Washin’ on sunshine

When it comes to curb appeal, our special spot is sort of middle of the road. We’ll probably never earn a spread in Log Home Living. But, with no dead Subarus in the yard yet, none of our out-buildings caved in, and nothing on the back porch that should have been hauled away in the 90’s, we’re not shackin’ up in one of those places out-of-staters like to poke fun at, either.

I do have plenty of yard pride—just not the kind that inspires me to plant pansies where only road gawkers can appreciate them, or makes me feel superior over my lawn-to-weed ratio. My back yard in particular wouldn’t sell much Scotts Turf Builder. But, thanks to my live-in gardener, it yields enough fresh veggies to make me boast. And the front yard—the way it gently slopes down to the lake without much help from man or mower—well that just makes me burst my buttons!

There’s no doubt that my non-lakeside footage stirs a unique blend of emotions. And since last summer, it’s had me seesawing between brief spurts of backyard pride to a lingering sense of backyard bewilderment—settling at last into a bolder, brighter version of sass ‘n swagger I didn’t know was possible. The catalyst? A backyard solar array. Or, let me rephrase that. The catalyst, from my vantage point, was a towering geometric anomaly of super shiny rectangles technically known as a solar array. A year ago May, just when most folks were fidgeting over fertilizer and when to clean their windows, my seasonal to-do list was overshadowed by a two-and-a-half story stack of solar panels propped skyward just outside my kitchen.

The decision to go solar was almost as monumental as the result, requiring nearly as much wood-fired hot tub contemplation as packing it all in and moving to Rangeley in the first place. We needed better backup power than a generator shaking the bark off the trees as it sputtered through fuel each time a Nor’easter dumped 13 miles of hard sledding between us and the nearest gas station. “It’s the right thing to do, going greener,” we agreed, toasting ourselves with homemade wine and all the tenacity we could muster in a hot tub in November. And, oh yeah, the alternative energy refund bigger than any rebate in our entire tax paying history? Well, there was certainly that, too.

So started the actual planning and design phase—figuring out just what we needed installed to electrify our essentials (and a few of our luxuries) when the power went out in the plantation. (Not if the power went out, but when the next wind gust severed Rangeley Plantation’s grasp on the peripheral reach of Central Maine Power.) The idea was to go from “Oh, crap, the power went out!” and stumbling around the cabin for candles and flashlights, to “Hmmm….power musta bumped. Stove clock says so. We’re running off the battery now!” We weren’t taking ourselves off grid and totally sticking it to CMP. But we’d poke ’em hard enough to feel self-contained, and just a tad superior.

“Not bad for kids who used to leave every light in the house on,” I told myself that winter. As consumers of non-renewable energy, I’d call us comfortably conservative. We prefer paperbacks to battery-operated books. We don’t own phones that talk to us, or laptops smaller than our laps. We do, however, have our share of ghost energy lingering about the cabin. With all the little LED auras glowing each night after dark, it’s like part of us never really leaves the home office. Plus, thanks to our new auto-sensing, super efficient, barely brighter than a firefly bulbs, I still manage to keep my love affair with night lights burning. The time was right to evolve to the next level of conscious consumerism, and we were psyched. By acquiring the technology to make use of whatever “free” energy the sun saw fit to offer each day, we’d be stepping into our power by collecting it ourselves in a way that would’ve made our parents proud—and scared the pants off ’em at the same time. 

“What was that noise coming from the bathroom?” my dad asked each time I came home from college and was bold enough to sneak in a shower.

“It’s a blow dryer,” I’d say. “I use it to dry my hair.”

“I don’t have to plug anything into the wall to dry my hair,” he’d say. “I let the air do it.”

Yeah, but he wasn’t trying to imitate Farrah Fawcett either, I remember thinking. And there was certainly nothing natural or effortless about turning my bangs into wings!

What would my folks say now, coming from an era when anything with a plug never even made it upta camp? In one generation, they’d progressed from the thrill of relying on cloth-corded appliances to the agony of one energy crisis after another. They had a love-hate relationship with gadgets requiring “juice,” which might have prompted them to consider putting a solar collection contraption in the yard. But then they would’ve taken one look at the cost of installation—passed out cold for a few minutes—then gone back to using one or two plugs in the whole house and squinting at their monthly electric bills like night hawks.

“Whaddya think?” Tom asked in early May after I’d been watching the shadows of our solar panel installation loom larger and larger over the kitchen window.

“Where are the beagles?” I asked back. Standing at the sink, I could still see most of the backyard—the mulch pile, the garage, and Tom’s Eliot Colemen-esque hoop houses and raised beds. But my view of my beagles looking back at me from the “porch” of their kennel? Obliterated. I’m not sure exactly what I was picturing during the initial solar installation discussions, but once I ventured outside to take my first look at the real thing, I realized I’d been carrying around a very simplistic schematic in my head. Like when I’d be driving around somewhere and say: “Oh, look, that house has solar panels,” noticing a neat array of them aligned on a rooftop. Our version of that, I knew, would have to be out in the yard versus up on the roof  to catch all possible rays of Rangeley sun shining over our speck of earth. And while I wasn’t naive enough to imagine any outside-the-Louvre-type architecture, I guess I imagined a more aesthetic coupling of symmetry meets sustainability in the Maine woods. “It’s big,” I said, peering skyward, “and…ah…kinda skewed.”

“Didn’t perfect alignment with the sun require geometric balance?” I wondered silently. “The Aztecs and the Mayans sure thought so.” That’s what came to mind as I realized our stack of solar panels reminded me of a giant, unsolved Rubik—one of those puzzles where you try to align the little squares a certain way—and then you finally say the hell with it and walk away.

But nobody ever said embracing solar had to be pretty, I told myself, at least not from an architectural standpoint. It just had to work, to absorb light energy and convert it into wattage. And how that actually happened, at control central down in our basement, was actually quite pretty. The red and green LED indicators, the gauges measuring battery capacity and consumption—I nodded as I crouched next to Tom in the cellar and he pointed out each detail of where and how the magic happened. “Yup, pretty cool,” I said, and then went upstairs to Google it all. Watts, volts, amperage, DC to AC—I still had a lot to learn about the wizardry going on in the back yard and beneath my feet each time I flipped a switch.

“That thing gonna pay for itself?” our neighbor wanted to know the first time he saw our solar array. While Tom stood in the driveway explaining about tax rebates and kilowatt savings and the premise that we hoped to live to be in our nineties, I came inside to do a load of laundry. And then it hit me. The electricity to clean our clothes was being sucked out of the sun, channeled through our Gollum hole of a basement, and right into the side of our heavy-duty, large capacity washing machine! As I pulled out the power dial and let ‘er rip, a song from my winged hairstyle days made me do a special little dance.

“I’m washin’ on sushine! Woah! And don’t it feel good? Yeah, all right now….”

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