Old hands at energy efficiency

It's possible to create your own power

It's possible to create your own power

April 30, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -Charlie Biggs' passion about conserving electricity isn't new, nor is it a fad.

Biggs, 79, and his wife, Margaret, 78, have made a point of making their homes energy efficient since the 1973 oil crisis, when there were long lines at the gas pump - sometimes with no gas left - and the cost of heating oil soared.

The Biggses use large windows on the south side of their home to passively heat their home, a Finnish soapstone wood stove to enhance heat during winter nights, evacuated solar tubing on their roof to heat water, and a geothermal system through their well to warm the house in winter and cool it during summer.

While environmentally friendly systems are not new to the Biggses, more consumers are inquiring about "green" housing as electric rates increase and concern spreads about global warming, said local contractors who offer renewable energy systems. People are exploring how to decrease their electrical usage by using renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind.


When the Biggses moved from New Jersey to West Virginia in 1995, they had several renewable energy systems built into the house. They added solar panels three years ago.

Charlie Biggs said the couple pays $60 to $70 a month for electricity in their 2,400-square-foot house, while many people in the area pay about twice that.

While it's usually easier and cheaper to install renewable energy systems during the construction of a new house, there are ways to modify existing homes to save energy, said Mauricio Medina, owner of Appalachian Sun and Wind in Berkeley Springs.

He recommended three things before taking on more costly ventures: Replace incandescent light bulbs compact fluorescent lighting; Replace older appliances with Energy Star-rated, energy-efficient appliances; Install higher R-value insulation.

For example, replacing an air-to-air heat pump with with one that has a higher Seasonal Energy-Efficiency Rating (SEER) rating, say from an 8 to a 16, can result in 50 percent savings in electricity, said Jim Aaron, president of Total Comfort Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Smithsburg. The cost of replacing a heat pump would be about $5,000 to $6,500.

Other steps homeowners can take that usually pay for themselves in a reasonable amount of time include:

· Solar-powered hot water: Solar thermal collectors on the roof or in the yard using evacuated tube collectors or flat plate collectors. A mix of water and antifreeze travels up a pipe to the collectors where it is heated. The heat from that mixture is transferred, using a heat exchanger, to domestic water piping.

The return on investment is typically three to seven years depending on whether people choose flat plate collectors (about $5,000 to $6,000 for complete system installation) or evacuated tube collectors (as much as to $6,500), Medina said.

If the water in the storage tank is hot enough, the home's regular hot water heater doesn't come on, said Vertis Bream, owner of Energy Options and Construction in Adams County, Pa. A solar hot water heater can produce 60 to 80 percent of a typical home's hot water, he said.

· Photovoltaic electricity: Generating electrical power with photovoltaic panels to supplement power from your electricity provider. Medina recommends people invest in system that produces at least 700 watts (at a cost of $8,000 to $9,000) because the system's inverter allows for future expansion as high as 2,000 to 2,500 watts. The system usually pays for itself within 20 years.

The surplus power generated and not used via a photovoltaic system or other means can be used for credits toward your electricity bill in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and states that permit net metering, Medina said. For more information, go to

· Radiant flooring: This approach involves installing water pipes in or under the floor, perhaps heated by a solar thermal collector. This method, as opposed to heating wires in the floor, is better for a larger application and will help reduce electrical usage, Medina said. Installed in a well-insulated house from 1,000 to 4,000 square feet, radiant flooring can cost $8,000 to $20,000, he said. How long it takes for return on investment depends on the fuel for the prior heating system.

· Geothermal heating and air conditioning: This involves installing a horizontal loop of pipes about 5 1/2 feet below ground in the yard, or digging a well and installing a vertical loop. The ground keeps a steady temperature of 50 to 55 degrees year-round. In the winter, heat from the ground is transferred from the water in the pipe loop to a ground source heat pump to heat the home via ducts. During the summer, heat from the house is transferred to the cool ground.

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