Monthly Archives: April 2009

Harold Hay — Solar Pioneer

“Everybody there would be talking about sophisticated collectors and tracking systems and very exotic and expensive surfaces that were marginally more efficient absorbers of the suns rays and multi-million-dollar research projects,”says Steve. ” And, usually, the guys doing all the talking didn’t have a working prototype of anything they were spouting off about.

“And then Harold Hay would get up and he’d have some actual test data taken from some incredibly simple and low cost experiment hed just ran. And everybody would say,’You mean that’s all you’re doing? You’re just moving some insulation back and fourth? And they’d all go back to their discussion of some idiotic idea that would probably never work—but which was sure to cost the taxpayers of, this country several million dollars. They just couldn’t appreciate the genius of the man.” (Steve Baer)


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William Atkinson – Solar Pioneer

The Orientation of Buildings or Planning for Sunlight, 1912, William Atkinson, Fellow of the Boston Society of Architects

– and –

“New England colonials built salt box houses with south-
facing glass. By 1860, solar building was a lost art in the US. Millions
of immigrants came to cities like Philadelphia and lived in houses with
random orientations. In 1912, architect William Atkinson built a “sun house”
near Boston. It worked fine and reached 100 degrees indoors on freezing days.
He wrote a book about it, and his work was forgotten, in a kind of solar
amnesia.” from Environmental sermon

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Trappist monasteries are ecovillages extraordinaire

“An essential part of the Rule of St. Benedict, the founding and still-definitive guide to monasticism written by St. Benedict in the sixth century, is that all monasteries must be self-sufficient and self-supporting communities. Trappists accomplish this primarily through manual labor.”

LINK (part 1 of 4 at Forbes)

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Passive House / Passivhaus Ponderings

I am conflicted… basically we want to build the cheapest, lowest BTU house possible.
But we also want to make a little noise and share info about what we have done.

So on the one hand the passive house would be nice because you can get a stamp of approval and with that the potential for news articles, etc!

But the practical engineer in me wonders if the overkill of getting from superinsulation to passive house — by adding 4″ of exterior rigid insulation, more expensive Thermotech windows, $4000 more in modeling and extra-special blower-door testing — is the “right” way to do it. Maybe it is though. What would 4″ of rigid cost and Thermotech casements cost? How many BTUs of heat would it save per year?

If *I* were coming up with the passive house standard, it would have a cost-effectiveness standard in it.

I would be asking (and I’m just looking at my BTU heat-loss/usage excel spreadsheet here…) how does one decide how to spend money… it seems like it should be something like MOST BTUs-saved (at the source) PER $$. And over at least 30 years.

So in the running would be…

1. hot water
2. electricity–appliance usage/”household operations”
3. HVAC — heating/cooling/ventilation
4. car usage (prius, bike, work at home, etc)
…and non house/car…
5. food (vegetarian, etc)
6. not buying stuff

a. better envelope (insulation/sealing/windows) (for #3)
b. solar hot water (for #1, maybe #3)
c. solar heating (sometimes also combined with #b) (for #3)
d. solar PVs (which can be used toward #1, 2, 3 and 4) and also has the benefit of generating during peak usage hours, so should be encouraged)
e. changing behavior (cooler house, changing eating, driving, turning stuff off, etc) (#1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
f. smaller house

“Passive house” is a solution putting all ones eggs into one basket (#a above) without considering when the “$/KWh” (saved over 30 years let’s say) are lower coming from one of these methods of dealing with 1-6. (Sorry, I switched units and inverted from high BTUs/$ to low $/KWh — but I think the latter is nice because we know what we pay for a KWh of electricity. In Massachusetts it’s like $0.20-$0.25 if one is doing GreenUp/GreenStart for renewable electricity from the electricity company)

So sorry, looking just at the problems 1-4 and solutions a-d (things we can build/buy):
– #a (well, and #c) are unique in that they are best done when the house is built.
– #a also probably have the best lifetime–infinite. Well, except windows which need replacing in 15/30(?) years

But there are obviously diminishing returns with #a, so when do you shift to b, c, or d? And which?

Basically I’m just imagining our house plans as currently designed, but analyzing it without solar PVs or hot water added yet (just #a). My estimate is that we maybe need (in KWh per year) — these are items 1 thru 4 from above again:

1. 3100 hot water (based on some ridiculous guess of our usage)
2. 4200 appliances/lights
3. 3300 heat
4. 9700 car–our 25mpg Saab station wagon commuting to Sudbury Valley School 180 days

So even if we get heat to approach 0, we still have some HUGE numbers elsewhere.

I think it’s possible to price out a thru d and make a reasonable estimate as to the savings involved. My guess as to the rankings would be, from most bang for the buck to least (and it really doesn’t have to be guesses, these are all things which could be calculated, I think)

1. our current “superinsulation” package (12″ walls, 18″ ceilings, Marc Rosenbaum tightness standard 0.05 CFM50/sqft shell, triple pane Paradigm windows, solar tempering — extra window sqft on the south)
2. air-source heat pumps (Fujitsu 9RLQ times 3 maybe)
3. solar hot water
4. Prius (maybe plug-in)
5. PVs
6. passive house level of insulation

And I haven’t really looked into the cost, but I suspect that an active solar air-heating solution with a low-mass sunspace and insulated solar heated water storage for cloudy days (ala Norman Saunders, Nick Pine, et al) might contend with #2 and 3 in total cost, and get closer to 0 BTUs/year used for heating and hot water (pre-PVs) — supposedly 97% “if cloudy days are like coin flips”.

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Superinsulation vs Passivehouse vs Solar

So, underneath all of these plans for our superinsulated house, is
really just the desire to reduce our “footprint”/our use of fossil fuels as much as
possible AND to do so while spending the least amount of bucks to do so.
(Eliminate would be nice, but I know this is not completely possible.)

The most promising things to do house-wise on this front seems to be:

1. insulate/seal like crazy, use air-source heat pump for heat
2. solar heating for domestic hot water (showers, laundry, etc)
3. low-mass, thermally isolated sunspaces (or vertical air heaters) for daytime heat, maybe some ceiling mass to extend heat to eves a bit
4. storage in water (since it stores 3 times more per weight than concrete) for purpose of…
– replacing #4 (solar hot water heating)
– heat for cloudy days (5 days would be 97% solar heated if “cloudy days are like coin-flips”)
5. grid-tied solar PVs to offset appliance use (and also try to conserve w/ CFLs, turning stuff off, etc)
6. some passive solar tempering thru south windows

#3 and 4 has many supporters. Norman Saunders, Nick Pine, Gary Reysa, Laren Corie,
and I suppose the list goes on and on. It seems to work — 97% solar heated even in New England!
The only question seems to be when it is most cost effective and best at reducing fossil-fuel use
to do #1 and 2 (Passive House, with electric backup) or #3 and 4 (Active Solar).

My sense is that with retrofits, it is more obvious that #3 and 4 (solar) are going to have an edge, money wise, since “deep energy retrofits” seem to be quite expensive and complicated. And perhaps with new construction, #1 and 2 (passivhaus). I mean, it doesn’t have to be a complete either/or decision. With existing homes, it probably makes most sense to do quite a bit of the easy envelope fixes (sealing up with foam and extra insulation in the walls and attic) but after some point, it’s time to add solar air heating, solar hot water heating, and/or solar PVs for appliance use.

And of course, the house is only one part of the equation…

7. it would be good to not drive a car (or less, or electric/hybrid)
8. it would be good to be vegetarian (i’m not at the moment)
9. it would be good to have a vegetable garden and/or local CSA
10. other lifestyle things… working at home vs commuting, flying in planes, composting food waste, composting toilets, water use, the food we buy, the junk we buy, clothesline, etc, etc, etc.

That first one (#7) in particular is an easy one since it doesn’t require major
lifestyle changes, just a prius. If one already needs a new car, it’s sort of
a no brainer that it should be a prius (at least from the number crunching I’ve
done). BTUs payoff (as with solar PV panels) is quicker than $$ payoff. Basically
this is because we are not paying the full cost to our society for the price of fossil
fuel usage.

But back to the top list (#1-6). What if doing a passive house was $20k cheaper than active-solar?
If that meant one could then afford to buy a Prius, or replace one’s current car with a Plug-in
hybrid, then despite the extra fossil-fuel use in the home (to heat with a little bit of electricity)
one would then be saving HUGE BTUs on the car side of things.

Granted, a car will not last as long as passive house (“forever”) or active solar (30 years?) so it’s
less clearly a win vs these two. But this illustrates the basic point that one has to think holistically,
across one’s entire activities. Not just house. Anyway tricky stuff.

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