Simple Cheap Heat

by Shirley Fetherolf

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A science experiment during a summer class for schoolteachers led to an "aha" moment that has changed my life. Most of us are too busy to notice what I learned: that the sun travels on a low-altitude path in the winter and a high path in the summer. So what?

Using this ancient wisdom from the past, you can drastically cut your heating and cooling costs without weird gadgets and stuff on your roof. It's a secret, though. If the word got out, certain houses would be very difficult to sell, while others would skyrocket in price.

What's the secret? Passive solar design. No, this doesn't mean odd-looking houses with too many windows, or expensive contraptions that nobody understands. It involves simply facing the long side of the house south, having minimal windows on the east, west, and north, and using good insulation. Ancient Greek cities were full of houses like this thousands of years ago.

Can something so simple really make a difference? Yes! When we had a big ice storm and power outage in the Carolinas a few years ago, sunshine streaming in from our windows on the south made our house nice and cozy while others struggled to fill their kerosene heaters. At night, we closed thick curtains to keep the heat inside.

Choosing between a cold, dark house with high utility bills and a warm sunny one with low bills shouldn't be so difficult, but there are several obstacles. First, there are very few of these good homes on the market. Checking the house orientation with a compass, my husband and I looked at more than fifty homes before buying our present one. Realtors claimed to have never heard of passive solar orientation.

Second, homebuilders still put up oversized McMansions instead of smaller, smarter houses like these. We think we need bigger houses as a status symbol and to hold all our stuff, but with rising interest rates and enormous utility bills, this trend could grind to a halt for all except the rich.

Third, older homes built during cheap energy times are hard to retrofit, and will be abandoned like gas-guzzling cars if home heating bills continue to escalate. Some energy saving strategies can only be implemented during the construction process. For instance, slab foundation homes are much warmer with below grade and perimeter insulation. Windows need good caulking and sealing with insulation before the sheetrock is installed. To retrofit these homes would require tearing out the insides of the home and rebuilding.

Public perception is another problem. Early solar home designs were too extreme for easy resale. My husband and I built a "direct gain" home in 1979, with 34 windows on the south, and enjoyed living there almost 10 years. We loved how the low-angled, hot winter sunshine reached at least 10 feet inside on our brick floor when temperatures were below zero in the harsh Kansas climate. After a job transfer, it was on the market three years. Our pleasant home finally sold for $30,000 less than it cost.

The next home we built 20 years later was a small ranch style with 2x6 walls loaded with insulation and low-e double-paned windows, mostly on the south side. When we moved, it sold in one month despite a very poor real estate market in that area.

Affordable, conventional appearance, efficient windows and superinsulation are the future of passive solar design if it is to become more widely accepted. Taking advantage of free sunshine during the winter and using better insulation and window coverings can lower heating bills. With the popularity of mobile homes, maybe we should start by taking the simple step of making sure they all face the right direction.

Shirley has worked as a public school teacher for 23 years and built two passive solar homes.

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