living is simpler and less expensive than one might think. With the growing awareness of climate change and the diminution of nonrenewable resources, attention has shifted toward finding sustainable technologies and re-thinking age-old solutions for economy and efficiency.
If you are in the stage of building a new home, a careful analysis of needs and expenses can save you a significant amount of money and wasted energy over time. The United States Department of Energy website has tools to help you calculate your energy needs so that you can decide what systems work best for you. It recommends a lot of common sense considerations, such as designing for light and temperature that one might not otherwise think about.
In addition to evaluating your electricity use, it is important to look at local codes and requirements to determine the technology options for your site. Tax credits may also be available for energy-efficient investments and the Department of Energy website guides you through the criteria¹.
Maybe you are considering purchasing a renewable energy system to generate electricity at your home. Feel good about the time spent researching your options. Using solar energy rather than relying on power generated by nonrenewable fossil fuels, lessens your carbon footprint on the earth.
Solar energy is a feasible option
Solar power: renewable with no carbon emissions.
Whether you are building a new home or purchasing a renewable energy system, the most common solution is solar power. Light from the sun is collected via solar panels. A solar panel creates the opportunity for particles of light to knock electrons free from atoms, creating the energy of electricity.
An average household uses about a kilowatt of power. Generally, a square foot of solar panels can generate 10 or more watts. This of course is dependent upon the where you live and the direction the panels are situated in relation to the sun. Only a few square feet of solar panels are needed for the average household’s energy demands.
Solar panels can be placed anywhere they receive direct sunlight. It is common to place the panels on rooftops as they typically have an unobstructed path from the sun. They can also be installed in your yard. There are a number of companies who install solar systems. It should not be difficult to find a local installer. GetSolar has a database for finding local solar installers. Get several quotes and compare.
Another option if you are either building or replacing a roof is to use solar shingles instead of the panels².
Controlling temperature of your house with solar energy
Solar power doesn’t just have to generate electricity for lights and miscellaneous use. The power of the sun can also heat your home. You are probably painfully aware that air conditioning and heating systems use more electricity than anything else in your home. If you live in a hot climate and you have central air, you are aware of the spike in your electric bill during the hot months. Likewise, if you live in a cold climate, your electric bill in the winter months is higher for the extra power needed to keep your house warm.
While it might seem contradictory to cool your house with heat from the sun, that is exactly what solar air conditioning does. It uses water heated by the sun to power the air conditioning system.
As a bonus, the hot water produced for air conditioning or heating in the winter months, can also be used for other applications in your home when not in use. Depending on your setup, you can get the benefits of solar water heating with bonus air conditioning as well.
There are many different types of solar water heaters on the market, so do your homework to find the system that works best for you. Know too, that you may not have to invest in an entirely new HVAC system. Many existing heating and cooling systems can be modified to take advantage of solar energy.
Solar water heating
Coming in second to heating and cooling costs is simply heating water. It is estimated that heating water accounts for 14% – 15% of the total energy consumed in the home³. Consider installing a solar water heating system. Again, there are plenty on the market, many advertising that they provide up to 70% of the energy needed for heating water directly from the sun.
Solar water heaters use the sun to heat a reserve of water. This hot water can be pumped through your radiators or simply through your existing water pipes and out your faucets or showerheads. It is much less expensive than using gas or electricity to heat your water, and it is easier to install than solar panels.
Solar powered appliances help lower your monthly bills
If you are not ready to make the investment for full home solar power, take it step-by-step. There are a number of products available that run on their own solar systems that can markedly reduce your dependence on electricity.
One is a solar refrigerator. These were initially developed to answer the need for vaccine storage in remote areas and thus are very efficient coolers. They can use up to 80 percent less energy than conventional models, some models running on as little as 40 watts. With an eye toward solar compatibility, these refrigerators have been built to be DC-powered, and they come in 12- and 24-volt configurations. Too, they are manufactured in a variety of sizes, from 5 to 19 cubic feet. They are available as refrigerator alone or can be purchased as a combination solar refrigerator-freezer⁴.
Another household appliance that sucks up a lot of power and can run on solar energy is a solar oven. Solar ovens work by trapping sunlight to heat food. Solar ovens, easily built out of a few common materials, have been a popular science project for years. If this interests you, you might check out the Solar Oven Society’s website at solarovens.org. Or you can buy one. There are plenty on the market. There are even solar cookers that work at night now, and in the early morning before the sun has had a chance to charge your cells and you need that cup of coffee. Think of the advantages. Not only do they heat your food for free, but they work during a power outage.
Do you need a water distiller system? Solar water distillers use the energy of the sun to distill saline or contaminated water into pure drinking water. Large units provide about 0.8 liters of pure water per sun-hour in temperate climates, which is about 1.5 gallons per day. Smaller solar water distillers deliver up to two quarts per day. You can build your own solar still or look to companies such as SolAqua or the Aquamate made by Echomax.
Do you need an attic fan? Direct-solar attic fans on the market are quiet and self-contained, moving between 850 and 1,250 cubic feet of air per minute, depending on sunlight and model size. Models on the market are activated by a thermal switch that kicks on when attic temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit and even small ones can cool up to 1,200 square feet of attic space.
Could you use a water pump? Solar pumps are available for surface water and as submersible well units, manufactured in 12-volt, 24-volt and higher-voltage configurations.
New technologies are developing as this is being written. The point is that if you have a need for an appliance, do some research. It may be available as a stand-alone solar appliance.
The most notable weakness of solar power is that it only works when the sun is up. If you want to power your home when the sun is down, you’ll need to either invest in a second type of renewable energy or pay for electricity from the grid.
Harnessing the power of the wind
Available and free: sun, wind and water.
More and more people are looking to wind power. If you live on a windy spot, this might be a better renewable investment than solar. It can be a more stable source and it can easily generate most, if not all of your electricity needs. A wind turbine large enough to power a home often requires a permit. The American Wind Energy Association offers a useful guide for going through the necessary steps to install your own turbine.
If you are looking for a simpler solution or don’t have the extra land for a large wind turbine, check out a personal wind turbine like Southwest Windpower’s Air-X. It can produce up to 400 watts. This will offset some lighting and appliance usage. Another advantage is that it does not need the space a large windmill requires. It can be installed on top of a roof.
Hydropower as a stable source of energy
Water power: renewable with no carbon emissions.
Do you have a stream or river on your land? If you have a source of flowing water you can divert some or all of it to flow through a water turbine and power your home. An engineer evaluating your source will definitely fine tune these instructions, but essentially your goal is to find the largest vertical distance the water will travel, and divert that water so it flows through a turbine in a controlled manner. Depending on the amount of water and vertical distance, you may be able to produce a substantial amount of power.
Unlike solar and wind, as long as the water flows, hydropower is stable and continuous, which means you’ll always get the same input no matter what. You’ll never have to worry that your generator won’t be able to power your home.
You will probably need to have a professional install a hydropower generator for you. That being said, if you have some engineering knowledge, you might be able to build one from scratch.
A simpler solution may be an in-stream generator if you have a fast-moving stream at least 15 inches deep. Like the name implies, drop-in-creek generators do not require much effort in the way of installation. And some products, like the 100-watt Ampair Energy UW100 will let you generate up to 2.4 kwh per day.
Hydropower can be harnessed for a single purpose as well. Do you get your water from a well or spring? Hydraulic ram pumps for moving water have been around for at least 200 years. Ram pumps use the flow and fall of water to push some of it uphill without electricity. The pumps work 24 hours a day, delivering from 14 gallons per day to well over 1,500 via larger models. Again, you can buy one or build your own.