A Systems Approach
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Many people who have attempted to develop wind, solar, or hydroelectric energy systems have been disappointed in the results. Often the complaint is too little power at too high of cost. This happens because many people fail to understand both the strengths and the limitations of alternate energy systems. They believe that all they have to do is hook up the system and then they can run a stove, refrigerator, and air conditioning, all at the same time.
Several years ago a farm near my house installed a modern wind system. I drove by the farm two or three times a week on the way to one of the places I worked. For the first three months after it had been erected I personally saw it operating no more than 15 times! The problem is that in order for a wind plant to be effective there must be sustained winds of at least 12 miles per hour most of the time. This area just does not have a constant breeze, most of our winds are light and variable. The wind plant has been shut down. Another dissatisfied alternate energy user.
Many people believe that the typical alternate energy system can supply all of their energy needs without making any changes in their style of living. This is not true. Let me emphasize that my standard of living has actually improved; yet, my style of living has been altered. Instead of taking electricity for granted, you learn to appreciate it. You learn to work with the natural forces of the earth instead of against them.
Lets take a look at typical American home. This home might be a one story wooden structure, with one and a half baths. Often there is a cool, damp basement, with inadequate natural lighting and ceilings that are substantially less than eight feet from the floor. Many homes that were designed and built during the 1940's and 1950's were "all electric" homes. That is to say, they had electric heat and later electric air conditioning. This typical home might have a 60 gallon electric water heater. There is improper caulking and inadequate insulation in the walls, floors, and attic. Therefore, much of the energy used to heat and cool the home is actually lost. This is the American dream, our standard of living, and our lifestyle.
Once you understand the strengths and limitations of alternate energy systems you begin to look for ways to accentuate the strengths. Energy conservation is not enough. That typical American home still must be heated and cooled, even with the thermostat turned down to 65 degrees in the winter and up to 78 degrees in the summer.
A systems approach means to design everything to be as energy efficient as possible from the very beginning, don't try to retrofit an existing home. Understand how everything fits together. Realize that the sum of the whole can be greater than the sum of the individual parts. This takes patience and planning. I planned the design of my home for over five years. Then my father and I scoured the countryside for property that we liked. When my father, my (now ex)wife, and I moved on to the property we purchased we knew exactly what we wanted and what we had to do to get it.
Passive Solar, Earth Shelter Living
The basic design of the home is passive solar and earth sheltered. The two greatest energy demands come from satisfying our heating and cooling needs. A passive solar, earth shelter home can completely eliminate the need for conventional heating and cooling. During a typical East Tennessee winter the temperature inside the home will not fall below 58 degrees, even if I have been gone for a week or more with the insulating window panels shut tight. On sunny winter days, the inside temperature will climb to about 68 degrees. During the hottest days of August, the temperature inside the home will gradually increase until about 76 degrees is reached. The humidity remains nearly constant year round at about 70 percent.
This energy efficient design means that on cloudy, winter days and at night an air tight wood stove provides supplemental heat. The only electrical demands come from a small blower that circulates the heat from the wood stove throughout the house. There is also a small kerosene heater that is used primarily in the bathroom.
Living in an earth sheltered home offers many advantages over a typical home. The shelter of the earth protects the home from the abusive elements of rain, snow, and blazing summer sun. Home maintenance costs are reduced significantly. There are no shingles to get blown off in a storm, very little painting is required, the water pipes in your home should never freeze.
If an earth sheltered home is constructed completely by a commercial contractor, then building costs could be 20% or more greater than in a conventional home. However, if you consider all of the costs associated with a home over its entire life cycle, then the earth sheltered home is much more economical to operate and maintain.
The two feet of soil which cover the home offers protection from all sorts of disasters, both natural and manmade. I have no fear of fire, tornado, or earthquake. Once your insurance agent understands that you are living in a house that is virtually indestructible, your insurance rates should go down.
Consider, for example a fire in the home. The shell of our house was built out of 12 inch thick cinder blocks, filled with concrete. Most of the interior walls are composed of eight inch thick blocks, again filled with concrete. The floor is a concrete slab approximately 5 inches thick and the ceiling is a concrete slab that is about ten inches thick. (As a side note, I should explain that the house required 120 yards of concrete and 11 tons of reinforcing steel!) What's left to burn? Just about the only thing in the house that could burn is the furniture. That's peace of mind!
The most important reason why I chose to design and build an earth sheltered home is that of energy conservation. I knew that I must conserve energy whenever possible if the alternate energy system was to be able to support my needs. This desire lead me to study the energy demands of an earth sheltered home. I have already given you an idea of the performance characteristics of my home, now lets look at some of the reasons why the earth sheltered home is so energy efficient.
First, lets consider the thermal mass of 120 yards of concrete spread throughout the home. The concrete absorbs and radiates heat very slowly. This characteristic is ideally suited for heating systems that produce heat on a fluctuating basis. This is called a thermal flywheel effect. On a typical winter day with the sun low on the horizon, direct sunlight falls on about 50% of the floor space of the home. For about six hours a day the floor slab absorbs and stores the heat from the sun. After the sun goes down, this heat is slowly radiated back into the living space of the house. The thermal mass of the house will continue to affect the inside temperature for several days. With the one inch thick, Styrofoam insulating panels firmly in place over the sliding glass doors, the temperature of the house will slowly fall. After about three days of no heat at all the house will tend to drop to about 58 degrees.
At this point you may be wondering why I used a passive solar design rather that an active solar design. Many active solar (space) heating systems have been installed. While the exact design of an active solar heating system may vary, they do have several common features. Active solar heating systems tend to be rather complex, with several pumps, controls, and associated wiring. These systems require externally mounted collecting panels, a storage medium, a means of getting the collected heat into the storage medium, a means of reclaiming the stored heat, and finally some way to control all of this.
Before you finish your alternate energy homestead, you will become very well acquainted with Murphy's Law. (If something can go wrong it will and at the worst possible moment.) The more complex a system is, the more likely it is to break down. With a passive solar heating system, all you have to do is remember to clean your windows every so often! Passive solar heating systems are easily integrated into the overall design of the home. All you have to do is find the proper orientation for the home. Additionally, passive solar heating features add very little additional costs to the construction of the building.
Limitations of Earth Sheltered Living
Many of the perceived problems associated with life in an earth sheltered home are due to misconceptions people have. For the majority of people, their only experience with an earth sheltered structure is a typical basement. Most basements were never designed to be classified as habitable space. Many people see that full size basement as wasted space that should be converted into a family room, a game room, or a spare bedroom. Typical basements were never designed to be used for living space. Very often they have ceilings that are only about seven feet or so from the floor. Most basements have only a few small windows which provide little or no effective natural light. Many basements are poorly waterproofed and therefore have significant water leakage problems.
A few people are afraid that they will be unable to emotionally accept living in an earth sheltered home. They think they will feel closed in or trapped. A carefully planned design will eliminate this feeling. A well designed passive solar earth sheltered home will have more window space that is required by most building codes. Every room that you spend a significant amount of time in can be designed to have natural light. For example, in my home every room except the bathroom and the pantry has natural light and at least two means of exit in the event of an emergency.
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