As a solar energy professional in the Midwest, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard people ask “Can we do that here?!” I’m very glad to report that yes, solar energy exists here in the Midwest, not just in California and in the southwest. In fact, alternative energy is just as viable in the middle of the country as it is on the coasts.
For many in the green living community, the ultimate goal is to have a home that’s off-the-grid, powered by renewable sources and untethered from utility companies. I’m here to tell you that this dream is possible! Even in urban or suburban areas, the goal of solar living in a passive house is within your reach.
Building Off the Grid
Whether you’re building a new home from the foundation up or remodeling an existing property to minimize energy use and maximize renewable sources, you can invest in technologies that will free you from the grid and provide clean power for your home into the future. If you’re planning all new construction, it’s vital to consult with solar and passive energy professionals early in the design process to ensure that the home placement and building materials work with the local climate to enable the highest level of energy savings. If you’re modifying an existing home, it’s important to start with a home energy audit to determine the most cost-effective implementation strategy.
A home energy audit performed by a professional can help identify leaks or inefficiencies in your current home, as well as create strategies for addressing them. This comprehensive infographic from the Department of Energy highlights the main areas of concern, which include insulation in walls and attics as well as air leaks around doors, windows, and outlets. Even if a passive solar home is a distant dream, the average homeowner can save between 5-30% on existing energy bills by following through on the results of a home energy audit.
Designing a Passive Solar Home
What is a passive solar home?
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “A well-designed passive solar home first reduces heating and cooling loads through energy-efficiency strategies and then meets those reduced loads in whole or part with solar energy.” While this method of design is seeing a resurgence due to increased interest in alternative energy sources and off-grid living, humans have incorporated passive solar principles into dwelling design for centuries. Passive solar design uses window size and placement to make the most of the sun’s energy, with strategic placement of overhangs and reflective material to provide heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.
A well-designed passive solar home balances solar collection, thermal mass, and control elements such as overhangs, blinds, or awnings to reduce or eliminate the need for artificial heating and cooling. The elements of passive solar design must be deployed alongside a thorough understanding of a home’s location, climate, and placement. For instance, in order to collect solar energy for heat, a passive solar home must have unobstructed windows or solar collection devices that face within 30 degrees of true south.
Additionally, builders (or renovators) must use thermal mass materials, which absorb heat from sunlight during warming season (winter) and cool warm air inside the house during cooling season (summer). Collected solar energy is distributed through the home by conduction, convection, and radiation. This process may be aided by the use of small fans and vents, and further enhanced through insulation and air sealing.
While coastal areas have been setting the curve for passive solar design, the Midwest and even interior northern areas of North America have demonstrated successful passive solar construction and renovation. It’s important to consult with professional designers and renewable energy experts to maximize the effect of your design and construction. In addition to their in-depth knowledge and experience, solar design consultants will be aware of the many green incentives that can help keep building costs low.
At Home with Passive Solar Design
Passive solar design is an excellent and sustainable way to significantly lower energy expenditures at home. Many passive homeowners take their design a step further by including solar or wind energy collection and storage to produce their own kWh, effectively eliminating their dependence on the grid, old-fashioned methods of power generation, and utility companies. Solar panels, solar thermal water heaters, and even wind turbines are often incorporated into passive solar design.
Are you ready to give up the grid and create your own self-sustaining, renewable energy producing home? It doesn’t matter if you live on the coast or in the Midwest, in the country or in a big city, passive solar design is within your reach!
At Solar Design Studio, our expertise extends from small to large scale residential and commercial passive solar and alternative energy design, consulting, and engineering. If you’re ready to cut the cord and create your own off the grid home or office, contact us today to learn more about our experience in design and implementation.