Category Archives: house

Home Solar Power: Getting Started

home solar powerA couple weekends ago I had to opportunity to attend a class entitled “Do It Yourself Photovoltaics” which was put on through our local garden center. The man who taught the class, Mr. Jon Passi, stressed that his goal was to make solar power projects as accessible as possible to others, and encouraged us to share what we learned from his class with our neighbors, so I’d like to share a bit about what I learned with you.

home solar panels 3

How Much Solar Power Do You Need

The first step to getting a home solar project going is to figure out how much power you need. Most power companies these days will provide graphs of your power use for the past year, so you can see how much electricity you use each month. When you look at this graph you’ll probably see that you have a season of the year where you use quite a bit of electricity, and a season where you use less. For my family, we use more electricity in the winter time than the summer, because we are more likely to be inside, and because it is dark during more of our waking hours. But if you might find that the opposite is true for you, depending on your habits and your home.

So, take a look at your energy use over the course of a year. With solar power, you produce the amount of electricity you use each day, and then start over again the next day. Figure out what your average monthly electricity use is. Then divide that number by 30 to get an estimate of your average daily electricity use. For the average American family, this number is somewhere in the range of 20 – 40 Kwh per day.

Your average daily electricity use is what you’re shooting to produce with a home solar power project. Yes, some days you will use more, but if you’re still connected to the power grid, you’ll be able to draw whatever extra you need from your power company. And on other days you will use less electricity than the average, and on those days you will be able to sell back any extra that you produce to the power company. It will all even out in the end, and usually in your favor – depending on your power company, you’ll be able to sell your extra electricity to the power company for more than you are paying for the little bit you need from them on cloudy days or days when your energy use is a bit higher than average.

home solar panels 2

How Much Will Home Solar Power Cost

The next step is to figure out if you can lower this number. Home solar projects are still pretty expensive, so the more you can lower your daily needs, the less you need to invest in supplying that power. Before you start shelling out dollars for solar panels, maybe it’s the right time to upgrade to a more energy efficient refrigerator, dish washer, or washer and drier. Maybe it’s time to commit to hang drying your clothes. Make sure your computer, television, and gaming systems are all on power strips that you turn off when you’re not using them to reduce the amount of phantom load your electronics are drawing. Upgrade your lightbulbs to LEDs. Before you spend $10k+ on solar panels, spend a couple months committing to lowering your energy use, and then recalculate your average daily electricity use.

A good rule of thumb right now for how much a home solar power project is going to cost you is to multiply your average daily electricity use by 1000. So if your home uses 22 Kwh of electricity per day, the cost of a project big enough to cover your entire energy needs would be about $22,000.

Before you get bug eyed at the cost of a home photovoltaic project, keep in mind that there are currently lots of opportunities for energy rebates. The federal government will give you 30% of the cost of the project in rolling tax breaks. (Rolling means that if you don’t use the whole 30% the first year, you can take the remainder the following years until you reach the full 30%.) Many power companies are also offering rebates for home solar projects right now as well. Mr. Passi gave us some examples of projects that he worked on in the past couple years, and many times the after rebate costs were around 60% of the total cost of the project.

Also, keep in mind that solar panels take up quite a bit of space. You likely won’t have enough room on your roof (especially in a city or suburb situation) to even install enough solar to cover the entirety of your daily use. When you look at how much solar power you can actually install on your house, the scope of your home solar power project may drop significantly. And even if you’re only supplying some of your home electricity needs, on sunny summer days, you will likely still produce quite a bit of extra electricity to sell back to the grid.

I have plenty more to share on this topic, but I think this is a good start for today. In the future I’ll get into more about the components you need for a home solar power project, and use our house as an example for figuring out how much electricity you need to produce and the costs of completing that project.

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The Energy Efficiency Project: Month 6

energy efficiency project month 6May 13th – June 11th, 29 days

We are finally maintaining only one residence. Let me tell you, as convenient as it was to have a place to stay in both of the cities that my husband works in for the past six months, two homes is hard. And expensive. Especially with only one home’s worth of stuff.

During that time, we of course also had two different utility bills, which was quite interesting. Each place was serviced by a different utility company, MG&E, and Alliant, but the offerings as far as renewable energy went were pretty much the same. Our apartment was about 500 square feet, and had electric baseboard heating. And let me tell you, our energy costs there were much higher than for our 1000 square foot house that has a gas furnace. It was surprising to me just how expensive and inefficient electric heating is. I’ll get more into that in a future post.

So now we have one home. One energy bill. And now the burden of maintenance is on us rather than a landlord. Time to get busy.

Again, nothing special in terms of upgrades for energy efficiency this month. We’re spending most of our time and energy this spring and summer on our yard and garden and all that outside stuff that it sure is nice to have warm weather to complete. But it’s important to have months where we don’t make any big changes and just live in our home so we can get a sense of our baseline energy use.

This month’s upgrade cost: $0

Total upgrade cost to date: $17.64

Over 29 days we used 390 KWH. Which comes out to an average 13.4 KWH/day. Compared to the last billing period average of 15.5 KWH/day, we dropped a bit, due to spending a week or so in our apartment getting ready to move out.

We are part of the Alliant Energy Second Nature renewable energy program, at the 100% level. (In this program you can choose the amount of your energy use that you want to be matched in renewables, and we chose 100%.) The cost of our renewable energy increased on June 1st, So the cost of our electricity is $0.13 per KWH for the 18 days of May on our bill, and $0.14 per KWH for the 11 days of June, for a total of $52.68.

This month we used 0 Therms of natural gas heat energy. Which averages out to 0.0 Therms/day. However we did still have a small charge to keep our gas on this month, and probably also to pay for meter readers and what not. Degree days this month compared to last month: 148 vs. 347.

The natural gas market fluctuates in Wisconsin, so there is not an easy dollar per Therm number to give you, but during this billing period we paid $8.93 for our gas use.

Our energy bill also provides these numbers for helpful comparison:

Electricity used this month last year: 758 KWH. I imagine this number is going to drop pretty significantly in coming months, because we’re almost to the point where the previous owners of the house listed it for sale, and during that time they were already living in a different residence.

Gas used this month last year: 1 Therm. Average temperature this month: 63° F. This month last year: 54° F.

Degree Days this month: 148 vs this month last year: 108. Degree days are the number of degrees below 65° F in one day, all added together for the total 29 days of the billing period.

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Want to see previous months of the Energy Efficiency Project? Here is Month 1Month 2, Month 3Month 4, and Month 5.

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The Energy Efficiency Project: Month 5

I’m back after a couple week hiatus due to finally finishing up our move from apartment to house, some traveling, and some adjusting to a new schedule. One of the troubles with having a significant other who is in residency is the constantly shifting schedules. Throw in the mix a toddler that thrives on a schedule, and it means our life sometimes goes topsy-turvy as we adjust. And now we’re well past due for giving you an energy efficiency project update. So, here goes.

energy efficiency project month 5

April 14th – May 13th, 29 days

We had a mid-April cold snap that caused us to turn the heat back on for a week or so. And as I mentioned above, we completed our move during this billing period, so we have a few more energy users in our home these days – a television and XBox, a lamp, etc. And lengthening days mean we’re using our lights less. Nothing special in terms of upgrades for energy efficiency this month. But it’s important to have months where we don’t make any big changes and just live in our home so we can get a sense of our baseline energy use.

This month’s upgrade cost: $0

Total upgrade cost to date: $17.64

Over 29 days we used 451 KWH. Which comes out to an average 15.5 KWH/day. Compared to the last billing period average of 9.45 KWH/day, you can see the definite difference in energy use between basic maintenance mode, and everyday living mode.

We are part of the Alliant Energy Second Nature renewable energy program, at the 100% level. (In this program you can choose the amount of your energy use that you want to be matched in renewables, and we chose 100%.) So the cost of our electricity is $0.13 per KWH, for a total of $59.04.

We also used 13 Therms of natural gas heat energy. Which averages out to 0.45 Therms/day. Huzzah for spring and only using our furnace for about a week during this month. Degree days this month compared to last month: 347 vs. 754.

The natural gas market fluctuates in Wisconsin, so there is not an easy dollar per Therm number to give you, but during this billing period we paid $15.45 for our gas use.

Our energy bill also provides these numbers for helpful comparison:

Electricity used this month last year: 740 KWH

Gas used this month last year: 17 Therms. Average temperature this month: 53° F. This month last year: 51° F.

Degree Days this month: 347 vs this month last year: 466. Degree days are the number of degrees below 65° F in one day, all added together for the total 33 days of the billing period.

Want to see previous months of the Energy Efficiency Project? Here is Month 1Month 2, Month 3, and Month 4.

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Building a Sod Compost Bin

With backyard garden dreams like stars in our eyes, Neil and I began tearing up the sod in the backyard. We’ve torn up probably 500+ square feet of sod so far, making way for kitchen gardens, flower gardens, and a prairie garden. Thinking of getting rid of all that sod gave Neil an idea of building our compost bins out of some of it.

As you may recall, our quick and easy winter compost situation was just to toss it in a steel drum that I found on craigslist. When the weather started to warm, we wanted a compost pile situation that was a bit less “trash fire” or “junk yard” looking. So Neil planned out and built a two-pile compost bin arrangement made of sod. And I want to share how we did it just in case you have plans to tear up a bit of grass for a garden and start a compost pile this spring or summer.

Building a Sod Compost Bin

Building a Sod Compost Bin

  1. Measure out the area that you want for your pile, and include 1 foot for each wall.

We wanted about a square yard for each pile, and we had enough room for two piles. so the are we mapped out was:

length = 1 ft (left edge wall) + 3 ft (pile 1) +1 ft (center wall) + 3 ft (pile 2) +  1 ft (right edge wall) = 9 ft.

depth = 1 ft (front wall) + 3 ft (pile) + 1 ft (back wall) = 5 ft.

  1. Dig out the sod within your measured out area so you are starting out with a blank dirt rectangle.

OK, this step is optional, because the walls and compost pile will kill all that grass anyway, but it does give you some sod to start building your bins out of.

We dug out the sod beneath the bins using a square edge shovel. Tearing up sod is not an easy job, especially at this point in the spring when it’s had a good bit of time to re-establish its root system. When we cleared out the sod beneath the bins, it was the end of March, so the grass hadn’t really come back to life yet, which made this process easier. For the sod removal we did for our garden beds, we rented a manual sod ripper from a local hardware store. It was still tiresome manual labor, but it definitely went faster than working with a shovel. Rumor has it you can also rent gas powered sod rippers from Home Depot and the like, but our nearest Home Depot apparently doesn’t have a rental center.

Building a sod compost bin side view

  1. Build the back, side, and center walls out of sod using an alternating pattern. This means you face dirt side to dirt side and grass side to grass side. This is the pattern you use to stack sod to compost it as well. We also overlapped the sod layers so that the breaks in sod strips didn’t line up from layer to layer – you know, lego style.

We built our walls to be about 2.5 – 3 ft tall.

You may want to enforce your walls by making them a bit wider at the bottom than they are at the top. I did this by taking some piece of sod and leaning them along the bottom inside and outside of the wall.

building a side compost bin inside view

  1. Build a shorter front containment wall. Our front wall is maybe only 9 inches tall. Its purpose is just to keep the compost pile from spilling out the front of the bin. You don’t want too tall of a front wall so that you have easy access to the pile for turning it and for retrieving your finished compost for spreading on the garden.
  2. Finish off your walls with a dirt-side-up layer of sod, and plant flowers or a vining plant on the top of the walls.

This step is obviously also optional, but will potentially make for a prettier compost pile situation in the middle of summer. We planted some old nasturtium seeds we had along the top of our walls.

Sod compost bins are certainly not a permanent compost situation. We’ll probably have to build new bins next spring or certainly by next fall. But they serve as multi-taskers for now: containing our kitchen and yard compost while also composting down some of the sod that we were tearing out of the yard anyway. When the sod walls have composted themselves, we’ll be able to use that as garden food as well as the compost piles the walls are containing.

Interested in more building earth articles on compost? Check out the following:
Starting a Winter Compost Pile
Composting during the Winter
Can I Compost That?
Apartment Composting

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The Energy Efficiency Project: Month 4

Energy Efficiency Project Month 4March 12th – April 14th, 33 days

This month was pretty boring as far as energy efficiency improvements go. We turned off the heat at the beginning of April and got to start working on the yard a bit. We were still splitting our time between the house and our apartment in the city during this month, so the house was using minimal maintenance energy while we weren’t in it. For example, the furnace was set just high enough to keep our pipes from freezing while out of the house, and really only the fridge was using electricity most of the time. So, again, this month won’t be the best representation of our energy use, but will hopefully serve as a good reminder to put your house into low-energy-use mode when you’re gone for extended periods of time. As far as energy efficiency initiatives went we:

  • Turned off thermostat starting on April 1st!
  • Made sure that all lights and other electricity users aside from the refrigerator were off while we were away.

This month’s upgrade cost: $0

Total upgrade cost to date: $17.64

Over 33 days we used 312 KWH. Which comes out to an average of 9.45 KWH/day. Which is a small decrease from the last billing period average of 10.75 KWH/day. My guess is our decrease came from extended daylight hours, which meant less lightbulb use while we were in the house.

We are part of the Alliant Energy Second Nature renewable energy program, at the 100% level. (In this program you can choose the amount of your energy use that you want to be matched in renewables, and we chose 100%.) So the cost of our electricity is $0.13 per KWH, for a total of $40.85.

We also used 35 Therms of natural gas heat energy. Which averages out to 1.06 Therms/day. We only used the gas furnace for the first half of this billing month, and then of course had some gas use for the hot water heater. Also, we had a pretty warm start to our spring in these parts, so the degree days this month compared to last month: 754 vs. 1383. As you can see, the degree days this month is only a bit more than half of last month, which explains why we were able to turn off our furnace completely for half the month.

The natural gas market fluctuates in Wisconsin, so there is not an easy dollar per Therm number to give you, but during this billing period we paid $32.24 for our gas use.

Our energy bill also provides these numbers for helpful comparison:

Electricity used this month last year: 651 KWH

Gas used this month last year: 41 Therms. Average temperature this month: 43° F. This month last year: 36° F.

Degree Days this month: 754 vs this month last year: 835. Degree days are the number of degrees below 65° F in one day, all added together for the total 33 days of the billing period.

Want to see previous months of the Energy Efficiency Project? Here is Month 1Month 2, and Month 3

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