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Updating a 19th Century farm

We have always been interested in trying to capture the energy from the sun to use in our home. When we were looking for a piece of land to build on, one of our requirements was; it needed to be open and sunny with plenty of southern exposure.

We found just the right place in 1985 and proceeded to build an energy efficient house. Our design included lots of windows on the east and south sides fewer on the north and the west. Our garage is located on the north side of the house to shelter it from the north winds and avoid blocking the sun’s rays coming from the south. We built a super-insulated post and beam home with the outside covered in a continuous unbroken layer of insulation. When the sun is shining it makes a big difference in the energy it takes to keep us warm. With exposed beams and an interior center located chimney the house acts like a thermal flywheel; once that mass has been heated up the temperature in the house stays fairly constant and our energy use is greatly reduced.

However at the time we were building there was no practical, affordable to way to convert all that solar energy to electricity. We decide to invest in the cost of bringing utility electricity on to the property. This involved paying for about one-half mile of new poles and wires to bring electric power on to our old hill farm, the first time it had been electrified since it was settled and farmed in 1815.
But still the sun was shining and delivering lots of energy to our home and we were sure there must be a way to make better use of that power source.

One of the ways that we considered was solar hot water heating. If you have ever felt the first water coming out of the garden hose on a summer day you know a lot of energy has been stored in that water. It is just a matter of how to capture it for use in the house. Our water heater was about 25 years old and fired by propane, an increasingly expensive fuel. So we did a lot of research and reluctantly came to the conclusion that solar water heaters, in Vermont were not a good investment. The technology is complicated and cumbersome and the avoided costs by using the sun to heat your water was just not enough to justify the installation of such an involved system. So, we purchased an electric water heater. They are simple, quiet and reliable. The tank is well insulated and has held hot water for a week when we have turned it off during a vacation. Best of all the price of the fuel source is regulated.

As we investigated solar water heating we became aware of how affordable solar electric panels had become and the incentives that the government and utilities had put in place. Then we made the connection that with some solar panels on the roof, our new electric hot water heater would become a solar water heater! And we could greatly expand how much energy we captured from the sun and not just limit the benefits to our hot water use. We would generate plenty of power to run all our other appliances in the house and have the utility pay for any extra power we produced. Selling it to them over those electric lines we had installed almost 30 years ago. So our old hill farm will go from no electricity at all for the first 170 years to becoming a solar electric generator for the New England power grid in 2013.

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