Building a Solar Home for Less

An inexpensive, efficient solar-heated and cooled home.

| November/December 1976

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    The Helio Thermics prototype solar house may look conventional. . . but looks can be deceiving!
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    The eight simplified drawings illustrate how the various heating and cooling cycles of the Helio Thermics system work. In modes 1 through 4, the vents in the eaves (and atop the attic) are closed to retain heat during cool weather. In modes 5 through 8 (warm weather), these same vents are opened... thereby allowing the attic to cool through convection. Mode 4 illustrates the most complex - and least often used - heating cycle, in which water is pre-heated by the collectors in the attic, then brought to even higher temperatures by a gas-fired heater, and finally passed through the heat-exchange coils in the "air handler".
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    This cutaway view of the Helio Thermics solar home illustrates the "storage to house" mode of heat transfer, in which the "air handler" draws warm air (red) from rock storage to - and through - the edge-laid cinder blocks... the lower level of the central duct... the blower within the air handler itself... the upper level of the central duct...and finally, ducts (directly beneath the floor) leading to the inside of the house. Cool air (blue) enters the return duct (at right) and travels to the far side of the rock storage area, where it absorbs stored BTU's prior to re-entering the cycle. Heavy insulation, and a virtually airtight house, are what make it possible.

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Is this the world's first competitively priced solar-heated and cooled home that qualifies for federal housing authority and veterans administration backed financing?

Until just a few weeks ago anyone who wanted to live in a solar-heated and -cooled house found the construction of that dwelling to be pretty much a do-it-yourself affair. (There simply weren't any "ready-made" sun-powered homes on the market.)

And who could really afford the expensive construction of a custom, one-of-a-kind solar-tempered building anyway? For that matter, who (other than the local banker's favorite grandchild) could even obtain financing for such a "crazy" idea? Who indeed?

Here Comes the Dawn!

Some folks down in Greenville, South Carolina (folks who go by the name of Helio Thermics, Inc.)—however—have now changed all that. They've changed it by designing, building, and making readily available [1] a "standard" solar-heated and -cooled dwelling that [2] is very competitively priced and [3] is among the very first—possibly the first—such structures to qualify for both FHA and VA mortgage insurance.

As impressive as the name (Helio Thermics, Inc.) may sound, this threefold "breakthrough" in the use of solar energy wasn't made by any overstaffed and over-financed foundation, government agency, or corporation. Helio Thermics is actually little more than three brothers . . . Randy, Mike, and Larry Granger. Three brothers who—in their backyard, so to speak—studied some U.S. Department of Agriculture research data (which is freely available to anyone) and then—based on that information—designed, built, and refined an exceptionally clever solar-heating and -cooling system.

First Things First

One of the most impressive things about the Granger brothers is that, unlike far too many experimenters in the field, they didn't try to design their sun-powered system "wrong end to". That is, they did not become so embroiled in the usual "my collector is more efficient than your collector and my method of heat transfer is better than yours" competition that they wound up—as other experimenters have—"proving" themselves "right" with a funny looking, lopsided, uncomfortable house that cost two or three hundred thousand dollars.

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