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Home Automation & Control

High-Tech Home Goes Off Grid with Solar Power

A 9,000-square-foot home in Flagstaff, Ariz. is powered by solar energy and deftly controlled by a Crestron home automation system.


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Just how remote is the summer home of Tim Snider in the mountains north of Flagstaff, Ariz.? It takes local police half an hour to get there, and there’s a 6-mile driveway just to get to the front gate. There isn’t a power line in sight, just ponderosa pines and majestic mountains.

Talk about getting away from it all.

When building their remote retreat, Tim and his family knew they would have no choice but to power it with alternative energy sources. In addition to a large solar photovoltaic (PV) system, their off-grid survival kit would include solar batteries to store the electricity generated by the solar panels for use at night and on cloudy days, a solar thermal system to heat water for domestic use and the home’s radiant floor heating system, and a backup generator and water heater for times when all the power from the sun isn’t enough.

This home wasn’t going off the grid by choice. It was off the grid or no home at all.

Better than Backup Plan

Even an off-the-grid home deserves to have some entertainment, so Tim met with Andy and Charlie White of AVDomotics in Sedona, Ariz., to discuss how to work audio and video equipment into the plans. The Sniders weren’t going for megawatt home theaters, but there are 12 zones of audio and eight TVs in the house, including a surround-sound system in the family room, served by Crestron’s ADMS Intermedia Delivery System media server. Crestron’s DigitalMedia switching technology delivers audio and video content to different areas of the house via the company’s DigitalMedia fiber solution, with fiber-optic wires terminating at each of the home’s TVs.

The Crestron AMS-AIP surround-sound processor was going to be the home’s main home control processor, until Tim and AVDomotics talked some more. Tim has a background in engineering and quickly realized he could reap bigger benefits by using a more robust processor from Crestron’s product lineup.

Equipment List
Control and Lighting Systems: Crestron
A/V Distribution: Crestron
A/V Sources: Crestron, Dish Network, Sirius XM
Speakers: OEM Systems, QPD
TVs: LGSolar panels: Solon
Inverters and Inverter Controller: OutBack
Energy monitor: Powerhouse Dynamics
LED Lights: Color Kinetics, Philips

A beefier processor would allow the home’s many subsystems to be tied together to achieve better efficiencies, and to enable control of those systems remotely. It was essential that no large power drains would occur in the home during the winter months when it was unoccupied, and the Crestron system could help safeguard against that, too.

So the Crestron AMS-AIP processor stayed in charge of the family room. AVDomotics added Crestron’s more powerful AV2 processor to handle everything else, pairing it with an eMonitor system from Powerhouse Dynamics. The web-based eMonitor interface - available on a computer, Crestron touchpanels, iPads and Tim’s iPhone - shows user-friendly charts and graphs of the home’s production of solar power and how much energy is being consumed. Tim can also see how much power is available as stored energy in the batteries from Crestron’s touchpanels and apps.

The result is a luxury home that showcases the natural beauty of its woods and stone - and is completely self-powered and carefully monitored. The home consumes about 100 kilowatt hours (kWh) of solar energy a day when the homeowners are in residence - some of that just from keeping the backup generators warmed and ready to go - while the 72-panel solar PV array produces 16.6 kw, with 260 kWh of battery storage.

Operational Efficiencies

To achieve optimal efficiency, the Crestron system handles the operation of the home’s lighting, audio/video gear, thermostats, security system, exterior safety shutters, and pumps for the well and septic. In this home’s off-the-grid survival kit, the Crestron system became the all-important Swiss Army knife.

AVDomotics created its own “modules” within the Crestron platform to enable the automation system to communicate with an OutBack Mate2 solar inverter control system. The company also programmed the Crestron system to monitor the level of liquid propane and water available in their respective tanks. A high-end Uponor in-floor radiant heating system, which relies on water heated by the roof’s solar thermal panels and liquid propane-fueled hot water in the backup tank, was integrated into the Crestron control system as well.

imageCrestron in-wall touchpanels located throughout the home control all of the systems, including security, lights and A/V gear. (Click image to enlarge).

All of these systems, plus the security system, lights and A/V gear, can be operated not only from Tim’s smartphone but from three Crestron in-wall TPS-6L and one TPMC-8L touchpanels located throughout the home, in addition to three TPMC handheld remotes and three iPads using a Crestron app.

The Crestron system can also perform much-needed load shedding, in which it turns certain devices down or completely off to save energy. When the house is unoccupied, for example, the well and septic pumps shut off, and if there isn’t much juice left in the solar system’s storage batteries, the lights dim to 75 percent.

“The energy management is the best part of the system. The thing that I use the most is checking on the PV system and seeing how much energy we’re producing, and I can do that from anywhere in the world,” says Tim. “The first year in the house, we were learning all about it, but now my confidence level is high and I don’t worry about the place as much as I used to.”

Energy-Smart Upgrades

After construction, the owners realized they could save even more by swapping their incandescent lights for LEDs (light emitting diodes). White says it cost about $3,500 to replace the existing bulbs with Philips and Color Kinetics LEDs, but was well worth it, as the homeowners would have had to spend $10,000 more on solar panels to run the incandescent lights. In essence, they have already received an immediate return on their investment, and then some.

The ceiling fans that help cool the house may be in for an upgrade, too. AVDomotics may tie them to indoor and outdoor temperature sensors so they can turn on and off automatically.

“There’s a lot more we can do,” adds Tim. “I want some applications to only come on when batteries are full and there’s still some sun to produce power. … We’ve gotten our propane consumption down to a low level, but now I want to manage it so I don’t have to consume any carbon fuel there.”

The Far Away Button

When it’s time to leave for the season, the owners only have to push an AWAY button on any of their Crestron controllers turn off everything. Then they can hop in the car, take a last look at their remote retreat, and press another button to roll down the aluminum shutters over all of the first floor windows and doors for safety and security.

For added assurance, the homeowners and AVDomotics receive alerts from the eMonitor and Crestron systems if any circuits are on or if there’s a problem with a system in the home. Emails are also delivered to AVDomotics twice a day with a status report of the system, which helps the custom electronics dealer proactively remedy a situation before it becomes costly or dangerous.



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High-Tech Home Goes Off Grid with Solar Power


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Article Topics

News · Slideshow · Home Automation and Control · Control Systems · Lighting · Universal Remotes · Energy Management · All topics

About the Author

Steven Castle
Steven Castle is a writer, editor, and humorist who recently completed Filthy Rich Things, a savage satire on our thirst for success and wealth. He is Electronic House's senior editor and co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

6 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by mark barber  on  11/07  at  02:52 PM

Very cool stuff, we are currently trying to go in the same direction with integration , tech and solar power. I would also like to get info on how you monitor the back up power ( generators) ... as we also work in secondary homes that use back-up generators..

Posted by AMCO  on  11/07  at  05:35 PM

Great article, great house, great systems ... but canĀ“t seem to find any mention of aconnection to Internet (though web-monitoring of systems is commented). Satellite, Fibre-optic !?!

Posted by Peter Hester  on  11/07  at  07:46 PM

Wow!  Pretty impressive but I bet you couldn’t do this on my salary.  So I guess the rest of us will have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up & realize that extracting & refining oil from the ground costs a lot more than free energy from the sun - at which point more resources will be focused on improving extending & inventing solar based energy systems to everyone’s benefit.  In the mean time I’ll have to settle for my 24KWH/Day solar array system grin

Am I envious?

Posted by Andy White  on  11/24  at  07:29 AM

Hi Mark,
We monitored the generators with contact closures… When the generators turn on, they produce 12V which closes a relay. We monitor this closure with the I/O port on the Crestron system. The generators also have the Omnipro system on them which provides full feedback via cell connection… temp, oil status remote start stop etc.

Monitoring the generators on/off status allows us to turn off (load shed) certain loads as well. Sometimes you only think of load shedding when the solar array is in play. For example, when the small generator is on, we turn off things like the spa, deep water well pumps and septic pumps. This way the small generator isn’t overloaded. Andy

Posted by Andy White  on  11/24  at  07:33 AM

Hi AMCO

We are using a combination of sat and cell connection using a PEPlink load balancing device. The PEPlink unit balances the internet load between the two services for the purpose of both redundancy and speed. The PEPlink also reports via e-mail the status of the other link… ie. if the sat link goes down, we know and the Crestron processor can cycle the power on the sat modem.  Typically the power cycling of the sat modem gets the sat connection up and running again.

Andy

Posted by Andy White  on  11/24  at  07:38 AM

Hi Peter,

Part of the reason why we are so excited about this particular project is that we had a client so interested and invested in exploring new ways to squeeze out or optimize energy production with automation technology. As more and more willing partners with resources deploy this kind of technology, it will be more financially attainable. For example, Power House Dynamics eMonitor is very affordable and can provide quite a bit of user feedback based on real energy consumption.
Andy

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