Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thinking About Adding a Solar Panel to your Home?

Last weekend, I spent some time at the Wichita Area Builders Association Home Show at Century II.  I had been invited by Nick King of King’s Solar Wind Plumbing to help out and answer questions about Home Energy Audits.  I got to visit with a lot of interesting people coming through the Home Show. I also got to listen to Nick, Mark, Lee, Tom, Nelson, and Ellsworth about Solar Power for residential and other uses.

I went in with a lot of questions and got the answers.  For this post I decided to take what I learned and put it in a Q/A format for the readers of the blog.  So pull up a chair and read through the questions and the answers.  Then think about the potential of adding solar on your home or business.

Q: What type of energy do Solar Panels provide?

A:  Some panels use the heat from the sun to warm air. This can be circulated into the house; it can be stored in a thermal mass.  This would be a Solar Thermal type panel.

Some panels use the heat from the sun to heat water. The water can provide hydronic (water based) heat or hot water or both. This would also be a Solar Thermal type panel.

Some panels use the heat from the sun to generate electricity. This would be a photovoltaic  (PV) solar panel.

Q: How long does a Solar Panel last?

A:  Many existing solar panels were installed 30 years ago or more. These panels provided hot water or hot air.  Many are still in use and are expected to continue with minimal maintenance for years to come. There are no moving parts on a solar panel.

Q: There are Hail Storms in Kansas!  What happens to my expensive solar system when it gets hit by hail.

A: The solar panels are made of tempered glass. They are rated and tested for a one inch hail stone.  A couple of years ago, a commercial solar array in Texas was hit with a hail storm and stones the size of tennis balls.  A total of 600 panels on this system had only 2 panels damaged.

Q: How do you take care of the batteries, so you don’t have to pay the electric utility?

A: Actually, you want to stay hooked up the to electric utility so you can use them for your battery.  That means no replacements, maintenance expense or other cost.  Kansas Law now requires a 1:1 exchange. When you generate more than you use, the two-way meter, sends it out to your electric utility to deliver to someone else. When you need one, it trades one back.  The planning key is to know what time period your utility uses. Some run the trades for a month and then each month starts with a clean slate.  Some Utility Companies use a different length period, which could be as long one year. Other states may have very different requirements, so check first!

Q: Would my home be worth considering solar?

A: It depends on the solar conditions on your property.  A house with a small yard is best set up for solar by having a south sloping roof.  The sun lower in the winter, a south slope on the roof, helps maximize your solar generation. The other solar condition to consider is shade.  Some parts of your roof may be shaded by parts of your house or by nearby trees.

Q: Do you put one big solar panel or a lot of little ones on the roof?

A:  Most residential PV panels are 39×65 inches.  A typical installation may be 10 to 30+ panels. The actual number depends on your utility usage and your goals.

Q:  How do you figure out how many panels to put on a house?

A: How much electricity do you use? Then how much of the existing electricity that you have been paying for, can you eliminate through efficiency improvements? In this way, you can buy a smaller more efficient system.

Q:  What type of improvements that are energy efficient do you recommend?

A:  Efficient Energy Star appliances are a good place to start. You can look at your refrigerator, deep freeze, the garage refrigerator, and others.  You can look at your vampire loads and look at ways to drop these ineffective or wasteful uses.  The larger savings may be in having your home ready for solar by installing enough insulation or sealing up all the air leaks, and choosing the HVAC system that best matches your needs to efficiency.

Q:  What is the best way to make these determinations about the existing efficiencies of my home?

A:  We recommend a comprehensive Home Energy Audit!  It should include a Blower Door Test with an Infrared Camera testing for air infiltration.  Your auditor should computer model the energy usage on your home as it stands now, and demonstrate the savings of various improvements.

This video from the Department of Energy describes a good Home Energy Audit.

Q: How do I find a good energy auditor?

A: You can check with your Electric Utility Company. You can check with the Kansas Energy Office. You can also check in Kansas and nationally for an auditor with RESNET. If you don’t live in Kansas you can check with your state’s Energy Office.

Q:  I am renting right now and will start building a new home in about 6 months.  How do I make sure my new home is ready for solar?

A:  To start with you should begin planning your home to meet Energy Star Standards.   This would require an Independent Third Party to first review the plans for the home and then to inspect at various times during construction to verify the plans are being followed. As of January 2012, no city, county or other code enforcement authority, in Kansas, has adopted any Energy Code.  If they do in the future, a code requirement for energy would be a minimum requirement, and many of the better builders prefer to build a house that is better than the code minimums.

You can exceed Energy Star Standards to build a new home by having your contractor meet the requirements of the Department of Energy’s ‘Builder’s Challenge Program’!

Q: What if my roof is not the best candidate to mount solar panels on the roof?

A:  You can do a ground mounted system.  It depends on having ground around your home that is not shaded from trees or buildings. You can also calculate the amount of reduction in Solar Efficiency the shading causes, then you can determine if you wish to go ahead.

Q: How many volts does each panel generate?

A: Solar panels are becoming standardized by most manufacturers. A 39×65 inch panel, usually will provide 235 watts of power. You buy electricity from your Electric Utility by the Kilowatt Hour. That is 1000 watts over 1 hour. That means that 5 panels will generate about 1 Kilowatt Hour of electricity each hour the sun shines at peak value.

Q: Why do you say about?  Isn’t it exact?

A: The electricity generated by the solar panel is direct current.  It must be changed, with an inverter, to alternating current to match the electric set up in your home.  The efficiency of the inverter can vary by manufacturer.  The efficiency can be as low as 75% or as efficient as 92%.  I use a 92% efficient inverter.

Q:  Why do you say peak value?

A:  The solar panel generates the maximum power when everything works together.  At 9:30 the sun shines on the panel more directly then when it first started shining on the panel and thus the panel generates more electricity.

Peak Value or Power is also affected by clouds and shade from trees or buildings.  Ten years after you install your solar panels, the neighbor’s trees will grow and perhaps are casting a shadow on your panel. This will change over time.

Q: If a tree is shading my panel part of the day, how much would that really help in the winter after the leaves are gone?

A: The branches would average about 50% of the summer shade value in the winter. The exact amount would depend on the type of tree, how far away it is, and how large it is.

Q;  What is ‘Net Zero’ ?

A:  ‘Net Zero’ is a term that shows your home takes no energy from the utility grid over a period of time, usually a year.  It allows you to trade KWH back and forth, with the end result of no net purchases.

‘Net Zero’ does not mean you are not hooked up to the grid.  That would be termed ‘Off Grid’.

Planning for your home to be ‘Off Grid’ or to become ‘Net Zero’ is the same process with quite different approaches, efficiency parameters, costs and results.  ‘Off Grid is an approach that would appeal to a much smaller number of families than ‘Net Zero’. ‘Net Zero’ is much more affordable at this time than ‘Off Grid’!

Q: Do you have to have an All Electric home to achieve a “Net Zero” status?

A:  No, you can calculate how much extra electricity that your panels produce over your electric needs to offset the natural gas or propane used.

In Kansas, you only get credit for the number of KWH that you trade in and then take back out. Generating more KWH and sending to the grid is a nice thing; but to do this your array is more expensive and thus you have a ‘green payoff’ instead of a ‘cash payoff’!

 Q: Where are solar panels made?  Overseas, like everything else?

A:  You can buy Solar Panels made overseas.  You can also buy panels made in New Mexico or California. Those made here in the US are of the same quality as the imports and the same of better cost.  Also, the energy used to transport them to your home is much less, because they are closer to start with.

Q:  What do I get from adding Solar to my home?

A:  Take your pick!  Save Money!  Go Green! Cut the carbon footprint? It is the right thing to do!

What you get is up to you. You may choose to add Solar for one of these or another reason. The value is for you to appreciate.

For an additional view on Solar, here is a Blog post from Martin Holladay, blogging as ‘The Energy Nerd’.

Common Approaches to Heating Your Home: Part III

This is Part III of a 3 part Series.  Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.

Hybrid Heat Pump

This choice is sometimes referred to as a Dual Fuel Heat Pump. It utilized both gas and electricity to heat your home. The efficiency of a heat pump is because at most heating temperatures, it moves heat from outside to inside.

Think about your refrigerator. When the inside warms up to 40•, the food risks going bad, so the fridge finds the heat and pumps in out.  Your food stays refrigerated. At 40• outside, a heat pump can find heat and efficiently bring it inside. This costs less than consuming natural gas, propane or electricity to produce heat in a furnace.

At much lower temperatures, a heat pump will need a boost to maintain the heat. This is an electric resistance strip heater. It is used in emergency and back up situations.

A hybrid heat pump uses a conventional furnace for emergency and back up. This is less expensive than electric resistance heat.

Your Choice

In our climate zone; I believe the rank of these approaches should be:

  1. Geothermal
  2. Hybrid Heat Pump
  3. Traditional Furnace / AC
  4. Air Source Heat Pump

This ranking is based primarily on Efficiency Issues with overall comfort issues second.  This rank considers only long term operating costs. It does not consider capital costs (installation).

There are two primary considerations for all of the installation and ultimately comfort issues.

  • The home must be ready for an efficient heating/ac equipment installation.  This means the thermal envelope must be sealed and well insulated. Your thermal envelope is defined as the basement walls, or crawl space walls, the wall above ground, the ceiling.
  • The calculations for equipment size, and selection must be done professionally. The use of a recognized computer program authorized by the ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America); showing the Manual J calculations of the improved home for determining heat loads; and the Manual S calculations to select the equipment. You may wish to have your ductwork reviewed and perhaps resized.  This would call for calculations with ACCA Manual D.

The choice to go with Geothermal or ASHP would mean very little gas usage, only the hot water heater. That could be converted to electric with the ASHP. With a Geothermal Unit, you could utilize a system of hot water that is known as ‘de-superheating’.  It uses otherwise wasted heat from the Heat Pump unit to heat water.

The capital costs of these units in the Wichita area are estimated at:

  • Geothermal:               15-25,000 (open or closed loop)
  • ASHP:                           7 -10,000
  • Hybrid Heat Pump:    7 – 10,000
  • Furnace/AC                 7 -10,000

The Geothermal unit is considered to be a renewable energy source and carries a 30% tax credit, with no limit.  It is available through 2016.

Comfort Note: Conventional Furnaces blow heated air into the duct work at temperatures from 105 – 150; depending and the design factors of the furnace.  If you have come in from the cold and stood neat the supply register of a forced air furnace, you feel the heat.  A heat pump type of heating does not create heat to be blown into the duct work at these high temperatures, a heat pump typically blows air into the ducts at 85 – 105 degrees.  This change can cause people to not like a heat pump; air source or ground source. A hybrid heat pump would provide the same range as a furnace with lower outside temperatures.

Please post your questions below as comments!

I’ll Give You the Title to my Car for Some Heat!

It is cold here is Maine, there is snow on the ground and more is coming. My house is old and fuel oil is high.  I’ve had two loads this winter and my tank is dry. I’m using the oven with the door open and the dryer for heat to cut down on the amount the boiler runs. I have disconnected the dryer vent so the heat comes into the house. My wife is disabled and cold. Our Social Security doesn’t cover food and drugs and heat.  So, …. I’ll give you the title to my car for some heat!

That was the story in last Sunday’s NY Times article by Dan Berry.

Let’s bring this to Kansas.  This couple has started through the winter with an unpaid heating bill of $700.  It is not uncommon in that part of the country for homes to cost $2,000 to heat with fuel oil.  Most homes in Kansas heat with natural gas, their typical cost for heating the home and water heating is between $550 and 700 per year.  The cost of fuel oil has risen 18% from January 2011 to January of 2012.  The cost of natural gas is about the same, perhaps down slightly.  If you have propane instead of natural gas, the price range might be in the $700 – 1,200 range.

This is Tuesday night.  The Hartford’s situation has been pinging around some corners of the internet.  Energy Auditors, Insulation Contractors and others that work with improving home performance and lowering energy bills have not only been reading and discussing this story.  They have taken some action.

The first update is from Energy Circle and Peter Troast.

Wonderful news and potential progress for the 60 hours since we started reading the story.  I reading through this I see several takeaway points:

  • This couple will use less heat next year because their house will have additional insulation and air sealing of leaks.  That means it will cost less.
  • The generosity of some people across this country will provide payment for some outrageous heating bills for others that are unable to pay in that community.
  • Other homes need insulation and air sealing so they also can use significantly less heat.

There are some other articles out there.  Read what others are saying.

An Elderly Couple in Maine Offers to Trade Their Car for Fuel Oil, by Allison Bailes, PhD on the excellent Energy Vanguard Blog.

‘America has a heartbeat:’ Donations pour in for home heat, by Erin Cox, Sun Journal

Maine Freezes While Washington Snoozes, by Raymond J. Learsy, Huffington Post

This is the situation Tuesday Evening.  Future updates will be posted below.

 A Letter to the Editor NY Times from the Governor of Maine  Did he really say ‘Don’t blame me or the government?’

A Visit with Mr. Rucker …

IMG_1217These visits stated in 2002, on Super Bowl Sunday.  Seems like my friend Mr Tannahill called Mr Blouin and I to make a trek to visit Mr Rucker, before we all got together for the Super bowl Party that year.

Our families both nuclear and extended had been doing a joint Super Bowl Party for a number of years by 2002. It seemed kinda natural that we would include Mr Rucker that year, even though he was not with us any more.  So, off we went about 10 miles south to Litttleton Cemetery. We wanted to bring Mr. Foster along for the visit.  That was important because Mr. Foster had been a favorite part of Mr. Rucker’s social life for a number of years, and thus part of his friends lives.

IMG_1216In addition to Super Bowl Parties, Mr. Rucker with the three of us and our wives, more or less, had gathered periodically for dinner, some times at a restaurant, or sometimes at someone’s home.  In any case Mr. Rucker made sure that Mr. Foster was there, at least for the preliminaries.  As far as we know, there is no Mrs. Foster.

 

 

It is always refreshing to visit Jim on Super Bowl Sunday. Sometimes snow and ice, sometimes slush, sometimes rain or other types of precipitation.  Today was just nice. There are always a few laughs, good stories, we all get caught up on each other.  A few more stories and just guys kicking around.

 

About 5 years ago, the group grew a little.  Mr. Rucker’s boys had grown up, finished college, gotten married and they joined us.  A great time got just a little larger.

IMG_1218We always decorate when we are done. We also joke about what others coming to visit nearby might think about the décor.  Wondering is not caring in this case.  At some point later in 2002, Mrs. R made a visit and we heard about it.  She promised to bring a sack the next time, smiling! Then her first daughter-in-law went along and we heard about it again.  Then the second daughter-in-law heard went along.  Yes, you know the drill. This year was nice, a sack will accompany someone later in the year.

 

And, no —  we did not leave Mr. Rucker thirsty.  He has some of Mr. Foster’s fav with him.  When asked why we think it is still there, we laugh!  No one put in a bottle opener!

Jim Rucker  1942 – 2001  – Super Bowl Sunday – Celebrating our Friendship! A Super Bowl Sunday Tradition!

What is that I smell? Indoor Air Quality!

 

Improvement of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is of interest to many of the people that are pursuing an Energy Audit.  Over the last 40 years, many of the worst outdoor air pollutants have been controlled, reduced or eliminated as a problem.  New understanding of air pollution, new technology and new approaches have all had roles in these improvements.

As the improvement has been happening outside, people have begun to take a stronger look at what is happening inside their homes. Again new understanding of how a home works, new technology, and new approaches to handing indoor air have a role in improving IAQ.

In building a new home, following the Indoor Air Plus specifications, part of the Energy Star program, provides for long term Indoor Air Quality basics.  Following many of these specifications gives each homeowner a guideline to apply to improvements in an existing home.  It is easier and less expensive to build a home with these features. It is also possible to incorporate many of them into an existing home.

The list and discussion below provide information to homeowners about those improvements that are cost effective to implement and can be done over time or immediately. These are all improvements that will improve or maintain the indoor air quality and at the same time will improve the durability of the home.

 

Radon Control

Air Infiltration

Moisture Control

Pest Control

Heating and Air Conditioning System

  • Ducts are sealed in all accessible areas.
  • Pressure Balance Supply to each room and Return from each room. Use Jump or transfer ducts as needed to maintain balance.
  • Install a whole house type ventilation system to meet ASHRAE 62.2.2010 specifications.
  •  Spot exhaust fans in bathrooms, kitchen, laundry, dryer, central vacuum systems are exhausted to the outside, not into the area between floors or the attic. Use the specifications of ASHRAE 62.2.2010 here as well.
  • Adjust HVAC to maximize dehumidification in the summer.
  • Do not run HVAC blower on ‘On’ or circulate; use the Auto setting.

Combustion Pollutant Sources

  • Change furnace to sealed combustion unit
  • Vent Fireplaces outside and have them checked to verify they meet emission standards.
  • Install a Carbon Monoxide Alarm in each sleeping zone and in any room with a standard gas hot water heater or gas range.
  • Consider changing conventional atmospherically drafted hot water heater to electric or Tankless Demand with sealed combustion.

The Attached Garage

  • Air seal all common walls and ceilings in the garage. Maintain the air barrier by repairing holes, cracks in the drywall.
  • Install an automatic door closer on any doors into the home, from the garage.  A spring loaded hinge will meet this item. Do not prop the door to the garage open or use this opening to bring fresh air into the home during spring or fall.
  • Consider installing a ventilation fan to the outside, rated at 70 cfm in continuous use. Provide make up air source with this improvement.

Materials used in any Future Remodels

  • Certified low-formaldehyde pressed wood materials (plywood, OSB, MDF, cabinetry.
  • Certified low-VAC or no-VOC interior paints and finishes used.
  • Carpet, adhesives, and cushion quality for CRI Green Label Plus or Green Label testing Program

Air Filtration

The last step in any Indoor Air Quality program is filtering the air.

Most people start with this step.  It is really the last step.  If you keep stuff from getting in, you don’t need to filter it out.  Somewhat like closing the barn door after the cow is gone.

Duct Cleaning Services

Due to the varied construction of heating and air ducts, the heavily advertised duct cleaning service presents unique problems. The use of panned body cavities within walls and floors means ducts are not smooth inside. Flex Duct with increased friction losses, possible tight bends and up and down runs also creates issues.  The EPA advice is without compelling visual evidence of an extreme problem, duct cleaning is not advised. You may view the entire EPA Web Page http://epa.gov/iaq/pubs/airduct.html

Where Do I Start?

Get some Professional Advice.  This should involve a complete review of your home. It can be done by someone that is selling a service.  The assessment can be done by someone that doesn’t not have a financial interest in a product or service that may be recommended after the assessment. It is your home, it is your choice!

Efficient Energy Savers can do this assessment. It can be done stand alone, or with a comprehensive Home Energy Audit.  Call or e-mail for more information.