Mon, Mar

House Pulses with Solar Energy

Jeff Martin bear-hugs a massive, insulated 1,000-gallon water tank in his basement. "This," he proclaims, "is the heart of the house." It's an apt metaphor. Solar thermal panels on his roof heat water that circulates around the heart-tank, and keeps his family of four in more hot water than they can use.

Jeff Martin bear-hugs a massive, insulated 1,000-gallon water tank in his basement. "This," he proclaims, "is the heart of the house."

It's an apt metaphor. Solar thermal panels on his roof heat water that circulates around the heart-tank, and keeps his family of four in more hot water than they can use. Martin spends no money heating water, shaving 20 percent or more off his annual energy bill.

Built three years ago on Lake Norman, the house is a living experiment of the potential of solar energy and eco-friendly construction techniques. And with heating costs expected to hit record highs this winter, the Martin home also offers a lesson of what's possible today.

Energy-saving features include off-the-shelf glazed windows, compact fluorescent bulbs and the solar thermal water system.

Among the more exotic energy-saving aspects of the Martins' 4,750-square-foot home is a photovoltaic, or PV, system that carpets the south-facing, sun-splashed roof. Unlike the solar thermal system that also shares roof space, the PV system generates electricity. After clearing a tangle of red tape, this summer Martin, 38, began selling surplus electricity back to NC GreenPower, a nonprofit organization that encourages alternative energy use.


His largest energy bill to date: $152.87 this summer. He notes that friends from California visited for eight days and he cranked the air conditioning.

Martin is a business development manager for Microsoft Corp. He's as far from a survivalist or hippie as they come. Nonetheless, he's just old enough to recall when America was held energy-hostage during the 1970s oil embargo. He abhors the notion of dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuel. Recent hurricane-related disruptions in fuel supply bolster his conservationist resolve.

He spent more than $60,000 on the PV portion of his solar arsenal, and likely will never totally recoup the cost of installation. But for him, the panels are aesthetically, spiritually and ecologically pleasing.

"I know of someone not too far from here who spent more than this on slate flooring for the entire house," he says. "Where's the payback on slate?"

For now, PV is the flying car of residential solar systems -- an unrealistic and cost-prohibitive option for most homeowners.

But solar thermal systems for heating water are viable. Throw in state and federal tax incentives, and solar thermal water systems are a "no-brainer," says Shawn Fitzpatrick, an energy specialist with the N.C. Solar Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse for solar and other renewable energy programs.

A typical solar thermal water-heating system retrofitted for a single-family home can cost $4,000 to $5,000. An N.C. tax credit can shave up to $1,400. A federal tax credit that kicks in Jan. 1 can knock off $2,000. Total out-of-pocket for the system: between $600 and $1,600.

For a typical homeowner, the system can pay for itself in less than five years, Fitzpatrick says.

Without the federal credit, which sunsets in 2008, it could take as long as 10 years.

Chris and Gretchen Witzgall took advantage of the state tax credit when they bought their new home in Wake County last year. They paid $379,000 for the 2,700-square-foot house. About $30,000 of that was for PV and solar thermal systems.

Like the Martins, the Witzgalls sell surplus electricity their home generates back to the grid -- in fact, both homeowners are listed as regulated utilities with the state. But it's the hot water from solar thermal that makes the biggest financial impact, Witzgall says.

"We have unlimited hot water," Witzgall, 38, adds. "That's probably the biggest saver."

He figures his monthly housing costs -- including a low-interest, seven-year balloon mortgage -- is $600 less than it would normally be, when energy savings from solar and other conservation features are factored in.

His highest electrical bill to date was $150 this summer, when he was running the air conditioning to keep the three-bedroom house at a constant 75 degrees.

Betsy Mayers, 60, has that beat. She says her electric bill for her 1,400-square-foot barnlike home near Asheville runs about $25 a month or $300 a year.

She built her house in 1990 -- it's been featured on a public television special -- and includes PV solar electric generation, solar thermal and other so-called passive solar features to keep heat in during winter and out during summer.

Like her solar brethren, she spends $0 heating water.

Moreover, like other conservation-minded homeowners, her desire to find a better way to use energy is as much about sovereignty as it is economics.

She says oil shortages of the 1970s "really affected me."

"I said, 'When I get my dream house, I'm going to be as independent as possible.' "


--Eaves jut far enough to keep the summer sun out, but allow winter sun to splash indoors after the fall equinox.

--Polyurethane spray-on insulation instead of rolled fiberglass keeps the house so sealed that two air-exchange devices are needed to keep fresh air circulating. "It's one giant Igloo cooler," Martin says. He adds that his contractor told him he had more insulation than the ceiling of a Kmart superstore.

--Water pipes running under both stories can keep floors warm.

Warmth: Pipes embedded in concrete throughout home keep floors -- and feet -- warm.

Energy: The Martins sell back any surplus electricity the solar panels generate.

Power: Photovoltaic solar panels convert sun into electricity -- enough to power the house on bright days.

Hot water: Solar thermal panels heat a 1,000 gallon water tank. The result: free hot water.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News