W. Pa. duo uses solar, recycling to live off grid

LIGONIER, Pa. — How great would it be to have all the conveniences of modern life without most of the bills — or worries about power outages?

It may sound too good to be true, but that’s life for Ted and Kathy Carns of Ligonier Township, who have managed to build a 21st century success story of zero waste, astonishing inventiveness and self-reliant living.

The couple penned a new book about their lifestyle, called “Off On Our Own: Living Off-Grid in Comfortable Independence,” and they will be the featured speakers Saturday at a free program offered by Peters Township Public Library.

Although an off-the-grid lifestyle — living without reliance on public utilities — may seem daunting to many, the Carns have practical tips for others to help reduce their carbon footprint and waste.

Such lifestyle changes can make a big difference financially, too. The Carns’ only routine expenses are health insurance, cell phone service and taxes.

Yet the couple has modern appliances, including a computer, flat-screen television, state-of-the-art security system and even a solar-powered blender.


But first, a tour of their secluded five-acre homestead — which they call Stone Camp — and an explanation of how it came to be.

Mr. Carns’ great-grandfather sold the five-acre plot to a group of men from Pittsburgh who wanted a hunting camp deep in the woods. In 1926, Mr. Carns’ eight great-uncles built the camp for the hunters from locally quarried sandstone and wormy chestnut timber from the family sawmill.

“They hauled everything up here on a mule train,” said Mr. Carns, 60.

The camp at that time was primitive, with no running water or electricity. The location — surrounded by 60 acres that Mr. Carns’ family owned — is so isolated that Mr. Carns said a state conservation official told him he believed the home was the most isolated dwelling in southwestern Pennsylvania. The property is tucked into the Laurel Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and surrounded by miles of dense woodland. The nearest neighbor is miles away, and the driveway to the home requires four-wheel drive.

The hunters eventually abandoned the camp. Mr. Carns, who grew up in nearby Laughlintown, can remember playing in the empty cabin as a child.

“The windows were broken,” he recalled. “It was the worst thing possible.”

An outdoorsman all of his life, Mr. Carns purchased the property 37 years ago as he was looking to move home after working as a forest fire warden in the Northwest.

“I fought some hellish, dangerous fires,” he recalled.

There was no feasible way to bring utility lines to the camp, so necessity became the mother of invention for Mr. Carns, who started slowly at first, with a wood-burning stove and oil lamps.

“This has all been an evolution,” he said.

For inspiration, Mr. Carns turned to Ruth Scott, a family friend who was an environmentalist and close friend of Rachel Carson.

Then he married Kathy, a high school acquaintance and outdoor enthusiast who also craved “the simple life.” They have been married more than 30 years.

“I’ve always been an outdoorsy person,” Mrs. Carns said.

Mrs. Carns, 59, is a social service director for the Bethlen Home in Ligonier while her husband works full time coming up with new inventions and power sources — each of which he builds himself.

“I was the support for him when he thought he couldn’t do this,” she said.

The Carns use seven alternative power sources: a wind turbine, six 75-watt solar panels, a stationary bike connected to a 12-volt battery, wood smoke, biodiesel fuel, ethanol and thermo-electric power.

Mr. Carns is building a propane-fueled refrigerator and an ice storage shed. The stationary bike is operated mostly by Mrs. Carns, who is a triathlete.


The key to self-sufficiency, the Carns have found, is always completing the recycling circle and never wasting anything.

For example, Mr. Carns built shelves in his ethanol distillery so that it also could serve as a food-drying station. Ethanol produced in the distillery also will be used to power the couple’s vehicles, which Mr. Carns has a federal permit to do. The engines are being converted to run on 190-proof ethanol instead of gasoline.

One room of the camp is devoted to scrap materials that are not tossed, such as bits of plastic and aluminum. The pieces are stored in earthenware crocks until a use can be found for them.

The home and the surrounding buildings — a total of 10 in the complex — are a treasure trove of antiques, copper pots and religious icons that the couple have collected over the years at yard sales. The main cabin’s interior is aesthetically pleasing, filled with items that are useful as well as beautiful — ceramic crocks, colorful Persian rugs, baskets and Native American blankets and goods.

Mr. Carns also is an artist who built a sculpture of the Virgin Mary from recycled metal and carved a stairway into a red maple tree trunk, which leads to a second-story sleeping loft.

“A guy wanted me to cut that into firewood,” he said, incredulously.

Several guest houses are on the property as well as a chapel that Mr. Carns built from recycled wood and fired clay shingles, where friends have been married.

Mr. Carns used a wood chipper to break apart plastic foam packing material, food trays and coffee cups for use as insulation.

The key to re-using most materials is to carefully wash and dry the material so it is as clean as possible, he said.

Other garbage, such as paper, is either taken to a local recycling center or used in one of the many compost piles dotting the property. Each serves a different purpose. One pile, for example, is devoted to composting cotton and wool clothing, which takes longer to break down than vegetable waste. Despite the number of compost piles, no foul odors emanate from the property.

“To have zero waste, you have to separate organic and synthetic materials or you get the petri dish effect,” Mr. Carns said.

The couple, who are vegetarians, grow the food they eat in a large garden. They can food from their garden, and they make their own vinegar and spices, although they occasionally shop at grocery stores and eat in restaurants. In the spring, they drink and cook with “tree water,” or sap, tapped from red maple trees, which also is made into syrup.

The home has running water that comes from faucets fed by a gravity-driven series of cisterns. It has a clothes washer and a one-gallon Swedish flush toilet that is connected to a methane digester that will produce enough power to run the refrigerator when the project is completed.

Outdoors, the property contains composting toilets and even a hot tub that is heated by a wood fire pit. The home itself and its outbuildings are heated by 17 fire and warmth sources.

Solar-powered showers are in large stone tubs, including one that has been set up in a sunroom connected to the house. That room also contains composted soil, houseplants and even creatures such as frogs, turtles and colorful, nonpoisonous milk snakes.

A gray water treatment system recycles water from showers, dishes and laundry through 11 underground filters, then directs the water to the vegetable garden and compost piles.


More than 4,000 visitors from colleges and schools in the region have been to the camp, where Mr. Carns focuses not so much about learning to live off the grid as learning to “de-program” ourselves so that we realize that we actually can be self-sufficient.

“This is a de-learning place,” he said of the effort to change the way most people think.

Two simple and non-intimidating ways to begin living off the grid include using a stationary bike connected to a battery to power small items, such as cell phone batteries, or collecting methane gas from a garden compost pile to produce an alternate power source.

“You have to take small, tiny steps at a time,” Mr. Carns said. “That’s how we did it.”

Mrs. Carns said her favorite thing about living off the grid is the privacy it provides and the opportunity to see nature up close — the couple have been visited by hundreds of black bears, coyotes and other wildlife — although she acknowledges it isn’t always an easy life.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said.

Mr. Carns believes that “all of the world has to become obsessed with cleaning up the Earth or we’re done.” Although he likes to spread the word about his lifestyle, he isn’t preachy about it and balks at being called a “tree hugger” or environmentalist.

“I’m living this way as if God is watching me,” he said. “I don’t like to be pigeonholed as an environmentalist. I do this for my own conscience.”