18 May Meet Sundog Solar Off-Grid Customers Susan Cutting and Jim Merkel

Sundog Solar doesn’t really have any “typical customers.”  Everyone has a unique story and it is always interesting to see how each of our customers integrates renewable energy systems and products.

Sundog Solar installation for off-grid customers Jim Merkel and Susan Cutting and their son Walden includes an off-grid solar electric system and a solar hot-water system which is backed up by their wood stove.

We are excited to talk with these Belfast residents who are not only installing the most efficient energy systems in the home they are building, but have dedicated their lives to exploring and implementing the most sustainable modes of living within the environment.

Meet Susan and Jim. In addition to parenting and teaching Walden, Susan volunteers with Belfast Transition (BT), an informal not-for-profit organization that supports and organizes community efforts to build local resilience and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. BT is perhaps best known for its “permablitzes” — community work parties that convert lawns into sustainable, edible gardens. Among other BT recent projects have been collaborating with the Belfast Food Co-op in organizing the annual CSA fair, an initiative to map Belfast’s resilience, and creating and maintaining the edible food “Peas Be Seeded” bench in front of the Belfast Co-op. It has a space in the cooperative Office and EcoCenter in downtown Belfast, between Belfast Office Supplies and the restaurant, Laan Xang, and hosts the Belfast Transition and Permaculture MeetUp group.

Jim teaches at Unity College and is the author of Radical Simplicity; Small Footprints on a Finite Earth which makes a case for global living, calling upon lessons and philosophy from the Chumash and practical lessons he learned on a study-trip to Kerala, which helped him conceive of his own system for assessing and maintaining his ecological footprint. It’s fascinating to see the bigger picture- beyond our own products and installation, how these systems function within the ecosystem.

Susan, Jim and Walden’s new home, with Sundog Solar off-grid electric system comprised of PV panels, inverter, charge controller and six Rolls Surette batteries and solar hot water system, backed up by a wood stove. Pictured below is Susan and Jim’s old house, the yurt, where they lived on the property for two years while building their new house.

Sundog Solar visits Susan and Jim on a day in Feb, when rain is puddling atop snow accumulation of two feet. From the bottom of the long driveway, the house near the top of the hill just up from the Passagassawakeag River is invisible in the forest even in winter, surrounded by a Red Oak and Birch forest. Susan welcomes me into the yurt where the family has resided for two years while their now, nearly completed home gets built, by Jim himself, with, as he puts it, “a lot of help.” It’s cozy and pleasant to be in a circular space and to hear the rain on the Yurt roof and to see a hint of the forest through a window at the top. I choose from one of five stories her son Walden offers up about robots and discover he is an incredible storyteller at age three. As she helps Walden dress in snow pants for our tour, I remark upon the water jug and Susan tells me she had not had much experience pumping and hauling water before, and relates her attempt to bring the experience into perspective based on her awareness of Jim’s challenges under yet more rustic living circumstances. There is no doubt that these water storage containers are heavy, but at least there is the well, a ready source of water off-grid. The couple had the well drilled and put in a bison pump early on in the process. On the walk to the house, while Walden eats snow, Susan points out the distant outhouse with compost toilet, the temporary sawmill and greenhouse, used to dry the lumber. Jim welcomes us into the nearly completed home, taking a break from his woodworking. While there is still a touch of New England to the home with its right angles, the horizontal room, that includes red-oaks stripped of bark as vertical supports, and beams milled by Jim on site and the home’s Southwest exposure remind me of the cave-dwellings of the Anasazi.  Sundog: Is this how you grew up? Were your parents interested in alternative energy and nature?

Jim: My Dad was a truck driver. We grew up gardening. Pass your own clothing along, that’s the ethic. With nine kids, and a small paycheck, I’m used to living simply and not hiring help.

Susan: We’ve lived in Vermont and in New Hampshire, similar climates. I grew up appreciating nature both through visiting some spectacular wilderness areas with my family and also through my mother’s love for birds in our back yard. I was lucky to live in a place where there are fields, forests and a garden, and I spent a lot of time outside taking care of horses and dogs.

Sundog: How long were you planning the project?

Susan: My friend Karol Kawiaka is an architect in Vermont and she helped me get the plans going about three years ago. We did a lot of land-searching. We wanted it to be bike-able to town with the feeling of being in nature. We settled on Belfast where people are engaged in making the world a better place. Our life-work stems from wanting to help the planet.

Jim: This area has already got momentum. It’s more fun to be a part of something that’s already in motion.

Sundog: Tell me about the early stages of the project.

Jim: There’s the well. That came early on. It pulls from 90 feet.

Susan: We were hauling water and charging our head-lamps and cell-phone batteries at our neighbor’s in the beginning.

Sundog: Is hauling water a helpful exercise? Or annoying exercise?

Susan: It’s awareness-building, and strength-building. Just before we purchased the land, my brother and mother came to visit. My brother walked the land with Jim and his take was: “this is going to be a lot of work.” From building the driveway, to expanding the clearing enough to have adequate sun for off-grid solar and provide wood for building the house, to the well, septic and house itself. In a sense, starting from “nothing.” He was right; it has been a lot of work.

Jim: It is nice to have the experience of “nothing”. To consider what a house is. I don’t want to glorify it. Maybe it’s part of being a man in America- It’s akin to being a bird that builds a nest. A lot of men dream of building with the wood on-site. I’ve had so many men come and just stand there. The men working on the septic or delivering windows.They stand there, then tell begin to tell me of their visions and dreams. Of 10,000 men, one is actually fool-enough to get a mill and do it.

Sundog: It’s a lot of expense?

Jim: A used Thomas band sawmill made in Brooks was Four-thousand dollars and ten-thousand for a used tractor. Some expense, a lot of learning. Finally, by the time you are done, you are making good wood. You make mistakes. Some days you don’t know what’s going on. I’m adverse to clear-cut lumber because I spent years in British Columbia where they clear-cut thousands of acres at a time. We were on the blockade lines several times per week with all my neighbors and friends trying to stop it.

Sundog: Was this pre-silviculture? (Silviculture refers to restoration techniques for sustaining the productivity of woodlands and forests, techniques not necessarily consistent with the long-term habits of the species of the forest.)

Jim: There were groups trying to introduce eco-system based logging, but on-the-ground, selective logging meant selecting ninety-five percent of the trees. If I buy wood from the local lumber yard, the Industry has put their big green checkmark on their wrapper for the wood, but it’s probably from a clear-cut. It gives me a stomach-ache. It still gives me a stomach-ache to cut a tree down, especially when, there is this tree-frog… I see right on the tree, as I am cutting- whose skin perfectly matches the bark, and I see that I nicked it with the chainsaw. I felt sick the rest of the day. I grew up with that chain-saw. So, as I hit it with the saw… (he makes a chain-saw noise)

Sundog: You’re having this experience that causes you to question production when you are creating your home.

Jim: Sometimes I feel I’m doing the worst thing I could do, hurting this nature so I can live. I hope to honor it enough in my life, doing other things to counter-balance for what I have taken. It’s like atonement. After awhile, walking through this forest, I know it inside and out. For the last years I am looking at it for what I want out of it. Now that the project is done, I have to recalibrate my whole being.

Sundog: Isn’t there a sacredness to using this wood from the trees around you in your home?

Jim: Sure. But it’s as Thoreau said, everything is better alive than dead, men, moose and pine trees. A fish will scream to be alive when you take it out of the water. My nine-year-old heart was beating when I’d pull a fish out. Because I knew that fish wanted to live. Every bug wants to live. Every tree. They’re not here for me. I don’t ever want to feel so delusional. I want to take as few as I can. Make a house as modest as possible.

Sundog: It’s great that we have other options You no longer have to burn so much wood or to deplete your environment

Jim: A hundred years ago, you’d need twenty cords of wood The houses were so poorly insulated This home will probably need about a cord of wood because it is so well insulated.

Jim touches the floor, and I do the same.   Sundog: It’s nice to the touch- a natural material. What’s the finish?   Jim: It’s finished concrete   Sundog: I guess there must be a lot of green alternatives. Although a lot of the green products may or may not be so healthy. I look at the synthetic materials and wonder. Hmmm..   Jim: Yes. I’ve been researching products for the floor. We stained with iron oxide and copper sulfate and finished it with a clear acrylic. People use tung oil. I spent 20 hours researching what products are available.  After twenty hours of research and still wasn’t sure what to do.  Will it be durable, discourage mold growth, and be compatible with other finishes later?  Is it easy to clean and upkeep? The claims might be that the substances are low VOC, (VOC refers to the rating of volatility of organic compounds; many with a high vapor rate) yet it would be good to know something about the chemical composition that is going to be absorbed through the skin of the knees as you kneel on the floor or breathed for the next 20 years as it off-gasses. Sundog: But who was the testing agent, what are the standards…  Jim: I had my students at Unity College read “Toxic Inaction” by Mark Schapiro. The U.S. Toxic Substance Control Act has grandfathered in 62,000 chemicals. Anything that is for sale here in America, you have almost zero idea what it is. The plastic tray you put your muffin on every day at college could be leaching toxins into your food. Jim’s face brightens. We have a root cellar.

Jim designed the root cellar. Note the geothermal design, and the home’s strategic position, with the back of the home and root cellar facing North, snug against the embankment behind the house and the front of the home, with windows facing South. The extra-thick concrete foundation helps maintain the temperature.

Jim: Before we go in there, I want to show you my prize… Jim points to the indoor workbench and laughs with some delight.   I will be able to tune-up the bike indoors in the winter. In a 12’ X 12’ entry area, Jim managed to combine a half-bathroom, laundry room, mud room, coat closet, shoe bench, workbench, solar inverter, charge controllers, pantry, and a table with a tranquil meditating Buddha. Jim: How many functions is that?

Sundog: Multi-multi-use space. The multi-use woodcook stove is the only heating system, centered between the kitchen, entry and living area. Jim’s original idea to include a long hearth was replaced with less space-costly plan that incorporates a bar on one side of the stove, looking into the kitchen/work area.  The result is a spacious feel, despite the clutter of woodworking tools.

Jim: The first floor is 624 sq feet, so total home minus the upstairs porch is 1,200 sq feet. This home will be a good motivation to keep possessions under control.

Thanks to the multi-use spaces in the Merkel’s home, there is plenty of space to accommodate the seedlings.

Sundog: Remind me about the technical aspects of the heat.Jim: The foot-thick slab we are standing on has six inches of foam insulation under it. This thermal mass stores the sun’s warmth while keeping the home cool in the summer.  Essentially, what the designers suggest is solar gain through south-facing windows, thermal mass, lots of insulation and no air leakage.Sundog: And how about ventilation?Jim: Yes, good question. When you build this tight, they say it is wise to install a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) – and we did.  (We have a foot-thick wall and every crack has been caulked, I know!) The HRV draws in fresh outside air and passes it by the warm moist air that it is being pushed out of the dwelling and recovers a good portion of that heat.  You could just open your windows when you shower or cook, but you then lose heat.  You may also be low on oxygen at night when sleeping… active ventilation seemed like the way to go.  It will also help with any indoor woodstove pollution.  It will take another solar panel to run it, but they have come way down in price.Sundog: So this stove does more than heating and cooking? It’s a classic cast-iron Waterford Stanley cook stove with lift-out cooking plates. Jim points to the valves and pipes behind the woodstove that Sundog Solar installed.

Jim: Here, feel the difference-  One is hot, the other is still pretty warm. This is the hot, this is the return. This system that Sundog Solar designed and installed is really at the fuzzy edge of Mainer back-to-the-land sustainable.  There is a hot water jacket inside the fire-box of the stove.  It is connected to a tank inside our bedroom’s walk-in closet just above our heads. This hot water rises to the tank. The cool water falls back to this heat jacket. It’s called a thermosyphon and needs no pump. Right now we’ve got 80 gallons of hot water-enough for several luxurious baths. The same tank is also heated by two hot-water flat plate collectors on the roof. Danny set the angle more optimum for summer sun when we’d use the cookstove less. If the tank gets too hot, a pump will circulate coolant to a radiator in our guest room as a “heat dump.” If we are in a rush, we have a 20” propane range to cook but no other backups. But I’m not a fan of fracking, so most mornings and evenings, we start a fire… The PV system Sundog installed ran all the power tools to build the house.  We ran a backup generator a bit on cloudy days or the few times we needed to run a planer for a few hours while someone else used a chop saw.   We have a small back up generator that can charge the batteries for five hours on a gallon of gas.

Sundog: Everything is definitely multi-use here.

Jim: Yes, we wanted functionality without feeling crowded.

Jim opens the door behind the wood stove.

Sundog: The pantry? Jim explains to me that the home is banked into the hillside, and the elaborate root-cellar is reliant upon thermal mass, the efficiency of which is easily demonstrated as I step through the second door into the frigid, cement box in the back of the home through the small transit space that serves as the dry, cool storage pantry near the kitchen workspace. He points out the thermostat in the dry room that indicates inside temp and outside temp.

Sundog: I’ve never seen one of these. I am guessing you designed it? Jim describes the design process. Working along with his students at Unity College, he designed the cellar prototype, even consulting the expert on food storage for the state of Maine in order to conceive of the resulting system. It combines thermostat and simple, yet powerful fan motor to create an air exchange system that automatically draws in cool nighttime air when needed. If the thermostat registers outside temperatures cooler than the inside temperatures, the fan operates – providing the temperatures inside are above freezing – all programmable functions. The baskets of various roots are a testament to the precision of the design- Jim locates some roots from the October harvest that are poised to make it through these last weeks of winter- some minimally hairy yet firm carrots and perfect potatoes.

Sundog: Was it costly to build? Even as I ask this question, I am thinking it is less often that we consider day-to-day living and our relationship to the materials we use and more often monetary cost.

Jim: We hired out the construction of the 8’ X 12’ root cellar and 4’ X 8’ pantry and it cost about $5,000 to build including a concrete roof.  The material cost is about $1,500. The controller and fan cost about $120.

Sundog: That’s not inexpensive, but over time, I assume less than the cost of a refrigerator, electricity and purchasing shipped-in out-of-season produce.

Jim: Exactly.  100 years ago, there would have been 100 root cellars within a few miles of here.  Once you have one, it is tough to live without it. How are you going to safely keep all those potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, rutabagas, apples and pears?  The root cellar my Unity College students built serves the campus but also the local food pantry.

Sundog: The food pantry is sure to benefit by having a sustainable means of storing food.  It’s striking how using sustainable methods also equates to the health of a community by adding to its resources. Because you don’t have to work as hard to pay for your energy, your time can get used to do more good. What ways do you rely on your community here?

Susan: We have the most wonderful neighbors here, and have been blessed by their generosity and kindness ever since we arrived. We even lived in our friends’ backyard for several weeks when we first moved to the area.

Sundog: So, the goal isn’t necessarily self-reliance.

Jim: Self-reliance, to a limit, but as Susan says, we have great neighbors who have helped us in more ways that ever imagined.

Susan: We want to be integrated with the community: to be supportive and helpful. We welcome neighbors to walk on our land, and a couple people who live in town like to come and pump water from our well in order to avoid drinking fluoride and whatever else is added to the town water.

Jim: We’d thought about co-housing, but figured that since we are already part of the Belfast community, we would still feel connected.

Sundog: Spatially and aesthetically, the co-housing prominently expresses its ideas.

Jim: Yes, it’s great. Part of it, our choice to build, is related to being used to being more self-reliant, Although I’m sure I would quickly adapt and enjoy living in eco-housing, I’m just resistant to stop doing those things I’ve been doing, like cutting firewood or planting an orchard and garden without having a meeting. The past 25 years I’ve been living in cabins in the woods. This will be my first indoor toilet in years. We’re interested in doing something that’s comfortable that doesn’t make too much trouble for the city, and is also comfortable for guests. We have a compost toilet that we use when we want, but when we have a guest who’s uncomfortable with that, we have a flush toilet.

Sundog: It’s off-grid from the city sewer?

Jim: Yes. As required we install a leach field and a tank.  It’s well worth it. I don’t want to choose my friends on the basis of their beliefs. We can put the word out about our experiences without imposing on people who may not be comfortable with it. There’s a lot of cool stuff to share. Walden is singing upstairs at a volume that says he wants everyone to hear. I’m curious to see his room, so we climb the hand-milled oak stairs. Upstairs, I discover subtlety and humor in the paint colors in Walden’s room- very close in hue, yet distinct shades of green-honeydew and tupelo green, a shade of olive green which give the small room a lovely dynamism.

Walden proudly shares his new room, with the beautiful hand-milled wooden floor.

Sundog: Talk with me about code…, zoning. What provisions are there for all the new sustainable building practices?

Jim informs me that the entire home, despite the fact that he had to work to wire the entire house to code, will use electricity equivalent of a single hair blow-dryer. While Jim’s description displays his characteristic blend of gentle irony that errs on the end of kindness, he later acknowledges that despite the added time and expense resulting from adherence to regulations that shouldn’t apply to him, that resulted in a costly system that isn’t representative of his design and energy use, his compliance offers a way for the couple to participate in continuing the development of alternative energy and more importantly, maintain transparency within their community. The home could easily be converted to support electricity on-grid.


Sundog: Where do you think we’re at with the regulations?

Jim: Well, to give an example, they want a certain kind of arch-fault circuit breaker- at forty dollars a piece instead of five bucks. It has a more sensitive detection capability – better at preventing a fire – so someday I might thank the regulations. It’s true that a fire truck would have a hard time getting up here, but these costs make a big difference. It’s hard for a young couple starting out to build a house.

Sundog: But there are definitely lots of people in the community who can help cut down on the learning cost.

Jim:  The great thing about life in Belfast is the free sharing of ideas and support.  I’ve been helped immensely in building this house and am happy to share with other what works for us.

We all need inspiration! Despite NASA’s recent report on the implications of climate change to global stability, we continue to work toward a healthy future at Sundog Solar. Our commitment to renewable energy is stronger than ever. All over the world, people are investing in renewable energy, even if their governments don’t have policy in place to support it. Check out this fascinating site to see the variety of projects worldwide: http://www.go100percent.org/


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