) and enough wiring to supply electricity to their house and combination art studio, gift shop and museum.

The initial cost of installing their system was about $4,000. Today, the cost of maintaining the system runs about $65 a year.

"We started with a wind charger, a car battery and one 12-volt trouble light, and from that we built on it. We literally started with shovels and cleaned out the debris and added a new roof," Shelton said about the earliest phase of the project.

Bonner grew up in Leoti and was familiar with the vastness of the area to which they would be moving and the challenge they would be undertaking.

Shelton grew up in Kansas City but attended Fort Hays State University and had become familiar with alternative power sources while serving as a VISTA volunteer.

However, before making the permanent move from their original western Kansas residence at Liebenthal, the couple, assisted by their son, now 21 and an FHSU student, worked on the project for five summers.

Then, like now, their only source of electric power was the wind and the sun. Heat is provided by wood-burning stoves and a passive solar greenhouse they added to the south side of the house. The wood stoves also are used for cooking and heating water used for bathing. In addition, Shelton has what she calls her "summer kitchen," located on an enclosed porch. It includes a propane stove, but she said she rarely uses it.

Cooling the buildings is no problem due to the fact both structures have 20-inch thick limestone and plaster walls. However, for added comfort for the 3,000 to 5,000 tourists who visit the site annually, a water cooler has been installed in the gallery.

"We are at 3,000 feet of elevation, and it cools down into the upper 60s at night," Bonner said about not needing air conditioning for their two-story home.

Originally a single-story house, the couple added a second story for two bedrooms. This allowed them to turn the main-floor bedroom into a home office and site for the inverter, which changes the direct current power into 12-volt electricity for their "modern-day appliance" - their computer.

"The only appliance we use that's 110 volts is our computer and the charger to charge batteries for power tools," Bonner said.

The only other major appliance is the refrigerator, a 50-watt, top compressor-style unit specifically designed for off-grid applications.

"The best part of being off-grid is independence and economy. The most challenging thing is dealing with the weather situations and having to run the gas generator," Bonner said.

He said a small gas generator is used to maintain an adequate supply of power to the batteries during times of no sunshine or no wind.

Bonner said another challenging is storing enough power to allow them the amenities of life similar to those of their sparsely populated "neighborhood." Where once there were 25 people in the 100 square miles surrounding them, that number has dropped to 14.

"It's a challenge being different from everyone else and adapting to what everyone else is or isn't doing, such as computers. Part of the problem is there's extra things you have to do. Kansas has about 300 days of wind and sun, but you have to go through a lot of steps. Instead of going to the gym to workout, you go chop wood," Bonner said.

Shelton agreed that being independent is the best facet of their lifestyle. And, she said, it lends itself to humor and the ability to chuckle at the world they left behind.

"The funniest things about it is when there's a storm, everybody in the neighborhood calls to see how you are doing. We'll say, 'Oh, watching television,' and, they say, 'I just knew it. We haven't had electricity for two days and we're cooking on our grill,' " Shelton said, laughing.

Besides their museum, they offer visitors a chance to participate in tours and fossil hunts.

Fossil hunting has been a part of Bonner's family for many years. His dad, Marion, was a friend of George Sternberg, for whom the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays is named, and often hunted fossils with him.

The couple offer "scenic tours in a vintage 1949 Chevy Suburban" owned by Bonner's dad or direct visitors on walking and hiking expeditions through the chalk beds of the nearby Niobrara Chalk Formation. There are half- or full-day tours, and visitors can utilize overnight accommodations at the couple's cabin at nearby Lake Scott.

For more information about living off-grid or about the tours, call Bonner or Shelton at (620) 872-2762 or e-mail keystone@ruraltel.net. Their Web site is www.keystonegallery.com.

Copyright 2002, 2005 Hays Daily News, The (KS)


Living off-grid explained

By JAN KATZ ACKERMAN, Hays Daily News, December 1, 2002)

Frank Potter, environmental science professor at Fort Hays State University, said the term "grid" refers to the electric wires that cross our nation as part of its overall utility system.

"Being 'off-grid' means not being hooked up to any electric utility company," Potter explained.

He said the United States has six major grids, so northwest Kansas is not in the same grid as that of the West Coast, which experienced power shortages two years ago.

Potter said there are three points of reference when speaking about users and their association to a grid. You are "on-grid" and buying power through a company's utility system, or you are off-grid, such as Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton.

Others do both, using wind or solar energy during the day but power from a utility during the night or in times of no wind or sunshine.

"The main reason people are off-grid is when they are in a situation where they are living too far from electricity, such as a cabin in the mountains," Potter said.

He said the economics of providing electricity to a cabin in a rugged mountain region many times forces people to consider being off-grid.

"Some rugged areas I know of costs about $15,000 a quarter-mile to install electricity," he said.

Potter said while he knew of situations where people have chosen some form of being off-grid, he did not know of many who are totally without outside utilities, such as his friends Bonner and Shelton.

He did say there is a growing trend for alternative energy sources among rural Kansans, such as in fields where utilities are not accessible due to location or cost of installing poles and wires.

"There are not many places in Kansas that don't have utility poles. But, there are miniature off-grid systems using wind or solar panels for oil well pumps, railroad switches and electric pumps for water tanks. These forms of systems can be very cost effective," he said.

Copyright 2002, 2005 Hays Daily News, The (KS)