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Powering a Smart Home with Batteries

Powering a Smart Home with Batteries

We live on Orcas Island in Washington State, which is serviced by ferries and has about 3,000 year round residents. For most of the time it’s been developed, the power infrastructure has been fragile. It’s a densely wooded place and trees often fall on overhead power lines during winter storms. Our neighbors tell stories about power going out over a dozen times in the winter and sometimes staying off for a week or two. For this reason, many houses have built-in generators that run on propane. As soon as the power goes out, the generator kicks on and powers essential things like the refrigerators, water pumps, and lights.

When we started planning our house on Orcas Island, people often asked about our plans for a generator assuming we’d need one. For a while, we had the same assumption. Before starting the construction project, we lived on the island for about 18 months and saw that power outages were becoming more rare. Power lines were moving underground and the power company (a co-op) was fixing problems quickly. The power still went out a few times a year, but for hours and not days.

We also started looking into alternatives to propane generators. Along with using fossil fuel, they are expensive and painful to maintain. We wanted to build a house with smarter, more sustainable options that had the potential to save us money over the long term.

From the beginning of the project, we planned to use solar panels on our roof. Right now, we’re working with an electrician to be sure the house has the proper “rough-in” for making solar installation easy when we can afford it. One of the traditional problems of solar energy is storage. For many years, the energy from solar panels was either used at the moment or sold back to the grid. There wasn’t a good way to store the energy produced during the day and use it once the sun goes down, or during power outages.

In these discussions with the electricians, we took a closer look at batteries designed to store energy that can be used by the home. Like the solar panels, we wanted to be sure the house is being built with the right connections in place for the future. Once the drywall goes up, these things become more difficult.

Tesla, the same company that creates vehicles, created a product called the Powerwall that earned a lot of attention because it made home-based energy storage an option. Today, multiple companies offer similar products. They’re essentially a battery pack that is connected to your house, the grid, the internet, and often, solar panels. The batteries remain at least 80% full and when your house loses power from the grid, batteries keep appliances running instead of a generator. The batteries are expandable, but don’t necessarily power a full house or offer more than a day of energy in a blackout.

Learning about these products changed how we thought about backups for our house. Instead of a generator, we plan to have a battery in our garage that is programmed to bridge us through short-term power outages. Once we install solar panels, the goal is to keep it charged with sunlight. This way, sun during the day can charge batteries that work overnight or during outages.

The battery storage companies we’ve looked at so far are:

If you have any experience with these products, I’d love to talk to you.

The House Project: Flattop on Orcas Island

The House Project: Flattop on Orcas Island

In the spring of 2017, Sachi and I became consumed with an idea. On a camping trip to Orcas Island, which is off the NW coast of Washington State, we started to ask serious questions about the future. While drinking wine from a box by a campfire, we first started to consider getting property and someday moving to the island. 

By June, we were back on Orcas Island looking at vacant land with a realtor and Sachi asked if we could see a house. We figured we couldn’t afford a house, but what the heck? What we saw that day was a nice piece of west facing property with a water view. On the property was an odd, fifteen-sided house that was built by a family in the 80s. It was shabby, but livable and we soon made an offer.  

This yurt-shaped house became ours in September and was the only house we toured on the entire island. It all happened so quickly. We never dreamed we’d have a house on the island in such short order. It was available, in part, because no one looking for a vacation home would choose that one. 

At first we spent weekends, then weeks on the island. Thanks to a good internet connection, work was the same as in Seattle. Before long, we found ourselves dreading the trip back to the city and decided to make the big move. In early 2019, we committed to leaving Seattle and starting over on Orcas Island. The house we’d owned since 2003 hit the market that spring.

We moved to the island as permanent residents and started planning the biggest project of our lives: designing and building a new home for us and headquarters for Common Craft. Working with an on-island contractor and architect friend, the new house started to come to life on paper and then in three dimensions. 

Soon, the yurt-shaped house was gone and we moved to a guest house over a neighbor’s garage for a planned eighteen-month stay.  

Today, we are deep into the project and it’s taking everything we have to make it happen. The structure is built and we’re in the “rough-in” phase where plumbing and electrical is installed. Soon we’ll have insulation and drywall. 

Every day is a mix of our normal work and house projects. Sometimes it’s researching lights, others it’s painting or doing odd jobs that limit costs. Along with construction, I’m learning a lot about new products and ideas that focus on efficiency and sustainability. This will be our forever house and our goal is to get it right. 

I often say that happiness lives in anticipation and that anticipation is what gets us through. This project adds significant stress to our lives and can sometimes be exhausting. But it’s also satisfying to learn about the process and see the house come to life. The day we can move in can’t come soon enough. 

Spring 2020

You can find all house-related posts in the house category.

The View from the Yurt on Orcas Island ???⛵️

The View from the Yurt on Orcas Island ???⛵️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


The View from the Yurt

Like so many Seattleites, we’ve always aspired to have a house with a view. But it never happened, despite views being relatively common in hilly Seattle. Views of the city, Elliott Bay, or Lake Washington came at a premium that always felt out of reach.

We assumed the same premium would apply on Orcas Island. Surely, a house with a view was out of our price range and we’d be limited to vacant land. Our first visit to the Yurt changed that thinking and now explains why we bought the first and only house we visited.

What we saw that day was a mismatch. The cozy, quirky, Yurt-shaped house was set with a view it didn’t seem to deserve. We thought we’d need millions of dollars, or the means to go back in time 50 years and be a first-mover when properties were first being platted, to have this view. Indeed, this is the story of the Yurt, which was built by people who had the pick of the litter, so to speak, in the seventies.

Strangely, the lower deck is inaccessible from the unfinished basement
Strangely, the lower deck is inaccessible from the unfinished basement

On that first visit, we were standing on the deck of the Yurt with our realtor, and we thought, “Could this really be ours?” It didn’t seem possible.

In a moment I’ll never forget, a bald eagle then soared right through the view at eye level causing us to chuckle. Our realtor then turned to us with a raised thumb and knowing smile, and jokingly said, “SOLD!” She was right.

bald eagle

The Yurt is positioned atop a bluff at about 270 feet above sea level. It faces west over President Channel and dozens of islands that make up the San Juan Archipelago and the Canadian Gulf Islands. We can see Canada from the Yurt and even Pender Island, where our Canadian friends, Darren and Julie, have plans to build a house. You really can’t get much more geographically northwest in the continental U.S., and it sometimes feels as if we’re reaching out to the Great White North. Or, judging from the “Welcome to Canada!” messages we get on our phones, Canada is reaching out to us.

dozens of islands

Looking from the deck, our property extends past long-felled logs, deer tracks, and stumps down to the water where a 15-foot cliff makes a dock impossible. Many have suggested a zip line or funicular, but it ain’t gonna happen.

stumps down

In my experience, a full accounting of the view requires a bit of time and observation. For example, the more prominent islands in view are either uninhabited (Spieden Island), nature preserves (Flattop Island, Cactus Islands), an off-the-grid community (Waldron Island) or islands so far away it doesn’t matter. This creates a distinct feeling of isolation. In the evenings, when the sun is setting and the boats are all docked, it feels like you’re all alone and looking out over an unspoiled wilderness. There are no lights or signs of human life. The view over the cold water is just as it’s been for hundreds or even thousands of years. I’ve rarely seen nights so dark and stars so bright.

Spieden Island

And I am continually fascinated by what’s out there. Because it’s part of the ocean, it seems virtually anything could appear. There is a never-ending supply of boats, from sailboats and fishing boats, to giant cargo ships in the Canadian shipping lanes in the distance. Barges move houses and tug boats pull log booms full of thousands of logs. At least once a day, a little green boat called The Loon travels back and forth to Waldron Island (permanent pop. ~83) with supplies that arrive in the mail at our post office in Deer Harbor on Orcas.

Deer Harbor on Orcas

The water itself has become a source of entertainment. Each day, it has a personality that’s driven by tides and winds and storms. It can be the kind of glassy that begs for water skis or a white-capped fury that keeps boats safely in the harbor.

And each of the water’s personalities has a sound that is apparent from the moment you step onto to the deck. On calmer days, it’s a low hum of white noise in the background; a gentle roar generated by a million waves lapping in unison. As the wind picks up, the roar grows and combines with the sound of wind whipping through conifers to drown out all other sounds. If I look closely, it sometimes feels like the tall trees sway to the rhythm of the waves. I love a nice calm day, but storm watching is where my heart is.

The San Juans are known for sea life, which brings tourists in droves. We often see harbor porpoises, harbor seals and sea birds aplenty from the deck. But the real stars of the show are the whales. We don’t see them often, but humpbacks and orcas have both been spotted from the deck. This is somewhat unique on the island, as the west side faces a deep channel where they feed. When island residents visit, they often ask the same question: do you see whales? It still boggles my mind that the answer is, “Sometimes, yes.”

deep channel

When we first dreamt of property on Orcas Island by the campfire, we never considered the possibility of having a property with this kind of view. We didn’t even know this kind of experience existed. Once we saw it and decided to make an offer, it set in motion of a number of events that continue to this day. The Yurt is fun and perfect for us in so many ways. But it’s just a building. The location, the view and the experience of being on the island could last a lifetime.