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Rockin’ in the Grid-Free World
By Tom Nattell

In Dave Smalley’s and Sarah Johnston’s new solar home, life is simple—and their energy needs are not at the mercy of Niagara Mohawk

‘This weekend, while the power is out in various areas around here, it’s on here,” says Dave Smalley, a smile rising from the 57-year-old’s full salt-and-pepper beard. “That’s been true three or four times this winter,” he adds. Smalley has plenty to smile about. He has built a solar home that is not connected to the electrical grid.

“We moved in just before Thanksgiving,” notes Smalley, “just before the first of the many blizzards hit. Everything was literally covered with snow immediately, as soon as we came in.” During the most recent ice storm, thousands of area homes lost power as heavily weighted-down trees broke, slashing the grid of electricity lines, crisscrossing the countryside into powerless shreds. While an overwhelmed army of Niagara Mohawk trucks were attempting to reattach complaining consumers, the heat and lights stayed on over at Smalley’s house. He would not have lost power even if the entire national electrical grid had collapsed.

In an open field where corn and hay once were harvested, Smalley’s 28-by-48-foot house faces south with seven large double-paned argon-filled windows surrounded by locally milled pine siding. A clerestory of smaller windows separates two sloping green metal roofs and lets additional light into the structure. East of the building are two metal “masts”; one holds an array of photovoltaic cells, and the other a set of solar hot-water collectors. The house is the abode of Smalley, Sarah Johnston and Spike, a mild-mannered shih tzu.

Inside the house, with its bright white walls, is a large open room that functions as a living room/dining room with a wood stove, boxes of books awaiting shelving, and sunlight passing unobstructed through large windows. Around the corner from this large room is a kitchen equipped with a 1931 Kalamazoo Peerless stove that cooks with propane or wood, and a Sunfrost refrigerator that is highly energy efficient and runs on direct current. The refrigerator sits atop two large drawers used for recycling. Through the kitchen’s back door is a mud room and main entrance where a freezer is kept and a root cellar is under construction.

Leif Zurmuhlen

The house has one bathroom that includes a low-flow toilet and a wooden “bucket toilet” Johnston built that is used for collecting humanure, which is composted separate from their kitchen compost and used only for fertilizing trees. The bathroom also includes a shower and a top-loading, low-water-using Staber washing machine. Next to the bathroom is a utility room that holds the electrical, water and water-heating equipment that Smalley describes as “the brains” of the house. The home’s bedroom, with closet space calculated to keep down the accumulation of “stuff,” sits next to the utility room with a window that looks out to a collection of well-attended bird feeders and the outside solar equipment. The last room in this solar shelter is used by Johnston as the home office for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

The genesis of Smalley’s solar dream house clicks back more than 30 years. “I started thinking about this house in September 1969,” he remembers, “when I bought a farm house up in Knox that was old and cold and was oriented properly. Right then, I started reading about solar energy. So I started looking around for land that was a little more secluded . . . and I found this 50-acre parcel here.” The “here” is an open field south of the Mohawk River near the Montgomery County hamlet of Glen.

“At that time, there was no grid electricity on this road. The salesman, to his everlasting goodness, wanted to point out that there was no grid electricity, and I said that was all right—we’d run the house on

photovoltaics. Of course, I had little clue about what they were,” admits Smalley in retrospect. “I closed on the land in 1971 or ’72,” he recollects. It would be another 30 years before construction would begin. In the meantime, Smalley’s ideas about what he was looking for in shelter evolved, as environmental, ethical and philosophical concerns affected his overall approach to living on this planet. Now, he notes with some irony, “there is power on the road, but I don’t need it.”

“Each of us as individuals needs to understand the question—How much is enough?—and use that as a basis for establishing how you want to live a conscious life,” says Smalley as he holds up a worn copy of Mark Burch’s book Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet. Living more simply on this planet has been an ongoing quest for Smalley, who has also been influenced by the works of simplicity advocates like Scott and Helen Nearing and Duane Elgin. “How much is enough?” repeats Smalley. “That really puts a window around everything we do.” How he answers this question is clearly reflected in his shelter’s design.

The decision to begin construction of his sun-powered house got serious a few years back. Smalley, a retired state worker, and Johnston had been “caretaking a research reserve down in the Hudson Valley. When it became obvious that that was going to end, we looked around New York state . . . trying to find an alternative energy home,” explains Smalley. Not satisfied with the real-estate offerings available, they decided to check out the land he’d purchased back in the ’70s. “So, we rented the farmhouse up the street for three years and did our learning, with the intent of building a house on this land.”

When they decided it was time to move forward, they enlisted the services of Albany architect Keith Cramer, who, according to Smalley, “did the actual drawing and heat loading.” Once the design was settled on, finding contractors to do the work was the next hurdle. “We essentially did the contracting ourselves and hired the subcontractors.” After construction was partially completed, Johnston negotiated a mortgage deal with a local bank that didn’t bat an eye at their unconventional building. The house rose as a well-insulated structure that makes use of both active and passive solar-energy technologies.

Photovoltaic cells coupled with a set of batteries for energy storage form the central components of the home’s solar electric system. “We have eight 120-watt Astro Power panels, which we bought because they’re made in this country, [and] they’re not owned by an oil company,” says Smalley. He adjusts the angle of the array of panels seasonally to accommodate the changing angle of the sun’s track across the sky. The electricity generated by the cells is stored in a bank of 12 6-volt batteries in the utility room.

“All of our electricity comes into this battery bank [which has a storage capacity] that gives us over a week, maybe as much as two weeks of storage where we could go without the sun,” he explains. On the living room wall opposite the utility room, a meter enshrined behind a small wooden picture frame provides a digital display of the energy being generated by the panels and the amount of energy stored in the battery bank.

The electricity generated is direct current (DC), as opposed to alternating current (AC), which most electric appliances in this country use. A device known as an inverter converts DC to AC, which, according to Johnston, “only goes on when the freezer goes on, the fax machine goes on or the computer is on, or our radios.” Smalley and Johnston are in the process of converting their radios to DC, and Johnston already has converted a number of floor lamps and their phone answering machines to DC. A special device has been added to the fax, which turns it on only when a call comes in, reducing its demand for AC.

Currently, the house gets hot water from a propane-fueled hot-water heater, but Smalley plans to have his solar hot-water system on-line soon. He picked up the system as surplus from a school district that had removed it from one of its buildings. “When we get those hooked up,” he figures, “our domestic hot water will run for at least six months of the year from the sun.”

In addition to being free of the electrical grid, Smalley wanted a couple of other features built into his house. “One of the design criteria was R-30 insulation on six sides. The other basic design criteria was daylighting.” The well-insulated home makes extensive use of natural lighting. “We have a clerestory design, which is primarily for daylighting, and these windows on the rear wall allow daylighting to continue into the back rooms,” he said, pointing to windows high on the south walls of the back rooms. Coupled with the white paint on all interior walls, daytime lighting is provided throughout the house without a watt of energy expended.

The house is built on an insulated slab with a series of plastic tubes running through it that will eventually be hooked up so that hot water from the water-heating system can pass through it. “When we get the domestic hot-water collectors outside hooked up, hopefully a lot of our heat in the house as well as domestic hot water will come from the sun. “The floor also acts as a passive solar element, absorbing heat from the sun that passes through the large south-facing windows.

The cold and snow of this last winter put the solar house through a rigorous test that it seems to have passed easily. The main heat source used has been a modest airtight stove that consumed only about one and a half cords of wood thus far. Johnston, who is used to living in drafty farmhouses, noted that this was “the most comfortable winter we ever spent. . . . The comfort and ease of living in a house that’s really well-insulated is amazing.”

While staying warm was relatively easy, electrical use required a little more attention. Johnston gave an example: “For instance, after you have three to four cloudy days, you’re not going to do a load of wash—it makes more sense to do a load of wash when it’s sunny.”

Smalley and Johnston are still working at finishing off their solar home and adapting to life with off-the-grid alternative energy. With all that they have experienced building their house in the last year, Smalley muses that “if construction novices like us can come and live comfortably in a house like this, than anyone can.

“There’s a lot of stuff we still have to do,” he adds, “but we have the rest of our lives to do it.”

One thing they won’t be doing is paying any Niagara Mohawk bills.

Cycle Recycle
By Kate Sipher

Troy artist-activist Andrew Lynn rescues discarded bikes for public use

Andrew Lynn likes to produce “phenomena.” The artist—a graduate of RPI’s MFA program—does so by combining ample parts of art and activism. Lynn, who was the force behind the semi-legendary art/activist happening Whirl-Mart Ritual Resistance—an anti-shopping ritual that he began in Troy as part of his work at RPI—is now working on another phenomenon: Troy Bike Rescue. And though the program pragmatically seeks to recycle bikes and get them under the butts of those who may not be able to afford them or who may not think of cycling as a means of transportation, it is also an art project for Lynn. Sort of.

“It’s definitely linked to some weird drive that I have to make weird things happen,” Lynn says when discussing the impetus behind his creation of TBR, which took place two years back when he came to Troy to study at RPI. During Lynn’s morning commute he’d pass the Dumpster that contained many of Troy’s hefty discards—a large amount of which were bikes. Since Lynn rode a bike to work, he’d pull them out in the morning and come back in the evening with a car and cart them off. His first thoughts—quite simply, “there’s all these cool bikes in the Dumpster right here”—gave way to something else.

“Basically it’s kind of a participatory arts project, ’cause in some sense it’s my idea—I’m the driving force,” Lynn says. “But I’m trying to decentralize that as much as possible, which creates interesting conflicts.” The theme of decentralization, of taking the artist out of the picture, so to speak, is a common one in Lynn’s works. Whirl-Mart was his idea, but he gave it away to whoever wanted to take the ball and run with it, and there are now Web sites other than Lynn’s devoted to Whirl-Mart. “It’s kind of this thing that’s happening that other people are taking charge of,” he says.

Teri Currie

He sees TBR along those same lines. His initial response to pull unused bikes out of the trash and get them back into rotation—perhaps more gut reaction than an artist’s eye at that particular moment—created the organization. But he’s put his idea in the hands of many, and enjoys thinking about how the outcome can now vary. “When you get together with seven other people and ask them what they want to do with it, it gets interesting,” Lynn says. “Because people have totally different ideas of the potential of, like, 120 bikes and all these tool sets, and a van.” (The van he speaks of was just purchased, with the help of a New York State Council on the Arts grant, and will serve as a mobile repair unit.)

Last September, in the course of a day, Lynn and a host of other volunteers repaired and painted 15 bikes for public use. They considered it a sort of guerrilla statement more than an official public-works program. “Fifteen is this really small number when you look at other programs doing the same thing,” says Lynn. “I mean they’ll release like 200 bikes into the streets.” But the folks behind the deployment gathered together as a community, made decisions involving how to tackle the repairs and where to place the bikes—and had a party. “People brought food, and it was a nice day. It was cool,” Lynn recounts. The event of it all was of equal importance. “We weren’t trying to make a fully functional public-bike program. We were just sort of holding an event and doing an act.”

But out of this flows a good possibility of a public-bicycle program in Troy. Aside from the fact that Lynn sees the media as part of the project and utilizes it, he says, as an artistic space to create more happenings, the large amount of coverage TBR had a quantifiable effect: Last fall truckloads of bikes were donated for the program. The roughly 130 bikes in various states of disrepair are presently housed in a basement in Troy (the Bike Basement, as TBR calls it, in a house on 9th and Jacob streets), and there’s now a waiting list, due to space constraints, for people who want to donate bikes .

TBR’s project now is to figure out what to do with all these bikes—and what their ultimate goals should actually be. With so many bikes come so many decisions. “Basically it comes down to what is the main goal,” says Lynn. “And if the goal is simply getting bikes out, then we need to focus our efforts on fixing all the bikes. But our goal could also be to teach as many people as possible about bike repair so that they can fix their own bike.

“The goal could also be to educate people about bike safety,” Lynn continues. “And these are all ideas that people in the core group are expressing that are important things for a group like us to do—with this energy and this potential inertia.” Lynn also wants to get bikes to people who just plain don’t own them, and TBR will work on this aspect of the program at work meetings tonight (Thursday, April 17) and next Thursday (April 24), held at the Bike Basement at 6 PM. They invite people who want to own a bike to pick one out of the pile to fix up, with the help of TBR members, and folks can buy the bikes on a sliding scale—from free to around $50, depending on the bike and income bracket.

Lynn has created a phenomena with Troy Bike Rescue to be sure, one that sits well with his ideals: Organizing community service in the name of art.

Spring Greening
By the editors of Grist magazine

Check the labels and skip the chemicals for a spring sprucing that’s both clean and safe

Spring is here, and finally we can all throw open our windows and let the April breezes blow winter away. And it’s about time: Levels of pollutants in indoor air can be from two to more than 100 times higher than outdoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That indoor pollution is due in large part to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that evaporate, or “offgas,” from home decorating and cleaning products.So step one for spring cleaners is: Open a window and let those pollutants out! Yet even in this season, when a vase of daffodils can fill a room with a lovely natural scent, many consumers stubbornly keep using synthetic room fresheners and fragranced cleaning products that are full of VOCs and other toxic chemicals. These can make our indoor air unhealthy, provoke skin, eye, and respiratory reactions, and harm the natural environment.

Take those so-called air fresheners. According to a study published in New Scientist in 1999, in homes where aerosol sprays and air fresheners were used frequently, mothers experienced 25 percent more headaches and were 19 percent more likely to suffer from depression, and infants under 6 months of age had 30 percent more ear infections and 22 percent higher incidence of diarrhea.

In choosing alternatives, however, consumers need to be alert to greenwashing. “Just because a product says it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s nontoxic,” says Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of Seventh Generation, which produces genuinely eco-friendly cleaning supplies and household products. The word “natural” is undefined and unregulated by the government and can be applied to just about anything under the sun—including plastic, which comes from naturally occurring petroleum. Because no standards exist, claims such as “nontoxic,” “eco-safe” and “environmentally friendly” are also meaningless, according to Consumers Union’s Eco-labels Web site. Currently, only food and herbs can be certified organic, so the word “organic” on the face of a dish or laundry soap also doesn’t wash.

Instead of being taken in by slogans, David Steinman, coauthor of The Safe Shopper’s Bible, advises looking at labels for specific, eco-friendly ingredients that also perform effectively. These include grain alcohol instead of toxic butyl cellosolve as a solvent; coconut or other plant oils rather than petroleum in detergents; and plant-oil disinfectants such as eucalyptus, rosemary, or sage rather than triclosan.

You can also mix your own cleaners, as does Annie Berthold-Bond, green-living editor at and author of Clean and Green and Better Basics for the Home. According to Berthold-Bond, a few safe, simple ingredients such as plain soap, water, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), vinegar, washing soda (sodium carbonate), lemon juice, and borax can satisfy most household cleaning needs—and save you money at the same time.

If you’re in the mood to detoxify, getting rid of germs doesn’t have to mean overkill: This is your home, not a hospital. In 2000, cleaning products were responsible for nearly 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to the U.S. poison-control centers, accounting for more than 206,000 calls, more than half of which concerned children under the age of 6.

According to Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition, the most acutely or immediately hazardous cleaning products are corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, acidic toilet-bowl cleaners, and anything containing chlorine or ammonia (which should never be combined—see below).

Read on to get the dirt on various conventional products and ingredients and their eco-friendly alternatives. With a little effort, you can make your home a truly clean haven rather than a chemical storage tank.

Dish Detergents, Laundry Detergents, and All-Purpose Cleaners


Most conventional dish and laundry detergents are made from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. Some detergents contain alkyphenol ethoxylates, which are suspected hormone disruptors that don’t readily biodegrade and can threaten wildlife after they go down your drain. Ethoxylated alcohols in liquid detergents can contain carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane.

The fragrances in detergents and fabric softeners can contain phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive-system harm in animal lab tests. Fragrances may also trigger asthma and allergic reactions, with symptoms including skin and respiratory irritation, headaches, and watery eyes. Although phosphates, which choke waterways, are no longer used in most dish and laundry soaps, they can be found in dishwasher detergents. Phosphates are highly caustic and can be fatal if swallowed.

Other ingredients turn dangerous when combined: Diethanolamine and triethanolamine can react with nitrites (an often undisclosed preservative) to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.


Use laundry soaps labeled “fragrance-free,” advises Harvey Karp, a Los Angeles pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. If you want to use citrus-oil products, sniff-test a small amount from a few feet away, as these products can be irritating to allergic or sensitive individuals. Karp also advises choosing dish and laundry detergents and all-purpose cleaners that are plant-based (corn, palm kernel, or coconut oil).

To remove stains from clothing, try soaking fabrics in water mixed with borax, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide, washing soda, or white vinegar. Or, look for “non-chlorine bleach” made from sodium percarbonate or sodium perborate, available from Bio Pac, Ecover, Naturally Yours, Shaklee, or Seventh Generation.

Fabric can be softened by adding one-quarter cup of baking soda to the wash cycle; this recently worked on several pairs of catalog-bought cargo pants made of a cardboard-stiff cotton that literally scraped a teenager’s skin. A quarter cup of white vinegar will also soften fabric, as well as eliminate cling.

Less toxic products include Ecover and Seventh Generation laundry and dish soaps; Aubrey Organics and Vermont Soapworks all-purpose household cleaners; and Bioshield and Naturally Yours dishwasher detergent.

Antibacterial Soaps and Cleansers, Bleach, Stain Removers, Disinfectants, Glass Cleaners, and Bathroom Scouring Powders


Popular in liquid form, antibacterial soaps are helping to promote growth of resistant bacteria, according to a 2000 World Health Organization report.

Chlorine bleach, a common disinfectant frequently found in scouring powders and cleaning solutions, is highly caustic, meaning it can burn skin and eyes—plus it can be fatal if swallowed. When it travels from your drain into the natural world, it can create organochlorines, which are suspected carcinogens as well as reproductive, neurological, and immune-system toxins. And be warned: Bleach (also known as sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide) should never be mixed with any product containing ammonia or quaternium compounds. Doing so creates highly toxic chlorine gas. Many conventional scouring powders and cleaning solutions contain chlorine bleach.


Instead of using antibacterial soap, Karp recommends thorough hand washing (about two minutes’ worth) with plain soap and warm water.

To disinfect bathroom or kitchen surfaces, try Earth Power’s EPA-registered herbal disinfectant or Seventh Generation sanitizers. White vinegar helps kill bacteria, mold, and viruses, according to Berthold-Bond, who uses it on everything from kitchen surfaces to toilet seats. However, the only foolproof way to kill food-borne pathogens such as salmonella or E coli is to use hot, soapy water to wash all cutting boards, dishes, knives, and surfaces that have touched raw meat or eggs.

Scrubbing sinks, tubs, and countertops with a paste of baking soda and water effectively removes dirt rings and some stains; if that doesn’t work, try a paste of washing soda and water, and be sure to wear gloves. Commercial nonchlorine bleach products include Bon Ami scouring powder and cream cleansers from Earth Friendly, Ecover and Seventh Generation.

For cleaning windows, fill your own spray bottle with water and either one-quarter-cup white vinegar or one tablespoon lemon juice to cut grease. Safer commercial glass cleaners are made by Aubrey Organics, BioShield, Earth Friendly, Naturally Yours and Seventh Generation.

Drain, Oven, and Toilet-Bowl Cleaners


The corrosive ingredients in these products can severely irritate eyes, skin, and the respiratory tract, and can be fatal if swallowed. Chemical drain cleaners are among the most dangerous of all cleaning products, containing sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite (bleach) that can permanently burn eyes and skin. In oven cleaners, lye and sodium hydroxide can burn skin, eyes, and the respiratory tract.


For drains, a plunger “snake” plumbing tool should first be used to bring up as much of the clog as possible, giving cleaning products room to work, or perhaps eliminating the need for them entirely. Earth Friendly and Naturally Yours drain cleaners use enzymes, rather than caustic chemicals, to dissolve obstructions. Don’t forget to prevent future blockage with inexpensive metal or plastic drain screens, available at most home-improvement or hardware stores.

To clean oven surfaces, coat them in a paste of water and baking or washing soda and let stand overnight, then scrub off the paste while wearing gloves. Among commercial products, EnviroSafety’s plant-based multipurpose cleaner works well. Or you can use the nonchlorine scouring powders and creams listed above. To prevent future buildup, line the oven floor with aluminum foil and wipe oven walls and ceiling clean after each use.

For toilets, forget the fancy stuff: Again, use the simple, nonchlorine scouring powders and creams listed above, or try AFM SafeChoice or Ecover toilet cleaners.

Furniture and Metal Polishes


These are corrosive and may cause eye, skin, or respiratory tract irritation. They can also contain nerve- damaging petroleum distillates or formaldehyde, a carcinogen.


Polish furniture with a mixture of one teaspoon olive oil and one-half cup white vinegar, or look for solvent-free products that use mineral or plant oils, such as Earth Friendly furniture polish or Hope’s lemon oil.

As your grandmother probably knows, silver can be kept clean with toothpaste. Copper can be polished using a cloth dipped in white vinegar or lemon juice with salt dissolved in it; just rinse with water when you’re done. You can shine your brass with a paste made from one teaspoon salt, one cup white vinegar, and one cup flour. Or, use Kleen King copper and stainless-steel cleaner, Twinkle copper and silver polishes, or Hope’s brass and silver polishes.

Air Fresheners and Other Perfumed Products


Aerosol propellants contain flammable and nerve-damaging ingredients as well as tiny particles that can lodge in your lungs. Fragrances of all kinds can provoke allergic and asthmatic reactions.


If the air outside is clean, open your windows and ventilate the natural way. An open box of baking soda removes odors. (If you’re feeling Martha Stewart-ish, you can decant it from the box into a pretty bowl.) Cedar blocks or sachets of dried flowers and herbs provide gentle scents—but avoid any potpourri that lists unspecified “fragrance” on the label; this could mean synthetic chemicals, including phthalates. Look for products scented with essential plant oils, such as lemon, verbena, or lavender. Finally, we cannot stress enough that you should avoid aerosol sprays in any product, as they disperse ingredients through the air and make them easy to inhale. Even nontoxic ingredients can irritate eyes, noses, and lungs. Carelessly shaken powders can also spread through the air and cause irritation.

Most of the eco-friendly products mentioned above can be found in supermarkets or natural-food, hardware, and home-improvement stores. For more complete info and further tips, see the Green Guide Web site. And remember: When it comes to spring cleaning, less is definitely more!

Now get to it!

This article originally appeared in Grist magazine’s Earthly Possessions column, and is written by the staff of Green Guide, an information source for environmentally conscious consumers. Green Guide is subscriber-supported.

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