Solar panels were just “icing on the cake” for Jeff Herr when he designed and built his super-insulated, passive-solar home in lower Rossland in 2010, but four-kilowatts of photovoltaic icing should tell you something about the cake.
“When we built this place, our goal was to make the best envelope possible,” said Herr, who worked with his father to build his home with 12-inch walls, triple-paned windows, and lots of “thermal mass” (such as polished concrete floors) to hold a steady, comfortable temperature all year long.
In summer, long eaves shade the south-facing windows and keep the floors cool. In winter, the low sun streams in those same windows, heating the floor and filling the house with light.
Passive solar — using sunshine to heat heavy objects in well-insulated buildings — is the primary source of heat in Herr’s 1,200 square-foot house. He supplements this with the heat equivalent of a big pickup load of firewood.
“The huge benefit of good sealing and insulation is the comfort of the house,” Herr explained. “There are no drafts, no cold spots, and no hot spots.”
There are limits.
“The most efficient design is a square building with no windows at all,” Herr laughed.
Even triple-paned windows are “basically holes in the wall” that lose more heat at night than they gain during sunny hours. But few people, even the most energy-obsessed, care to live in a box. Design decisions have to balance many needs.
To that end, Herr steadfastly refuses to discuss “cherry on top” solar panels until he’s talked about “the important stuff.”
Typically half of a residence’s energy is spent on space heating, and appliances and hot water each take another quarter. So, whether for a new build or a renovation, Herr’s recipe is simple: seal and insulate your home as well as you can, and monitor your energy use to eliminate waste.
Herr used to operate a solar installation business, but he spent most of his time convincing people to prioritize basic insulation and energy savings before spending their money on panels. It’s good advice, so good that he claims he talked himself right out of business.
“Most of us know the miles-per-gallon of our car,” he said, “but how many of us know the kilowatt-hours-per-day of our home?”
Herr started to save money the moment he installed a simple “Neurio” meter to track power in his house, identifying a wasted 800-watt load and helping to keep his day-to-day power consumption in check.
“It’s just like budgeting calories for weight loss,” he said. “You can see that, yes, turning off your computer at night really makes a difference.”
Herr installed 18 solar panels on his south-facing roof and connected them to his electric meter, spinning it backwards. For eight or nine months each year, the panels produce more than enough electricity for his home, with the extra power feeding the large basement workshop where Herr makes his living bringing mechanical ideas to life.
This summer, wildfires cut his solar production in half on smokey days, and very cloudy weather can have a similar impact, but Rossland’s typically clear skies make photovoltaics a winner.
Living with solar is easy.
“Really, you have no idea you’re living in a solar house,” Herr said. “It makes no difference. You only notice it when you open your Fortis bill.”
Tying into the grid avoids batteries or charge controllers, often the most expensive and short-lived part of an off-grid system. Including installation, grid-tied homeowners can expect to pay about $3.50 per watt, so a four-kilowatt system comes to about $14,000.
Panels install easily on many kinds of roof, including asphalt like Herr’s. Standing-seam steel roofs are another option that makes installation a snap. Snow loads, however, are a major consideration.
“Get the max,” said Herr, who purchased panels rated to 113 pounds per square foot.
Maintenance is simple too. Most panels are performance rated for 25 years and will probably last much longer. Every 10 or 15 years, a replacement is likely needed for the inverter (a box-on-the-wall that converts the panels’ power into regular household voltage) but otherwise, there’s not much to do.
“I haven’t been up there since I installed them. I should be out there wiping the dust off from all this construction,” Herr said, nodding to crews installing pipes and pavement on his street, “but the snow will do it this winter.”
That’s right, Herr doesn’t even clear snow off his panels.
“It’s not worth the effort,” he explained. “There’s more bright sunshine in September than in November, December, January, and February combined. Just optimize your summer angle and forget about the winter.”
Herr has similar “keep it simple” advice for trackers, contraptions that turn like a sunflower to face the sun.
“People love trackers,” he said, “but if you used the extra cost to buy more panels instead, you’d be ahead in energy production and have none of the trackers’ maintenance issues.”
In the big world of energy efficiency, Herr keeps it real.
“I wish those solar panels did more to offset the trip I just took to New Zealand,” he laughed. “I’m as guilty as anybody doing whatever the heck I want, and flying and transportation are a huge part of our carbon footprint. A big carbon impact of this house was keeping me too busy to fly anywhere for four or five years while I built it.”
Joking aside, Herr’s super-efficient building will have a substantial effect over its lifetime. In the U.S., buildings account for half of all energy use, and Herr thinks it’s worth the effort to learn more about our impacts, especially the energy we use day to day.
“Everyone should go online and calculate their carbon footprint,” Herr suggested. “We run around in circles talking about climate change, but most of us don’t even know what we do or how we contribute.”
Herr will be opening his home to tours on Saturday, Oct. 21 as part of the Sustainability Commission’s annual Energy Crawl. But admission comes with a price. All visitors must complete a carbon footprint calculation in advance.
More information on the Energy Crawl and a link to a carbon footprint calculator can be found online at http://visionstoaction.ca/2017-energy-crawl