Disconnected From the Grid!

By Dave Yates Special to CONTRACTOR For the past 24 years, my family has been vacationing each August in Chincoteague, Va., to enjoy the wilderness beaches of Assateague National Park, a barrier island. Our youngest was 9 years old the first time we camped there, and we were concerned he might be put off by there not being a boardwalk or any of the many distractions most beach towns offer. Instead,

By Dave Yates


For the past 24 years, my family has been vacationing each August in Chincoteague, Va., to enjoy the wilderness beaches of Assateague National Park, a barrier island. Our youngest was 9 years old the first time we camped there, and we were concerned he might be put off by there not being a boardwalk or any of the many distractions most beach towns offer.

Instead, there were bike rides through the wildlife refuge, beach walks with national park rangers and a host of programs geared to families. We fell in love with the entire experience.

Each year when we returned, a trip to the Assateague National Park beach was a top priority in order to get that first touch of sand and surf. More often than not, the asphalt roads and parking lots were repaved while the bathhouses were either rebuilt or brand new because of Mother Nature’s winter storm surges having washed them away. The overhead power lines serving the bathhouses and visitors center were not spared either, with sections or entire segments being destroyed each year.

And each year, the dunes would have been rebuilt to new heights in a never-ending quest to counter those forces of nature. Barrier islands are always shifting and on the move. The National Park Service threw in the towel a few years ago and moved the visitors’ center away from the beach.

The Virginia side of Assateague offers you the ability to walk a fairly short distance and find that you are the only people on the beach as far as the eye can see! As a result, I’ve always wanted to hike from the Maryland side to the Tom’s Cove visitors’ center on the Virginia side — a 26-mile journey. The border between the states is almost dead center, which offered an opportunity for an overnight beach camping experience. This past July, I finally talked our youngest son and several cousins into sharing this experience. It rained cats and dogs the entire time, which made walking in sand feel like slogging through quicksand. I’m almost positive that they’ve forgiven me!

A new vision

When we arrived in Tom’s Cove, I spied a curious thing that captivated my attention. The bathhouses we’d been accustomed to seeing were missing. In their place were odd-looking changing rooms with a canvas top that resembled a potato chip’s shape, large ADA portable toilets and a stainless steel shower tower. Farther away from each of them was a trailer with several solar panels.

In the place of the asphalt roads and parking lots were areas constructed with a mixture of clay and shells that offered a firm surface for vehicles. Gone were the telephone poles with their electrical lines. Had the power lines been buried or were the solar panels supplying all the power for the bathhouse lights and shower tower plumbing? We were returning in a few weeks for vacation, and I vowed to find the answers.

Upon arrival, we stopped at the visitors’ center to ask about the solar panels. The rangers there gave me a number for Ranger Chris Finlay, who was in charge of this project.

I caught up with Finlay on his way to Montana where he will resume duties as a ranger at Grand Teton National Park .

Finlay was chief of maintenance for the Virginia Assateague National Wildlife Refuge. He arrived in 1998 from the Denver Service Center, an architectural firm that had been downsized. He immediately recognized problems were created by shifting beaches — 600 ft. since the 1960s when the federal government reserved this area as a wildlife refuge. Many of the harsh winters saw extensive damage to the infrastructure including the electrical lines serving the public restrooms.

Finlay dreamed of some way to maintain public needs while conserving resources and minimizing impact upon the fragile environment that makes up this shifting barrier island. One day, he saw a picture in a magazine of a solar-powered restroom that captivated his imagination! Seeing solar designs and applications in a number of magazines gave Finlay the impetus to begin searching out a suitable design for self-sustained restrooms. Solar plumbing!

Fortunately, the National Park Service partnered with the Energy Department in 1998 to begin studying ways to incorporate sustainable and renewable energy for use and public education. The ability to have something in place that could also serve as a public classroom appealed greatly to Finlay. By brainstorming with others, he developed the idea of portable solar arrays used in conjunction with public restrooms along the Assateague, Va., National Wildlife Refuge beaches.

With Finlay’s departure, I was directed to Ranger John Lincoln who told me that solar plumbing accomplishes these objectives: zero impact to the environment; being off the power grid; and very mobile buildings for getting them out of harm’s way.

Roadways are constructed from a 12-in.-thick natural mixture of clay and shells instead of the asphalt, which created pollution. Now when winter storms wreak havoc, the clay-and-shell mixture releases natural resources back into nature. An endangered bird species, the piping plover, has reaped the benefits from nature’s wrath and the new roadbed materials by utilizing the shells for nesting.

Dressing rooms are constructed of stainless steel tubing with a tautly stretched canvas roofing fabric. Nicknamed “potato chips” because of the curved roof design that can withstand 140-mph winds, these changing rooms were designed for rapid dismantling in the event of advance warnings for severe weather.

The plastic portable outhouses sit atop concrete holding tanks and can be quickly removed in advance of severe weather. The tanks are pumped dry, refilled with water, and a lid is bolted to the opening to avoid contaminating the environment with human wastes. Missing upon entering the outhouse is any foul odor, which you might reasonably expect given the clear unobstructed opening to the septage. That’s entirely due to the oversized vent rising above the structure.

This south-facing black vent pipe absorbs the sun’s energy and converts that into hot air, which naturally lifts exhausting odors to the atmosphere while constantly drawing in fresh air via the toilet’s opening. Once a day, each portable toilet is swept clean and washed down.

The beach area has more than 960 parking spaces and, gauging by the number of glistening bodies on the beach, about 10 people per car! No worries about washing away the sand before getting in your car; the solar plumbing systems were sized to allow for constant pumping on any given day and can go for three or more days without sunlight using the battery backup.

Instead of weeks being required to dismantle and prepare for winter’s arrival, it now takes just three days to carefully pack up the public facilities and move everything to an inland storage center. One portable toilet is normally left in place for those of us who enjoy a stroll along mostly deserted beaches in the off-season. If emergency weather conditions arise, a crew can dismantle and relocate one of the bathhouse areas in a scant 30 minutes!

David Love of SunWize Technology in Olympia, Wash., designed these 1,200-watt solar arrays, which can provide three to five days of ongoing use without sunlight by utilizing their battery storage, he says. The water system consists of: a 110-volt stainless steel 8-gpm Grundfos pump (due to the brackish saltwater being used for the showers); a 100-ft.-deep well; and a minimum pumping capacity of 1,920 gal. per day per shower tower. Delivery pressure is maintained at 20 psi. Low-voltage lights are located on the trailers and within the bathing/changing areas. Fast setup and removal time (30 minutes or less) was an essential design feature as were corrosion-resistant components.

The solar trailers are checked daily, and Lincoln notes that very few mechanical problems have occurred. Once a week, the panels are washed for enhancing maximum solar gain.

Fade to black

Love says that he is seeing a 30% increase in U.S. solar usage per year, which shores up my hopes that we’re on the way to seeing this sensible use of resources on its way back from the devastating withdrawal of government subsidies in the 1970s. Although a solar advocate, he says he has no desire to see the subsidies return. Referring to them as a “dangerous addiction,” Love explains his concern centers on the fact that the subsidies can be wiped out with a pen stroke.

If the world’s appetite for oil remains constant, it is estimated that we will have depleted economically available U.S. reserves by 2018. If consumption increases annually by as little as 2%, that will shorten up to 2010, a scant seven years distant!

World reserves have an estimated depletion of economically viable resources in 2035. Clearly, we must begin anew the process of promoting renewable energy resources such as solar and wind power.

I finished my interview with Ranger Lincoln on Aug. 13, and came away more convinced than ever before that solar power is in our future and a viable resource. The following evening, the northeast portions of the United States and Canada were plunged into darkness in a blackout that affected more than 30 million people. The most serious dilemma facing people was the loss of their potable water in both well and municipal pumped delivery systems.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler Inc., a contracting firm in York, Pa.