Question

I am starting the planning for my first home, and I know that I want to install solar panels. What should I know before starting?

Asked by Holly
White Bluff, TN

I live in middle Tennessee, and the land that I own is a farm of 104 acres. We are also looking into geothermal heating and maybe even adding a greenhouse attached to the kitchen. Is this reasonable for a residential home?

Answer

Polly Osborne, FAIA, LEED AP

Answered by Polly Osborne, FAIA, LEED AP

Los Angeles, CA

Polly Osborne Architects

February 22, 2011

First of all, let me congratulate you on taking on these considerations early.

Passive heating and cooling

So many people start thinking about energy savings after they have started building, and the best way to save energy is to situate your home to take advantage of the natural warmth of the sun and cooling of the breeze.

Ideally, we can completely passively heat and cool our houses and reduce the electrical load using the principles of passive design through heat transfer, superinsulation, ventilation and moisture control, daylighting, and energy efficient lighting and appliances.

  • Each site and climate must be studied carefully to address the specific characteristics of heating degree days, cooling days, humidity, and exposure to sun and breeze and the hindrances your particular site may have in the way of trees, mountains and other obstructions.
  • By planning your house paying attention to these principles, you can reduce the need for whatever heating and electrical package you decide on, save on your bills, and help the environment in the process.

Good design vs. bells and whistles

Because these are design issues, they require experts in their area, so you are spending money upfront on professionals instead of spending money on the latest bells and whistles.

Of course, you may spend money on those too, but even if you don’t, you may end up with a much better performing house than if you only spent money on the bells and whistles.

Here’s the thing: solar panels may help you generate electricity, but it does no good if your load is a lot greater than the panels can handle.

  • Buying an excess of solar panels to meet your excessive load may make any energy savings unlikely when the cost of the panels are considered.
  • Likewise, the very best heating system won’t save you much if your house is poorly oriented and insulated.

Changing light bulbs is mundane

I have a client who bought solar panels for his house and complained to the manufacturer about not getting much lower energy bills. When I suggested he change all his light bulbs to LED and fluorescent, suddenly he was raving about his solar panels.

Here’s why: solar panels cost him so much they were much more important to rave about, because the light bulb changing was soooo mundane!

I’m not knocking solar panels here; I have them and think they make a big difference, but only if you do the design that supports the elements you install. 

Steps to a net zero house

That being said, here are some things to help you get started on your way to an excellent net-zero house:

Finally, work with experienced professionals

Finally, to answer your question, solar panels and geothermal are both completely appropriate in residential homes and are in fact done all the time.

The question of whether they are common in your area is another thing.

  • You want to do things where you have a pool of experienced green professionals to choose from to do your work.
  • Learning on the job isn’t always good for the homeowner.

Good luck and have fun!

Tagged In: solar power

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