Old homes are the best. There are so many memories contained inside the walls, the folds of the curtains, and the scratches and cracks in the floor. However, while you want your house to have character, there are certain times when “old” is definitely not a good thing. And, luckily, there are a lot of great ways to bring your home into the 21st century without having to sacrifice anything in terms of style or personality. To help you get the ideas flowing, here are five ways in which you can tastefully give your home a modern upgrade.
Install a Home Theater
One of the most popular home improvement projects in recent years is the addition of a home theater. And you can see the appeal—all the benefits of a regular movie theater, such as a big screen, good sound, and high definition, but with none of the drawbacks, such as noisy people, uncomfortable seating, and expensive tickets. A home theater was once a luxury reserved only for the richest of the rich, but there is now much more variety when it comes to equipment, and you can get relatively affordable projectors and sound systems quite easily.
Upgrade Your Home Security
One of the biggest problems that older houses have is that they are far less secure than modern ones. This makes them obvious targets for burglars looking to make some quick money. Home security systems are now incredibly advanced, allowing you to fit them into your decor easily, and come with cool features that allow you to control your security with your phone, and even view surveillance footage on it. The least that any modern home should have is a good alarm system and a network of security cameras. In addition, home automation and security systems can boost your home's equity and become a much better investment than you probably originally thought.
Be More Energy-Efficient
Old homes are also a lot less energy efficient, and this can really hurt your wallet as well as the environment. There are a few ways in which you can make your home more energy efficient. The first thing to do is check the insulation and make sure that you put a stop to any air leaks. Then you can install a smart thermostat. This will cut out the energy that might be wasted on overheating your house and save you a lot of money each month. To go one step further with your upgrade, look into solar power.
Solar companies are becoming more and more popular which means that you will have the advantages of researching the biggest, the best, or even the fastest growing and decide from there. With the market becoming saturated, the prices will be competitive and much lower. Reviews for companies like Vivint, Suncorp, and others have made your decision making even easier
Makeover Your Decor
Modernizing your home might involve nothing more than a makeover of the decor. It might be a big project, such as having new carpets laid, but it could just be something simple such as new curtains, a new paint job, or a new collection of artwork or pictures for a certain room.
Total Home Automation
If you really want to bring your home into the 21st century, you could find a way to feature in all of the above ideas and give your home a complete technology makeover. With a home security system, home theater, smart heating system, and added lighting control, you can control just about every aspect of your home with your smartphone. Who could resist that prospect?
The following post summarizes the author’s Chapter 1 of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.
Six thousand years ago, Neolithic Chinese villagers had the sole opening of their homes face south. They did this to catch the rays of the low winter sun to help warm the indoors. The overhanging thatched roof kept the high summer sun off the houses throughout the day so those inside would stay cool.
Two thousand years later, the Chinese began to formally study the movement of the sun throughout the year in relationship to the earth. Knowledge gained from these studies stimulated Chinese urban planners to construct the main streets of towns to run east-to-west to allow every house to look to the south in order to catch the winter sun for supplementary heating. Since then, most Chinese cities have followed such planning. The city of Peking, though relatively young, was laid out no differently than older Chinese cities built thousands of years before. "Its streets are all so straight, so long, so broad and well-proportioned." An astonished Gabriel de Magalhaes, a Portuguese visitor to China during the seventeenth century, remarked, "that it is easy to see they were marked out with a line.”
Such rational planning simplified large-scale solar housing in urban settings. Every building on an east-west street would have its south exposure assured, leading Magalhaes to observe, "You shall rarely see a palace or any great person which does not face that point of the compass" Traditional Chinese architecture invariably had a courtyard directly south of the main rooms which opened onto it.
Energy efficiency measures also emerged. The kang – a heated bed – for example, consisted of a platform built of excellent thermal absorbing and radiating material. When cooking in the late afternoon, a flue captured the waste heat from the stove and conducted it to the kang, keeping the bed and those sleeping in it warm throughout the night.
As the importance of solar architecture grew, the southern aspect took on great stature in Chinese life. Ancient wisdom associated the south with fire and warmth, while the north came to be synonymous with winter and somberness — hence, with things cold and dark. Ritual also required the Emperor to face south whenever holding an audience. Sages explained the custom, pointing out, "The diagram of the south conveys the idea of brightness..." The Emperor facing south therefore shuns darkness and embraces enlightenment to govern. The Chinese to this day prefer a southern orientation for housing.
We face many dangers associated with climate change and we hear about them all the time: glaciers melting, cities drowning amidst rising sea levels, ominous natural disasters looming, and precious species like the polar bears losing their homes. We hear warning signs of the effects of climate change that have yet to fully unravel at least tens of times before, but even with viral initiatives like the Climate Name Change, the problems don’t go away and we need more solutions than ever.
Reducing CO2 emissions has been on the agenda for quite some time to curb the harmful effects of climate change, but getting countries to commit to their goals is difficult. Years will pass before investments and impact on CO2 emissions materialize, which means CO2 levels won’t be stabilized for decades more. However, there is another approach to curbing climate change that yields substantial benefits in a shorter amount of time: reducing Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCP). And already there are bottom-up solutions that have proved to effectively get the job done.
Black Carbon: The Short-Lived Climate Pollutant to Watch
For a detailed analysis of the bottom-up approaches to mitigate climate change, check out this Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article from the summer 2013 issue. Some solutions that are listed whose successes and challenges are thoroughly discussed include reducing traditional cookstove emissions (e.g., Project Surya clean cookstove projects), reducing open burning of agricultural waste (e.g., India’s Husk Power Systems), and reducing methane production in agricultural context.
However, I’d like to focus on a single SLCP that I think is the lowest hanging fruit of all: black carbon. I work for SunFunder, and our job is to provide low-cost financing to solar companies that work to provide solar lights and solar home systems to unelectrified communities in developing countries. The majority of these communities rely on burning kerosene to use as their primary source of light at night. Not only does burning kerosene pose serious health risks (think respiratory problems), they are also expensive and dangerous to use (kerosene-induced fires are quite common). But there’s even more harm to burning kerosene, and that is its negative effect on the environment because of its black carbon emission.
According to a recent study by researchers in UC Berkeley and University of Illinois, one kilogram of black carbon produces as much warming in the air in a month as 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide does over 100 years. In the same study, researchers performed field and lab tests and found that 7 to 9 percent of the kerosene in wick lamps ends up in the atmosphere as black carbon; when you consider the 250-300 million households worldwide that still use kerosene lamps because they lack electricity, the significance of this figure cannot be ignored. In fact, the study authors project that black carbon emissions from kerosene lamps makes up 3% of total global black carbon emissions and is twenty times higher than what was previously thought. In comparison, only half of 1 percent of the emissions from burning wood is converted to black carbon. It is no wonder that Kirk Smith, one of the study’s co-authors from UC Berkeley School of Public Health, makes the following statement:
There are no magic bullets that will solve all of our greenhouse gas problems, but replacing kerosene lamps is low-hanging fruit, and we don’t have many examples of that in the climate world.
The Implication for Off-Grid Solar in Developing Countries
Many people enter the field of off-grid solar lighting in developing countries for different reasons. For me personally, it was the economical sensibility that attracted me first: if a household is already paying so much money for poor quality lighting like kerosene — I’ve seen figures as high as 25 percent of their income — does it not make sense for that household to switch to cleaner and brighter lighting that costs the same amount or less, pays for itself in about a year, and is eventually free to use? Others may have joined because of a jaded outlook on rural electrification: seeing how the current rate of mostly coal-powered grid rural electrification cannot break even with the rate of population growth (especially in Africa), new solutions need to be brought to the table. More and more, that new solution points to decentralized renewable energy, namely off-grid solar.
However, as I recently learned, it’s slowly emerging that off-grid solar is also a solution for mitigating climate change, and it’s one that has been right under our noses without realizing its full potential. While of course the true impact of replacing kerosene with decentralized solar still needs to be further researched in the grand context of solving climate change, it’s easy enough to understand that in this scenario there is more good to outweigh the bad. I always try to be the kind of person to put my money where my mouth is, and in this case, I am putting my money and time where my mouth is. I hope you join me in doing so, or at the very least, check out SunFunder’s projects so you can learn more about the amazing work solar companies are doing to bring universal energy access to the world.
Photo (top) by Zamsolar
Photo (bottom) by Kopernik
Reading John Perlin’s latest blog about 6,000 years of solar energy, I am reminded how modern builders can rarely consider natural efficiency anymore when positioning a house. Sometimes regulated by local ordinances, most homes simply face the road, no matter which way it’s pointing.
Our house, for example, a 1966 rancher, faces due west, with the largest windows catching intense summer heat all afternoon and bitter wind in winter. (I made triple-layer drapes of old blankets and bed sheets to compensate for this layout boo-boo.) Trees, too, at most homes are situated for curb appeal, rather than strategically planted to block wind or sun.
At least 4,000 years ago, the Chinese built their roads wide, running east and west so every building benefits from a southerly exposure in winter. In the last 100 or so years, those building practices were all but abandoned in industrialized nations. Middle class Americans could build 5,000-square-foot homes facing any which way, so long as there was electricity and fossil fuels to heat, cool and light them.
Resurgence in popularity of solar systems to reduce electric bills or to transition to off-grid lifestyles has many folks wondering what to do about the weeping willow and magnolia shading the yard. My husband solved the solar-power/shade-tree dilemma for us last week.
I knew something was going on when I saw him grinning like a cat and digging through boxes we hadn’t unpacked since moving here more than 3 years ago. Strange noises came from the shop – hammering, drilling and sawing – that I haven’t heard for quite some time. He also came home from town with one of those heavy-duty lawn wagons that I had dreams of using to haul logs or rocks from the woods.
Then, in just a few days, there was a peculiar new appliance basking in the sunshine outside the shop. Darren calls it our new mobile, compact, solar-powered, emergency, energy-supply system that follows the sun to store power for lights, radios and other electronics.
Yay! We don’t have to cut down any trees to have solar power. We simply roll the cart to a sunny spot and adjust for every season and optimum efficiency. Plus, the cart and panels are easily moved into various positions to absorb the sun’s rays from morning to evening.
We can also pull it by hand anywhere to use power tools with an inverter. Darren built our 160-watt, 12-volt system of scrap materials and solar supplies we already had on hand. To use all new purchased materials, we estimate it would cost $750-$800 to build, about the same as a fixed solar rack system in the yard.
The advantages, however, of a unit like this are its portability and efficiency. It can quickly be maneuvered inside a garage or porch ahead of snow, ice or wind storms. Living in the Ozarks, we have plenty of experience with ice storms that coated our previous fixed-rack panels for days at a time.
At the end of the day, we roll the cart into the porch. Then, we plug in our 12-volt system to use in the evenings. When we want to use 120-volt devices, we plug an extension cord into the inverter in the cart.
Our unit charges two 6-volt golf cart batteries that are stored in a separate compartment to keep released gases from corroding the electronic gadgets. In the larger compartment is a shunt, amp and volt meter, 30-amp voltage regulator, PV disconnect switch, 12-volt fuse block, headlight with switch and a battery disconnect for an inverter.
Among our miscellaneous boxes of whatnot, Darren also found an antique 120-volt table lamp that uses a 12-volt bulb, the kind used in cars. After some minor electrical changes, it’s my new energy-efficient, bedtime-reading light. Darren also wired the house so we can connect the system to light fixtures in the kitchen, bathroom and for the laptop and Internet.
We got the cart at the local farm supply store for just over $100. Darren added brackets to keep the panels from bouncing around as we traverse our rocky ground. A stiff piece of cardboard wrapped in a shower curtain makes a great cover for when less power is needed.
Our system uses two solar panels, but could also be built to accommodate more. The 2x4 frame to hold the panel on the cart must be long enough to extend the panels almost flat-out. For our latitude, the panels adjust from 63 degrees in winter to 10 degrees in summer, with positions in between for spring and fall.
Those of us in the northern hemisphere point our panels due south. Those down under, point their panels north. Here's how to calculate the best angle for your solar panels:
- In the winter months, when there's less sun, take your latitude, multiply it by 0.9, and then add 29 degrees.
For example: if your latitude is 40 degrees, the angle to tilt your panels in winter is: (40 x 0.9) + 29 = 65 degrees.
- In summer, multiply your latitude by 0.9, and subtract 23.5 degrees.
- In spring and fall, subtract 2.5 degrees from your latitude.
This little cart, combined with our non-electric water pump, just put us a huge step toward disconnecting from the grid. Ah, there is something new under the sun after all.
For more photos, see our blog and here to watch a video demonstration.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.
The following release is reposted with permission from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013 announced the winners of this global competition among collegiate teams to build the most energy-efficient solar-powered house at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Team Austria, made up of students from the Vienna University of Technology, won top honors overall by designing, building and operating the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive solar-powered house. University of Nevada Las Vegas took second place, followed by Czech Republic, comprised of students from Czech Technical University, in third place.
“The Solar Decathlon is inspiring and training the next generation of clean energy architects, engineers and entrepreneurs, and showing that affordable, clean energy technologies can help homeowners save money and energy today,” said U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “Congratulations to the Solar Decathlon 2013 competitors – your hard work and creativity is helping to build a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.”
Reflecting the quality of the Solar Decathlon 2013 houses, the winning teams’ final scores were the closest they have ever been since the beginning of the competition. Team Austria earned 951.9 points out of a possible 1,000 to win the competition, followed by University of Nevada Las Vegas with 947.6 points, and Czech Republic with 945.1 points. Contributing to their overall win, Team Austria performed well in several of the individual contests, finishing first in the Communications Contest, second in Market Appeal, and tied for first in the Hot Water Contest. Every house in the 2013 competition produced more energy than it consumed.
Nineteen collegiate teams from across the country and around the world competed in 10 contests over 10 days that gauged each house’s performance, livability and affordability. The teams performed everyday tasks, including cooking, laundry, and washing dishes, which tested the energy efficiency of their houses. The winner of the overall competition best blended affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency. See the full competition results for details about the individual contests.
The results of the Engineering Contest were also announced with Team Ontario, comprised of students from Queen’s University, Carleton University and Algonquin College, taking first place by scoring 95 out of 100 possible points. Each competing house was evaluated by a group of prominent engineers who determined which house best exemplifies excellence in energy-efficiency savings, creative design innovations and the functionality and reliability of each system.
Engineering Juror Kent Peterson, chief operating officer and chief engineer at P2S Engineering, said, “Team Ontario demonstrated a complete understanding of building science, a very good building envelope for the target climate, and excellent integration of passive and active strategies.”
Czech Republic claimed second place in the Engineering Contest with 94 points, and University of Nevada Las Vegas, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Team Austria all tied for third place with 93 points each. See the full details of the contest results.
Student teams in the 2013 competition spanned two continents, including teams from the United States, Canada, Austria and the Czech Republic. Since the first competition in 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon has provided unique training to approximately 17,000 students, preparing them to become the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in clean energy technology and efficient building design. The competition also shows consumer’s first-hand how to save money and energy with affordable clean energy products that are available today.
Media interested in covering the Solar Decathlon may visit our online press room and download our online media kit. For full Solar Decathlon 2013 event information, final competition results, daily photos, virtual tours, videos and B-roll, visit our website www.SolarDecathlon.gov. You may also follow the Solar Decathlon on Facebook and Twitter at @Solar_Decathlon. High-resolution photos are available on Flickr.
In 1903, Charles Pope wrote Solar Heat. “The purpose of this book,” the author stated, was that “some call to the people was needed…to arouse interest [in] ‘catching the sunbeams’ and extracting gold from them.” To accomplish his goal, he tells his reader that he had endeavored “to trace the history of attempts and successes in the utilization of solar…discuss ways and means; and attempt to arouse his readers to give to the matter their energy and invention, their brain and capital; that we may very soon see solar enginery take its place by the side of steam enginery and electrical enginery and gas enginery in the public estimation.”
Despite the vintage of Pope’s book, many still believe that solar energy is a late twentieth-century phenomenon. Hopefully, Let It Shine will change this misconception. Let It Shine shows, for example, that six thousand years ago the stone-age Chinese built their homes so every one of them made maximum use of the sun’s energy in winter. So begins the story of the genesis of solar energy told in Let it Shine, the world’s first and only comprehensive history of humanity’s use of the sun. Page after page the story brings to light information never before unearthed. 2,500 years ago, for example, the sun heated every house in most Greek cities. Years later ancient Roman architects published solar self-help books to show people how to save on fuel as firewood became scarce, and fleets scoured the known world for much needed supplies.
During the renaissance Galileo and his contemporaries planned the construction of sun-focusing mirrors to serve as the West’s ultimate weapon against its Islamic enemies. Leonardo da Vinci entertained more peaceful applications. He aimed at making his fortune by building mirrors a mile in diameter to heat water for the Florentine woolen industry.
Much later, during the industrial revolution, engineers devised solar-run steam engines to save Europe from paralysis should it run out of fossil fuels. As electricity began to power cities, the first photovoltaic modules joined the grid on a New York City rooftop in 1884. More than one hundred years earlier, a Swiss polymath modeled global warming by trapping solar heat in a glass-covered box just as carbon dioxide holds in solar heat above the earth. Using the same type of glass-covered box to harvest solar energy, enterprising businessmen established a thriving solar water industry in California at the beginning of the 1880s!
Let it Shine brings to light newly discovered documents suppressed by the Nixon, Carter and Reagan Administrations, that if known at the time by the public and the Congress, solar energy would have definitely played a larger role in the American energy scene during the last forty years.
Let it Shine presents the step-by-step development of solar architecture and technology and pertinent energy policies. By providing the background for today’s vibrant solar industry, a deeper understanding emerges of how solar energy applications have evolved and performed and their promise for today’s world.
The book is not merely a technological treatise though. It highlights the context in which these developments have occurred and the people who have made the solar revolution possible, revealing a whole new group of unknown technological pioneers, as well as people famous for other accomplishments never before known for their work as the solar advocates and technologists they were. Who would think Socrates as a solar promoter? Yet in a work by his admirer Xenophon, Socrates presents the basic plans for designing a solar house. Vitruvius, a Roman famous to this day as the architect of architects, transmitted the wisdom of the Greeks on building with the sun.
Did you know that the first aspiring solar entrepreneur was Leonardo da Vinci? Einstein’s famous treatise on Light Quanta, which won him the Nobel Prize, definitely qualifies the great scientist to be regarded as the father of modern photovoltaics. Then there are the forgotten ones like Gustav Vorherr, who opened up the first school of solar architecture during the 1820s in Munich and his mentor, Dr. Bernhard Christoph Faust, the first person to write a complete book on a solar topic. Thousands of newly trained solar architects trained in the work of Faust fanned out to build solar homes throughout Europe. Sympathetic despots of Bavaria and Prussia required their subjects to build following the teachings of these men, resulting in many solar structures going up in Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century. The climax of their work was the transformation of an urban area in Switzerland becoming the first modern Sun City. And who has heard of Williams Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day, discoverers in 1876 of photovoltaics, or Charles Fritts, who put up the first roof-top solar array on a New York building in the 1880s?
These are but a sampling of what’s to be found in the pages of Let it Shine.
Renewable energy projects in the United States experienced a banner year in 2012, with wind deployment adding a record 13,124 MW of capacity and solar adding 3,313 MW of solar photovoltaic capacity. US deployment of clean energy technology continues to rise, with renewables accounting for close to 50 percent of added capacity. The latest edition of the Ernst & Young LLP report – United States renewable energy attractiveness indices (USAI) – highlights trends in US renewable investment and ranks the states in terms of their attractiveness for clean technology investment.
“While overall US investment in clean energy is down, it’s still ahead of annual investment from prior years,” said Michael Bernier, Senior Manager, National Tax, Ernst & Young LLP. “What’s important to note is that the $44.2 billion invested is not representative of the industry’s true expansion. Solar technology, for example, is increasingly cost effective. As prices fall, the initial investment goes a lot further. $1 billion installs a lot more solar than it did five years ago.”
With some shake-up in the top 10 rankings, a renewable energy survey shows that California is once again leading the nation in renewable energy. However, some states are not far behind the golden state. Texas, for example, remains the king of the wind installed base. California, though, is working to ensure the long-term health of its renewable energy infrastructure through the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI), which identifies transmission projects needed to get renewable energy power to consumers and to support future energy policy. State policy support and a favorable regulatory environment will determine whether other states will catch up.
The top rankings in this edition of the United States Renewable Energy Attractiveness Indices (USAI) are as follows:
Renewable energy index:
Long-term wind index:
Long-term solar index:
- New Mexico
See the United States Renewable Energy Attractiveness Indices for more information and to download the latest edition of the United States renewable attractiveness indices.
About the Survey
The Ernst & Young LLP United States renewable attractiveness indices provide scores for state renewable energy markets, renewable energy infrastructures, and their suitability for individual technologies. The indices are based on a total score of 100 and are updated on a biannual basis.