ReVisiting the Rhodas
Solar Power | November 21, 2013 | Posted by Fred Greenhalgh
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The Rhoda family was one of our first project features back in 2009, when we first started our blog and enewsletter. The Rhodas went nearly fully net zero in their home, integrating a suite of renewable energy options: solar hot water, wood pellet boiler, solar photovoltaic array, and a healthy dose of insulation.
Since then, their systems have been performing well and their family has grown! We stopped in to visit with Chris, who was happy to show us around and talk about how things are working:
When Chris and his wife Andrea spent their first winter in their new home, they were sticker shocked when they burned close to 1,300 gallons of oil between heat and hot water. They knew there had to be a better way, and started a process that began with an energy audit and resulted with them moving forward with a suite of efficiency upgrades and renewable energy production.
Each project accomplished a different goal:
- Energy audit
The audit diagnosed where energy was leaking in the home and provided a laundry list of ‘quick fixes’ and guidance on which projects to do next.
- Insulation upgrade
A substantial improvement in their basement insulation turned a damp, cold basement into a comfortable conditioned space that is used heavily by the family in winter.
- Solar thermal
Domestic hot water demand was switched from the oil boiler to a solar hot water array. The substantial oil savings in the summertime (by allowing the boiler to shut down completely) made this the most cost-effective investment at the time.
- Pellet boiler
The Rhodas were able to move space heating demand off their oil boiler entirely by integrating a Tarm multi-heat pellet boiler. Pellet technology has improved some with new models such as the fully automated Kedel boiler, but Chris sticks by his decision to go with the Tarm. “All it requires feeding a bag or two of pellets into it once a day and scooping out some ash,” Chris says, “And frankly after getting home from my office job it’s nice to get some exercise!”
- Solar electric
The Rhodas did a number of optimizations to their home to reduce their electric rate to as low a rate as reasonable (such as reconfiguring a home water filtration system, switching to CFLs, and putting power strips on wasteful ‘ghost’ loads). At that point, they had enjoyed appreciable enough savings with their other systems to take things to the next step and add a solar electric array to bring their home to nearly 100% ‘net’ zero. Chris reports this is the most fun system to have, as he gets reports daily on system output to his smartphone.
Coming Home Is Warmer
The Rhodas were motivated by a desire to save money and choose a local alternative to fossil fuel energy. The financial aspect helped make the projects possible, but what most impressed us was how much the Rhodas appreciate some non-monetary benefits from their system now that they’ve lived with them for a while.
“Overall our house is a lot more comfortable than it used to be,” Chris says, “Our basement is warm and is now a game room in the winter time. Our hot water temperature is more stable and we can do things like buy an electric car without worrying that it’s going to skyrocket our electric bill. There’s a powerful peace of mind that comes from knowing our energy costs are predictable, and are coming from local renewable sources.”
Of the original 1,300 gallons of oil use per year, the Rhodas are now using under 30 gallons per year as a backup for domestic water heating. Their electric bills are often below $20, though they have bumped up to about $40/mo now that they are driving an electric Prius. Not bad for a 3,000 square foot home! Nearly all of the systems have recouped their original costs, allowing the Rhodas to allocate household finances elsewhere.
And finally, a word from Emma, Chris’ 7-year-old who was just a toddler when the projects started and now has grown up with all these systems as just a fact of life. She was kind enough to sit in on our video and offer some comments (in between distractions like collecting blackberries and climbing trees).
Emma explained that “the solar electricity allows us to keep the lights on longer since there’s a lot of electricity hitting the house,” and drew us a little chalk diagram for clarity. She went on to talk about the efforts she takes helping gather recycling from the house, and how she’s now helping out with recycling at school! Chris reports that Emma is also the light-bulb police at home, ensuring that no lights are left on in empty rooms.
“A big part of why we did this was to set an example for our children,” Chris says, “It’s great that we get to do this while enjoying a more comfortable home and saving money at the same time.”