Energy Super Star

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Men laying new hardwood flooring

It looks normal from the street, but this unique home features unlimited environmental technologies.

From the street, it looks like a seemingly normal house with a porch, stone steps and landscaping. But, its what you cant see that makes this house so unique. While most people are busy doing their day-to-day activities, this house in Brookhaven is also busybusy saving energy. The house accommodates some of the most behind-the-scenes and innovative environmental technologies available to date.
When owners Sona Chambers and Debbie McMinn set out to build their energy-efficient home, they left no stone unturned. Almost everything in the house, right down to the carpeting, is energy-efficient or environmentally friendly. But why? Chambers explains. Ive worked in the environmental field for some time and most of the products out there were not commercially available, she says. Plus, if they were available to the general public, they were ugly. I wanted to prove that it could be done and still look good. Likewise, McMinn had some success in energy-efficient renovations, but really wanted to tackle something from the ground up.

A little help from friends
From the beginning, Chambers and McMinn knew they would need some guidance, so they enlisted the help of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association (GAHBA) and Southface Energy Institute. Together, the two organizations founded EarthCraft House. The nonprofit program is one of the fastest growing and most comprehensive green-building programs in the country. EarthCraft House builders are trained about the latest and smartest construction techniques and material alternatives.

Chambers and McMinn also got help from the U.S. Department of Energys (DOE) Building America program. Building America also focuses on energy efficiency by developing and implementing innovative building processes and technologies.

Homeowners Sona Chambers and Debbie McMinn (l to r) created the quintessential energy-conscious house that’s also stylish and beautiful.

So, it should come as no surprise that this house is the first with solar technology constructed to meet the standards of both the Building America and EarthCraft House programs. It also happens to be the 1000th certified EarthCraft House in Georgia. Because it meets these high standards, the house has become the gold standard of energy-efficiency, and even Habitat for Humanity is using it at a model for green-building homes in Oakridge, Tennessee.

Solar energy
The most unique feature of the house is its use of solar energy. It features several photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, which are completely unnoticeable from the ground, that convert sunlight into electricity. This was Chambers initiative and she sought to find a manufacturer that manufactured only solar panels, so it would be a true renewable energy product. In her initial research, she found that many solar made are large companies that are tied to the petroleum industry and manufacture solar panels as secondary businesses.

The panels are tied into an inverter that is then tied into Georgia Power. But heres the best partas part of Georgia Powers Green Energy program, Chambers and McMinn actually charge Georgia Power 15 cents for every kilowatt hour their panels convert into electricity. Heres how it works: During the day, the homes meter actually spins backwards when solar energy is created. At night, however, the meter will spin in the normal direction when the power company charges the homeowners. McMinns and Chambers goal is to come out evento

The solar panels are not like those of the past. These are sleek and hardly noticeable even at eye level.

make as much energy during the day as they use at night.

Water conservation
Another unique energy-efficient feature of the house is the RainHarvest System. By collecting rainwater that normally flows down the curb, the system harvests non-potable water for future use, free of charge. The water is collected from the rooftop through the guttering system and is transported via pipes and filters to an underground storage cistern. Water is also collected from other sources such as the HVAC condensation lines, the icemaker drain line and the sump pump. The RainHarvest pump system is then used to deliver the water to the landscape.

The landscape was planned and zoned based on the plants ET values. ET, or evapotranspiration, is a scientific formula that measures the amount of water lost due to evaporation of water from the soil and transpiration of water from the plants.

Heres where it gets really high tech. A GPS WeatherTRAK engine automatically calculates a proper watering schedule for their landscape. Each day, the WeatherTRAK Data Service transmits weather updates in the form of ET values. With additional horticultural data from the University of Georgia, sensors track the water in their plants root systems and automatically water when necessary. McMinn and Chambers will never have to guess when or how much to water each plant, eliminating wasted water.

Other cool stuff
There are so many innovative energy-efficient items in the house, it is nearly impossible to give each one the attention it deserves, but here are a few highlights:

  • 1 Geothermal HVAC system: The DX direct exchange geothermal heat pump takes advantage of the relatively stable and constant temperature of the earth (55 degrees) to heat and cool the home. A clean and safe refrigerant is circulated through copper tubing that is buried beneath the frost line and radiant heat line in the ground outside the home. Instead of putting the HVAC air handlers and geothermal heat pumps outside where they have to work harder in extreme weather conditions, the system is kept in a conditioned, temperature-controlled crawlspace. By doing so, the system is able to stay at a constant working level without extremes, which decreases the stress on the system, thus increasing its lifespan.
  • TechShield roof decking: The roof decking is made of OSB with a thin laminated, aluminum layer rather than tar, which absorbs heat. With TechShield, the heat is reflected away from the roof, which in turn, keeps the home cooler.
  • Pureatech Air Treatment System: This air filtration system helps purify the air within the house. On the return vents, a small infrared light zaps any particles in the air.
  • Insulation: The insulation used was made from 80 percent recycled newspaper and was blown into exterior walls and around plumbing.
  • Compact fluorescent lighting: These types of lights are very energy efficient and use up to 75 percent less energy than standard bulbs.
  • Dual plumbing: All the gray water in the house (shower and bathroom sink water) is piped into a separate storage tank for reuse in landscaping. The black water (toilets and kitchen sink water) is plumbed separately.
  • Natural lighting: Every room (including the closets) has some kind of natural lighting whether its with skylights or clear block tiles. This makes turning on lights unnecessary during the day.
  • Eaton Cutler-Hammer 16 zone panel with FutureSmart integrated Home Networking, Entertainment, Security and PBX telephone systems: The entire house was pre-wired for the main low voltage control panel that controls everything from the office computers to the HVAC, security, phone and whole-house audio system.
  • Energy Star: All appliances, windows and doors are Energy Star approved.

All of these extra items added approximately 20 percent additional upfront costs compared to a traditional house. However, over the long haul, all of the systems working together should combine to net the energy bill to zero. You have to think of it like the stock market, Chambers says. Its a long-term investmentif you buy today and sell tomorrow, you wont make anything, but if you hold on to your investment, its eventually going to make money [saving you money on energy bills].

A learning experience

Believe it or not, these two visionaries are ready to build again. The satisfaction of the finished product isnt enough when you know it can be improved as new technologies come out. Chambers and McMinn agree theyll do even better next time. McMinn says they learned a lot just going through the building process and that theyll be more vigilant during the design phase because its the most critical part of the home building process.

So, whats their favorite part of the house? Its hard to say, McMinn reflects, but Id have to say its the science and technology behind it. Hopefully our efforts will educate and inspire others to do their part in building healthier homes that protect the environment.


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