Going green to the extreme

Friday, September 14, 2007 | 4:12 p.m. CDT; updated 3:31 p.m. CST, Monday, February 18, 2013
Jenna Moran shows her husband, Tom Moran, a juvenile ladybug inside of a nasturtium flower, while he holds a swallowtail caterpillar in his hand. The two often spend time in their garden searching for insects and identifying them.

COOPER COUNTY, Mo. — Tom Moran, 52, and his wife Jenna, 33, live differently than most of us do.

Their strawbale home has earth floors, a three-season kitchen is on the deck outside and 24 solar panels are propped up in the front yard.


If you go

WHAT: “Three Years Off The Grid,” a discussion with Tom and Jenna Moran WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday PART OF: Sustainable Living Fair WHERE: Unity Center, 1600 W. Broadway, Columbia

Tom and Jenna Moran’s tips to live a little greener

1. Hang your clothes to dry. It will save you close to 10 percent on your electric bill. 2. Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. 3. Upgrade to more efficient appliances. 4. Walk or bike to work if possible, and don’t justify owning an SUV. 5. Learn about your options and think about how your actions impact the planet.

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The toilet doesn’t flush, two pet goats have replaced a weed-eater and their “big screen” is a view of the meadow behind their house.

But the most unusual part of the Morans’ lifestyle is this: They don’t get utility bills in the mail each month. They have chosen a sustainable lifestyle because of a deep concern for the environment.

Tom’s respect seeps into every corner of his life, down to a polite but completely serious request to please avoid trampling a lone brown-eyed Susan growing in the field behind his home.

He and Jenna are a pair of newly married environmentalists who live “off the grid” in a 1,200-square-foot home on 40 acres of land in Cooper County.

All of their energy is supplied by renewable sources instead of local utilities. They have a composting, no-discharge toilet, and their water is pumped out of a well by solar electricity.

They open their windows for air-conditioning, and heat comes from a fire built in a hollow, 4-ton brick oven that sits in the middle of the open floor plan.

Although Tom says, “we don’t ever feel like we’re roughing it,” he and Jenna are a part of a growing movement toward a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. They have taken the sustainable idea to the highest level by choosing a house that deals no damage to the environment.

Off-the-grid living is quickly becoming popular throughout the nation. According to Richard Perez, the publisher of Home Power magazine, the number of people going off-grid increases by about 33 percent each year.

In April 2006, an estimated 180,000 American homes were part of the off-the-grid trend. President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, is off the grid, and Columbia’s new City Hall will have a solar-paneled rooftop.

Word is getting out about the Morans, too. They were asked to speak about their eco-friendly lifestyle at 11 a.m. Saturday in a workshop held at the Sustainable Living Fair. Mid-Missouri Peaceworks sponsors the fair, to take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Unity Center, 1600 W. Broadway in Columbia. On Oct. 6, the Columbia Climate Change Coalition will hold a similar event, a tour of local solar-powered homes and businesses. Visit for more information.

Jenna, who went “cold-turkey” into off-the-grid living in January, says, “My goal is to not make it seem so scary for people.”

Last week, Tom Moran stood barefoot in his yard in a pair of shorts and a volunteer firefighter T-shirt. His long, gray ponytail hung from the back of a baseball cap.

Surrounded on all sides by flowers, vegetable gardens and organic corn, he listened to a mixed chorus of grasshoppers and the wind.

Two large dogs loped up the grassy lane. A pair of goats jumped from a brightly painted shed into the weeds and begin to bleat. Clean laundry floated in the air.

Tom has been living this peaceful life away from the power lines, traffic and noise of the city for 3 1/2 years. Establishing a more sustainable way of life had been a growing interest, so when he found a house in April 2004 built specifically to be off-grid, he jumped at the opportunity and bought it. The original owners, Terry and Kerstin Frueh, built the house themselves with design assistance from an architect.

The walls of the house are straw bales covered with earth plaster — dirt mixed with straw and sand. The house is passive solar, which means the entire southern side is glass. This lets the warmth in during the winter but keeps the hot sun from roasting the house during the summer.

Looking a bit out of place in such a natural setting, the 24 solar panels provide all the energy the home needs. Although the energy is free, it isn’t unlimited. A power meter tells the couple how much electricity they are bringing in, and they ensure their consumption remains below that.

A power inverter in the basement hums away as it converts the solar power stored in the Morans’ 12 batteries from DC current into 120 volt AC, the same as grid-powered homes.

The batteries hold enough electricity from the solar panels that the couple could go one full week with no sunlight if they needed to.

Tom, a self-described “recovering molecular biologist,” doesn’t make it into Columbia very often. When he does, he gets 50 mpg in his Volkswagon Passat, which runs on diesel or biodiesel. Once he makes the necessary conversions, the car will run on vegetable oil.

Jenna works at MU as a research technician at the Life Sciences Center. She calls the home she shares with Tom a “feel-good home.”

“I like feeling I’m not putting as much impact on the environment,” she said. “The effects of my living are not as damaging as they were before.”

The Morans try to make all aspects of their life earth-friendly, including the food they eat. Three vegetable gardens on their acreage provide tomatoes, beans, hot peppers, potatoes, garlic and asparagus.

Their outdoor kitchen is useful for canning and keeping heat out of the house in the summer. The basement is stocked with jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, each with names and canning dates in permanent marker on the lid.

Although the basement is musty and dark, the main level of the house is colorful and homey, cluttered but not messy.

The walls are covered with framed pictures and artwork; the kitchen is full of racks of spices and dishes. Empty vases and colored bottles line the windowsill above indoor planter boxes where several kinds of orchids are blooming.

Two cats, Muppet and Maggie, lay sprawled on the bed to keep watch over the kitchen and living room.

Not paying utility bills is just one reason Tom enjoys his chosen lifestyle so thoroughly.

As he explained, “It’s really, truly freedom when you get to make your own choices, when you aren’t dependent on some corporation.”

As pocketbook-friendly as it has been to not receive gas and electric bills in nearly four years, it does not mean a complete lack of expenses.

Each solar panel costs about $500, and the Morans have added eight since they moved in. In order to stay connected to the world, they have a phone line and pay a bill for it each month. They also purchase one propane tank each year for cooking and heating water.

Tom, a native of the Chicago area, initially found it difficult to get used to the calm and quiet after living in the city, but Jenna finds it hard to go back into the city now that she has settled in the country.

“I think our daily chores are get up, drink coffee, watch the sunrise — make sure it rose in the East,” she said.

Tom agreed.

“And to make sure the birds are singing the right songs.”

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