Energy Independence, Thanks to Thermal Mass and Solar Panels

Gaining energy independence is just one of the advantages of solar energy. One California couple demonstrates how they got off the energy grid, once and for all.

| January/February 1986

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    The design area for Yerkes Electric Solar.
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    The south view of the 2,000-square-foot home, which uses solar energy.
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    The Yerkes designed their home to use thermal mass to keep them comfortable during hot summer days and cold nights.
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    Clerestory windows provide daylighting and solar heating. Concrete mass stabilizes temperatures.

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In a previous issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, I described a 24-foot trailer, powered by photovoltaic panels, that my husband, Bill, and I were living in while we planned our new home. At that time, we had no hook-up to the electric company and we processed our own wastes at the site. In fact, our only link to the public utility umbilical was a freshwater line.

With plentiful solar electricity and a trailer permit (granted when our building plans were approved), we happily inhabited our mobile hilltop roost and experimented with the necessities: an electric composting toilet, various inverters from 12- to 48-volt input, Delco and GNB (better for deep cycling) batteries, and both a solar and a tankless water heater.

At the same time, we also enjoyed the amenities of electrical self-sufficiency: Our appliances included a coffee grinder, an Apple computer, a Cuisinart, three refrigerators (Norcolds and a Sanyo), a tape deck, and a color television — among others.

As we tested hardware, we took our time refining our house plans. Richard Schoen, a practicing solar architect and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, helped us come up with a design appropriate to the site and climate and offered valuable advice on how to visually blend our solar panels with our architecture.

Soon after the MOTHER EARTH NEWS article appeared, we began the actual construction of our new home. Aside from the jobs done by specialized tradesmen in wiring, plumbing, and heating/ventilation, Bill did most of the work himself — along with the help of inexperienced laborers to speed the process. Because my husband has more than a full-time job to face each day, the house had to be simple and not too time-consuming to build. As it turned out, it met both of these objectives, and we want to share our methods and materials with those of you who'd like to build your own house but suffer similar constraints.

Utilize Foam and Wire Panels

The basic building blocks of our home are 4 x 8-foot polyurethane foam and wire panels, which are set onto poured concrete footings, clipped together, and sprayed — inside and out — with cement. The tensile (stretching) strength of the steel-wire cage combines with the compressive strength of concrete to produce a very rigid panel, and the polyurethane foam offers just about the highest R-value per inch of thickness of any material available. Spraying cement — a process often known by the trade name Gunite — isn't a do-it-yourself project, but knowledgeable contractors can be found anywhere swimming pools are installed. The panels themselves were ordered from two companies: CS&M, formerly of Riverside, California, supplied those for the house, and Covington Technologies of Rialto, California, assembled the units for the courtyard walls and the garage.

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