Saturday, February 17, 2001

Homeowners turn to the sun

With utility bills sky high, solar energy becomes attractive alternative

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nancy Stein's neighbors and friends are envious. The Cleves resident's highest monthly heating bill this year has been $131, while some of them have received bills for up to four times as much.

        The credit, she says, goes to energy consultant and designer John Robbins.

        “When we moved into our new house in 1990,” Ms. Stein says, “we wanted solar panels to save money, so we contacted John to design the best for us. This year, when the rates skyrocketed, we were thankful to have them already in place.”

[photo] The solar collectors atop Nancy Stein's house in Cleves.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Stung by skyrocketing fuel costs, more Tristate homeowners have started turning to the sun. Although expensive in the short term because of installation costs, the long-term benefits of being more cost-effective, keeping the air cleaner and reducing reliance on fossil fuels make solar systems a sound investment.

Open the curtains


        As supplies dwindle, fossil fuels are becoming less economical. More people are worrying about the environmental impact of continued use of fossil fuels. And because most people heat their homes and light their lives with either gas or coal, solar proponents believe it might be time to reboot those dusty systems or look into new ones.

        “More Cincinnati homeowners should use active solar energy more often,” says Mr. Robbins, who owns Robbins Alternative Energies. “People who close curtains on sunny days, and don't allow the heat to collect, are missing a great energy resource.”

        The Stein home won the 1990 Residential Project Award from the South Western Ohio Association of Energy Engineers and was part of the 1997 National Solar Home Tour.

        Most of the home's tripane, low UV glass faces southward. Three 54-square-foot solar panels (installed by Randy Sizemore at Entropy Ltd.) rise majestically from the roof.

        Solar radiant heat is stored primarily in the home's 300-square-foot sun space's concrete slab and is moved through the house via manually operated doors and ceiling slopes. Summer cooling is accomplished with window and door ventilation and window shades.

        The solar panels provide up to 60 percent of the house's annual hot water demand. For example, a single-collector water heater can cost $2,000-$3,000; a multiple collector costs $3,000-$4,000, depending on the amount of water used.

    • Robbins Alternative Energies
    • American Solar Energy Society
    • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
    • U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network
    Ways to use solar energy in your home:
    Solar electricity
    Created through photovoltaic (PV) cells mounted in panels. These panels absorb sunlight and convert it directly to electricity. A number of cells are mounted and form a module; modules are connected to other modules to form an array. The larger the area of photovoltaics in each module, or the more arrays used, the more electrical power you have.
    Solar water heating
    This is one of the most common uses of solar energy. Collector tubes inside an insulated box absorb the sun's heat and transfer it to water flowing through the tubes. In areas where freezing is not a threat, the system is an open loop, where water flowing through the tubes is heated directly for use. In colder areas, antifreeze liquid is heated before transferring its heat to the water with a heat exchanger.
    Passive solar design
    Provides cooling and heating without the use of extraneous equipment. House plan, site selection, construction materials, building features and other aspects are designed to collect, store and distribute heat in winter and block heat in the summer. Techniques include:
    • Direct gain. Radiant heat results from sunlight admitted through south-facing windows.
    • Indirect gain. An attached sun space or wall collects heat from the sun before transferring it to other spaces within the home.
    • Thermal mass. Heat results from any material in the home that absorbs and stores heat — concrete, brick and tile are common choices for thermal mass.
    • Cooling. It can lower or eliminate the need for air conditioning. Includes overhangs for south-facing windows, few windows on the west, shade trees, thermal mass and cross-ventilation.
    — Source: “Consumer Guide to Solar Energy,” by K. Sheinkopf and S. Sklar; and “Building for a Sustainable America Case Studies” by B. Thayer for American Solar Energy Society.
        “The average temperature in our house is 68 degrees in the winter and about 75 degrees in the summer,” Ms. Stein says. “The sun space averages about 83 degrees,” creating a comfortable environment for the family at very little cost.

        Even with its hot tub and other electric uses, the home's average monthly utility bill is less than $70.

Heating swimming pools

        Another example of taking advantage of the sun is using solar collectors to heat swimming pools. This system uses one or more collectors and pumps (depending on the amount of water used), a heat exchanger, a few controls and gauges and a well-insulated storage tank for water. One pump moves antifreeze from the exchanger to and from the collector while another pump circulates the water through the heat exchanger and back to the tank.

        “I don't know why more people don't use this system to heat their pools,” Mr. Robbins says, “since you usually swim on sunny days and that's when the system works best.”

        Incorporating an energy-efficient lifestyle doesn't mean homeowners have to start by writing a check for thousands of dollars. Mr. Robbins recommends taking less-involved steps before installing that first solar panel.

        “I have my customers establish a schedule of installations to make it easier to afford and acclimate to their new home,” Mr. Robbins says. “Start with increasing insulation, then use more caulking and install energy-efficient windows” to seal the house against drafts and temperature loss.

        When he moved to his home in Morningview, Mr. Robbins sought to practice what he preached. He and his wife, Gail, insulated the walls, ceilings and basement with an R-3 to -6 vapor-barrier foam and ceilings were brought up from R-30 to R-50.

        “It doesn't do any good to buy the most efficient furnace if the walls and attic aren't well-insulated,” he says.

        He also built a solar-efficient day room. The room's concrete slab floor became the passive thermal storage conductor to save the day's sun energy. R-20 insulation is under the floor.

Energy-efficient appliances

        The Robbinses replaced the electric furnace with a heat pump so efficient it got them a rebate from the utility company. To supplement the furnace, they installed an airtight combustion wood-burning fireplace with a triple-wall chimney.

        Mr. Robbins recommends buying kitchen appliances with the lowest EnergyGuide rating given by the Department of Energy. An older washer or refrigerator may use more electricity because it was made before today's more energy-efficient technologies.

        Another low-cost tip: Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, which cost more initially but use less electricity and can literally burn for years before they must be replaced.

        Deb Acord of The Colorado Springs Gazette contributed to this story.

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