Straw Bale Solar Home

This solar-powered green dream home presents a shining example of what every new house can be.

| June/July 2005

On a narrow lot in Capitola, Calif., stands a modest and inviting craftsman-style home. This not-so-big house fits into the quiet neighborhood, yet it is anything but ordinary. Its energy-efficient design features and solar technologies make this home a cutting-edge model of sustainability.

Stroll by this attractive house and the gleam of a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) solar system and solar hot-water collector will catch your eye. These systems, combined with passive solar design and superinsulated walls and ceilings, translate to rock-bottom energy bills. The home’s 2004 average monthly energy bill from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (which includes natural gas use and numerous administrative fees) was just $13.22. According to the company, the average monthly energy bill for customers in the same area is $83.

Homeowners Mark and Kristin Sullivan took full advantage of California’s renewable energy incentives — namely net metering and generous rebates for grid-tied solar electric systems. The Sullivans paid $11,563 for their PV system, but after state rebates and tax credits, the net cost was reduced to $6,710. And because the house is grid-tied, the Sullivans did not need to buy costly batteries — the grid essentially functions as their backup power source.

Passive Solar, Active Owners

The home’s primary means of saving energy is its passive solar design — specifically the concepts of “orientation, insulation, glass and mass.” By orienting the main living areas of the house to the south, the low winter sun shines in and its heat is absorbed by the thermal mass of the floors and wall plasters. In the summer, roof overhangs and deciduous vines block sunlight from entering the house. The home’s airtight straw bale walls and recycled cellulose insulation create a building envelope that helps the thermal mass retain heat or coolness, which releases over time, keeping the house at a comfortable temperature.

Passive solar design requires active owners — people who understand when to open and close windows and curtains for maximum comfort and energy conservation — and the Sullivans are prime examples. “When you live in a home that’s run by nature, you’re constantly aware of what is going on outside,” Kristin says.

Mark and Kristin enjoy savings from energy-efficient appliances such as their clothes washer, dishwasher, stove and refrigerator. What’s more, all their lighting fixtures have efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. Their entertainment appliances are plugged into power strips, so they can be completely turned off when not in use. This eliminates the “phantom loads” created by devices with remote controls and constant displays (such as a digital clock) even when they are turned “off.” And instead of buying a clothes dryer, the Sullivans installed a retractable clothesline in the back yard. “Honestly, hanging laundry is fun, and it gives me an excuse to be outdoors,” Kristin says.

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