Sustainability

The retrofitted Dayton Street home of Bob Brecha and Kaethi Seidl and their children, Regina, left, and Francesca Brecha includes the same green technologies as three other village dwellings included in this Saturday’s National Solar Tour, a nationwide event to help people learn about living with energy-saving technologies. For more information, go to www.greenenergyohio.org.

Take a tour of the village greens

Can a home be built to absorb enough of the sun’s heat so that it requires no heat source — other than the presence of people and the heat they produce by inhabiting space and cooking? Can an old home be retrofitted or remodeled with the hopes of realizing the cost of investment through monthly energy savings? Does making more sustainable decisions about energy use have to mean being less comfortable? These are the questions some local homeowners have been asking themselves as they have designed, built and remodeled their homes and structures to decrease reliance on non-renewable and costly fossil fuel energy. Four of them will host open houses this Saturday as part of the 14th annual National Solar Tour, an event that allows the public to wander through some 5,000 buildings in 3,000 communities nationwide to talk with homeowners about living with energy-saving technologies and techniques. In Ohio, 168 homesites will be open to the public on Saturday, Oct. 3, including four Yellow Springs dwellings and a business in Fairborn. Those seeking a serious energy expedition can go online to www.greenenergyohio.org and build a custom tour focused on a particular energy technology implemented in a dwelling — or just browse pictures, detailed specifications and manufacturers of technology used by property owners. Locally, the Brecha straw-bale home (so termed because of the construction of its walls), at 301 W. North College Street, is an example of new construction designed from the ground up to be energy efficient. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and features passive solar design, or construction principles devised to retain heat produced by the sun and human activities inside the home. In addition, the dwelling integrates solar thermal technology, or the use of solar energy to heat water that is then available through the standard plumbing system — as well as warming the floors via an inlaid system of piping in the floor. An example of an extensive retrofit can be found at the Morgan carriage house behind Community Solutions at 114 E. Whiteman, Apt. F, which will also be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The carriage house was gutted to the original exterior walls and then rebuilt inward, using principles of the German passive solar house. The two-story structure features a residence on the lower level and an art studio on the upper level. There is no natural gas to the structure, which instead relies upon passive solar principles aided by an electric air exchange unit, with baseboard electric heat as a backup. The Holyoke residence at 107 Cliff Street is an example of an older dwelling that has been remodeled to integrate solar thermal technology. Using four 1970s solar collectors, water is heated by the sun and then stored in a storage tank. When water is called to the tap on cloudy days, a tankless water heater can automatically kick on to further heat the water. The system also allows for the hot water to cycle through the cold air return system of their furnace, though the Holyokes heat almost exclusively with wood. Their residence will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon, and from 1 to 4 p.m. A further example of the addition of renewable technologies to existing dwellings can be found at the Stockwell farm at 340 E. Yellow Springs–Fairfield Road, which will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. The farm uses a wind turbine and photovoltaics — two technologies that can convert renewable resources (wind and sun, respectively) into electricity. For Bob Brecha, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and the School of Engineering at the University of Dayton, investing in sustainable energy technologies is “a values choice that happens to pay off.” While his family designed and built (with the Holyokes’ help) the second straw-bale home in the village, they don’t live there — yet. Occupied by a renter, the straw-bale has met Brecha’s estimated calculations, using about one quarter of the amount of electricity used in the average village home (though Brecha notes the straw-bale is a tad smaller than average), and between a third and a quarter of the average natural gas usage in the village. The straw-bale construction method results in similar passive solar benefits as the German passive house design, Brecha said. An added benefit, according to Brecha, is that the materials — literally, bales of straw and “earth plaster”—do not require industrial processes and can often be sourced locally. But according to Brecha, the most important issue facing society is what to do with existing structures. Since the cost of powering our homes will rise as the cost of bringing non-renewable sources of energy — fossil fuels like petroleum, coal and natural gas — to the market rises, for Brecha, retrofitting traditional homes and creating behavioral change is key to reducing the environmental impact of energy use. In their own home, a 150-year-old traditional two-story that is approximately 2,000 square feet, Brecha can’t put his finger on exactly why their electricity bill is one-third that of the average village home, despite the fact they are a family of four. “We’ve always been pretty careful about energy use,” Brecha said, “but we are not extreme. We have reading lamps, computers, clock radios and everything everyone else has,” he said. Brecha attributes his family’s lower electrical use to energy efficient appliances, turning off their computers at night, and hesitating before using the air conditioning. Over the past 15 years, Brecha has installed a high efficiency furnace, invested in insulation in the walls and attic, and replaced windows in an effort to stop the heat loss that is responsible for the inefficiency of heating standard dwellings. They too have invested in a solar thermal system, like that on display at the straw-bale and the Holyoke’s residence. Still, some issues presented by older homes elude easy answers. For Brecha, this includes how to insulate the crawl space of his dwelling. But the larger question is about creating collective behavior change when the problem — climate change, environmental degradation, and the rising cost of fossil-fuel powered living — is often intangible and slow to reveal itself in daily life. “The basic story is this,” Brecha said. “Yellow Springs residents use about the same amount of energy per square foot as anyone else in this region,” according to research he is conducting with his University of Dayton students and Community Solutions. By contrast, 10 years ago Californians used about 10 percent less energy than the average Ohioan, but today, they use half as much energy per person, per year. What’s worse, Brecha said, the average Ohioan emits 10 times more carbon dioxide than the average Californian, largely because 90 percent of Ohio’s electricity comes from coal, whereas California has integrated wind and nuclear. “It comes down to a personal choice, a commitment,” he said. As for his family, Brecha’s energy savings is one part investment in new technologies, one part preventing heat loss and two parts behavior change. And it hasn’t cost his family their comfort. “Compared to 90 percent of the people in the world, we have a lot, far more than we need,” he said. “We haven’t given up anything.”

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