Living the Good Life
The Earth’s Best Story
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You have stumbled onto another episode of Get your FILL- Financial Independence and Long Life, where we explore ways to achieve those joint goals. The music you’ve just been listening to is from an original score by Carl Zukroff of the band, Blue Hotel. Check them out at TheBlueHotel.net.
In 2011 after tropical storm, Irene, left many Vermonters scrambling for generators, today’s guest moved forward with his idea to create a company that would sell very small, very affordable, solar electric systems and related materials. Tiny Solar Vermont officially launched in 2014. TSV specializes in electrifying tiny houses, yurts, camps, or just providing those who have a need for reliable backup power.
I met Joe Yoder at the Vermont Tiny House Festival. In less than a minute, he challenged all my paradigms about solar energy, which I thought I knew about because I did a whole blog series and he made me feel good, he made me like and trust him pretty instantly, which is not an easy feat but I am willing to bet that you are gonna feel the same way about Joe.
I asked Joe to come on the podcast for two reasons: one is because I wanna learn more about personal solar and also because I could see that Joe is living his dream. He’s working for himself and pursuing his passion and having a great time, which is what all of us want in our later years.
Joe’s complete bio is on the website, GetYourFILLPodcast.com along with the video of our conversation, links to his website and links to all the books that we talk about and anything else that I think might be interesting and relevant to today.
Because Joe is such an interesting person, we ended up talking for over an hour so we’re breaking the interview into two podcasts. The second half of the interview will air when we get back from Holiday Break on January 5th.
C: Joe, thank you so much for joining me today. So, tell me how you got into solar, originally.
J: Well, pretty early on, really right out of high school, I was very interested in the environment and nature. The first Ecology course I took was in the Air Force, actually. It was an evening course when I was in the Air Force – not exactly a bastion of radical liberals but even there I could see my God, nukes are nonsense. And we really need to quit polluting so much. And just sort of the basics. I didn’t really help to kind of form my personality.
I was in Boy Scouts as a kid too, camped a lot and I had a lot of camping skills and appreciation for nature, but to make a long story short, I ended up in Vermont for my last two years of college – I came up here for the Social Ecology program at Goddard College – finished school, began working, raising a family ever since, so I’ve been in Vermont since the 70s. I’m originally from Ohio. I have always been really interested in environment and trying to see what I could do to do things right.
I attempted to homestead in Danville in the early ’90s on 12 acres of land on a private road. That was kind of rough. I would say largely for financial reasons, actually. There was a recession then in early 90s and that and some other factors led to a split up of my first marriage.
While we were there, we wanted power and I was inclined to just get a generator, but the electrician we talked to said, “Hey you might wanna try solar.” This was in ’91. We did put together a solar system. I started learning about it, I had to learn how to use it. We were way up in the woods. I made a lot of mistakes, didn’t buy enough panels, put too much money into the generator, not enough into the panels, had terrible batteries, but we hobbled by and used it and then over the years, when I finally got in the position of having a property where I could do solar again, which is here, in Montpelier. My current wife and I, we got married and bought a house in 2003 and so we now live in town and we’re able to have a pretty substantial solar system, off-grid as well as the grid power is here too.
Not to be confused with grid-tie, that’s a different thing. Grid-tie is the most prevalent kind of solar in America nowadays, it’s where you put panels, usually on your roof, and all the power goes back into the electric utility and then you’re given credit toward your bill. Essentially you’re part of the production and you get credit. It has many good things about it, I’m not anti-grid-tie but when there’s a storm or your local utility goes down, you also are out of power, you have no back up.
C: And you can’t switch back to using your own solar. Is that because you usually don’t have any storage right, right?
J: Right, I’d say probably 90-95% of the grid-tie systems being sold, do not have backup storage. You can… and I think maybe backup storage is kind of getting to be of more interest to people now but a lot of it does not have backup storage.
So we’ve had in place here where I live since 2006, an off-grid solar system on my own property and again, I made some mistakes early on. I started off with a bunch of batteries from Walmart, in an overly-complicated system with batteries that were destined to die in three years. Around 2010. I started taking some classes at – it’s called altE – in Massachusetts. It’s currently in Boxborough, Massachusetts.
It’s a mostly web-based business for alternative energy, very user-friendly for do-it-yourself-ers. They actually sell to, give courses, they help train people to become installers. Two years in a row, I went down for one week of classes down there and took the NABCEP-entry-level exam. It’s the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals.
I learned how to design and install photovoltaic solar systems and came back and first thing, redid my own solar system, I found out how much better it could be, not necessarily more expensive either, but I also decided early on that I didn’t really wanna go into installing grid-tie systems, which is the predominant way to make a living in solar right now.
For one thing, I was a little bit older when I went into this. I didn’t fathom the idea of a long career, starting in my 50s, climbing around on roofs – now I’m in my 60’s, but also I see a need for something different: people who want something they could afford to pay for cash, maybe scrounge materials for and buy a few things if they have to.
And the do-it-yourself-ers – there’s a lot of people that like to learn how to do things themselves. They wanna make it and manage it themselves and be off-the-grid. Partly inspired by Hurricane Irene and the aftermath in Vermont in 2011, I decided to base my business around small-scale, affordable, off-the-grid solar. Pretty often somebody will contact me and they want something larger, and I’m more than happy to send them somewhere else.
There’s plenty of places, currently my favorite place to send them to is Sun Catcher, a company around here, a really good fellow who’s NABCEP certified, has a great background, and he’s all about battery-based, off-grid solar. But I have pretty steady group of people contacting me who they wanna do something in their camp or their yurt or tiny house, or sometimes they have unreliable power in a regular kind of house and they want some back-up.
Often I find myself working with them to design a system for them that they will then learn to build and I’ll help them. In that kind of situation because it’s really a lot of my mission as I see it, is to promote this, to get people to do their own solar and know about it and know how to maintain it. So because of that, I typically will do it all free, except for the parts in that situation. If they want me to obtain parts for them, I get dealer pricing, I can make some money on the parts and still get them a better deal than they usually can on their own but I’ll work with them to design a system, deliver it to their place and help them put it together, as long as they’re willing to work with me and learn how to do it. And then they have a small solar system.
C: So how does it work? So, you basically have two parallel systems.
J: Oh, here at my house?
C: Well, yeah, at your home and I think what you’re saying for this supplemental power for folks who have an unreliable system. How does that work?
J: Yup, that would be the best way to use the kind of system I would design or help somebody build. I also sell systems ready to go on the website, small systems.
Yes, parallel. Here in my house I have another set of wiring that goes to the house with outlets that we know are from solar only, with the exception of a couple of places where I have switches, toggle switches to go from grid to solar. It’s possible you can just wire it in for that particular light or outlet.
So the way we live here is, we keep some things on solar all the time – most of the lights on the first floor, I charge up all my small devices during the day. That’s easy. And then we have a pet tortoise, who requires two special lights and a heating pad. That’s on solar because that’s a daytime activity, that’s low-hanging fruit and then things where you have some discretion when you can use the power are also the low-hanging fruit to use from a battery-based solar, such as laundry, charging up batteries for power drills and my skill saw, using the electric chainsaw.
There are more things I’d like to add to this list. For example: a log splitter, there are electric log splitters and you can choose to do it when it’s sunny and you’re good to go. But what battery-based solar, what’s tough for it, is things that have a heavy draw at nighttime or if you just continual use day and night, like a refrigerator is usually in that category. You can get a smaller refrigerator and that helps a lot but the problem is, it’s always gonna come off and on, off and on, day and night, and you might have three cloudy days, and so you might find one morning your batteries are dead. But a battery-based solar – even here in the capital city – is a great back-up for the grid when the grid goes down, and it does sometimes. Also the grid is a great back-up for the solar. Occasionally, I’m working on the system. Or there’s some reason why it’s not functioning that great or it’s just been really cloudy, it’s great to have the grid too if I need it.
C: How much of your power are you, on average, able to supply with your solar panels?
J: Well, it requires a little bit of qualification, because when we first put the solar and this was around 2006, I remember being very proud of the fact that we actually got a couple of negative bills. Our bills, which weren’t real high to start with, but when we moved in here were probably $60 or more a month for electricity, but then we got it down so far that a couple of times – this company used to do an estimate one month and then catch it up the second month.
Some of the estimates didn’t anticipate we go so low so it would be a negative $4 for one month, the next month we pay $10 or $20. So that’s evidence to me, even in my early, crude system that I build in 2006, we probably knock 60 bucks a month off the power bill.
Now, the reason why it’s hard to say apples-to-apples, now is because back then we had propane heat, propane hot water and we’ve since switched more and more things to electricity. It might sound odd, but there’s an incentive for that.
We have electric hot water now, wood heat but I guess we’re a little more pro-electric, but we try to not waste. We have LED light bulbs everywhere, shut things off when we’re using them but we’re kinda using more power from where… Oh, I know, the other big thing, I have an electric car now.
When not using that off solar that adds about 40 bucks a month on the bill and that could be more if I was commuting further or something like that.
C: And so how many actual… Oh, okay, I always hear photovoltaic, the PV system, are there other sorts of solar that people typically use in their homes?
J: Oh yeah, solar hot water is a non-PV and most of the solar hot water systems in this climate, they have to circulate antifreeze, which then transfers to your potable hot water. So it’s fairly complicated. You have to have some pumps in… We had one for years.
There’s also passive solar which just gets into the design of your house where the windows are.
We’ve done some of that here. We put a bay window in the south side of our house shortly after we moved in. It picks up some heat, today it is actually. And then I think this year we’re maybe going to hire a carpenter to put another window in the same side of the house, to pick up just a little more direct heat. And this would be right near the tortoise’s tank, ’cause as it is, he only gets sunshine in the afternoon and he gets a little lazy in the morning, he needs to warm up to… So, we gotta work on that some.
There’s a few other kind of nuances to how you can do solar. There are these solar hot air panels, they’re called. It looks like a big old perhaps hot water panel or something like that but it just has air in it and you can put it on the south side of a house and vertical is usually okay because you’re not trying to gain anything in the summer. The winter angle is almost vertical is fine, and you just heat up air and you have a simple fan perhaps on a thermostat, the blows it in when it’s so hot, and blows it back out again. And I’ve actually considered doing that. I think we’re gonna opt instead for another window on the south side of the house.
It’s just I’m not sure how much you’re into window technology, but when you buy a modern window now, usually it’s not unusual for it to be low-E, You familiar with that?
C: Yeah, but would you explain it anyway?
J: Sure, as it was explained to me, there are little mental flakes in the glass, not even visible to the naked eye. They’re at a particular angle so that when the sun is rather high in the sky coming in from a higher angle, which is summer generally, they are designed to reflect some of the heat and light out. Especially the heat so you’re not overheating so much from that window, but they’re also at an angle so that when the sun gets lower, the sun rays can pass through more easily, and giving you the heating benefit and any glass will help heat a house, because it lets infrared rays in – those are the warm ones. We’ll make sure we get low-E glass and double-glazed, Thermopane of some sort, it’s really effective. And part of the gain to me, too, in the long run is to reduce firewood usage.
We almost 100% here with wood here, we have a couple of electric heaters we keep around for backup and there’s a propane back-up system, we just don’t use unless as an emergency.
But you know, we’re in our 60s and I imagine hauling all this firewood in when I’m in my 90’s maybe my hundreds.
C: Not that appealing, is it?
J: It might be part of what helps me to live that long, but on the other hand you don’t wanna have to stack four or five cords if you could do two cords or one cord.
If I have to hire some young person to come in and stack it for me, maybe it’s more reasonable if it’s only one or two cords, thinking along those lines.
C: How many panels do you use right now for the parallel system that you’ve created?
J; Just this year actually I kind of upgraded. I have four 390-watt panels. They’re on a wooden stand in my south yard and I made the stand fairly high, but not so high that I can’t reach up and brush the snow off in the morning. I don’t know how much you want to get into the weeds of it, but they’re set up in a way that the voltage goes sky high, they’re nominally 24-volt panels but I have them in series. The nominal voltage of a panel is always a range. A 24-volt panel can go up – way up into the 40s on a real bright, sunny, cold day and they can go down a little below 24. It still functions but… So each panel can go up to 47 volts or so, under ideal conditions. I have them in series, the negative from one panel goes to the positive of the next one. That means you increase voltage, you add voltage.
So you add it all up and it can be roughly 200-volts or so, and that kind of system requires a kind of an upper-end charge controller with what’s called MPPT multi-power point tracking.
That used to be a brand new, real expensive thing 10-15 years ago. Now, it’s kind of the standard for any system of a certain size, very good charge controller. As soon as I put a good one in this past year, I could see that I was harvesting energy during cloudy conditions. Even just a little sun and the thing would kick on, enough to run my tortoise equipment. I mean that matters, you know.
C: If the tortoise is happy, everybody’s happy right?
J: And that’s lights too. With LED lights, you’re only using about five or six watts per light, so if you pull in just 100 watts of power on a dismal, cloudy day, you’ve probably got enough to run your lights throughout the day.
I have storage. I’ve got four rather large 6-volt batteries downstairs hooked up in series to equal a 24-volt system and it’s pretty good. We can do laundry in the evening after dark off those batteries if we want to. Plus all the lights we want, recharge our cell phones and our tablets if we need to and that kind of stuff.
Like I alluded to earlier, you generally don’t wanna do unnecessary things off batteries in the evening because it’s just unrealistic. I wouldn’t have a large plasma TV and watch it all night off battery. They use a hundred watts or more of power. It can use hundreds of watts if you get a big one. A small LED TV uses 27 watts. We don’t watch TV so it’s not a good example.
C: But it is, ’cause a lot of people do. I don’t either, but I know a lot of people do. And then maybe they’re not the people who like solar. I don’t know if there’s a correlation there.
J: No, no, I wouldn’t draw the line that deep. This is the Chromebook. This uses around 30 watts when I charge it. I try to charge it during the day and I can watch it throughout the evening off of stored solar power, We watched the debates last night. We have a big enough battery system that if we have to plug things like that back in, it’s not a problem.
C: For the average person, how much would a system like that cost them?
J: Okay, it depends on how you do it. If you don’t wanna learn anything or do anything yourself, you can probably double whatever price I’m gonna give you. But if you’re willing to learn something about it, and I’m all about helping people learn if they wanna do it themselves.
You’re talking about, I’ve got maybe a 1000 bucks worth of panels out there. I got a little better deal, ’cause I had dealer pricing, but it’s a… The system, I just described to you was roughly a $1000 on the panels, about $800 worth of batteries, about a $600 charge controller. If I was upgrading, I would put it in an $800 inverter probably 3000-watt Samlex Pure Sine Wave Inverter. Add those things up and then throw in another $100 or $200 for wires and that’s what you’re talking about.
Now somebody who doesn’t wanna do it himself, who is unable to or unwilling to learn it – maybe that was roughly $3000, what we just talked about. Double it if you want someone else to install it for you – and keep in mind too, that an installer is bound by the NEC code to learn the code for the town that you’re in and comply with it. That adds some expenses that you wouldn’t necessarily have to incur if you are doing an owner-installed system.
I’m not advocating cutting any corners of safety at all but some of the code requirements are designed to just a little bit of overkill, to make sure that, unscrupulous people don’t take advantage of loopholes.
If I sell a system to somebody in a yurt, for example, it would be absurd if I was hiring my services as an installer, and I had to go find the code for that town and put everything code legal. Like for example, you get to within a certain distance of the building and you have to put the wires in conduit and conduit in the yurt.
And if I size my wires correctly, no one’s gonna convince me it’s any safer being in conduit. It is gonna be more expensive and conduits don’t lend themselves to the cloth walls of a yurt. It’s just one example.
So when people talk about do-it-yourself, we should always talk safety and I just stress, you need to build your system, say you need to learn what you need to do to do that, but if you’re not hiring out your services as an installer, you don’t have to spend all your time studying the local codes and in many cases, you don’t have to worry about permits either.
C: Yeah interesting, so when I did a solar series for my blog and that was all commercial-type solar stuff that I didn’t even realize at that time that it was an option to do sort of a DIY-solar system and the prices were much higher. I had a person come to my house, who quoted me like $20,000 for a system, and that was a tie-in obviously.
J: And I’m guessing there would have been financing available and long-term financing with interest, of course, you’re talking about the sticker price.
C: Yeah, that’s ultimately why I didn’t do it at that house because I thought $20,000 in the house was 600 square foot house so I thought it seems like overkill, you know it.
J: Well, I’m old enough to remember when solar was not grid-tie before grid-tie even existed. In the ’70s and ’80s, there were people out there and especially around here in Vermont, doing their own solar and some people would find someone to do it for them, but it was all battery-based, off-grid. All of it.
So it kinda got me when I saw everything going over to grid-tie and then becoming really corporate too, and a lot of the business models seem to be about the financing. Easy terms. And that’s a mixed bag, it’s not, I’m not just saying that’s all bad and that they’re all predatory but it can be predatory.
But it also can be humane and a way to humanly offer people with no money down to get solar. And it’s all in how you do it.
I won’t mention names but I’ve seen a couple installations right around here, that I think shouldn’t have been sold to the people. There’s a woman I know who, she and her husband struggle. She’s well past retirement, having to work hard to clean houses, and they never have enough money. The church has had to get involved to help them fix the roof on their house and things and her husband has terrible diabetes. He’s had some amputations. She was sold a solar system on the east-west side roof, which isn’t ideal – I mean there can be gain there, and there’s all kinds of shade issues. There’s just trees all around there, especially in the neighbor’s property that she can’t do anything about, and I’m sure she had no money to put down on it. And I’m sure the system’s not performing well. The roof doesn’t shed well. It’s not very steep, they’re not able to go out there every day and clean it off. And so to me that’s predatory and that’s unscrupulous.
But I will say, I will name some names, for good reasons, like SunCommon, has a grid-tie-only kind of business and they do financing, but I think they’re pretty ethical about it. I had some dealings with them, talked to them. I’ve had several people approach me who already talked to SunCommon and SunCommon told them they don’t have a good solar site, so they wouldn’t sell them a system.
That’s the right thing to say when somebody has a lousy solar site. You might bring them down easy, but,,,
C: Say it in a nice way.
J: In your email to me, for example: you’re asking for the good, the bad and the ugly. I’m gonna give you some of the ugly but I would say sad is a better word for it. There are some people who really wanna get into solar, they contact me and maybe they just wanna scratch up on some money and do it but they have a terrible site. Shade, shade, shade, shade.
You know, you could only mitigate, excessive shade to a certain extent. If somebody has – it ties into your needs, I guess too, if somebody has a site like – okay, one of my customers down in Rutland, gets pretty bad shade til about noon, but pretty good access for the rest of the day, but that’s not ideal. Normally I would say, that’s not the kind of person I really wanna talk into buying a solar. It’s better to have, I would say from 10:00 AM-2:00 PM access to sun or even, even longer possible, 9-2. Those are the best hours.
In this case, the guy – it kinda works for him, because it’s a camp way out in the woods. He leaves every winter. So when it gets the shade issues, they’re really bad and when the sun gets too low, he’s out of there, he goes away for the winter, and so he has modest need for power. He lives alone, he needs to charge up his batteries for power tools and his cell phone and run some lights in the evening, so he’s willing to work with that limitation and he’s a real handy guy, too, he’s… He had his own car shop for 25 years. He willing to get in there, learn how to do things and so in that situation. He’s got a system with just a 100-watt panel and he had his own batteries, and we kept the cost down real low for him, I think he had like 300 bucks into the whole thing.
C: Amazing. So now, how do you go about… You said, when the sun was hitting and stuff like that, how do you do that kind of analysis so that when you’re trying to set up a system for somebody?
J: Well, the two ways to do it: one is with technology and the other is just common sense observation. You can, especially if you’ve been living somewhere for a while, you know, where the sun is and when it’s there. And so a lot of times somebody is like that they. I have two customers right now that have hunting camps and both of these guys really know their sun. They’ve had these camps many years, and so we know what we’re talking about there. We know where the sun is and how long it’s there.
Also there’s a couple of kinds of technology you can use. I have a…I always forget the name of it. It’s a shade assessment tool. I love this one because it uses no external energy source. You set a little tripod up, with a kind of a grid map with latitudes on it on a circle and then a glossy piece of plexiglass over the top.
You orient it to true north and south and then you just stand over it and look at the reflected objects on the glass or plexiglass. And you reach underneath with a conte crayon, and draw the contours of everything reflected and then you end up with a drawing that tells you exactly where the shade will be every month of the year.
C: Oh wow.
J: It’s great, often I’ll do that when somebody contacts me and they don’t really know and maybe they just bought the property or they just don’t know how sunny it’s gonna be there. And we can take a look.
One example, a woman here in town literally on the summer solstice we went out to her property. It looked pretty good that day, and you could see the sun was around noon, it was right there and I did my assessment tool, I could see that in a month and a half, there’s a big tree, right at high noon that was gonna start shading. so that means sometime in August she was gonna start getting shade that would go all year and I just get worse and it’s a terrible site. We’ve done everything we can to mitigate. I’ve given her a better panel and advice on how to cut the waste every night, I turn the inverter off ’cause it draws a little bit of power at night time and things like that, but it’s just it’s never gonna be great in that particular site unless you can get rid of a couple of trees and they’re right there in the middle.
C: I know where I am, there’s a couple of houses and certain times of the year – mostly in the summer – I get good sun, but in the winter it seems like it’s just fleeting, and I have to do a little bit of analysis to see whether or not I’m gonna actually have enough usable, because I’m in the ground. Obviously, the solar panels would be higher.
J: And there’s a couple other kinds of technology too that, there’s a more expensive electronic version of a shade tool that I could have gotten from the same place I got this one, altE Company in Massachusetts. It’s like 1500 bucks. It does something electronically, maybe it’s a little quicker and easier, but I don’t feel the need to spend that much money on it. And it’s got electronics as well, so, I like to keep things simple when I can. Things that don’t need batteries are nice.
Also, I’ve heard that a lot of the larger grid-tie companies – when you first contact them, they’ll just take a look at your site with a Google Satellite view and they can come up with a rough estimate of your sun or shade issues, just from looking down at your property, looking at the trees. They’re typically looking at your roof, so that’s a starting point. And anybody who’s in the field can get more accurate than that if they want to, they can come in, but if there’s a real problem, a gross problem, you don’t even need the tools, you can just go and stand there and say: Oh man, you’ve got trees everywhere and they’re not even on your property so you can’t do anything about it.
C: The property that I originally talked to you about is just… It’s really was just like a workshed kind of thing. But I’ve turned it into – what I call the annex. It’s just like a 400-square foot little tiny house with just a few little basics in it. And right now, I’m just running 110. I was running a really long 200-foot extension cord from the main house.
J: Oh yeah, that’s long.
C: And every time when the fridge switches on all the lights dim, and stuff, and so I think just to put a panel in there, I could at least even as a supplement, but I just don’t know where I could find the sun, there ’cause it’s all tall pine trees and stuff.
J: There’s a fridge out there?
C: It’s just a mini fridge. Just a baby fridge.
J: If you have limited sun, the refrigerator is kind of the biggest issue. We should talk. Sometime after this.
C: I really want to get a big system for my home. I’m right in the middle of a renovation and it’s the perfect time to install. ’cause when I talk to that person who said it was gonna be like $20,000 for my system, he said in order for me to be off-the-grid with that system, I’d have to basically have a big switch at the panel that says: Now I wanna be on solar. Now, I wanna be on the grid, and what you… That’s fine if you’re home, right, and you know you need power… But what you’re talking about is much better to have specific plugs that – this outlet is solar and this is what you use it for.
J: Absolutely, and this kind of gets into some political stuff too. You have a right to make your own electric system and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the grid but when you do tie into the grid, you have to coordinate with your power company and you certainly have to follow the local NEC code. Any installer would have to do that and that makes sense. But last time I checked my constitution, you have a right to do anything that there’s no law against until your government has a reason to pass a law against it. So if you’re pretty sure there’s no law against it, it’s good to just do things on your own and don’t go asking permission and don’t…
C: That’s my motto, right? Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Rules to live by.
J: A lot of people live in the woods around here. Or different kind of situations, and you know, I don’t think it’s generally a good idea before somebody who’s living in a shack or camp or a yurt before they do anything, they go running down the town clerk and ask permission ’cause when you ask an authority something like that, they’re gonna say no probably to start with or they’re gonna say, yes you need permission, because otherwise they’re giving up power or they’re just being careful.
C: it’s just a CYA move, right? Well, first they gonna say, “Why are you doing living in a yurt? We’re not sure that’s legal, we gotta check that out first.
J: Let’s take a look at your septic system.
C: Yeah, Is that legal? Hold on there. You open up a big can of worms.
So let’s switch gears a little bit.
Did you always do… I wanna talk about your life now? The financial independence part we talk about with saving money on solar. But how about the long life part, enjoying your life, did you always just do solar, or you got into this later in life when you wanna do something you loved?
J: It’s not, I wouldn’t say this is a late-life thing. No. I first hitchhiked up here to Vermont in 76, to go to the social ecology program at Goddard College, and I was turned on by that right from the get-go, just hearing about it got me up here. I’d been going to college at a state university in Ohio, and another hitchhiker actually passed here and told me about this program and people learning about solar panels, and organic farming and windmills and I thought that’s right on the money, I gotta learn about that.
So it’s been a passion of mine throughout my adult life. I haven’t always been in the situation where I could do a lot with it, though. As I mentioned to you before the first time I stumbled in the solar was in 1990-91, my former wife and I were developing a piece of land up in the woods and we need a power so we went that way.
So it’s actually, I would say, having this business now and doing more of this, it’s more of an outgrowth of my lifelong passion. It’s not a thing I started late, started recently. It’s kind of an imperative to me. I look a lot at the state of the oceans, and the arctic ice and the rate of extinction that’s been accelerating and things are looking rough to me in the future and if we don’t do everything we can. I don’t know, you die feeling guilty. That’s kind of how I feel. So I just feel like it’s an imperative to do all I can.
I actually take issue sometimes when I hear younger people really laying the guilt on the baby boomers, so to speak. I’m a baby boomer that when I hear the narrative of… You guys laid this on us, now we have no future. It’s way more nuanced and complicated than that. We’re all born into this set of arrangements, we don’t have a choice. We were born into Plastic Land and Fossil Fuel Land. But once you know what’s going on – yeah, you do have a choice. And I’ve known a lot of people struggling to do anything they can and that’s been my life too. I do everything I can, as much as I hate plastic waste and I’ve been kind of politically involved in that too. You can’t buy anything without throwing away some plastic. I opened up a jar of kimchi, yesterday and there’s plastic around the rim that goes in the landfill.
If you want, I’ll talk a little bit about retirement and tying this into that.
C: Yeah, please.
J: I’ve read some about FILL. I’ve always been very interested in getting out of debt, way before retirement. And we did manage to do that, we made extra payments on our house for a good 10 years or so… And then my wife got some inheritance from her mom when she died. Were we able to go ahead and pay the house off. But that wouldn’t have been so easy if we hadn’t been paying extra.
We’re really committed now ’cause we’re in early retirement. We both just retired from our “job” jobs in the last two years. No debt, that’s very important to me. I’ve always aspired to this ever since. I read this book back in the ’70s. I don’t know if you ever heard of this: Helen and Scott Nearing.
They were the original homesteader hippies that came to Vermont in the 30s. They cashed in their, I think, teachers’ pensions or something and came up here and built a house from scratch with stones and garden.
They were kind of communist, I think. They created a lot of social events around their homestead and they wrote a book about it, and then the ski industry moved in around them and they moved to Maine and did it all over again in their 50s. I saw them speak, when Scott was – he had to be in his 90s at least – at a NOFA conference back in the ’70s, Helen was a little younger, and he lived to be well over 100, I think, and they built their own stone house up there too.
But I’m getting off track a little bit here. But one of their philosophies in this book is: never spend a dollar you don’t have. And I really do aspire to that. The last thing I would wanna do starting a business would be go look for investors or Go Fund Mes, or anything like that.
It’s just to me it’s just… the road to hell is paved on good credit. I’m gonna plug another book. I have no interest, financial interest in these, by the way. I know the guy that wrote this Ron Koss and Arnie Koss. I worked with them in the early 80’s.
C: Earth’s Best Story.
J: Yeah, Ron Koss and his wife used to be the co-directors of a group home that I worked at around 1980-81 in Morehaven, so we all lived there for a while, so we got to know each other really well.
It was a group home for kids. But this is something Ron did after that experience.
In the 80’s Ron and his brother and their spouses started the first organic baby food company at national scale. You could still see the brand on the supermarket shelves but this is a great read for anybody thinking about starting a business who… Maybe they want to know about venture capital, getting investors and it’s actually, I think, a well-written book. It’s kind of a gripper. I really, it’s not the kind of book I thought I would have read but since I knew the guy I bought it, and it’s a page turner, I couldn’t put it down. And it’s kind of a horror show, for putting your dream into a business and then losing it all to the shark pool.
They kept – because they wanted to go national, to begin with, they made serious investments in a factory to build this baby food. They didn’t think it would be viable to do a local, small thing and grow because of the equipment investments or something like that because they had to go pretty big to begin with, they took investments early on, and ultimately they just every time times got rough they had to go to the shark pool again and every time they lost a little bit more control over their business until the end of the story where they both got shoved out of their own business.
These are twins, by the way, Arnie and Ron.
Who am I to say nobody should ever get investors… I can’t really say that, but it doesn’t work for me, I’m not gonna it and I guess that brings me to another philosophy I have is to be upwardly and downwardly mobile in a business because maybe it helps that I don’t have to make a living at this, but I do need to not lose money at it.
Yeah, at least that. It’d be nice to make money. I made a little bit of money last year by the way, but it… There’s all kinds of stories about people who have a great idea and then suddenly they can’t scale up, they can’t handle the business when it takes off. Sometimes they recover and do great, but sometimes not.
And then, downscaling to me is, this is kind of an experiment, my business model. And I always had a sense that I needed to be able to go down to no sales for a while, if I have to. And what can I afford at the bottom to keep this business going, so that when… Maybe spring comes, or there’s more interest I can pick it up again.
And I know exactly what it is, I know what my fixed costs are: I have a monthly insurance payment, liability insurance, and then my web service and I have a dedicated email. Those things all together, comes to around a hundred bucks a month.
C: You’ll have to go get a paper route, right?
J: Well, I do have some income besides this. I have some retirement income and we’re not broke. So I could afford $100 a month to keep the business ready, that’s the extreme downscale.
And usually there’s a few months of the year, where maybe I don’t make a sale, don’t have any income.
And then the other expense that I have to watch out for is R&D. I’ve had to R and D everything I sell and usually I make something that’s not gonna make me any money, and it might cost me 400 or 800 bucks to make and it’s a prototype, it’s a system, and then I got a tweak it, make it better, and I have some advertising costs. That’s not a fixed cost, that can that can ebb and flow.
I made bumper stickers, shopping bags, I’ve got a business cards, and it seems like a couple hundred bucks on the business cards go a long ways. Then I just tried for the first time, I think, around now there’s Green Energy Times, I have a little banner coming out in this. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes.
They would love it if I just advertised every issue and spent hundreds of dollars. But it’s kind of funny talking to the lady. She was great, by the way. I liked her sell job to me. She sent me all the information, she was very forthright in everything she did, and I looked over the details, I found the cheapest ad I could do, which is a little banner ad, which is just… Just room enough for maybe my logo and the website. And I said that one sounds do-able- 95 bucks for a couple of months in a… And she was a little bit trying to talk me out or she goes “Not too many people get those. You don’t get much for it. And we’re thinking about even doing away with them.’
I said, “Well you know, I’m Tiny Solar Vermont.”
C: If I have a big ad, that’s just not right.
J: It’s okay, I’m all about tiny. I have a tiny budget, too, for advertising.
C: Yeah, there’s something wrong with having a full-page ad for Tiny Solar Vermont. It just doesn’t seem right.
J: Yeah, overkill.
C: Thanks so much, Joe, for joining us today and thank you Listener. I hope you’ll tune in next week where we’ll be talking about, among other things, charitable giving and how good that can feel and tune in on January 5th for Joe Yoder, Part 2. In the meantime, have a wonderful week.