Stewart's Suburban Sunfarm

A low-carbon solar oasis thrives behind a suburban facade

Gavin MacRae

© George Le Masurier

Stewart Mcintosh’s Comox Valley property looks like a million others from the street: an early 1980s rancher with a detached garage and RV trailer in the driveway.

Spend a couple minutes with Mcintosh – a bearded, exuberant man in his mid-fifties – and he will eagerly show you that looks can be deceiving. His property harvests solar energy three ways, forming the linchpin of his low-carbon lifestyle.

Years ago, two separate motor vehicle accidents left Mcintosh with a brain injury, causing a condition called perseveration – his mind gets on a subject and won’t let it go. He’s learned to leverage perseveration to doggedly see through ideas that most people would dismiss as ambitious but short-lived eureka moments.

“I don’t want to think about depressing stuff that you can’t do anything about, says Mcintosh. “So I think about depressing stuff that you can do something about. I think about a problem, and I think, how could I resolve that with something practical that’s going to make a difference?”

Mcintosh’s thinking has paid off. He enjoys paltry energy bills, bumper crops, and copious wine reserves, with time left over for camping, boating, and travel.

It all started with a his “solar super saver” water heating system.

Mcintosh installed a grid of black hose on his south-facing rooftop, which pre-warms municipal water before it flows into his water heater. In the summer months, the water needs no further heating. It can even get too hot. “What I found was that from 10 am until about six pm, there’s an eight-hour window in the day where the sun gets the water as hot or hotter than what the tank is set at,” he says.

The scooter-trailer-canoe meets safety specs, but Mcintosh has been pulled over several times while incredulous police officers confirm his paperwork is in order

He gets the system up and running around the first week of March, and shuts it down mid November. On summer mornings, the water can be directed straight from the solar system to a private backyard shower that Mcintosh says is an “unbelievably pleasant way to start the day.”

Materials for the DIY system cost $850, and the project will pay for itself in six-and-a-half years, according to Mcintosh’s meticulous records. After that, he says, “it becomes a passive income for your household. Tax free income.” Mcintosh holds up his most trivial natural gas bill, with 34¢ in energy charges. “They can’t tax you on savings.”

Mcintosh also gets big savings from his prolific backyard garden. It’s arranged into four quadrants, with individual compost bins feeding the quadrants from a central hub. The fenceline acts as a trellis for clusters of wine grapes and three kinds of kiwis.

At summer’s end, Mcintosh makes and freezes soups and stews from the vegetable crop.

Three years running, Mcintosh has harvested over 1000 lbs of grapes to make wine. His crawlspace-turned-wine cellar is near capacity, and visitors to his home often leave with a jug.

Turning to transport and recreation, Mcintosh bought a 55 lb thrust electric outboard with two batteries to propel his canoe. To charge the batteries he mounted a small solar panel to the canoe’s gunwale. When he’s boating, the batteries work independently: one battery is charging while the other powers the motor.

The canoe can cruise at around seven kilometres per hour all day. “My longest day was 12 hours out there between two batteries. That’s a long day on the water,” he says.

To get to the boat launch, Mcintosh hauls his canoe on a custom made trailer he built, behind his 50 cc scooter. “It really blows people away when I’ve got the boat in tow,” he says. “When I’m in traffic, people are doing triple takes.”

The scooter-trailer-canoe combo is insured and meets safety specifications, but Mcintosh has been pulled over several times, while incredulous police officers confirm his paperwork is in order.

Mcintosh’s rig, ready to ride. © Stewart Mcintosh

At the boat launch, Mcintosh says people are drawn to his rig, and that’s part of the reason he built it – to inspire the public by demonstrating that low carbon solutions are workable.

“Some of the guys out there who are a little more obstinate, and some of the deniers, kind of grey haired, blue collar kinds of guys, they’re some of the more common individuals that are drawn to my setup. It’s like a magnet.”

The scooter and trailer also get him around town for groceries and running daily errands. Mcintosh is working on a mini dump truck bed for the trailer which will extend its capabilities to hauling building materials and soil.

Mcintosh’s latest upgrade has been to spring for a 20-panel photo-voltaic system that he had professionally installed. At $16,400 all-in, it wasn’t cheap, but Mcintosh did the math, and found the only barrier was the initial investment. The panels will pay for themselves in six to 10 years. After that, it’s easy money.

To further leverage the solar panels, Mcintosh is mulling over the purchase of an electric pickup truck. It would complete his coup d’état against his carbon footprint and energy bills (he now drives a truck converted to propane he’s owned since 1988). “If that happens I can plug my vehicle in at home, bypass gas stations, and start adding that kind of saving to my life.”

Mcintosh says that for those with an awareness of climate change, “it’s stressful, and it’s getting more urgent. You can feel it in the general public, and that affects me as well, I feel it. That’s why I’m working on things that help me deal with it, because I’m doing something practical, and I’m proving it in my own life. But it also, I think it helps with some other people too, that they see ‘wow!’ look at that, he’s doing something that actually works…. They realize it’s not a hopeless situation after all. There really are things we can do at our own homes and in our daily lives that make a difference.”

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