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Do-It-Yourself Man Andy Rowles and His Unconventional Home

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Andy Rowles in front of his solar devices
Photo credit: Jenevra Wetmore

Source: Jenevra Wetmore, EAN/Middlebury College Internship Program

In 1978 Andy Rowles lit his house in Thetford, Vermont with gas lamps and candles. He and his wife built the house with the idea of living “off the grid” by generating their own heat and electricity. Andy, now divorced from his wife, has continued over the years to make upgrades to this home, always with the goal of living an energy-conscious lifestyle.

From Candle to Computer

After candles and gas lamps, the first electric lights in Andy’s home were 12-volt DC lights powered by car batteries. Then, he upgraded; in the 80’s, Andy installed one of the first solar panels ever made and sold to the public.  As his electric needs increased incrementally, he got two more, and then another. Andy estimates that the four panels together probably produce about as much electricity as a typical modern conventional panel– 200 watts.  He converts the DC electricity to AC, allowing him to use typical appliances like blenders and computers.

Andy prides himself in not using much electricity.  All he powers is a stereo, computer, lights, small appliances and some tools– his stove and refrigerator run off of propane gas.  For the rest, he tapped into his talent for DIY.


Andy has a fascination with tinkering and building: “I always liked trying to cobble things together myself.” This fascination led him to make his own solar hot water heater, composed of copper pipes filled with antifreeze. The antifreeze solution, warmed by the sun, goes to a heat exchanger to heat water. This hot water flows into an insulated tank to keep it warm. This tank can also be heated with propane, if necessary.

Andy also built his own masonry stove with help from a friend. The large brick stove is a prominent feature in Andy’s living room. The stove burns very hot for a few hours, allowing the bricks to soak up the heat and radiate it for 24 hours, Andy estimates. Burning hot for a short amount of time is more efficient than burning at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time. The radiant heat from the stove keeps his house comfortable during Vermont winters.

Happily Unordinary

Andy was inspired to live efficiently after spending time in the Peace Corps from 1967 to 1969. He lived in a one-room house on the Marshall Islands where, among other differences, there was no indoor bathroom. He got used to the lack of indoor facilities, so the home Andy built in Thetford only has an outhouse.

Andy knows that his home is different, describing it as a cabin, shack, house, or camp. However, he prefers having an, “experimental do-it-yourself place” compared to a regular house that he did not use his own hands to build. Andy has created a super-efficient and wonderfully unique home. As he says, “it’s not quite like a regular house,” which is a great thing, particularly when it comes to energy.