All Tom and Robbin Houchen wanted was an unobstructed tract of land for launching and landing their ultralights. What they found was an opportunity for energy independence on 40 sun-drenched and wind-swept acres.
In 1994, when there was still affordable acreage to be had, Tom and Robbin Houchen teamed up with Tom’s brother, Michael Houchen, to buy 80 acres in the southwestern part of Kern County, California. They divided the land, with Tom and Robbin on 40 acres, and Michael on the other 40.
“We didn’t have grand plans at first. We really just wanted space to fly our ultralights,” Tom admits. “We took our time figuring out how to make the land work for us.”
Tom and Robbin originally dismissed the idea of living on the land because the two-hour drive to Tom’s office was too far for a daily commute. But they later reconsidered when Tom’s circumstances changed, allowing him to work from home as computer programmer.
Tom, a self-professed tinkerer who first experimented with solar water heating at a previous home, had been keeping tabs on energy policy and advances in RE technologies since the late 1980s. Like so many Californians coping with rising energy costs, he hoped that the price of renewable energy components would drop and make self-generation more feasible for the average homeowner.
“Only when the state started seriously talking about rebates and other incentives did I begin to see the real potential for our land,” Tom, 61, says. “The wind whips over the mountains, and the sun is fierce. We had an ideal spot for renewable energy. It was just a matter of time, money, and the state following through with its plans.”
The Houchens chose to save time and money by erecting a prefabricated modular home rather than building a custom home on the site. “We had some initial reservations about a modular approach,” Tom says. “But after visiting the manufacturing facility, we were won over by the quality and sturdiness of the steel-frame design. They’re really built to last.” The fact that the overall process is believed to use less energy and produce less waste than a traditional site-built home tipped the scale even further, he adds.
Tom and Robbin settled on a triple-wide design for a one-story, 2,500-square-foot house, complete with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. For added protection from the desert temperature extremes, they doubled the fiberglass insulation in the walls and ceilings, and upgraded to argon gas-filled, double-pane windows. And, to minimize their electrical loads, they chose to use propane for heating water and cooking.
Tom considered wiring the house for DC loads as well as the standard AC loads to allow greater flexibility when, or if, the time came to install an RE system. He ultimately dropped the idea because the additional circuits and larger diameter wire necessary would have cost too much—plus, the selection of DC appliances proved to be limited. Instead, he trusted that newer inverters on the market would be more dependable and offer acceptable efficiency losses.
By 2000, the house was finished, and Tom and Robbin had turned their attention to saving and planning for a wind turbine, since the site’s potential for wind power was undeniable. Several wind farms in the county—including California’s second largest at Tehachapi Pass—were already taking advantage of the strong class 5 and 6 winds blowing across the valley.