Updated: 3/16/05; 11:44:57 PM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.

Power and Light In this article we explore the issue of utilities technology for the non-toxic home. Most of the emphasis in the design of the non-toxic dwelling fall on its material composition. But it's critically important that this be complimented by equally non-toxic utilities. Ignore this and all the effort and expense put into the use of non-toxic materials can be wasted. This is a particularly challenging issue for the EI patient who has gone to remote areas in search of a clean environment as they may have to contend with a lack of local infrastructure, compelling them to use more independent alternatives. It's important for prospective owners/residents of non-toxic homes to be fully aware of thier available and emerging options, since building contractors most certainly aren't.


This is perhaps the most fundamental of utilities for the non-toxic home since so much else of the household infrastructure relies on it. It is particularly challenging for the off-grid non-toxic home as it is critical for all systems in and around the home to be combustion-free. Thus the non-electric alternative appliances commonly employed by the 'off-grid homestead', such as propane powered refrigerators and wood stoves, cannot be used by the non-toxic home. The non-toxic home -even for those who must reduce electric power use due to EMF sensitivities- is still effectively an 'all electric' home, which makes its power demand far greater than is typical of most off-grid homes. Obviously, the lowest cost approach then would be to rely on a local power grid but this often doesn't come with a location that is low in ambient pollution. It's quite the Catch-22.

Many books have covered the issue of appropriately load balanced wiring, shielded wiring, and the like. What we'll look at here are the technologies offering independent power with a minimum of pollution. The traditional pollution-free off-grid electric power source is, of course, the photovoltaic solar panel. Widely used, widely available, and quite practical, the PV panel has become -in conjunction with its common companion the wind turbine- the symbol of both energy autonomy and sustainable living. But it has its limitations. Costs remain high for this technology (especially at the large system scale an all-electric home demands), not all locations offer good solar insolation, and conventional batteries present a problem for the EI patient because they outgas when charging. Newer 'gel cell' batteries need no venting but are much more expensive and, in any case, a weatherproof, vandal-proof exterior power system enclosure is probably necessary. System costs can thus become quite exorbitant.

Air 403 mini-wind turbine by Southwest Windpower

Wind turbines currently offer the lowest cost-per-watt among renewable energy power systems but they normally cannot be relied on as the sole source of power in most locations. The wind simply isn't blowing enough in most places. Thus they tend to be employed as supplements to photovoltaic systems. Small hydroelectric power systems fare comparably but flowing water sources for it are even rarer than good wind sites.

Traxle solar tracking mount by Poulek Solar Ltd.

Often the cost of solar panels or turbines isn't as critical as that of the batteries and charge controller/regulator systems. Those tend to constitute the lion's share of cost in a system of some scale. Indeed, there is -or at least was- a source of free used PV panels from companies like Carizzo Solar Corp. [(505) 764-0345] who offered free panels to the disabled. Unfortunately, there's never been a similar source for the rest of the necessary hardware.

What alternatives are there that can reduce this system cost? Recently there has been much work in the use of so-called 'supercapacitors' as an alternative to conventional batteries. Unlike batteries, which store energy in an electrolytic chemical reaction, supercapacitors store energy in the field state across the area of an electrode -commonly made of carbon with the most sophisticated based on carbon aerogels. They offer a combination of high power storage density, high voltage levels, and high charging speeds leading to much more compact and powerful storage that can be quickly recharged. Supercapacitors are being advocated for use in every application that batteries are commonly used for, offering a vast list of advantages over them. A recent NASA Tech Briefs article advocated their use for PV based solar power systems for future Mars outposts noting their great savings in weight and their virtually indefinite duty life compared to even the high-tech batteries used in space applications. This is essentially the same application as home power, just with a home rather far away. The technology is not particularly exotic, difficult to fabricate, or expensive and many companies are now manufacturing them. Indeed, in many ways they are much easier to manufacture than batteries and so should offer tremendous savings in cost. But at present they don't seem to be appearing on the market of products for home power systems -though they are potentially well suited to that- and ultimate costs are unknown. This may be due to a current lack of readily available products at a sufficient component scale. Only one company appears to be producing supercapacitors of the necessary size; Tavrima Canada Ltd.

Tavrima Supercapacitors

For those with the benefit of skilled machinists for friends, a potential DIY alternative to conventional batteries has emerged in the form of the Vanadium Redox Battery. Developed by the University of New South Wales, this technology solves a problem which has vexed engineers for a solid century.

Battery powered electric vehicles and transportable power systems have been around for a VERY long time. Few people are aware of the fact that electric cars did, in fact, outsell combustion engine powered cars early in the history of the automobile. The first mechanized tour bus in Washington DC was electric. But they ran into trouble when the upper and middle classes started moving to the country. The electrical power infrastructure wasn't keeping up with their migration. So the range of electric vehicle tended to be limited by the 'reach' of the fledgling power grid, limiting its use to urban areas. Gasoline, at the time, was distributed in disposable cans just like soft drinks and was shipped to and sold in general stores and auto dealerships. Thus one could drive a combustion engine vehicle anywhere such stores were found, and every town had at least one general store. Electric vehicles were, even then, generally seen as a much more civilized technology than combustion engine vehicles since they were cleaner, quieter, more reliable, and healthier. (for a long time Henry Ford's own wife refused to ride in anything else) So there was a strong desire among engineers to devise a way to give the electric vehicle the freedom from grid dependence and quick 'refueling' capability enjoyed by the combustion engine technology. Their solution was a technology known as 'redox' solutions. Redox solutions were chemicals which, when combined, produced an electrical potential. By refilling batteries continuously with these chemicals, it was as if they were being continuously recharged. With these chemicals it became possible to refuel an electric vehicle just like one would refuel a gasoline powered vehicle.

But there was a problem. Redox solutions tended to be very different in chemical composition and often very caustic or toxic. When mixed together, they became extremely difficult to recycle and too dangerous to simply dispose of. Thus it became necessary to devise a way by which these chemicals could be allowed to electrolytically react without chemically combining, so they could be kept separate and easily recycled. This is one of the things which led to the development of the fuel cell -a device a lot of people like to pretend is 'high tech' but which goes back to the turn of the last century! Fuel cells offered a possible answer to this redox use problem but when first devised the technology was too primitive to fully prevent the different redox chemicals from cross-contaminating each other within the fuel cell unit. Once polluted, these chemicals became useless and one was back to the same old problem again. This problem remained unsolved, thus leading to the ultimate overtaking of the auto market by cumbustion engine vehicles. But in the 1970s engineers, inspired by the global Energy Crisis, were again compelled to try and overcome the limitations of batteries with electric cars. Picking up where their predesessors left off, they sought to develop more sophisticated fuel cell systems which would overcome this cross-contamination problem and new redox solutions that were easier to recycle. Alas, 1970s technology wasn't up to the task either and by the late 1980s this idea sort of faded away again along with the public's level of concern over energy and the environment.

A few years ago a research team at the University of New South Wales in Australia finally came up with a practical solution. Instead of trying to make a fuel cell that perfectly isolated the redox chemicals, they sought to discover a single redox chemical with two potential electrolytic states. This way cross contamination through a relatively simple fuel cell wouldn't pollute the chemicals, just diminish a little of their stored energy. They found this bi-polar chemical in a mixture of vanadium in a solution of weak sulphuric acid. Using an almost primitive -by contemporary standards- proton exchange membrane fuel cell unit, this chemical could be both charged and discharged -even both at the same time and even with charging and discharging at _different_ voltages! But the most important feature of this technology is that, while the size of the fuel cell unit determines the level of voltage and current output, the capacity of the system is limited only by the size of simple plastic storage tanks used to store the redox solutions. It's as if you had a battery of unlimited potential capacity or one that you can recharge immediately just by replacing the solution with pre-charged solution.

The systems the U-NSW have made are quite simple in composition and are well within the means of anyone with basic machine tool skills. So the potential exists for creating, from scratch, a fully serviceable home power storage system of any scale. This could radically reduce the cost of a home power system, providing large and expandable power storage capacity at very low cost. And, unlike batteries, these redox solutions don't lose their potential charge with time. One could actually stockpile power for emergencies.

This technology could even be employed to overcome the most fundamental problem of large scale renewable energy production; distribution. The real reason we don't make widespread use of renewable energy in the domestic power grid is that the optimal places for this energy production are too far away from the places where it is in most demand -too far to cost-effectively run power lines. Few people are aware that, at the utility grid scale, power lines are far more expensive to build and maintain than power generators. But with this technology it becomes practical to package and ship stored electric power at high energy density just like oil, by truck, train, or ship. So one could quite conceivably create renewable power plants anywhere it's optimal and send their energy output to anywhere else, just like the oil industry does with oil but without the overhead of refineries.

Though new, this technology is advancing rapidly. Already one office building in Japan has implemented a very large scale system for back-up power and the U-NSW has built demonstration electric vehicles and solar powered homes based on them. It's so easy to fabricate this simple hardware that anyone with sufficient interest could probably do it so we can expect to hear much more about this in the near future.

What about places where one can't effectively use solar power? As an alternative or supplement to solar power, there are a number of new compact generator technologies which offer potential for use by the non-toxic home. While the US automobile industry keeps insisting fuel cells are "something for the future" stationary fuel cell systems are, in fact, in very widespread and increasing use. Though little noticed by the media, over the past decade many corporations and municipal facilities have responded to the steady deterioration in reliability of regional power grids (not to mention the Y2K paranoia) by installing stationary fuel cell plants for back-up power. These offer many virtues over the more traditional diesel generators used for such applications, not least of which is their total lack of pollution beyond carbon monoxide which would allow them to be operated continuously for extended periods without creating a health or nuisance problem in urban areas. These systems tend to be fairly large shipping-container sized units intended to power large facilities such as hospitals and office complexes. They are typically fueled with natural gas. But in the past few years a small but growing number of companies have begun developing and offering residential scale fuel cell systems, with power output in the area of 30kw. The most well known of these is the GE MicroGen -now known as the GenSys and offered by Plug Power- which was, at one point, slated to be offered to residents in up-state New York through a joint program with regional utilities companies. This deal fizzled out for unknown reasons and now the product has reverted to its original developer Plug Power. Cost for this system was expected to be in the area of $15,000 but at present the cost is not clear. A variety of other companies now manufacture or are developing similar units. Powered by natural gas, these systems offer both electric power and hot water. In some cases they also provide potable water. So even though their cost may be relatively high, this co-generation capability makes up for it by eliminating electrical energy consumption for heating and hot water.

GenSys residential fuel cell unit

Offering close to the same efficiency and almost as low a level of pollution is the compact turbogenerator or 'microturbine'. Akin to the turbogenerators used in municipal power plants and locomotives, these are simply miniature versions scaled to produce power to meet the needs of the small building or home. (by the way, modern locomotives are commonly 'hybrid' vehicles where diesel engines or turbines generate power for wheels driven by electric motors. Most very large scale earth moving equipment is likewise powered, as are many ships. This has been common for at least 50 years. So much for that common claim that 'hybrid' cars are 'high tech'...) A number of such microturbines are currently available including the Parallon 75 made by Honeywell Corp. and the Capstone Microturbine line. The smaller units cost in the area of $10,000-$20,000 offering power in the area of 30kw-75kw -which may seem expensive but is cheap compared to the typical cost of $5000-$10,000 per kw for photovoltaic power systems. Much like the fuel cells, many of these systems will operate in a cogeneration mode offering both power and hot water. A Parallon 75 can -and has- run an entire McDonalds restaurant so though they aren't currently marketed for home power systems, they're perfectly well suited to it and highly competitive to solar power at these prices. A good source of product information on current microturbines can be seen Here.

Capstone and Parallon microturbines

The reliance on natural gas is a limitation, though. A safer and environmentally cleaner option would be to use hydrogen directly from one of a couple of hydrogen packaging mediums, making the systems safe to use even indoors. The stationary fuel cells commonly don't even run on natural gas even though they are 'fueled' by it. They use a sub-system called a reformer to convert the natural gas into hydrogen. Both these current fuel cell systems and the microturbines can readily run on hydrogen with little to no modification. Once again, though, the conventions about hydrogen use common to the energy industry are misleading. It is generally assumed that one requires some complicated technology to make, store, and distribute hydrogen and this, along with its imagined 'hazard', is commonly used to rationalize the imagined impracticality of hydrogen use. This is nothing but propaganda. In reality, some very practical and extremely safe means of packaging hydrogen, at energy densities far higher than that of methanol, have been around for quite a while. One of the better known forms of this is the encapsulated hydride 'PowerBall' developed and marketed by PowerBall Industries.

Research in the use of hydrides as a fuel goes back to the 19th century but some spectacular lab explosions resulted in a loss of interest in this application until, again, the inspiration of the 1970s Energy Crisis compelled engineers to give it another look. Solid dry hydrides, which are easily synthesized from liquid hydroxides (the most common being ordinary lye -sodium hydroxide), have tremendous energy density. Some contain 12 times more hydrogen by weight than methanol -racing fuel. And they are perpetually recyclable, the hydride releasing hydrogen in reaction with water and producing a weak hydroxide solution as a by-product. The problem has been that their extreme volatility has made them dangerous to handle in any large quantity. Any exposure to moisture could produce a runaway reaction producing a plume of flammable hydrogen gas.

PowerBall Industries solved this problem simply by fabricating hydride as small pellets encapsulated in plastic such as perpetually recyclable polyethylene. By using a mechanical cutter inside a special water-filler storage tank, one can generate a safe metered amount of hydrogen gas on demand without any danger of a run-away reaction. In this form the hydride becomes far safer than ordinary gasoline of natural gas -even safer than firewood! And it's completely non-toxic. One could readily ship this 'fuel' by UPS and sell it in a supermarket. Hope energy service based on this would be essentially the same as rural natural gas service, a subscriber being supplied with a fuel tank which is replaced by a delivery truck periodically and returned to a plant for recycling. Though currently in very limited production, PowerBall Industries is ready to supply both PowerBalls and power generation systems to anyone who wants them -though unfortunately they don't yet have their act together enough to offer specific system and service packages. Like many alternative energy companies, they tend to suffer from a lack of coherence, historical knowledge, and market savvy. There's a strong tendency among these companies to be seduced into the pointless jousting at the windmills of Detroit when there are plenty of more open markets to exploit.

Similar to PowerBalls but in some ways more convenient is a chemical solution known as liquid borohydride. Borohydrides differ from typical hydrides in that they have a liquid form and their reaction with water is limited by the need for a metal catalyst. Unless this catalyst is present, they won't react and thus it is impossible for them to suffer a runaway reaction. One can thus produce a metered amount of hydrogen simply by controlling the flow of the solution into a catalytic cell. Again, the stuff is basically non-toxic and safer than firewood as it can only produce combustible gas in the presence of this catalyst. It's not very different from the way PowerBalls work except that it's more solid state and the 'fuel' is in a more conveniently handled and recycled liquid form. The leading developer of this technology is a company called Millennium Cell. A detailed description of its chemistry can be found in .PDF file form here. Millennium Cell seems to be more focussed on marketing the 'technology' of borohydrides rather than actually getting off their buttocks and developing a product -another tragic error many alterantive energy companies make. And, like their counterpart PowerBall Industries, they demonstrate that unfortunate obsession with the automobile as the proving ground for their technology. unlike PowerBall industries, it does not appear that they are ready to actually supply any user with working hardware. But this is a fast moving field and that could be forthcoming in the near future. Considering how much safer these alternative fuels are compared to gasoline, it's a wonder most people don't feel about as safe in their cars and homes as they would if their trunks and closets were packed full of fireworks.

A very interesting and newly introduced independent power option is the biopower system such as the BioMax generator developed by Community Power Corp. A biopower system uses a gasifier plant to convert organic waste into fuel for a small generator. Developed with the intent of providing power for communities in the Third World using agricultural waste, the systems are being made available for all independent power applications and can be run on just about any source of waste cellulose. Similar in nature to the microturbines but with the addition of a shedder unit for grinding up organic waste and a gassifier unit to convert it into fuel, the systems also offer cogeneration capability and even a mechanical power output option to directly drive machinery. The output capacity is currently in the area of 15kw but both larger and smaller output systems are under development. There is the interesting possibility of integrating the use of this system with such things as Living Machine waste processing whose plants would be able to produce a steady supply of free fuel for this generator.

BioMax generator

At present the two remote power options that seem to have the most immediate potential for the non-toxic home are solar power with supplemental wind turbine using gel cell batteries or microturbines running on natural gas. A used microturbine definitely offers a cost advantage, particularly with a large power demand, but they will produce more pollution -albeit miniscule compared to any other kind of combustion system. The other options are currently feasible but much trickier for most people to implement themselves.

Conserving Power

With independent power costs high for the remote non-toxic home, it becomes critical to try and conserve power. But how can one do this in a home which cannot, by definition, employ combustion energy in or near it and thus must be essentially all-electric? Luckily there are some options which just happen to offer other health benefits as well.

The preferred forms of heating for the non-toxic home are passive solar heating -where practical- or radiant floor hydronic heating. This is because these technologies eliminate the systems of ductwork which accumulate indoor air pollutants. They are typically employed together in the case of the solar-designed home. This so happens to be a very energy efficient choice as well. Using a system of tubing installed within a concrete floor slab or within a raised floor system, this technology offers high energy efficiency with superior comfort. Why it isn't ubiquitous is a mystery, considering that this form of heating has been commonly available since the turn of the last century. Typically powered by conventional water heaters, radient floor heating can also be driven by compact tankless water heaters of the same type commonly employed in newer high-efficiency homes and buildings. They can also be driven by solar power using various types of collector panels, where passive solar heating isn't practical. And they can make ready use of the co-generation capability of some home fuel cell and microturbine generators.

Compact tankless water heaters, which provide hot water at or near the actual tap, offer much improved energy efficiency over conventional water heaters, both electric and fuel powered. This is because they not only have high energy efficiency in and of themselves, they eliminate losses of energy from heat radiated away by hot water supply lines. But they also offer some other key cost benefits. Because they eliminate the need for hot water supply lines from a centralized hot water source, they greatly reduce the cost and maintenance of plumbing systems and reduce the potential leaching of chemicals from cheaper and easier to install plastic pipes, since they're all carrying cold water.

There is also a technology similar to radiant hydronic heating available for air conditioning as well; the 'mini-split' or 'ductless' air conditioning system. Commonly used in most of the rest of the world but still rather rare in the US (are we noticing a certain trend here yet?), these systems work essentially the same as radiant hydronic heating does except that instead of radiant tubing arrays in the floor or baseboards, this uses a tubing array in an 'AC register' unit equipped with a small fan. These registers, which can be located in different rooms, are connected by fluid lines to a central heat pump system located outside on a wall or small base similar to conventional centralized AC heat pumps. The mini-split type are akin to conventional permanent window or through-wall air conditioner in scale, a single cooling register matched to a heat pump unit on the outside. This technology offers higher efficiency than usual air conditioners for the same reasons hydronic heating is more efficient. This is also the preferred form of air conditioning for the non-toxic home for the same reason hydronic heating is preferred; because these registers eliminate the systems of ducts which accumulate indoor air pollutants. They are also potentially easier to integrate into active solar powered air conditioning systems, though these still tend to be rather elaborate.

typical mini-split AC and mini-split system diagram

Lighting is another major consumer of power in the home but does today offer some of the widest variety of energy-saving alternatives, such as the now endless assortment of compact fluorescent lamps. But there is one very interesting option that offers not only much higher energy efficiency but also much less electrical wiring leading to a safer home, much reduced electrical contractor work, drastically reduced maintenance/replacement cost, a much healthier light spectrum, and compelling architectural flexibility; fiber optic lighting. This kind of lighting system replaces the numerous electric lighting fixtures of a home with a network of optical light 'emitters' connected by fiber optic cable to one or several light pump units located in a utility cabinet. Containing a large high intensity lamp, the light pump unit provides all the light energy for all the emitters plugged into it, the emitters being switched on and off individually or as groups with optical wall switches. The light pump may be left on continuously when the home is occupied but despite that the bulbs offer life spans in excess of a decade and the systems offer a potential 40% savings in net energy consumption compared to conventional lighting. In addition, they eliminate a large amount of electrical wiring associated with fixed in-wall or in-ceiling lighting, eliminating the fire hazard associated with that wiring and the licensed electrical contractor labor often needed to install it. There is no possibility of the DIYer making a dangerous mistake in the installation of these light emitter units. Eliminating the live wiring and the bulb replacements also affords great flexibility. It's easy to install durable lighting in walkways and outdoor areas or in wet areas like pools and showers. For some kinds of structures, like free-form ferro-cement buildings, it makes installing area lighting systems easy without concern about later accessibility. There will never be an issue with bulb replacements in hard-to-reach areas. These systems are definitely more expensive up-front than the conventional technology but definitely save in the long run. Currently, the most well known supplier of this type of lighting system in the US is Remote Source Lighting International.

A related technology which may potentially be integrated with fiber optic lighting is the Himawari light collector. Developed in Japan (the name is Japanese for 'sunflower') the Himawari collects and concentrates sunlight for delivery to indoor light emitters connected to fiber optic cables. This system was designed to allow office and apartment building to provide natural healthy sunlight deep in their interiors, allowing for the creation of indoor gardens and windowless 'sunrooms' or simply to provide healthier indoor lighting, at least during the daytime. Integration with other fiber optic lighting systems would require the use of selective in-line fiber cable optical integrators which are not commonly available from fiber optic lighting system makers but not that unusual in the general optics components industry. Such integration would allow further savings in energy by letting sunlight drive indoor light fixtures during the day. But the Himawari units are expensive and may be more practical dedicated to specific jobs, like indoor garden lighting, or their own area lighting emitters in special locations. The Himawari is made by the Laforet Engineering Co. and comes is a large variety of models sized from small static units designed for an apartment balcony to large auto-tracking building scale collectors.

Himawari light collector by Laforet

The next large energy consumer in the home is refrigeration and until recently there have been few options for reducing the power demand of the home refrigerator beyond resorting to a propane powered unit. Recently, though, some alternative cooling technologies and new systems designs have offered some significant improvements in energy efficiency. Two of the best known super-efficient refrigerators is the ECO-Fridge or ConServ line from Vestfrost in Germany and the Sun Frost line. Commonly available worldwide from home power products dealers, this are some of the only electric refrigerator advocated for use with home solar power systems. Also recently introduced are a variety of new under-cabinet or in-cabinet drawer refrigerators which separate temperature zones into individual drawers which each use their own compact cooler unit and a much higher level of insulation than in typical refrigerators. These purportedly offer much superior energy efficiency as well as much greater convenience and flexibility. They may be particularly well suited to many of the forms of alternative construction we've explored in articles on this site.

Heating and Cooling

As noted above, hydronic radiant floor heating and the related ductless air conditioning are the preferred heating and cooling technology for the non-toxic home -assuming passive solar design is not sufficient or practical alone. But sometimes these are not easy to implement in all kinds of housing. Hydronic heating is more limited in this respect than the ductless A/C because of its reliance on a large area tubing grid which is commonly cast in place in a concrete slab floor. Are there other Alternatives with the same benefits and less elaborate installation? There are a number of modular radiant floor heating products based on the used of special frame-like tiles which interlock into a sub-floor providing channels for radiant heat tubing. This makes installation of this into pre-existing floor systems snap-together simple. But it also means introducing a lot of plastic into the home which is less than ideal for the non-toxic home.

A simple alternative to the built-in radiant heating is baseboard heating registers. These are quite commonplace, though until recently they were more commonly found in commercial and institutional buildings. Their chief drawabck is their tendency to accumulate dust and their need for free circulation of air -which can be problematic in homes where people typically locate the majority of their furniture along walls. In Europe, where hydronic heating has been ubiquitous for some decades, there is a vast assortment of fin and panel type radiant heat registers. These typically take the form of a kind of pressed porcelain coated metal panel with formed-in channels through which the radiant heat fluid cycles. They are basically modern equivalents of the steam radiators of old. These are usually located along walls in ways similar to the old steam radiators but they are very thin, light, easy to install with quick-connect systems, and less obtrusive. In bathrooms they often double as towel warmers, taking the form of a ladder-like frame.

hydronic radiant heating panel

Where installing a hydronic heating system is completely impractical, another alternative is the solid ceramic radiant electric heater. These are extremely popular with dealers of goods for non-toxic housing adaptations/rennovations. Similar to the European style hydronic radiant panels, they are solid ceramic panels containing resistive electric heating elements. These are much superior to other kinds of electric space heaters which tend to have exposed heating elements that accumulate and fry dust or, as in the case of oil filled units, are painted metal which off-gasses with their heat. But resistive electric heating is not exactly the most efficient form of heating -especially if one relies on solar electric power. So such things tend to be more practical in a very small home.

Solar thermal systems offer an alternative to electric or gas powered water heaters for driving hydronic heating systems and are easily integrated with the other kinds of water heaters so that they can compensate when solar heat is poor. These systems basically afford one the option to exploit solar energy when passive solar design for the home itself is not practical. Many decades of slow development of these systems has so far resulted in some convenient modular products with high thermal performance even in only moderate insolation conditions. But they still tend to be a bit complex, fragile, and some products suffer from wear by UV exposure due to their plastic components. Still, they are well worth considering.

Related to the solar thermal technology are geothermal systems which consist of hydronic tubing arrays buried underground so as exploit the earth as thermal mass. This is used to moderate temperatures inside a home and are integrated into home hydronic systems much like solar thermal panels are. They tend to be expensive to install because of the extensive excavation work required but their potential savings in long term home energy overhead is very great. This is better suited for room heating purposes than tap water heating because it operates over a relatively low temperature range. It also works as a means of cooling, exploiting the thermal mass as a heat sink during warm weather. This technology is quite old, going back well into the 19th century, but was primarily based on the use of air duct pipes which have ultimately proven unhealthy due to their ability to accumulate condensation, dust, and mold. Modern systems are always based on hydronic tubing and fluid heat exchanger units.

In theory solar thermal systems, or 'solar dynamic' systems as they are often called, are much more efficient than photovoltaics as a way of collecting and using solar energy. And for large scale facilities, which can use thermal energy for mass environmental heating, industrial processes, or to drive turbines to produce electric power, it has definite cost advantages. But at the residential scale it still tends to be limited to applications like water heating. In the near future solar thermal systems may be able to compete with photovolatics for home power use through the use of systems known as liquid armature dynamos. These are simple generators that use ferro-fluids as an alternative to a mechanical rotating armature and any source of heat that can induce flow in the fluid can generate electric power. A big potential advantage of this technology would be that thermal mass storage systems would allow these generators to continue running even at night. They might even exploit geothermal energy.


Most EI patients are quite familiar with the problem of getting clean water in an age when municipal water companies are just as stuck on the 'better living through chemistry' kick as building products manufacturers. Most rely on bottled water for drinking and cooking and some find it necessary to use elaborating filtering or distillation systems to make 'public' water safe even for bathing. This can be costly, though, when one makes the move to a remote location. Whole house supply water distillers are expensive to buy and operate considering how much electric power they consume. Reverse osmosis and other filtering systems consume much less power but have very high filter replacement costs. And, of course, water mains simply aren't available in many remote locations.

A well is the usual solution but costs vary wildly across the country and wells cannot be used in some places. It is quite common today for people in rural areas to use water shipped in by a water supply service or collected from a shared community well. This is not as inconvenient as it sounds and, ironically, the water quality is often superior to that of municipal water mains. But this approach requires equipping a home with a cistern tank and there is a concern with the type of materials these use. The most convenient have been the polyethylene tanks which can be buried or left above aground. Some rural residents use nothing more elaborate than the 55 gallon PE tanks common to industrial use. But recent refomulations of this plastic by the industry has led to the discovery, by various biology and chemistry labs, of this plastic leaching synthetic estrogen-like compounds such as Bisphenol. (and, of course, the industry refuses to address this discovery siting 'trade secrets') Similar discoveries have been made with a host of plastics previously believed to be free of such things. Aside from lab practices having to be changed to avoid contamination issues from this, organic farmers now take precautions about condensation run-off from plastic greenhouse glazing materials. This may make the more expensive metal and ferro-cement cistern tanks a safer option. One of the more recent innovations in this area has been the introduction of glass-fused steel potable water tanks. These tanks feature tough steel construction to which a layer of glass is fused. Completely free of other coatings and needing no adhesives to bond the glass, these are ideal non-toxic water storage and their appearance may have been compelled by this emerging problem with plastic containers. But at present these seem to be limited to large scale tanks used for communities, food industry, and the like. Information on these and other water storage tanks and filtering/treating systems can be seen at Watertanks.com. This is a popular source of information for the off-grid living community.

Most cistern users will use chlorine for bacteria suppression but this is ill-advised for the EI user unless some other filtering systems are also employed. A better option is to use ozone injection systems, often found in larger cisterns for island dwellers where roof run-off is collected.

Speaking of which, roof run-off collection is commonly used in a few communities of the US and in many island areas. But it generally isn't too useful in many of the areas preferred by EIs; desert climate zones. And often roof run-off water is just too contaminated to be used unless well processed. Still, the approach has great potential as a means of reducing the use of potable water for things like gardening. Graywater recycling helps in this respect as well.

Some people pick locations to move to based on the availability of especially clean water sources. For instance, it is generally accepted that parts of New Mexico offer the highest quality water anywhere in the US, by virtue of the fact that municipal and private wells tap an aquifer far deeper and cleaner than any others in the country.

When one must rely on water brought in by truck and stored, conservation becomes a very practical issue. This can impact our other choices in appliances and waste handling systems. We will discuss the role of waste processing systems shortly but for the moment let's consider other household appliances. One of the biggest water consumers in the home aside from the toilet is the washing machine. Until recently there were few options for lowering water demand for these -or for that matter their power consumption- but a number of new products have appeared offering drastically reduced water and energy consumption. One of the best known is the Staber line of washing machines. These are very popular with off-grid home owners. Another is the Equator line of combination washer/dryer units. These units combine both washer and dryer functions in a single unit offering both reduced water consumption and energy overhead.

Another potentially heavy household water consumer is the common bath and shower. This particular area of water use has been of considerable concern in some parts of the world and interesting approaches to reduce water use from this have developed. In Japan, where bathing is a very important aspect of the culture, common bath products offer solutions well worth emulating elsewhere. The 'conventional' Japanese bathtub, or 'ofuro', is quite different from those sold in the US and Europe. It's a sit-down bath designed for soaking and where water levels come up to the neck. Classic styles are made of wood but this is quite expensive. More contemporary types are acrylic or fiberglass. Not only does this type of bath use less water -at least in those units designed for a single occupant- but the baths are designed to recycle their water for a long period, using a special filtering system which keeps the water clean. And it helps that the level of comfort and ease of entry and exit with such tubs is quite superior to the common western types. The therapeutic benefits from this kind of bathing are well known and would be especially welcome for the many EI sufferers who also contend with fibromyalgia.

Though rare, the acrylic and fiberglass Japanese baths do periodically appear on the US market -chiefly to satisfy demand from Japanese business immigrants reluctant to abandon their obviously more comfortable and healthy way of doing things. A couple of small companies have also begun selling domestically made tubs following the Japanese designs but at the moment they tend to be limited to built-in installations as opposed to the more usual Japanese free-standing models and lack the filtering systems the Japanese units have. Takagi USA, a company dealing primarily in tankless water heater units, has featured the Japanese made baths periodically on their web site. One of the few domestic made sources is American Reinforced Plastics who sells built-in cylindrical types. Many US makers of wooden hot tubs also make classic ofuda style tubs. These are typically very expensive but offer unique comfort from their wood construction.

classic and conventional Japanese 'ofuro' baths

Gardening and landscaping is another area prone to water waste. EIs generally prefer locations where there is no manicured landscaping because tending after it is simply out of the question and it often presents a source of nuisance allergens. Where it must be employed, xeriscaping is preferable as a way both reduce allergens, maintenance need, and water consumption. Hydroponics and aquaponics offers another way to engage in gardening, both for pleasure and productive use, with a reduced water consumption overhead and is particularly useful as a means of waste processing in Living Machine systems, which will be discussed in further detail shortly.

Waste Processing

One of the largest expenses faced in the construction of a home is the construction of septic systems used where there is no municipal sewer system available to connect to. For the small home this often doesn't need to be as elaborate as is often assumed. In his book Travel-Trailer Homesteading Under $5000 author Brian Kelling recommends a simple home-made system based on a pair of 55 gallon PE drums and simple plastic plumbing. Such a system is purportedly quite adequate for the single occupancy home. Similar systems with larger tanks suited to more typical household sizes are commonly available and one well known on-line source for such components can be found at Tank Depot. But even this may be difficult for many individuals to install by themselves, the cost of hired labor for the job is high, and many areas simply cannot use this simple kind of technology because of the local soil conditions. What alternatives can one use?

One of the most popular alternatives to the traditional septic system is the 'clivus multrum' composting toilet. This technology basically accelerates the natural decomposition processes of the septic tank such that it can be performed within the toilet itself or within a nearby holding tank. Not only do these systems offer an alternative to septic systems, they output useful fertilizer for, at least, general landscape use and drastically reduce the water consumption compared to the typical toilet. Offered by a great variety of companies, these systems vary greatly in design and elaborateness and they do work very well. But they require a significant amount of maintenance and some systems have strict limits on their manner of installation. They also cannot deal with the large volume of graywater produced by even the small single-occupant home.

Sunmar composting toilet

A more recent innovation is the Incinolet, popular in marine applications and featuring in the SeaRoom floating housing units offered by US Submarines Inc. The Incinolet is an incinerating toilet which uses electric power to quickly incinerate waste to a very small volume of sterile odorless ash that can be readily disposed of in a compost heap or normal trash. Though obviously more expensive than the typical toilet, it is competitive in cost with composting toilets and has one extremely powerful virtue; it eliminates all plumbing associated with the usual toilet except for a small vent and all water use normally associated with a toilet. This allows the unit to be freely placed anywhere within the home with little work and eliminates the concern about soil conditions or the like when considering the location of a home. Power consumption is not extreme but it is power dependent and that would have to taken into a account in any companion off-grid power system. It does not offer a solution to graywater disposal.

Another alternative is the use of Living Machine waste processing systems. Purportedly originating with the pioneering NASA supported work of Dr. B.C. Wolverton, the technology simply exploits the power of natural plants to effectively process waste water through what is essentially a kind of artificial marsh. Suited to both residential and municipal scale systems and, surprisingly, functional in almost all climate zones, Living Machines can completely dispose of both black and graywater waste, though their performance tends to be relative to scale. Most systems at the residential scale tend to be limited to graywater processing, partly because of a lack of usable space. Wolverton's own work is described in the book Growing Clean Water but today a large community of researchers work on this technology and a variety of modular raised bed culture systems are offered for it. A good on-line source of information on this technology can be found at Graywater Information Central. Wolverton's work on this technology went far beyond the black and graywater processing to also include air purficiation and his book Growing Clean Air offers a good run-down of the techniques and the large assortment of plants well suited to this. But the appropriateness of plants as air purifiers within the EI's home is relative to sensitivities to mold which, of course, naturally accompany any plant life as part of the natural rhizosphere associated with plant roots. Wolverton's own research suggests that there is a minimal issue with this, particularly where one employs hydroponics and aquaponics. But it is also generally accepted by non-toxic housing authors that -alas- house plants are one of the things one must minimize or eliminate inside the non-toxic home.

These simple Living Machine systems may not always be suited to full waste processing for the average home. But at the very least they can be easily implemented as a graywater processing compliment to any of these other alternative systems.

Trash removal is an important issue for those living in rural areas. Recycling is often non-existent in rural areas and the creation of home trash pits or the use of trash burning is increasingly prohibited -and inadvisable in any case. Many rural residents face paying for trash removal and for those on a fixed income this makes minimizing trash production or alternative disposal becomes a very practical goal. An obvious solution for reducing trash volume is the use of composting systems, which are varied, numerous, and easily home-made. This is primarily suited to the disposal of organic wastes such as food wastes. How about other options?

In the future technologies such as supercritical water oxidation may find its way to compact systems suitable for household trash and sewerage disposal. Developed originally for the disposal of extremely difficult toxic materials, it has already been demonstrated suitable for what is effectively fire-less incineration of general household garbage. But at present these machines remain huge, costly, and high-energy. Nanotechnology also offers the prospect of total waste recycling within the home. But in the here and now our options are rather limited. Composting is potentially suited to disposing of many kinds of cardboard and paper but this must be taken on a case-by-case basis and, quite often, the volume of such waste can easily overwhelm the average home composting system. Thus the best strategy is one of minimizing waste at the source, reducing the volume of trash by choosing products according to their volume of waste or use of easily recycled or even reusable packaging. This is a daunting task and the consumer culture, with its obsession with elaborate packaging, does not work in our favor. (if anyone can give me a truly rational reason why international shipping containers can be standardized yet food products don't come in a standardized set of glass containers I'd like to hear it) But with some diligence and some minor concessions in lifestyle one can effectively reduce trash volumes dramatically.


This is not something commonly regarded as part of the utilities infrastructure of the home but in my opinion it is important as the nature of household technology shifts toward increasing levels of independence from municipal infrastructures. With the advent of independent home electric power, little by little, people are beginning to look at the home as a sort of potentially autonomous power plant for domestic activity in general. If my home can power all my appliances in and around it, why then not my automobile as well? Transportation options are also very significant to the EI patient for whom the conventional automobile is one of the chief culprits in causing their disability and contributing to poor quality of life. And with fixed incomes to rely on, the idea that the spare output of home power systems might be somehow put to use for transportation is a compelling thought.

Many EI patients commonly rely on conventional automobiles whose interiors are adapted, in minor or radical ways, to be less toxic. But ideally the automobile's propulsion and its pollution output should also be considered. But alternative propulsion options become limited by range limitations and in a rural setting it is difficult to make use of such options because ranges between routine destinations are so very great.

The most obvious alternative vehicle choice in this context is the classic electric car which, contrary to popular belief, has been around for just as long as its combustion engine counterpart and, early on, was generally considered the superior technology. But the electric car has long had difficulty overcoming its limitation on range imposed by the poor capacity of conventional batteries. This may soon change thanks to the advent of supercapacitor batteries, redox solutions, and various forms of hydrogen packaging. But for the moment the typical electric vehicle is limited to about a 100 mile range between charges, and often exorbitant pricing as well.

But where this range limit is tolerable for daily activity -and if people were really honest about their transportation use more of them would see this as tolerable- the electric car offers a single powerful capability; free transportation from the possible surplus of home power. On a good solar insolation day the typical home power system is fully charged fairly fast. That leaves a fair amount of time when the output of the system is being wasted. Likewise, home microturbine generator systems run continuously. What about that power the household isn't using? Why not put that into a car? Is that such a far-fetched idea? In the near future things like redox battery systems and home hydrolizer systems will not only allow the home to store daily excess power but even to stockpile it for indefinite periods and in unlimited volumes. People will be able to do things like stockpile the excess solar energy of the Summer for use in the Winter or save up energy to put into a car for a long trip, as opposed to just local travel. But we don't have to wait for that. Just being able to plug a humbler, simpler, electric car into the home power system when the main batteries are peaked could prove fully practical for the small occupancy home power system. The average EI patient is not a daily commuter or frequent traveler. They keep off the road, with its filthy combustion powered vehicles, as much as possible. So for these folks this could be very practical option. Indeed, considering typical EI travel patterns, a compact wind turbine clamped to a carport roof might by itself be sufficient to keep the modest vehicle ready to go.

There are also some interesting new alternatives to electric cars that essentially function the same way but offer considerable savings -at least when bought new. One product that has intrigued me greatly is the Air Car offered by Moteur Developpment International in France. Originally called the CityCAT and introduced in France as a zero-pollution urban taxi, the Air Car is powered by compressed air and features a sophisticated air driven engine designed by race car engineer Guy Negre and a body designed by world-renowned Bugatti Design. Not bad for a vehicle whose largest and most expensive model tops out at $15,000. The Air Car is offered in a variety of configurations for family and commercial use. There's even a pickup truck. It features a range of 300km or 120 miles and is 'recharged' in essentially the same way an electric car is charged, though using a built-in air compressor unit. Charging times are about 4 hours with the built-in compressor but only 30 seconds with a high pressure stationary system that MDI developed for urban recharging stations. (alas, its $100k price makes this super-quick charger a bit too costly for the home owner) Aside from its basic economy compared to most electric cars, the Air Car offers the additional advantage of never needing to replace expensive sets of batteries every 5 years. And it's aluminum chassis and fiberglass shell body and interior, while not completely non-toxic, offers much less potential for outgassing than conventional foam and vinyl car interiors and is quite corrosion-proof. The fact that the basic model is also a mini-van makes its even more attractive.

For those lucky enough to be fairly close to their sources of day-to-day services and supplies the options for alternative transport expand even further. Many eco-enthusiasts advocate the use of bicycles as the ultimate pollution-free eco-friendly transportation. But for the EI patient this is not always a practical option due to chronic fatigue. Luckily, the technology of the humble bicycle has steadily progressed thanks to the efforts of countless eco-tech tinkerers and, as demonstrated by the recently introduced Segway vehicle we are seeing a transition of the technology of the bicycle into a new class of ultra-light variously powered vehicles which offer increasingly automobile-like convenience and performance. One promising vehicle which a reader to this site directed me to is the Rhoades Car. Originally designed as a pedal-powered vehicle, the Rhoads Car offers an electric powered model that in many ways is reminiscent of an early 20th Century automobile called the Red Bug. Essentially, it's a four-wheel bicycle that you drive like a car and which is designed to handle the full range of on and off road conditions -within the obvious limits of its size. Available in 1,2, and 4 seat models, and offering a variety of options, the vehicle is quite the utility machine and would be well suited to the task of light general transportation, at least within a small operating range. It offers speeds up to 18mph and up to 60 miles range. That's pretty respectable for a machine of this simplicity. Obviously, it's not going to be suited to harsh weather conditions. Many vehicles similar to this are emerging. A good web site for information on many of them can be found at electric-bikes.com and workbike.org.

Range limits are still be a big problem, especially for people forced to live in rural regions. Though they preclude the option to exploit home power, recently introduced 'hybrid' automobiles such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius do offer a powerful combination of reduced pollution and reduced operating cost. But their newness on the market and reliance on conventional interior finishings is a bit of a problem for the EI patient, who tends to prefer used automobiles because their polymer-laden interiors have had much more time to outgas. Still, this is an attractive option that can only get more so with time.

Hybrid automobiles are by no means as new as most people think. In fact, quite a few of these vehicles, some with very intriguing designs, were introduced in the 1970s. Alas, most failed for lack of any serious attempt at marketing by the forever tradition-bound and vested-interest-stifled automobile industry. This was never a particularly high-tech thing -after all, hybrid powered locomotives and heavy construction equipment have been around for a better part of the 20th century. So it has always been just a matter of time before someone woke up and realized their virtues.

An interesting fact that few people seem to be aware of is that many electric cars will also work well as a kind of hybrid vehicle simply by towing a small generator on a trailer behind them. Dubbed EV Pushers, a few electric cars have been specifically designed for this, offering the generator units as an option and even featuring some as plug-in components. But even without such special design, simple off-the-shelf utility generators or adapted small auto engines have proven quite effective. This is often employed to allow occasional long range travel by these vehicles, particularly for electric auto rallies. There are even some 'mountain climb' elevtric auto rallies based on using these. This approach would allow one the flexibility of relying on home power in a local area and gasoline for rarer long range trips. Another advantage is that used electric vehicles -or used autos adapted into electric vehicles- are more plentiful than used hybrids, potentially cheaper, and well outgased. One of the more novel demonstrations of this idea can be seen here and features the front-end of a diesel powered VW Rabbit converted into a trailer for another electric adapted Rabbit. It must turn many heads! Another such project can be seen here. Curiously, no one seems to have produced a turnkey EV Pusher marketed to the general comunity of electric car owners. This would seem a logical answer to the single most common argument against the electric car today, yet so far no entrepreneurs have exploited it. Perhaps there is an expectation of the new hybrid cars making them redundant, even though these new cars have no option to run exclusively electric.

Copyright 2005 © Eric Hunting.