Saving Green By Building Green

Going green is a way of life for one retired couple in Northumberland County. They have taken steps to get off the power grid by investing in several alternative energy producing methods for their 2,500 square foot home near Reedville.

Gordon and Judy Burgess bought 45 acres of waterfront land on Taskmaker Creek in 2003. Gordon (pictured above, left) designed their home there to be as energy efficient as possible.

The most comprehensive and original component of the plan was to heat the house with a geothermal system that Burgess modified by building a conditioned, heavily insulated, sealed crawl space under the first floor. Warm or cold air generated from the geothermal unit located there is circulated through vents in the floor into the main living space on the first floor.

The sealed crawl space creates what is called a “plenum,” according to Robert Wilburn, the president and CEO of RMC Mechanical of Callao. His company helped Burgess install the geothermal system.

“Basically it’s a big piece of duct,” said Wilburn.

The geothermal open loop system circulates water, pumped from a 700-foot artesian well, through the heat pump like unit. The water is a constant 55 degrees year round, so it is warmer than outside air in the winter and cooler in the summer. It heats or cools the Freon in the furnace, which heats or cools the house.

There is an independent back up propane system for additional heat in case of power failures, but Burgess said that he rarely uses the back up system.

Both systems rely heavily on extra insulation. The home has six inches of regular insulation with an extra inch of Styrofoam.

Compared to a conventional system, this design produces four units of heating or cooling for every one unit of energy compared to conventional heating systems, according to Burgess. That adds up to savings of 40-60 percent on the family’s heating energy costs, according to Wilburn.

“The house is really easy to heat and it is even heat, without hot or cold spots,” said Burgess, a retired elevator mechanic who believes that his sealed crawl space geothermal system is unique. “I have not seen or heard of anything like this anywhere.”

Robert Wilburn said that, as far as he knows, the ductless system is original. He said that sealed crawl spaces are becoming more of an industry standard because they reduce mold and dampness problems and save on energy costs. He said that his company sells up to 10 geothermal systems annually.

Wilburn said that the cost for an open loop system is comparable in price to a conventional system. A closed system that recirculates well water is more than twice as costly as a normal heating system, but the extra cost is recovered in about seven years by energy cost savings.

“They are becoming more and more popular,” Wilburn said of the geothermal systems. He said that homeowners are now able to take a 30 percent of the installation cost federal tax credit for such a system since an alternative energy bill became effective in February.

Burgess also installed a solar hot water system when he built the modular Cape Cod. He bought some of the components for this system at an estate sale for $5 because nobody else wanted the parts and did most of the installation work himself.

Last year, Burgess became the first Northumberland County resident to be approved for a wind turbine that is unique in the Northern Neck, according to him and county administrators across the region.

The modern metal, three-bladed windmill is produced by Southwest Windpower of Flagstaff, Ariz. and is a smaller model of the turbines that are used at wind farms. It stands on a nearly 70 foot tall pole and rotates to capture the breeze. Beginning with winds of seven mph, it generates power for the Burgesses who have a net meter on their home. Under ideal conditions, the meter runs backwards, giving them credit with the power company.

Burgess said that there was resistance to the turbine idea when two other county residents tried to get permits before he applied. Both those permits were denied because officials and neighbors felt the machines would be too noisy and a threat to birds.

In 2007, Burgess and Northumberland County Administrator Kenny Eades arranged to have a turbine set up on the courthouse lawn in Heathsville to demonstrate it’s size and noise levels.

Officials and other interested parties determined that the machine makes no more noise than a refrigerator and considering the Burgesses’ isolated land, the application for special exception permit to install the turbine was granted.

“We’re hoping some of the laws can be changed so that more people can get these easily,” said Burgess. He feels officials should be encouraging the use of alternative energy sources.

Area county administrators said that they are considering the possibility of more people applying for wind turbine permits in the future. Lawmakers may consider making wind turbines a permitted use, so applicants won’t have to pay special fees or get variances that are required now.

“If we start getting a lot of requests, it could become a permitted use,” said Eades. “It helps having one up. It gives people a baseline. As people get familiar with them they should get more commonplace.”

“We haven’t had any formal applications, although there have been a couple of inquiries,” said Richmond County Administrator Bill Duncanson. “While we want to encourage folks to use alternative energy sources. From my research, it seems that most of Virginia doesn’t have the wind classification to provide enough return from turbines. I’d hate to see folks spend money that may not provide a payback, but the coastal areas are a little different. They don’t call it Windmill Point for no reason.”

“It’s on our radar screen,” said Don Gill, Director of Planning and Land Use in Lancaster County. “We’ve already talked about making them a permitted use in the Planning Commission about six months ago, but are still researching the subject.”

“Every time energy rates go up, people start looking at alternatives,” said David Whitlow, County Administrator in Essex County.

“We had one inquiry within the last six months,” said Wstmoreland County Administrator Norm Rasavi. “We may look at allowing them if there is enough interest, but right now we are just researching the topic.”

Planner Beth McDowell handled that request for information, which she said was from an individual that was considering selling the turbines. She told the party that currently the county required a $600 special variance for anything that exceeded the zoning height restriction like the tall turbines.

A third of the cost of the Burgesses’ turbine was underwritten by James Madison University in exchange for data from Burgess about how much energy he is producing. He brings in students to see the turbine as part of an educational exchange.

Burgess plans on installing roof solar panels to produce more power. He hopes to get off the power grid entirely. The combination of geothermal, solar and wind technology he is using may prove to be a blueprint for other Northern Neck residents’ energy independence.

Starke Jett has worked full time as a reporter for the Northern Neck News for more than a year. Previously, he worked as a freelance writer and photographer for regional newspapers and publications, including Chesapeake Bay Magazine and the Northumberland Echo.

This article originally appeared in Northern Neck News of Warsaw, Virginia and was reprinted with permission.

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