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Build a Solar Home and Let the Sunshine In
By Dan Chiras

If you're planning to build your dream home someday, this article could save you thousands of dollars. Including simple, passive-solar features in any style home can cost next to nothing up front and save you unbelievable amounts over the long-term in reduced energy bills.

Millions of homes easily could be designed to capture free heat directly from the sun. But instead we are burning - wasting - huge amounts of oil and natural gas every winter. The missed opportunities to tap into solar energy are so fantastic they boggle the mind, and nowhere is our blindness to the potential of solar more troublesome than in the home-heating arena.

You can incorporate passive-solar heating in any style home, as the photos that accompany this story show. Or you can add solar features when remodeling an existing home, as long as the south side of the house receives full sun most of the day. When correctly designed, solar homes provide unrivaled comfort in winter and summer. They offer large, south-facing windows, generous views, sunny interiors and open floor plans.

Architect Debbie Rucker Coleman, who has been designing solar homes since 1985, says her clients are impressed with how spacious the sunlight makes the home feel. "In addition to low heating bills, passive-solar homes are cool in summer. They are delightful places to live," she says.

Coleman's drawings show how two conventional house styles could easily become passive-solar homes.

Heating homes with sunlight, known as passive-solar heating, is based on the simple idea of using south-facing windows to admit low-angled winter sun. Sunlight streaming into the home warms the interior space. Thermal mass, such as tile floors and interior masonry walls, stores the sun's heat and releases it when room temperatures fall at night or during cloudy weather. Choose a house design that accommodates the right amounts of south-facing glass and thermal mass. Add careful caulking and ample insulation (usually slightly higher than building codes currently require), and you'll have a solar-heated home that requires little or no heat from any nonrenewable fuel source. In the summer, a solar home's thermal mass and insulation, together with properly sized overhangs to shade the windows, keep the home comfortable and reduce cooling requirements.

Simply orienting a conventional house to the south will cut annual energy bills by at least 10 percent, saving thousands of dollars over a home's lifetime. Add a long south-facing wall of windows and some thermal mass and you easily can tap sunshine's free energy to meet 50 percent to 70 percent of a home's heating requirements. Do your homework or hire a solar architect to create a rigorous passive-solar design and you can reduce your energy bills by 80 percent to 100 percent. Given the probability energy costs will increase steadily in the coming years, the long-term savings from a passive-solar home could become very substantial, as we'll show in detail below.

According to Ron Judkoff, director of the Buildings and Thermal Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, passive-solar features increase the cost of building a new home by anywhere from nothing to about 3 percent. (On a $200,000 home, for example, the maximum additional cost of incorporating passive-solar heating might be only another $6,000.) Since many building codes now require much more energy-efficient windows, walls, ceilings and foundations than in the past, and you'll need a much smaller furnace or other backup heat source, passive solar frequently adds very little or nothing to the cost of a new home.

Judkoff bases his cost estimates in part on a series of case studies sponsored by NREL and the American Solar Energy Society, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. Data on passive-solar homes were collected from a variety of locations across the United States. The study found the additional cost of building a passive-solar home ranged from nothing to 3 percent, while the annual savings from passive-solar heating in the homes ranged from $220 in New Mexico to $2,255 in New Hampshire. Based on recent energy prices, a passive-solar home in a northern location could save you as much as $67,000 on heating and cooling costs over a 30-year period.

We all know energy prices are only going to rise. Some regions already have experienced sudden 100-percent spikes in natural gas prices. Major increases in natural gas and oil prices seem inevitable.  Without an inexpensive, reliable fuel source, millions of homeowners who rely on natural gas and oil may suffer enormous economic hardship. So let's take another look at those estimated cost savings from the NREL and ASES case studies. If we assume a 5 percent annual increase in energy costs, the potential 30-year savings from a passive-solar home jump to $141,400, quite a return on a maximum investment of just 3 percent of your construction costs. If energy prices increase 10 percent per year, the estimated 30-year savings in cold climates could be more than $400,000.

No one knows for sure how fast fuel prices will increase. But whatever happens, passive solar clearly makes fantastic sense from a financial standpoint. And the bonus is the environmental benefit of reduced air pollution. Coleman estimates that compared to the average home, her 2,100-square-foot solar home - with its average heating or cooling costs of $12 per month - will save 574,410 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over 30 years.


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