Inspired by Nature

Overwhelmed by the Natural Energy Options?

Monday, April 2, 2012
Inspiramental Blog

Recently on the Inspiramental Facebook Page, Sam had a great conversation with a someone building a new home. They were overwhelmed with the options available for natural or renewable energy and needed some direction. We’ve posted the discourse below in the hopes that it may be valuable to others trying to make sense of the option.

Home Builder

We are in the planning process of building our own home. We want to include some things that will help us use natural energy, but are more than a little overwhelmed by the options. So, far we have looked into geo-thermal heat, wind energy, and solar panels. We have no idea what we’re doing. Our main concern will be upfront cost. Any direction/advice would be appreciated.

Sam – Inspiramental

The options can certainly be overwhelming! I think that you’re half way there in that you’re considering natural energy.

First of all make sure everything you build is geared toward efficiency – consider the insulation choices – I’m not sure what I would choose – but it wouldn’t be fiberglass. Spray foam is the best but you have to weigh the cost.

Consider the lifetime cost of everything. The installation that you choose, for instance, will save (X) per year on heating and air conditioning. Efficient lighting, refrigerators, and other appliances will save on fuel and utility bills.

Not only will you save on utility bills but you’ll conserve resources, which I think, is the responsible thing to do. “Waste not, want not” may apply to big decisions as well as small.

Heat goes down as well as up and sideways so it’s good to think of that when insulating.

It’s important to consider the prevailing winds for ventilation as well as not having a large flat wall facing square into the wind in winter. Aerodynamics apply to houses too, not just cars.

Consider the sun angle for some passive heating in winter and consider overhangs that will shade windows in summer – in this way you could avoid using expensive glass that is meant to block the sun. You’ll want the energy to come in in winter – but you won’t have to worry about it in winter if you’ve planned the overhangs right. This can be done in Google Sketch Up – a free download that you can draw your new house right on your new lot and model the sun angle for every day of the year.

These things are passive (no moving parts) and don’t cost much more than the time it takes to plan. Another thing to consider is natural light – ultimately lights should be unnecessary during the day. If that can’t be fully accomplished by strategically placed windows and reflection you could include light tubes (for closets, bathrooms, etc.) You’ll definitely want the main living areas to have lots of natural light, especially the school room.

I’m not very well acquainted with GEO thermal – but I know that it’s really popular – and I do know it you go that route it’s important to install plenty of GEO Thermal loop.

Your best decisions are going to involve the passive heating, cooling, and lighting designs. Good insulation and caulking will be an up front cost that will reward you by lower ongoing lifetime costs again and again. Certainly consider lifetime costs as well as up-front costs.

“Finally, only after making doubly certain that your house and appliances are super efficient, consider renewable energy.”

Solar Water heating is the best first option. I think that almost every house should have that option. GEO thermal can offset hot water loads, however, I think that I would eliminate the need for air conditioning all together by passive cooling, good shading, and insulation.

Then you could top it off with some grid tied solar electric. These solar energy systems work best on south facing roofs so that could be planned in to the design. Solar electric is going to be a high up-front cost though – and not reduce the ongoing costs half as much as solar water heating will. You could design the roof to add solar electric later though – if the up-front cost were too much.

I would prefer to build a smaller net-zero house than a larger energy consuming house. Net Zero stands for all energy being provided onsite or through net metering – which means ongoing cost are basically zero – that would be awesome and is on my bucket list.

I don’t recommend wind turbines for grid tied applications – solar electric will outperform and be maintenance free.

This has been off the top of my head, hopefully it’s been helpful. Robin and I would love to meet with you and Dan to discuss if you like. Definitely, contact us here if you have specific questions as you proceed.

All the best in planning your new home!

Home Builder

Could you explain how the Solar Water Heating cuts cost more than Solar Electric. It seems counter-intuitive to me because electric runs just about everything in most homes, but water heating doesn’t seem to be as far reaching.

Could you give a rough estimate on cost for on-grid Solar Electric? off-grid Solar Electric? and Solar Water Heating? Are any of these options “do-able” for builders with no experience in solar installation (that would be Dan and his brothers). If so, where would we purchase the materials. Does Inspiramental do residential installation?

Thank you for the ideas, and I appreciate that you prioritized. Sometimes the difficult thing is knowing where to start. It makes sense that renewable energy in an inefficient home would put the cart before the horse.

Sam – Inspiramental

In the case of solar water heating you have (Sun + Water) + Water). In the case for solar electric (if you’re heating water with electricity) you have (Sun + Photovoltaics DC) + AC Electricity) + Water); there are more steps to the end result. Plus solar energy is converted more efficiently into heat than into electricity. Solar heating panels cost less but are able to convert 70% of the inSOLation to heat, while converting 15% of the insolation is good for PV panels.

I assume that Dan and his brothers will be doing the plumbing and the electrical – in which case the solar energy systems will just be more of the same with a few twists which Michael and I will be happy to explain. We do design and install residential solar energy systems, and we’d be happy to provide a design specific to your home and order the materials as a kit for you guys to install.

Many of the early residential solar energy systems were do-it-yourself projects. In fact Home Power Magazine originated for the DIYer. I’m a DIY guy myself. So, as you gather knowledge to build an energy efficient house with renewable energy I must recommend subscribing to Home Power Magazine, Mother Earth News, and Green Builder Magazine, by subscribing, you gain access to their archive files.

Figure $5,500 – $9,500 for Solar Water Heating; $15,000 – $45,000 for grid tied solar electric; $25,000 – $55,000 for grid tied with battery backup / off grid (I don’t recommend the battery option in most cases.)

We hope you found this conversation useful as you consider solar energy options for your home or business in the Dayton, Ohio area. If you have questions, feel free to contact us or join our solar energy Facebook community here.