Green home tours help illuminate possibilities

“We were surprised, when we came to the Keys, that no one was using solar power. The sun is banging on the roof all day and we don’t use it.”

So said Roland Muench, one of two homeowners in the Upper Keys who opened their houses as part of the National Solar Tour in 2006. Both his house and that of John Hammerstrom and Diane Marshall are primarily powered by solar energy and the two homes were opened so people can get a better understand about how solar energy works.

“We’re showing people how they can do this too, even people who are renting a home,” said Diane Marshall.

Marshall and her husband, John Hammerstrom, built their home in 2002 and employed energy efficient and environmentally sensitive designs from the ground up. The 2,450-square foot concrete home has an 1,400 additional square feet of porches and decks. The entire house — with the exception of central air — is powered by solar panels on the roof.

You’d never know it was any different from any conventional home. The pleasant — and quite beautiful — structure has all the amenities that most people would want with a well equipped kitchen, comfortable looking bedrooms and modern bathrooms. The other house on the tour, that owned by Roland and Sloan Muench, is a more conventional Keys house but is also powered completely by the solar panels on the roof.

However, the Muenchs retrofitted an existing concrete block house. The message was clear: anyone with the will and the money can do this.

Some hurdles

What both couples found was that there isn’t much information available in the Keys about converting to solar power nor are there many contractors who have either the experience or the inclination to install solar equipment.

John and Diane, who completed work on their home in 2002, had to consult a number of experts all over the world to learn about how to make their home energy efficient and to obtain the materials they needed to execute their design. They often found themselves instructing contractors about how to do certain things.

For example, they decided to include a cistern in their plans, diverting water from the roof to a 7,500-gallon tank. They then use that water for all their household needs, passing it through several filters including an ultraviolet one before drinking or washing with it. However, the couple realized they needed to divert the first rain from the roof away from the cistern to avoid bringing in the dirt that may have collected there. After a great deal of research they finally found the so-called roof washers in Australia that did the trick.

The Hammerstrom/Marshall home employs 24, 120-watt solar panels that generate 2,800 watts of power. The system has been in operation for five years with nary a glitch. The company that makes them, Kyocera, did recall the panels for an overheating problem but replaced them all and now warranties their operation for 20 years.

The power generated by the panels is then converted into AC by inverters. An array of batteries stores power for when the sun is down or when skies are cloudy. Roland Muench’s panels generate 4000 watts of power and he uses a system of inverters that sense when the sun has risen, clicking on at first light. His system, controlled completely by a laptop computer, “knows” when the batteries need charging and diverts power to them at that time.

Muench proudly displayed a $7 bill from Florida Keys Electric Co-operative. In the winter, he often feeds power back into the Keys power grid and the Co-op pays him for what they charge others for power. The same goes for the Hammerstrom/Marshall house.

Solar hot water and much more

Both homes rely almost totally on solar hot water. That technology has become quite common and is one that any house can convert to. It’s only after four or five cloudy days that the electric powered back up hot water heater must kick on and that’s a rare occurrence in the Keys. Solar hot water units cost about $3000 to install and have proven reliability.

John and Diane didn’t stop at solar power, solar hot water and cistern-supplied water. They made sure that all their appliances complied with Energy Star restrictions so they would draw less electricity. That includes a dishwasher, refrigerator, stove, ceiling fans and all light bulbs. The latter are all the CFLs or compact fluorescent lights.

The couple designed architectural features into the home to reduce the impact of the broiling summer sun in the Keys. This took the form of overhangs that block the sun in the summer but allow it in during the winter, much like the famous eyebrow houses do in Key West. They also recycled old architectural features, such as the wood columns, into the new structure. They relied upon paint that is low in volatile organic compounds, used renewable bamboo for their floors and planted only native landscaping to reduce water usage.

It’s a real demonstration of what can be accomplished with almost no sacrifice to modern comforts.

“They Keys really have no resources of their own. The water gets piped in, the electricity gets piped in,” Marshall said. “Our attitude is that we can work to create our own resources here in our home.”

And one of the primary resources that all of the Keys has in abundance is the sun.