Monday, March 19, 2012

Solar Housing Thoughts

In the 2-1/2 years of this blog, I have posted very little about my passion for passive solar sustainable housing. Maybe I have shied away partly because I think when most Americans hear the word "solar", they immediately think only of solar PV panels on the roof, and the accompanying complex systems of deep-cycle batteries, a bunch of electronic monitors and controls that don't make sense to them, and even possibly having every electrical thing in the house converted to run on 12 volt direct current electricity if they don't use an inverter. The cost for such systems can easily exceed $40,000-$50,000 even though the prices for PV panels have come down considerably in the last 10 years.

Why is it so expensive? Because the big corporations that control the PV market are the same big corporations that control the fossil fuel energy market, and they are the most profitable businesses around. Plus, they have incredible political as well as financial clout. Sure, the companies that install PV systems aren't making the kind of profits the fossil fuel utility companies make, and the government does provide token underwriting for some alternative energy systems (also usually owned by big utilities), or sometimes token tax breaks for us, but it's all smoke and mirrors.

Most small and independent alternative energy companies are not in a financial position to donate millions of dollars to political campaigns, although the pittance allowed to them in funding is used in a platform by political candidates to proclaim they back alternative energy. Truth is, just the federal money spent to aid fracking could put hundreds of small alternative energy companies in business, and people back to work.

However, active solar electric systems are not my point here.

I suspect the average homeowner doesn't know a lot about what passive solar really IS, much less what it can do for their existing homes, often on the cheap. However, they DO know how hot their car gets sitting in the sun during summer, which is pure passive solar! (New homes are a different ball game because they can be designed for passive solar gains, discussed below.) 

Simple summer cooling
My own (older) home is not oriented to take advantage of any solar gain in winter, but a simple solar chimney and some earth cooling tubes could be installed for a few hundred dollars, which would mean not running expensive AC in the summer. For a few hundred dollars (or less if I do a lot myself) I could have free solar hot water for the 6-7 non-freezing months of the year and turn off power to the water heater in those months! For only a couple hundred dollars more, it could be a closed-loop system filled with a liquid that doesn't freeze and I could have free solar hot water all year long, for the rest of the life of this house (although I could need electricity from a small PV panel to run a pump from the collector if necessary).

External summer wall shading
One of my spring projects is to install a tall wire trellis a couple of feet from the narrow south end of this house, and grow vines and pole beans on it to shade that wall. The wall is windowless, but it sure heats up the house because there's minimal insulation in the old walls. I need to find some really tall poles, and then I'll post this project as I get it started.

During the 1970's there was a strong movement into alternative energy because of the oil embargo. Homeowner-inventors lurked in a gazillion basements and garages, and many energy-saving innovations were born. Homeowner-built things like "breadbasket" aka batch collector solar water heaters, Trombe walls thrown up outside existing walls to gain heat in winter, attached green living spaces with solar collection mass added in the lower walls and floors, tall interior tubes containing water or phase-change materials to collect and slowly release the solar-gained heat at night... the list was almost endless.

The opportunities in new construction were also endless, and needed only one big basic thought-change to jump-start sustainability... orient the house to the sun, not to the street!

Unfortunately, the government incentives and tax breaks ended soon after the embargo ended and fossil fuel was cheap once again.

I'll have more to say on passive solar heating AND cooling as time goes on, since I'm working on a scale model of my own passive solar home design which I will post in a few days.

1 comment:

  1. I was trying to find my way through the web of useless noise to do some simple PV. Gheez! What a mess. Plenty of one or two dollar a what panels...If you don't mind paying $170.00 for shipping.
    Just today I was pricing some copper pipes for a passive solar water heater. That I can afford. I look forward to your posts.


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