Oct 24, 2009

Living Off the Grid in central Florida

After a year of living with no indoor shower, dishwasher or central air-conditioning, an east Orange County couple calls it an off-the-grid paradise.

Terry and Tia Meer built their electric-sipping, super-efficient log cabin down a gravel path alongside the Econlockhatchee River as a way to live what they preach -- making as little environmental impact as possible.

"You don't have to live uncomfortably, totally cut off from the world or in a tent to use less energy," said Tia Meer, 30, recently as she tended one of the couple's vegetable gardens on their 5-acre plot near Christmas.

The Meers, who met about a decade ago when both were students at the University of Central Florida, are among the founders of the Orlando-based nonprofit called the Simple Living Institute. The group is dedicated to promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles through organic gardening, meager energy use and other methods.

They moved into their 1,024-square-foot Florida Cracker-style house last fall to show how that lifestyle is possible. A few months later, the pair got some national attention in the January issue of O, The Oprah Magazine about people living in environmentally friendly ways. Their fame has waned a bit, but folks still stumble across the Meers' story online. Others stop by for weekend plant sales or to learn about living off the grid.

"The grid" is the common term for the electricity network and wires that deliver power to the masses. It also loosely refers to most public utilities.

But unlike the hippie idealism of the 1970s that encouraged people to homestead like early American pioneers, today's off-the-grid movement doesn't shun all modern conveniences. The Meers have electric lights, a small air conditioner for the bedroom and a refrigerator. They do their laundry at coin-operated laundromats. And during a summer heat wave, the pair admitted to fleeing to the air-conditioned comfort of a public library.

"We just had to," Tia Meer said.

Solar panels linked to a bank of batteries give them the electric juice to run a few appliances and recharge batteries in their cell phones and computers. Rain-catchers on the roof store up enough water for the Meers' showers, their banana grove and vegetable gardens, as well as their five red hens and a stray cat.

Their outdoor shower is inside a Gilligan's Island-like frame of sticks and honeysuckle vines, on the side of the house. Neither complained about ever getting bug-bitten, and the shower doubles as an irrigation system for their banana grove. They also have a backup well to use during Florida's seasonal dry spells.

The Meers have no water bill, and their electric bill is only about $30 a month, which includes a $10 minimum monthly service charge, said Terry Meer, 34.

Orlando Utilities Commission spokesman Sheridan Becht said the power company doesn't know of anyone who lives 100 percent "off the grid," but said about 160 homes in the area augment their electricity with solar power.

The most well-known solar-power enthusiast in Orlando is Dr. Robert Stonerock Jr., a retired kidney specialist who has followed the Meers' progress.

"What they've done is a rare phenomenon, especially in this area where energy is still relatively cheap compared to other parts of the U.S.," Stonerock said. "For just the two of them, doing this on their own, I think is extraordinary."

Tia Meer's mother, Shirley Silvasy, said she didn't bat an eye when her daughter first talked about building an off-the-grid house about four years ago.

"I'm tickled that she's followed through on this," Silvasy said. "It sounds unconventional, but she grew up spending her summers with my mom on her farm in Pennsylvania. I think she learned her independence there."

Tia Meer, who works as a native plants expert, and Terry Meer, who has his own low-energy advisory company, spend a lot of their spare time tending to their squash, tomato and bean gardens.

Their monthly grocery bill is about $50, Terry Meer said.

"Our next project is to build a carport with more solar arrays on top, so we can cut that [electric] bill down to zero," he said.

The Meers also get by on organic eggs from a half-dozen hens in a coop they share with their neighbors on Hamilton Drive.

Neighbor Rusty Mauer, who watched the Meers' house go up last year, attests to their determination.

"I couldn't believe it when they started," Mauer said. "And I didn't think that they'd hang in there, but they're driven. And look at this place. It's marvelous." Tia Meer said that after a year on the Econ, she can't imagine living anywhere else.

"This is our home; we live here for real and probably for the rest of our lives."

Rich McKay can be reached at rmckay@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5470.

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