Houston man goes 'off the grid'

HOUSTON - NBC's new show "Revolution" explores a post-electric world. So, what would happen if the real world went dark?

Houston area residents have gotten a taste of the loss of power after natural occurrences, like Hurricane Ike, and when electric companies used rolling blackouts to protect power grids.

It is not just the end-of-the world types exploring alternatives to signing up for power from a grid. Dan Bretch is one of those people. His property has no power lines or cables, no water pipes or connections. He is proud to be "totally off-the-grid."

"We derive all our own power from the sunlight or a generator that runs on biodiesel," said Bretch, the owner of Industrial Country Market.  

It wasn't the fear of Armageddon or the complete collapse of the United States, but the simple issue of money that pushed Bretch and his family to cut the cord.

Bretch sampled living off-the-grid first with a cabin on the property before opening a 6,000-square-feet store. The Industrial Country Market is just off Highway 71 near Interstate 10 on the way to Austin.

The store has gadgets, both fun and serious, along with a sampling of just about anything you could find in a roadside store. The walls are filled with all kinds of art from local artists. Bretch has a little work station in the back to continue his experiments and build contraptions that can be found everywhere at ICM.

Bretch's crowning jewel is a room with a huge bank of batteries and large inverter boxes that funnel the energy being collected by solar panels in the yard.

"At this facility you are looking at 8,000 to 10,000 watts coming out of this from the sun right now," Bretch said.

He said the panels can feed up to 100,000 watts of electricity a day. What isn't used is collected in batteries and not only keeps the lights on but even powers a few small air conditioners.

"What we have is the standard power you would have at your house -- 110 volt and 220 volt," Bretch said.

It goes beyond just the power -- composting toilets, plants that filter water for ponds -- everything  in his store serves a purpose.

Bretch said the cost for things like solar panels has dropped dramatically, making off-the-grid living more feasible. Panels that were once $800 now hover around $100.

Bretch has found a way to make it even cheaper by bargain hunting. He said most of his supplies are reclaimed or acquired when other stores have either remodeled or gone out of business.

"Get on Internet, look on Craigslist. See what is on eBay," Bretch said.

Many of his bigger ticket items were acquired from people he said prepared for the Y2K disaster that never happened. Those people began trying to get rid ofwhat at the time was very expensive gear at rock-bottom prices.

Little is wasted at ICM. Most of the buildings are made of reclaimed metal or recycled items. Even the water is acquired. Some of the water comes from a drilled well, but most comes from Mother Nature. Rain barrels and gutter systems can be found all over the property. Bretch said even during last year's drought they had no problems living off the water they had already collected.

"Part of the codicil was to do this whole thing without giving anything up. I have my satellite television. I have my microwave oven. I have my shower. I have my air conditioner," Bretch said.

Solar power runs a water heater. A sun stove can even cook a meal if need be.

Bretch and his wife, Michele, are currently building a self-sustaining house on the property.

"It is just like the house you have, except no electric bill," Bretch said.

And no water bill, too. The slopping roof allows the rain water to flow to a single gutter that carries the water to two giant tanks. A water filtration system cleans the water before it enters the house.

Bretch said it is difficult for people living in the city or those with lots of trees to live off-the-grid, but everyone should be able to use collected rainwaterto water their lawns. 

"I would simply have a valve that turns off city water to rain water," Bretch said.

Bretch teaches classes for $71 to anyone interested in going solar.

For Bretch, the self-sustaining lifestyle is about being financially secure and keeping his costs down.

"My biggest expense from my Social Security check will be my DirecTV," Bretch said.

Photos: Industrial Country Market

Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.