During the long, frigid winters of Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, the sun makes a frail arc low in the sky for only about seven hours – hardly ideal for a solar-powered house in the woods. But when Bob and Cynthia Pryor decided to build a home here in 1993, the local utility company told them there was "no way," in Cynthia's words, they'd extend a line to the cabin off a tiny dirt road. The only option was to go off the grid with solar or wind power.
Bob, now construction manager at the exclusive Huron Mountain Club nearby, had helped design and build a solar-powered home in southwest Michigan in the 1980s. So he had the experience to do it; but whether it would work on the dark shores of Lake Superior was another question.
"If you can do solar here, you can do solar anywhere," says Cynthia. And the Pryors, like intrepid sustainability do-it-yourselfers around the globe, have made it work.
Bob installed solar panels atop a 16-foot wooden tower behind the spacious knotty pine cabin he'd built amid jack pines and mossy knolls dotted with lady-slipper blossoms. The sun was penetrating the woods enough at that height that they could capture light to store in 12-volt batteries that power their cellphones, lights, computer, and small appliances. They've added a few panels over the years, now totaling about 450 watts.
On the rare occasions they use power tools or a vacuum, they use a gas generator. For about five years they also had a 60-foot-tall wind turbine, but eventually took it down when jack pines grew tall enough to block the wind.
They also use a simple, centuries-old technology to pump water to the cabin from a nearby spring. The downhill water flow is funneled into a PVC pipe, where the pressure is harnessed to compress air, which then provides momentum to push the water back uphill about 100 feet to the home.
The cabin, with a spacious loft bedroom, is heated partially by a wood stove and also passive solar – the warmth of the sun shining through full-length, south-facing windows is absorbed and slowly released by a thick concrete wall on the cabin's north side. The wood stove also heats water, and wood is burned in the bathroom's sauna, fronted by curtainless full-length south-facing windows since warmth and the view trump modesty in their book.