Solar, water sources help Derry Township clan bypass power grid
The Urcheks aren’t living completely off the grid. But they’re getting there.
Late family patriarch Pete Urchek started the trend decades ago when he combined old and new technologies for an independent power supply for his farmhouse on Gray Station Road in Derry Township.
An early adopter of residential solar panels in the 1980s, he owned a solar-powered golf cart. He also rigged a water wheel alongside his tractor shed in 1978, harnessing the flow of a local stream to power outlets and appliances in his nearby home.
The white oak wheel he created “lasted until five years ago. Then it got too soft,” said Dave Urchek, one of two sons who helped with the project.
So, Dave combined his ideas with those of his brother, also Pete, to design a steel replacement wheel measuring close to 11 feet in diameter.
“I think it will last indefinitely,” Dave Urchek said of the new wheel, which started turning in September. For protection from the elements, he said, “The outside rim is stainless steel and the inside spokes are covered with a tar-and-oil mix.”
He spent about 100 hours fabricating pieces of the wheel at the Indiana County machine company where he works. For the assembly, he got help from his brother, their mother, Mary, and a nephew, Charlie Urchek.
“There’s about 500 stainless bolts holding it together,” Dave said.
The updated wheel can generate up to 700 watts of electrical power. “It runs 24 hours a day, so it adds up,” he noted.
Next on the to-do list is repairing an auxiliary water turbine, meant to run in place of the wheel during colder weather.
Dave absorbed lessons from his father’s power projects and has taken them to the next level at his own nearby home.
The 16 solar panels on Dave Urchek’s roof can generate up to 25 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. During daylight hours, that allows him to send excess electricity into local utility lines, offsetting some of the power he consumes from the grid at other times.
“We’re making about a third of our electricity now with the solar panels,” he said. “In summertime, we make more electricity than we use.”
He foresees the day when he’ll be able to power his house independently, once he gets 24 other solar panels out of storage and placed on his remaining roof space. For good measure, two windmills are in storage.
“I don’t want an electric bill when I’m retired,” he said.
A whole-house, uninterrupted power supply stores the solar power for use when the local utility service is interrupted.
“If the power goes out, it’s nice not to even blink at it,” said Dave’s wife, Sue. “It’s sort of seamless.”
Supplementary use of a wood-burning stove, basement tanks Dave plans to fill with more than 3,000 gallons of solar-heated water, and extra-thick insulated walls and radiant heating in areas he added to the original two-story home, should allow the couple to stay snug for about two weeks without relying on a furnace.
The house also is equipped with a two-part unit that functions as both a heat pump and an air conditioner.
Dave made many of the energy-saving modifications to his home with used components or things he fashioned, after seeking advice from friends and picking up tips and discounted equipment online.
He hopes to augment his mother’s home with extra solar panels, as well.
The family farm is stocked with cattle, chickens and beehives, providing the Urchek clan with fresh meat and honey. Two gas wells provide fuel for cooking.
“We just try to live off the land and take advantage of all the energy around us,” Sue said.
There is little trace of a nearby water-powered mill that the farm’s original owners, the Wallace family, operated in the nation’s early years.
But Dave has preserved his family’s wooden water wheel and is displaying it on the side of a storage building along Gray Station Road as a tribute to his father, a pioneer in his own right.
“He was ahead of the game,” Dave said.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @jhimler_news.