Jilly D.

Po-dunk. Po-dunk. The sound of power.

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on January 18, 2014 at 8:57 pm

956725-R1-20-21AIn New York the joke is there are only two seasons: winter and road construction. In the heart of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, farmers know four distinct seasons. Different kinds of alternative energy can be harvested each in its own time.



Sam Warren built a system that integrates sun, water and wind with the natural forces of local weather. When the sun doesn’t shine, the wind blows. When it isn’t sunny or windy, it’s raining and the water runs. Instead of fighting against the forces of nature, Sam works with them.

Solar panels provide the primary source for generating electricity year round.  Windmills and a waterwheel are complementary sources. The sun, wind and water keep us free and clear. No credit card bills, no interest payments, no debt.

Too many people think retrofitting their current residence with alternative energy involves a substantial capital investment. For some folks no matter how much money they spend, their residences are not well situated for harvesting the sun, wind or water. For others, it makes perfect environmental and economic sense.

Sam practices the “pay as you go” system. Start with what you can afford and your savings provide the capital to purchase your next solar panel, or inverter, windmill or meter.

956725-R1-19-20AIn the last 15 years Sam installed more solar panels than his original two. As he could afford it, he added two windmills and built a waterwheel. The first windmill was an Enron model and it still works on a pole attached to the roof. The second windmill is much larger and sits atop an 80 ft. tower to the west of the cabin. Each catches different air currents.

The waterwheel is 10 feet in diameter, set in concrete and weighs more than 3,000 lbs. of steel. Sam designed it based on a Fitz Overshoot wheel. He built it entirely from scratch; cutting and welding the steel into a true circle. It took him most of a winter to build.

On Easter Sunday 2002 he began digging a half acre pond at the northeastern corner of our property. The pond is more than 40 feet higher than the cabin roof. Sam laid pipes from the pond overflow pipe through the fields and down to the cabin. The six inch pipe brings water to the wheel by the force of gravity. Later that spring, he hired a crane to set the waterwheel upright and level; then poured concrete for its foundation right in front of the cabin.766018-R1-12-13A

Water is a power source available in winter: running water never freezes. Because it is gravity fed, water flows without need of an electric pump.

The waterwheel will run on just a trickle of water. Once the cups fill with water and the wheel begins to move it is impossible to stop the momentum. Sam hooked up a turbine from to the waterwheel and it generates 3-phase electricity.

100_0931Once the waterwheel was in place, Sam spent the summer and fall building a millhouse around it. With pulleys and gears, Sam rigged up various farm implements to run off the waterwheel’s power: a corn sheller, a seed cleaner, an 1892 drill press, a grain mill, apple corer and peeler, cider press, and knife sharpener. He built in grain bins and countertops in the second floor, or attic, of the millhouse.

The lean-to kitchen eventually gave way to a new summer kitchen that is 6 foot wide by 12 foot long situated between the cabin and the millhouse. There is a big picture window between the summer kitchen and the millhouse. When I put the coffee on in the morning I get to look out at the waterwheel. The dawn’s light bursts into the millhouse and catches the water as it splashes. Po-dunk, po-dunk, po-dunk. The music of the wheel plays round and round. Light is refracted in every direction by the spokes of the spinning wheel.

  1. I continue to love these stories, Jill. Thank you for sharing them. My home is perfectly situated for a windmill, but I don’t have one. I do have a gravity feed water system from an uphill spring–delicious water but it never passes an E coli test. But if feels good to know if the power goes out, I have a pile of dry wood and water that gravity feeds upstairs when I hook a hose to it for flushing toilets and heating for washing and drinking. The colder it gets, the more I love my off-the-grid security blankets. Keep them coming. On my way to share this one.

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