[Worldtrippers home] [Mountaintop home]

September 24, 2006

Gail, Russell, and our first electric light

Our quest for electricity on our mountaintop has been a long and laborious one. Back in April 2003, when we first set eyes on the property, we knew that we would have to bring in any utilities ourselves. The fact that our building site was surrounded by 50+ acres of mountainous forest meant that it would not be easy.

We had a septic tank installed right away, as a requirement for getting our building permit. Unfortunately, the septic system required electricity, so it would not be usable for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, we had water lines installed. But again, the water would require an electrical step-up pump to get all the way up to the building site, so it was not fully usable either.

From the time that we had our first house-raising party in April 2005, we relied on a portable gas-powered generator for all of our electrical needs. These included drills, saws, and the indispensable impact wrench.

During our original house-raising party in April 2005, we relied on an electric generator for all power (it's sitting behind a corner post)

At the same time, we researched, debated, and discussed the best way to get real electricity onto the property. Our original idea was to go completely self-contained and natural: septic for sewage, well for water, and solar for electricity. The opportunity to access city water was too good to pass up, however.

Nevertheless, we continued to look at self-contained electrical options. We briefly considered wind power (the mountain can experience winds up to 100 miles per hour), but we immediately rejected this option because of high maintenance costs (windmills tend to need constant maintenance and repair).

We researched solar power companies between California and Colorado, getting quotes and brochures from several of them. In May 2005, we spent a day at Renewable Technologies Inc., a local supplier in nearby Sutter Creek. A representative, Dmitri Tzouros, actually came out to our property, where we talked about covering the south side of the mountain behind our house with an array of solar panels.

We talked bout covering the south side of the mountain behind our house with an array of solar panels

We determined that it would cost about the same amount of money to install solar power as it would to go onto the public utility electrical grid. Unfortunately, the real advantages to solar power only happen if you are already on the public grid.

First, solar arrays require a back-up power source, for times when there is not enough sunshine (during the winter, for instance). Normally, the back-up source is the public grid. If we went self-contained, we would have to invest in an expensive back-up battery system that would require maintenance and periodic replacement.

Second, much of solar’s return on investment comes from rebates that occur when you are able to contribute excess power back into the public grid. Unfortunately, you have to be connected to the public grid in order to get credit for this.

In the end, we determined that one way or another, we really needed to be connected to the public grid. Given our dwindling monetary resources, we reluctantly decided to pass on the solar option.

The path to electricity therefore went through Pacific Gas & Electric, the public utility for northern California. We knew that we would be tapping in to the transformer that was situated on our neighbor’s land right at the property line, where we already had an easement. We also knew that we wanted to install our power lines underground, as opposed to overhead. The question now was whether to contract directly with PG&E or an independent electrical contractor.

Our neighbor had a PG&E transformer right at the property line

PG&E will provide exactly one electrical meter per parcel, and guarantees power service up to the meter. Because PG&E “owns” responsibility up to the meter, they must install this portion themselves. Beyond the meter, PG&E doesn’t care what you do, and they are not responsible for service levels.

Under Option 1, we would put the meter near our house. The advantage is that power would be guaranteed all the way to our house. The disadvantage is that we would have to hire PG&E to pull the electrical lines the entire 1,000 feet from the transformer to the house. By its own admittance, PG&E costs twice as much as an independent contractor.

Under Option 2, we would put the meter near the property line. The advantage is that PG&E would only have to install the 25 feet between our neighbor’s transformer and the meter. We could hire a less expensive contractor to pull lines from the transformer to the house. The disadvantage is that power would only be guaranteed to the meter. If anything ever failed between the distant meter and our house, it would be our responsibility.

We talked to several people (including the PG&E representative) who confirmed that most of the locals have non-PG&E lines and seldom have problems. In addition, we knew that we would need to tap into the line about halfway through in order to install a water pump, and we could not do this if PG&E installed the line.

In the end, our decision was not based on the least-expensive option, but on the most timely one. PG&E was backed up for months, and Gail really wanted to have electricity on the property before the height of summer. We were hiring our neighbor, Scott, to do all of the trenching, and he really didn’t want to be doing this during the 100+ July heat.

During the first half of 2006, Gail researched and obtained bids from independent electrical contractors that ranged anywhere from $11,000 to a whopping $60,000. The discrepancies were due to whether we should use expensive copper wire vs. economical aluminum wire, and whether we would require a step-up and step-down transformer for the large distance between the meter and our house.

In the end, we found a contractor somewhere in the middle, Perreira’s Electrical out of Lodi. Above all, Walt Perreira struck us as both honest and reliable. He said that we would absolutely require additional transformers. He also highly recommended copper wire as better long-term than aluminum.

Perreira's Electrical installed a step-up transformer halfway between the property line and our house. At this point, they also tapped in to the line to feed a water pump down the hill.

At the beginning of 2006, copper wire was selling for about $2 a foot. By spring, it had exceeded $4 a foot. Apparently, China was buying up copper supplies all over the world for its economic development. Walt kept warning us that we would have to make a decision soon. One afternoon in April, he called to tell us that he had locked in a price under $4 that was good until 5:00 that evening. We agreed on the spot and faxed him a signed contract.

Walt and Scott worked efficiently. In May and June 2006, trenches and conduits were laid, and wire was pulled. In the end, the critical path still turned out to be PG&E, who had to complete their small section between the transformer and the meter. It took them more than six weeks to do this.

Perreira's Electrical crewmen pull wire through the underground conduits
The finished step-down transformer, off the back deck of the house

Finally, in mid-September, Walt called to tell us that we had electrical power.

On September 23, we were able to plug our tools into an electrical socket for the first time. We put away the generator. We were able to turn on electrical lights for the first time. We put away our Coleman lanterns.

It may be true that with each new modern convenience, we lose something of the rawness that first attracted us to this mountain. But it sure is nice being able to turn things on and off with the flick of a switch.

The upstairs "bedroom," now with mood lighting


[Worldtrippers home] [Mountaintop home]