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Using the power of the sun

Ronna Lee Joseph and Tim Murray will always have a special connection with the sun. How many people can say they got married on an Aegean cruise ship during the total eclipse of the sun, March 29th?

At home in the Cement Hill area outside of Nevada City, Joseph and Murray have channeled their love of the sun, and belief in a natural environment, into a new 1,600-plus square foot, two story house with three bedrooms and two and a half baths that is powered by a full, solar energy system.

The couple, who met in 1999 while performing in a community play in Penn Valley, purchased an $80,000 kit home to erect on the 10-acre site on John Barleycorn Road that Joseph has owned since 1978. She and Murray lived in a trailer on the property while the house was being built. Both creative personalities, the couple decided to tweak the design of the kit home to meet their tastes. Murray’s father, Jim, a master electrician, worked with his son to build the home.



One of the first decisions, to take advantage of the sun’s natural warmth, was to orient the home toward a southern exposure. It also afforded spectacular views, at 2,700-foot elevation, of stands of digger pines and oaks, Deer Creek Canyon, and the back of Morgan Ranch, in Grass Valley.

“The home wound up costing more to complete because we made some changes and oriented it for the views,” says Joseph. They heightened and vaulted part of the kitchen ceiling and eating area for a more interesting look and modified the main window wall in the living area – which has 18 and a half foot ceilings. Additional costs were the windows, the foundation and the roof, and a separate building they had built to house the solar panels.




“We were advised not to put the solar panels on top of the house because it wasn’t the best spot since the eaves are slanted,” Joseph said. “The kit house was not designed to be a solar house but we made it to work for what we needed.” she added.

The solar shed houses 12 solar panels, 16 batteries and three 3,600-watt inverters which change the DC current to AC current. Basically, the sun heats the solar panels which generate DC current, the batteries store the DC current and the inverters change the current to AC so it can be used to run appliances in the home. The shed provides 90 amps of power to the home, which travels from an underground wire to the main box on the side of the house, according to Murray. It is important to check the batteries occasionally for water levels, advises Murray, and to fill only with distilled water.

Since the Nevada City area does get its share of snow, rain and gray days, the couple also has a 12,000 watt backup generator which will charge the batteries if they are running low.

Another major detail is propane gas: both bedrooms in the home have propane pipes for winter heating but Joseph says the main stove in the living room heats the whole house. It is helped by a large fan that carries the heat to the loft-style second story, which looks out over the main living area. All of the home’s major appliances are on propane including the 30-inch Jenn-Air oven, which was larger than the standard size, and the gas cooktop.

In the summer the house will be naturally cooled by ground tubes alongside the house, installed four feet down into the ground where the temperature is 66 degrees. Made out of flexible PVC pipes, the tubes will route into vents in the main house; that plus fans and windows open on the lower portion of the main living room wall, will provide cooling and ventilation.

Other environmental touches are skylights, the solar tube in the bathroom, which affords additional natural light, and fluorescent lights throughout the home. The couple also has an on demand, tankless water heater.

They estimate the solar investment is $40,000 to $50,000 and will pay for itself in 12 to 15 years. Murray paid a contractor to have the solar system installed. They are “off the grid,” with no hookup to PG&E, but Murray does advise, if you are considering solar, and at some point might sell your home, to tie into the grid system. You can pay $5 plus a month and have a meter hookup so buyers can have that option.

“It is a real steep learning curve. It’s not like PG&E comes in and turns the lights on. One of our three inverters fried and that had to be fixed. Another time, our backup generator had a mechanical problem and we had to hook up an external generator for the refrigerator for the weekend,” Murray said.

Natural living

Murray and Joseph are enjoying their first full spring season in their new home which they moved into last August. Their deck, attached to the southern side of the house, was a motivating force in their decision to marry on board the ship in March.

“I was planning on doing something here. Then the deck went out in the winter storms, so I said, ‘let’s get married on board,'” Murray said. The cruise on the Ocean Monarch was sponsored by Astronomy magazine and followed the path of the eclipse.

“The totality lasts about four minutes and the sky becomes a dark blue. It’s extraordinary,” says Joseph.

So far, the couple are enjoying their solar powered home. “It’s been very comfortable for us,” says Joseph. “Tim and I feel the very same way. We all have to conserve in some way if we want some energy left for our children’s children. There is so much waste.”


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