Solar Tour Offers “Zero” Energy Possibilities

Learning about solar power options for a home is one thing, but putting that knowledge into practice is a leap that only a few people seem willing to take. When businesses and private home owners open their doors this weekend to for the 2004 National Solar Tour, they’ll be encouraging more people to use energy sources beyond the one that is in the sky everyday.

Convincing home designers, contractors, builders and owners to take the extra step and install a solar thermal or photovoltaic array is an everyday challenge, according to Glen Salas of D&R International. Salas and the rest of the staff at D&R do contract work as a technical resource point for the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Federal program Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). The program promotes zero energy housing and energy efficient building designs. Salas has worked in various energy businesses since the mid-1970s, and he remembers the first wave of energy efficient housing technologies, insulation. To this day, good insulation is one of the most important aspects of building a home that’s energy efficient. “If you’ve done that (insulated), you’ve done a lot of the job,” Salas said. Because insulation is a building requirement, PATH can concentrate on ways to move housing concepts from energy efficient to energy producing. Solar photovoltaics (PV), solar thermal and passive solar can all work to make a house produce at least as much energy as it uses in a year, known as a zero energy home. Some builders take it a step beyond and equip a building with enough renewable energy technologies that homeowners are able to feed power back into the grid. When Contractor Bill Asdal of New Jersey took on a Victorian style home built in 1898 for remodeling his goal was at least zero energy, but he got a lot more. The home owner, who plans to open the building as a bed and breakfast called the Raritan Inn, went ahead with a geothermal exchange system for heating, a wind turbine for energy production, and solar PV and thermal. After about a month of having all of the systems up and running, the energy bills from the utility were showing a 2,300 kW output in excess of the building’s energy consumption, Asdal said. Results like that are because of the technology mix. “It’s a combination of products and techniques that take a system approach to a building,” he said. Renovating an older home and installing the latest in technology is a hefty financial investment up front. Both Asdal and Salas agree that the initial price tag is the most difficult aspect to sell to homeowners. The opportunity to talk about energy returns on the investment can sometimes convince the people who will move into the home to try out the technology. Convincing builders and contractors who rely on the existing building codes as a guide to try something new is a bit trickier. Asdal knows the technology and won’t hesitate to bring it to a project. When Salas starts to work with a builder, he has trouble convincing them that changing the stud spacing from 16 to 24 inches is going to cut back on the amount of wood required, but not compromise the integrity of the structure. Moving onto building techniques such as straw bale insulation or a living roof, where specific plants are grown on a roof to regulate the heat loss and gain in a building, is just too much of a foreign concept for some builders to accept, he said. Despite the many reservations builders have, PATH has managed to work with a few new home development companies to get solar installations included in the designs. People moving in to the homes have the energy saving technology readily available to benefit and learn from. Whether a person is looking to build a new home or renovate a older home, there is the National Solar Tour to offer ideas and education. “We need to create strategies and demonstrations of what you can do with these old homes,” Asdal said. The Raritan Inn isn’t on the list of homes open for the Saturday October 2, tour, but many other homes across the nation are. The Web site of the American Solar Energy Society (see link below) has links to states that are participating in the tour, and each state has a list of homes that are open. It’s a perfect opportunity to learn what renewable energy has to offer.
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