- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Facing up to the reality of increasing costs for electricity and gas, families in the Washington area are refocusing on ways they can increase the energy efficiency of their homes and revisiting the potential advantages of solar power. Some local interest in solar power was generated in attendees of the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Last October, the Mall hosted the second Solar Decathlon, in which 18 teams from colleges across the nation, Spain and Canada competed to design, build and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient home.

The homes were reassembled in a “solar village” on the Mall that was open to the public. The next Solar Decathlon is planned for 2007.

“The homes in the Solar Decathlon all worked using solar power and off-the-shelf technology, which is available to consumers,” says George Douglas, media relations manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The students designed their homes to be oriented to the sun, which is something that obviously can’t be done with existing homes, but new homes can be oriented to take advantage of the sun.

“They installed solar hot water systems and solar electric systems, which are available to consumers and can be retrofitted to existing homes,” he says, “although it is far easier and cheaper to incorporate these into new homes.”

The students participating in the Solar Decathlon used the same approach that consumers should apply to their own homes when they want to increase energy efficiency and lower power costs. The first step is to use a variety of strategies to reduce the demand for power in the home, followed by the second step of producing energy through solar power.

Completing the tasks necessary to reduce energy consumption can result in significant savings, even for homeowners who choose not to follow up their home improvements with a solar energy system.

Danny Lipford, a home improvement expert for CBS’ “Early Show” and the Weather Channel, suggests, “Solar power is a great thing to try after you’ve done everything else and still have some money left over. First, you should make sure your home is as energy-efficient as possible.”

Steven Strong, founder and president of Solar Design Associates (www.solardesign.com), says consumers can reduce their demand for energy by 60 to 70 percent by passive means, which include adding premium insulation to the home, installing energy-efficient windows and fixing all air leaks in the home.

“In a normal home, almost 50 percent of the heating power is lost to leaks,” says Mr. Strong. “You can look at the skin of the house, the exterior, and almost relate it to human terms. In the winter, people would rather be wearing a coat than a bathing suit. The home should also be protected from the cold weather with proper insulation and double-paned windows.”

Mr. Lipford says there are four areas of the home where consumers can increase their energy efficiency.

“Homeowners should start with their attic area and make sure they have adequate insulation, which, as a general rule, should be a minimum of 12 inches deep,” says Mr. Lipford. “Usually the attic is the only place where the insulation is accessible in an existing home, but buyers of new homes should be sure the builder is adding sufficient insulation.”

Mr. Lipford recommends that as a next step, homeowners should make sure their existing heating and cooling system is working as efficiently as possible by changing the air filter and having the system checked.

The third area to concentrate on is sealing the home.

“Anything that allows air filtration can usually be repaired with a good grade of caulking or expandable foam,” says Mr. Lipford. “The weather stripping around the doors and windows should be checked, along with small cracks around the outdoor faucets and any other place that has penetration into the house.”

The fourth area in which consumers can increase their energy efficiency is by reducing usage by lowering the thermostat and only running the dishwasher and washing machines when they are full.

“Consumers can also do simple things like opening all their curtains on a sunny day in winter to take advantage of the warmth,” says Mr. Lipford. “They can also lower the temperature of their water to 120 degrees.”

In addition to the above suggestions, Mr. Douglas recommends that consumers choose a zoned heating system and an automatic, timed thermostat to control the heating and cooling system.

“After the owners have made their home as energy-efficient as possible and have decided they want to add a solar electric power system or a solar water heating system, they should first talk to their utility company,” says Mr. Douglas. “Some states have regulations about solar power. Consumers can also check www.dsireusa.org for state-by-state incentives and programs.”

Mr. Douglas says the most common system for solar power is for the home to remain connected to the power grid, with a net metering system in place that allows the homeowners to get credit when their home generates more electricity than is needed.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia, utility companies are allowed to provide net metering. Maryland and Virginia also offer tax incentives for installing solar power equipment, and there are also federal tax incentives. Mr. Strong says 39 states have net metering programs.

“Essentially, a net metering system means that the meter can spin backwards when the home makes more electricity than needed, and spin forward again when more is being used,” says Mr. Douglas. “For instance, at midday in July when no one is home, the solar collectors are generating electricity which isn’t being used. Then at night, when the residents come home and use the air conditioning and the dishwasher, the electricity is being used again. The payback varies a lot from state to state, but in most cases the homeowners get a credit on their utility bill for the power they have generated and not used.”

Mr. Strong’s company designs solar power systems for new homes and can design an entirely energy self-sufficient home.

For consumers who want to retrofit a solar water heating system or a solar electrical system, he estimates that the smallest system costs from about $3,000 to $6,000 to install. Mr. Douglas estimates that the nationwide average cost for a solar electrical system is $9 to $10 per watt installed.

“To power an entire house takes about 4 kilowatts, so at $10 per watt that would cost about $40,000,” says Mr. Douglas, “but you can easily choose to install a system which provides only some of the power needed for the home at significantly less cost.”

Mr. Strong says, “Existing homes already have a conventional electrical system in place which functions as a backup to the solar power. It really depends on the size of the roof and how much someone is willing to spend, but they can generate 40 to 50 percent of their power annually or even get up to 60 to 80 percent with a larger system.”

Mr. Strong recommends solar water heating systems as the most cost-effective way to introduce solar energy to a home, since water heating can represent as much as 20 to 25 percent of the average utility bill and is utilized 12 months of the year, unlike heating and air conditioning systems.

“If you have enough roof area free of shade, you can install both a water heating system and a solar electric system,” says Mr. Strong. “Both systems work with an array of collectors on the roof with piping down to the mechanical room of the home.”

While retrofitting homes with solar power may sometimes be too costly, the DOE has a program in place to encourage solar panels to be added to new homes.

“Our goal is to make all new construction homes by production builders, not just custom homes, to be 50 percent more energy efficient,” says Mr. Douglas. “We’re working with builders to at least have them offer greater energy efficiency and solar power as options to their customers, if not to include them as standard features. By increasing energy efficiency through low-E windows, extra insulation and energy-efficient appliances, and adding solar panels to the roof, we expect the cost of construction of the average new home to increase by about $10,000.

“But many mortgage companies will lend more money to their borrowers for an energy-efficient home, knowing they will be spending as much as 50 percent less per month on utility costs,” he says. “We’re also educating consumers about the benefits of an energy-efficient home in terms of long-term costs and also the comfort and health benefits of better air quality due to these improvements.”

Mr. Lipford suggests new-home buyers check for several items to make sure they are buying an energy-efficient home.

“The federal government rates heating and cooling systems for their efficiency, giving them a ‘SEER’ number, which means ‘seasonal energy efficient ratio,’” says Mr. Lipford. “The higher the number, with the highest at 18, the more energy-efficient the system is. Buyers should also check to be certain their new windows are double-paned, and that the home is sufficiently insulated and well-sealed.”

“Most homes today are built with a home wrap around the outside, but buyers should make sure that their home has one of these,” he says. “They function almost like a windbreaker but still allow the home to breathe.”

Solar power advocates are supporting the DOE’s Zero Energy Home Program, which encourages the building of custom homes — by groups such as Solar Design Associates — that are completely energy-efficient and self-sufficient.

“Obviously it is easier in some climates than others to design a home to be self-sufficient based on solar power, but the idea is that over the course of a year that a home can generate as much energy as needed,” says Mr. Douglas.

Baby steps, such as replacing weatherstripping and lowering the thermostat, can lead homeowners to the next level of energy efficiency and eventually to taking advantage of the power provided by the sun.

On the Web:

• Solar Design Associates, www.solardesign.com

• Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, www.dsireusa.org

• U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building America program, www.eere.energy.gov/buildings/building_america

• U.S. DOE’s Zero Energy Homes fact sheet (PDF reader program required), www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/35317.pdf

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