A Backyard Power Plant

Chris and Debbie Zarcone use almost entirely alternative energy in their home, but see a low demand in their handyman business

By Maggie Dresser
An 8,000-watt solar panel array and a trio of wind turbines create energy for Chris Zarcone’s Kalispell home on Oct. 3, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Chris and Debbie Zarcone don’t own a furnace in their 2,200-square-foot home in Kalispell. They get all their heat and energy needs through an air-source heat pump, 32 solar panels and three wind turbines. Sometimes, their energy meter even runs backwards in the hot summer months.

When the meter runs backwards, the solar panels are generating more electricity than they can use, which backflows into the grid for the neighbors to use. They also store up energy credit to use in the winter.

“I’m a little power plant,” Chris Zarcone said.

The Zarcones have been living almost entirely on homemade alternative energy for about seven years. Their 250-watt solar panels, situated next to Ashley Creek on their property, produce even more heat to be generated back into electricity because of the water’s reflection.

Chris says the most maintenance he ever has to do is brush snow off the high-angle, south-facing panels when it’s particularly cold and snowy. But the sun usually just bakes the snow off. The panels, which cost the Zarcones $350 a piece at the time they purchased them, total about 8,000 watts altogether.

The Zarcones’ property also holds three wind turbines, with the largest standing at 45 feet equipped with a crank for minor maintenance work. The Zarcones made each turbine themselves with metal scraps. They are completely galvanized and built to last.

Following the initial startup, Chris says now he and his wife sit back and watch their property generate electricity.

“We don’t have to do anything,” he said. “There’s no maintenance to this — you get it wired, get it all together and that’s it.”

In addition to the solar panels and wind turbines in the Zarcones’ back yard, their air-source heat pump replaces their furnace in the winter and air conditioner in the summer.

The pump, which cost about $3,000, takes cool air and transfers it to warm air into their home in the winter and vice-versa in the summer.

“In zero degrees, I still get 80 degrees of air coming out of it,” Chris said. He says this is because of absolute zero, which is the lowest temperature theoretically possible and equates to negative 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat still remains in any temperature above absolute zero, and the Zarcones’ pump finds that heat.

“It takes heat that you don’t think is there,” he said.

According to measurements on the Zarcones’ inverter, a device that transfers the outside energy into their home, they have saved 95,773 pounds of carbon dioxide since they started using alternative energy seven years ago.

While the Zarcones have a smooth operation now, they ran into challenges in the early years. Chris says startup costs were their biggest obstacle, but now that they have everything set up they are doubling those costs in energy savings.

Not only does Chris like the money-saving aspect of energy efficiency, he wants to help the environment.

“I could see that it’s a problem and I just wanted to get ahead of it,” he said.

The Zarcones sometimes incorporate alternative energy into the business they run together, Any Home Service, a handyman service. They do anything from repairing toilets to installing decks while doing some alternative-energy work.

But Chris says there isn’t much demand for renewable energy. He speculates people don’t know much about it and shy away from the upfront costs. The costs are especially high if people aren’t building the systems themselves.

But he says as technology advances, upfront costs are diminishing, and equipment like solar panels are a fraction of the cost they were 10 years ago. He hopes more people will invest in renewable energy, and his advice to those interested is to bite the bullet and do it.

“It’s kind of cool to have your own little power plant,” he said.

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