A Renewable Home Energy Retrofit: How We Did It

We reduced our carbon footprint by incorporating a variety of renewable energy systems into our Maine home, including a geothermal system and solar hot water system. With this home energy retrofit, we now produce nearly all of our power without fossil fuels.

| June/July 2015

When my wife, Lee, and I retired in 2003, we resolved that one of our primary projects would be to significantly slash our consumption of fossil fuels by converting to renewable sources of energy, as well as by making our home more energy-efficient. This objective arose out of our awareness of the terrible environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transportation, and also of the pollution and climate change caused by the combustion of these fuels.

Lee and I live on the outskirts of Orono, Maine, a town of about 10,000 in the south-central part of the state. Our 2,200-square-foot, single-story home sits along a dead-end country road, near the top of a gentle slope at the head of a hayfield. It’s sheltered by forest on one side and a row of evergreen trees on the other, with our 60-by-20-foot vegetable garden tucked just behind the house. We’ve lived here for 42 years, and we enjoy our solitude, with our nearest neighbor about half a mile away. We have rather mild summers and pretty frigid winters, but, happily, the sunny days typically outnumber the overcast days.

Before retirement, I’d worked at the University of Maine for 33 years as a professor of biological sciences. I got involved in the environmental movement as a graduate student in the 1950s, and, through my activism, I picked up a bit of knowledge about alternative energy options. On a practical level, though, getting a grasp on home-scale renewable energy took patience and a great deal of learning. I consulted a lot of people — both folks at energy-related companies and other homeowners in the vicinity who’d installed systems — asked a lot of questions, and dedicated time to researching. Lee and I decided to put a substantial part of our savings and retirement income toward these home energy projects, but we didn’t dream back when we first got started that we’d eventually be able to power our home and our local transportation almost entirely with renewable energy.

Embarking with Sustainable Wood Heat

We set out on our journey in a small way well before retirement by supplementing with wood heat to decrease our fuel oil use. We added a small woodstove in our living room, as many Mainers do. To distribute the woodstove’s warmth to other parts of the house, I installed an oscillating fan high on the living room wall, which pushed the rising hot air out into both corridors leading to the rest of our abode.

By burning approximately 1 cord of oak per year, we had a pleasantly toasty living room, and our fuel oil use dropped by about 20 percent, for an annual savings of about $350 after fuel wood and electrical costs (for the fan). In recent years, we’ve had to cease running the woodstove, because hauling firewood is no easy feat at our age (I’ll be 84 in August 2015), but heating with wood offered a good introduction to tapping renewable energy, as well as to the concept that energy doesn’t arise from nothing — it takes work.

Segue into Solar Power

Up until 2007, the same oil furnace that heated the house also handled heating our hot water. That year, we took our first major leap in our home’s renewable energy retrofit by installing two solar collectors on our roof’s south-facing side for heating our water. The collectors are Apricus brand, and each consists of 22 evacuated tubes. The collectors absorb the sun’s energy to heat a fluid circulating in a pipe that connects through our roof to an 80-gallon Stiebel Eltron hot water storage tank. The fluid circulates down to the heating coils in the tank, which resides in our basement.

6/5/2015 2:25:07 PM

I also live in Maine and just a little south of where our story writer lives. I am also retired but younger. I would not spend this kind of money just to satisfy my desire to be carbon free, which is an academia word not a realistic word. All the things he did were great and certainly prove that it can be done. Most of the population in Maine either could not afford to do this or would not have the land or lack of ordinances that would allow this complete a makeover. The point that he makes that are most important and most everyone can do are the following: R60 with basement rim insulation sealing all air leaks with help of professionals installing a mini split system or two to more than half the oil consumption plus provide a more pleasant summer. Heat pump water heater which will allow furnace to be shut down except in the worst weather. Attention to maintenance of furnace and other components to ensure optimum operation. This can all be done under $20k and would have the greatest payback. The Prius is a good idea if you can afford it, but its only $440 better a year than the Corolla for a significant uptick in car payments.

6/5/2015 12:04:13 PM

Great story! I really enjoyed the article in Mother Earth on line about your journey. We had gone thru a similar journey. We bought and installed a wind generator on our farm in Kansas in 1981. This 3.7KW Unit, when it was working, powered most of our electric needs to a 6000 SF berm house and outbuidings. We were always making repairs. Our unit was grid tied and no batteries. We sold the farm and moved to Florida in the early '90's. Our home today is a modified double wide mobile home on near 5 acres. We bought a bank repo in 1999 near Lake Okeechobee. We have 4000 SF under Air. We have our own well and water filtration system. We are 'all electric'. We added on a large attached garage(with the metal roof facing due south), front porch, back porch, and large screen room. We went thru the home and additions and sealed and insulated as much as possible. We first installed a demand tank less water heater that we bought on eBay. We built and installed a homemade passive solar water heater from '76 Mother earth plans. We then added 100 LED and CFL bulbs to the home and outbuilding plus a total of 22 ceiling fans and 15 each power strips. Later we added another passive solar water heater for a total of 160 gallons. We always used a cloths line to dry most of the cloths. In 2009 we bought and installed a 5K solar array on Earth day. Over the years we bought and installed more 'solar systems' until today we have a 14.6K array that is grid tied. Our Electricity provider does not pay us for our excess so we began in 2010 to add battery powered items. In 2010 we had our 2007 Prius retrofit with a '' system from A123. We do most of our local travel in the 'battery car' now. We added a battery powered lawn mower, and most Energy Star appliances. We had the house painted with Ceramic Paint, upgraded the 5 ton 'all in one' electric furnace A/C to a 16 seer air heat pump and installed more efficient windows. We raise a 20 x 60 garden (two crops a year), chickens, fish and lots of citrus trees. We have been 'net zero' since 2013. I'm still working but plan to retire in just over a year. Oh yes and that includes a small 'lap pool' on the screened porch with a .... of course a solar water heater.

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