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C++ programming pioneer hacks off-grid, DIY, smart home

When Loren Amelang bought land outside of Philo, California in 1973, it was a place to “live like hippies on the weekend”. Years later, his Silicon Valley employer put in fluorescent lighting and wouldn’t let employees bring in their own lights so Amelang decided to move full-time to his off-grid property and to create a space where he would have total control over his environment.

At first he lived in a tiny cabin he had built in the old sheep barn, but deciding he needed more room for his solar panels, he began building a home that would help him generate “free hot water, free power and a decent chunk of free heat”.

The entire south side of his home is covered in solar capture devices: 1600 watts of photovoltaic power, solar hot water panels, a sunroom/greenhouse and a solar hot air collector.

“The sunroom/greenhouse provides most of the free heat,” explains Amelang, “the ‘solar flue’ moderates it in warmer weather or circulates some of it into the house when needed, and the concrete walls stabilize the temperature over time”.

Putting his technical skills to use (he’s a pioneer in C++ programming), Amelang wrote over 10,000 lines of code so that his home’s water and electric systems could be operated more efficiently and automatically. An added benefit is the ability to control everything remotely, by even just a smartphone.

Since he built most of the home himself (the person he hired to do it decades ago, spent all the money and built half the house), Amelang has made it very custom. He avoided using aluminum and plastic (except for the insulation on the wiring) and he wired it for pure DC lighting (which makes sense with solar, but Amelang also likes how “peaceful” DC lighting feels).

Building on his own terms means that Amelang created a home that doesn’t look or feel like anyone else’s, but it works well and makes sense. For instance, he designed a central locking system for all exterior doors so that when he leaves the house he doesn’t have to lock 12 different doors and windows, but just turns one key and they all lock. “I’m totally amazed that that hasn’t been developed for houses. Nobody would think of buying a car that didn’t have central locking.

After a bad experience with “drain-down” solar panels, he created a heating system – solar panels, wood stove, gas boiler, hot tub, hydronic floors, and a heat exchanger for domestic water – that uses the Susterra corn-based antifreeze as an experiment.

“It has better specifications in every way than propylene glycol, it’s the same price and it’s made out of totally renewable corn and nobody seems to be using it. So I’ve tried it and it seems to be absolutely fine. I have to believe that people who build hot water and solar systems commercially are just very conventional and are afraid to explore new things.”

In this video, Loren Amelang gives us a tour of his very custom, very smart and very efficient home. Plus, he shows us where he retrieved the old growth redwood (lost by loggers decades ago), his “summer kitchen” (he keeps his stove and refrigerator outdoors so they don’t compete with his heating/cooling) and the simple DIY “heat down tubes” made from old computer fans and cloth that put warm air just where he wants it.