Solar-Ready Homes

A solar-ready home powers up!The policies set by local governments can do much to move us toward sustainability. We do not have to wait for national regulations to change the way we build or rebuild the homes in our communities. There is much to be done and with the political gridlock in Washington, local action is our best hope for meaningful change.

One example occurred recently in Boulder County, Colorado. The area has long been on the leading edge of environmental awareness and action. This month, their forward-looking board of commissioners adopted new building codes for energy efficiency, while also adding requirements that all new homes be wired for electric vehicles and solar panels. This does not mean the new homes must be equipped with solar panels or charging stations, but they will at least be pre-wired so that those systems will be easier and less costly to add when the homeowner is ready. I refer to this as a solar-ready home.

Solar Ready = Lower Cost

I have long promoted the concept of solar-ready communities to local builders, with little success. The cost of installing some extra conduit during construction is minimal. Designing new communities with roofs that are better able to accommodate solar arrays is not difficult. Neither would add significantly to the cost but the potential value of a solar-ready home should be apparent to anyone.

For example, according to Mike Salisbury, Transportation Program Associate at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and an advocate to Boulder County for the amendment, “Pre-wiring for electric vehicles as part of new construction can save the average homeowner $1,000 over the cost of a retrofit outlet for a plug-in vehicle.” The savings for installing a solar array could be even more.

Driving on Sunshine

Electric vehicles will soon become mainstream. My personal experience shows that the combination of a solar-powered home and car can save thousands of dollars a year. My investment in solar is returning nearly 20% a year when factoring the savings from electricity and gasoline. No drilling, no noise, no carbon, no pollution, no time pumping gas and no electric bills.

We must think about the long-term impacts of today’s decisions and plan for a carbon-restrained, climate-challenged world. We can learn from Boulder County’s example and take it even further. For example, they also passed a related resolution which lays out the county’s intention to move towards a net zero energy requirement for new residential construction by 2022. Why wait? We should do that now. Not because it sounds like a good idea, but because it is the best way to build a comfortable, affordable home.

Enhanced Comfort

Landscape destruction caused by drilling rigs. Oil, gas, coal - all contribute to the destruction of our land, air and water.Jim Meyers, Director of the Buildings Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, put it this way, “The upshot of the commissioners’ decision to adopt the latest energy conservation codes is that buyers of new residences will enjoy extraordinary comfort and very low utility bills.” Energy savings can pay for the added cost when rolled into the mortgage, providing value to the buyer from day one.

Whether we’re talking about upgrading our existing housing stock or building new homes, there are ample opportunities to accelerate the transformation. There are multiple benefits, including: reducing our carbon footprint, easing the load on an aging electrical infrastructure, increasing occupant comfort, strengthening our local economy and breathing cleaner air.

The Real Cost

Landscape destruction zoomed.The energy we use always comes at a cost. The REAL cost is often hidden however. Just look at some aerial images of natural gas fracking fields or mountaintop coal mines and you’ll see the damage that’s being done. It is all unnecessary. We have what it takes to do better. I think we owe it to the children and those who will follow to make it happen now.

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Comments

  1. David F. Schmidt AIA NCARB says:

    Steve, I agree with your comments about how homes should be built today…I also believe that homes should be built to meet the following PHIUS minimum energy performance standards, whether or not they include solar panels, because this will reduce the building envelope energy load by 80 to 90 percent:

    Home Performance Characteristics:

    • Airtight building shell ? 0.6 ACH @ 50 pascal pressure (positive and negative), measured by blower-door tests.

    • Annual heating and/or cooling requirement ? 15 kWh/m2/year (4.75 kBtu/sf/yr)

    • Primary Source Energy ? 120 kWh/m2/year (38.1 kBtu/sf/yr)

    In addition, the following are recommendations, varying with climate:

    • Window u-value ? 0.8 W/m2/K

    • Ventilation system with heat recovery with ? 75% efficiency
    with low electric consumption @ 0.45 Wh/m3

    • Thermal Bridge Free Construction ? 0.01 W/mK

    If you build a home in the Las Vegas valley to this energy standard, it would have an average R value on all six sides of the building envelope (including the floor) of approximately R-40. It would also include triple pane windows with a minimum average U-value of approximately .20 and a minimum shading coefficient of .25.

    The UNLV Solar Decathlon home was designed and built very close to this standard, except that the operable windows and glazing have a slightly higher U-value average of .28.

    • Steve Rypka says:

      That is great information David, thank you! Not all architects are tuned in to the benefits of energy efficiency and green building but you certainly are. I know that you worked as an adviser on DesertSol and you should be proud that the team did so well in the international competition of the Solar Decathlon. Way to go!