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Family goes solar at Denton co-op

Dressed in denim jeans and a floppy, wide-brimmed straw hat, Jerry Langley brings to mind a modern-day Charles Ingalls, the patriarch of Little House on the Prairie.

Langley, 53, lives modestly with his wife and two children in a small two-bedroom home.

Their dwelling is made of ferro-cement, a composite building material, and sits partly underground on the rolling Blackland Prairie in Rainbow Valley, a 220-acre self-governed agricultural cooperative near Sanger in north Denton County.

The Langleys can look across their 2 1/2 acres and view fields of coneflowers and purple thistle. A rutted, one-lane gravel road winds through the picturesque landscape, which is home to a variety of wildlife -- turkeys, raccoons, roadrunners, great blue herons. At night, coyotes turn their lonesome howls toward a canopy of stars.

A summer visitor, a box turtle, regularly appears at their front door.

Now and then the critter moseys into the living room, as if entitled, and helps itself to food left for the family cat.

The Langleys' rural lifestyle -- secluded, peaceful, private -- is far different from that of city dwellers in another respect.

There's not a power line in sight.

This family and the seven other Rainbow Valley members live off the grid -- without the benefit of commercial electricity.

The co-op was formed in the late 1970s by a group that Langley said was dedicated to "walking lightly on the land."

"We've got most everything we need out here," Jerry Langley said. "Except air conditioning."

Environmentally conscious, the Langleys live frugally on his small income, sharing a sense of pride in their self-sufficiency. So do a growing number of Americans.

An estimated 180,000 homes in the U.S., mostly in the West, draw their power from the sun and wind and other sources.

"It used to be people living off the grid were out in nowhere, where it was very expensive to get electrical lines. That's no longer true," said Dona McClain with Solar Today, a bimonthly magazine published by the American Solar Energy Society. "Now you're finding off-the-grid homes right in the middle of a city."

Those accustomed to modern conveniences like thermostat-controlled heating and cooling might view the Langleys' lifestyle as difficult.

Take washing clothes, for instance.

"You don't just push a button," Langley's wife, Tammy, said.

Their washing machine, bought secondhand for $30, sits outdoors on the front porch.

Every other day, she fills the tub with water from a garden hose and then climbs a staircase of rocks to the tin-covered roof. Mounted on top of the house are three solar panels attached by cables to eight golf-cart batteries -- the main power source -- and a generator. To run the washer, she starts the generator by yanking a rope, like a lawn mower.

Garments are dried the old-fashioned way, on a line stretched between a silver maple and a black willow tree.

Jerry Langley invested about $3,000 for three solar panels, batteries, a charge controller, a generator and inverters. The panels produce power for the lighting, television, stereo, answering machine and fans.

The charge controller regulates the power flow from the panels to the rechargeable batteries and provides an amps reading. His family, Langley said, has an adequate energy supply, even on cloudy days.

They are comfortable until summer, when the temperature inside their home climbs to 90 degrees on the hottest days.

"The biggest problem facing people living off the grid," Langley said, "is finding a way to keep cool."

To combat the oppressive heat, they take frequent dips in an outdoor kiddie pool covered by a canopy of mosquito netting. They also find a measure of relief beneath the whirring blades of their living-room ceiling fan. Jerry bought the $100 fan, designed to ventilate poultry houses, from an agricultural supply catalog.

Perhaps the most effective cooling sources for the money are the small, $10 electric fans strategically placed at each end of the couch and atop the headboard of the bed in the couple's dome-shaped bedroom. Built into a hillside, and almost entirely underground, the room is the coolest place in the house.

The cooking stove and water heater run on propane.

The Langleys occasionally cook frozen pizzas or warm tortillas outside in an old solar oven bought secondhand for $1.

"It gets to 325 degrees," Langley said. "Chicken nuggets will cook about as fast [as in a conventional oven]. And you don’t heat up the house."

Their solar-powered TV is connected to an inverter box, which sits atop a 1948 Servel refrigerator -- also propane powered.

Propane is stored in a rusty, 250-gallon tank and costs them $1,000 a year.

A wood stove provides warmth in winter. They burn mostly discarded lumber and paper products.

Langley planted a wind barrier of junipers on the north side of his residence and grows wild plums for their fruit and as erosion control.

Their $75 monthly dues to the cooperative pay for taxes, road repairs and water pumped from a community well.

They faithfully bag recyclables and take them to a drop-off center in Denton.

'Part of the future'

Langley is a thoughtful, slender, soft-spoken man with large, soulful eyes. Employed in Denton at a state-funded facility for mentally retarded adults, he devotes his spare time to making home improvements -- as the budget permits -- and educates himself about self-sufficient living by reading Home Power, Backwoods Home and Mother Earth News.

The son of a military father, he and his family moved around the country when he was growing up.

In 1981, in his late 20s, Langley settled in the Denton area and lived alone in a 13-foot travel trailer. He got his electricity from an extension cord he ran from a friend’s home. Five years later, he moved his trailer to Rainbow Valley. With no electricity available, he used an old car battery to power a single light in the trailer and a small TV.

"When the power got low," he recalled, "the picture got smaller and smaller."

Langley began building a three-room cabin, using lumber and other scrap materials he acquired from homes he helped tear down as a side job. He installed solar panels and was living there when his new wife joined him. They settled in their current home about five years ago.

Tammy Yates, a Fort Worth native, had lived in Denton in a single-family home and an apartment and was accustomed to city life.

But she had been energy conscious for years.

"I was taught to always turn off what you're not using. That's the way I was brought up," she said.

Moving to Rainbow Valley "wasn't a shocker," she said, but rather an adjustment.

Jerry Langley said he feels somewhat like a pioneer in Rainbow Valley.

"There's no electric bill. ... I like the progressive nature of it," he said. "I think we're part of the future as petroleum gets harder and harder to come by. I know people will stay on the grid, but someday the grid will be powered by mostly solar and wind.

"There are so many reasons to be environmentally conscious I don't know where to begin," Langley said. "I hope we can keep our planet in good enough shape until we can inhabit other places -- other planets. Eventually I think it will become intolerable enough here -- with overpopulation -- that people will want to go.

"I just want to help hold the planet together until then."

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