Maynard Kaufman

Front view


The seeded flower turns; heliotropic
Sun-worshipping Fibonacci spiral.

We named our house “Sunflower,”
Powered by panels that turn with the sun
And by the turbine in the air,
Whirled by solar-heated wind.
The whole earth is a sunflower.

Our decision to build a new house on part of our land near Bangor, Michigan, was prompted by an earlier decision to retire from farming as I passed my threescore and ten years. The decision to build a passive solar house which was to be off the grid was informed by my work as an Environmental Studies professor at Western Michigan University, and reinforced by our values asa members and organizers of Green Politics groups since 1987. As Greens we believe in living in harmony with nature, and this involved a commitment to renewable sources of energy where possible. As members of an anti-nuclear group, “Palisades Watch,” we had protested against nuclear power and did not want a house dependent on electricity generated with nuclear power orfossil fuels.

 Beyond this, I have been a pacifist all my life and Barbara has been active in peace work in San Francisco and here in Michigan for many years. We understand the symbiotic connection between the development of nuclear power for electrical energy and for weapons. Moreover, our nation’s addiction to oil has led us to war in Iraq, which has the world’s second largest reserve of oil. Thus war is one of the “externalized” costs of oil, not included in the price we pay. Other such externalized costs include air pollution and the resulting acid rain caused by burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and, of course, global warming. The burning of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide and other gases to the atmosphere and they trap the sun’s heat and create the greenhouse effect which warms the atmosphere. These costs of climate change are also not included in the price, but will be paid by our children and grandchildren. Given this knowledge of how things are inter-related, decisions about how we provide shelter are not innocent or inconsequential. And, given the reality of externalized costs, responsible decisions cannot be made simply on the basis of the initial price.

The ethical issues implied in building a house also involve us in promoting passive solar design and the techniques of renewable energy. We welcome visitors and show them how the house works and are willing to be included in the annual tour of solar houses in southwest Michigan. We believe that the development of renewable energy is generally better for our society. It can create more jobs in the building of a new energy infrastructure. It can foster democracy as it makes local control of energy sources possible, And, as renewable energy sources are diverse and geographically spread out, they are less vulnerable to disruption by hostile powers. Thus renewable energy is a safer way to true homeland security. Dependence on oil, especially as it is pursued by the Bush Administration, leads to fascism, to a belligerent militaristic state under corporate control. Finally, and most importantly, supplies of oil are limited and it is prudent to use the remaining supply of cheap oil to create the infrastructure needed for the inevitable transition to renewable energy.

In December of 2000 we contacted Thom Phillips of Cascade Building and Design in Portage. He had been a student in my Appropriate Technology course at Western and went on to a successful career as a builder of conventional houses. We trusted his ability and were glad to see that he was enthusiastic about the prospect of building a passive solar house. This was a first for him and he did the research needed to build an energy-conserving house. We worked with him to design a floor plan and the type of house we wanted and by March of 2001 we had a building permit. We made an estimate of our anticipated energy needs, which were about one fifth of what we had been using in our old conventional house, and Richard Oraweic of Back to the Future, Ltd., agreed to design and install our renewable energy system. The battery room on the east end of the house was constructed first and the photovoltaic panels were set up just east of that in April. We then had solar power to build the house and the project was under way.

We decided to build a saltbox style of house which is two stories high in the front, or south, side and one story on its north side. The basic dimensions are 32 by 40 feet, with the battery room and woodshed attached on the east end and a screened-in porch attached on the west end. The 16 by 40 foot “great room” along the south side includes kitchen, dining and living areas. The north side has space for bedroom, bathroom and closet, utility room and a cold pantry. A feature that opens up space in the house is a two-story open area in the center of the house. On the second floor it is separated with a railing from rooms on the west and east end which serve as a study, extra sitting room or extra bedrooms. There is also another bathroom upstairs for a total of nearly 1800 square feet. Cabinets and shelves were built by Conrad Kaufman.

I. Electricity from Sun and Wind.

The ten 100-watt Siemans photovoltaic panels are mounted on a Zomeworks tracker that follows the sun from east to west during the day and provides most of our electricity in spring, summer and fall. A Solar Boost 50 MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracker) functions as the photovoltaic charge controller and shows both voltage in the batteries and the rate of charging. Since winters in Michigan are very cloudy but more windy, the Southwest Windpower Whisper H-80 wind generator, also rated at 1000 watts and mounted on 4-inch pipe 66 feet high, produces most of our electricity in winter. This so-called hybrid system, using both sun and wind, is an extremely necessary part of the total system. The electricity is generated as direct current and the four 6-volt Surrette batteries that store it, rated at 683 amp hours each, are connected for a 24 volt DC system.

The Sunfrost refrigerator, Sundanzer freezer, well pumps and all other pumps and fans that start and stop anytime automatically are all connected directly to the 24 volt DC system. A 2500 watt Trace inverter changes the DC current to 120 volt AC current for compact flourescent lights and other appliances “needed” for a middle class lifestyle, such as television, CD player, and a word processor. Needless to say, on cloudy and quiet days we exercise discretion about how many such appliances are used. Since the inverter itself uses about 15 watts to change DC to AC, it is wise that those appliances that go on and off automatically are on DC. At night the inverter is in its “search” mode but does not use any power. This efficiency of a DC system raises the possibility of an electrical system that uses only DC appliances. And since the cost of our inverter was about $2500 it might have been possible to bypass this cost with an all-DC system. Our system also requires both DC and an AC breaker boxes with switches for the circuits.

Rear viewAnother option, which we rejected because our house is about a quarter mile from the road, is to get connected to the commercial electrical grid and use it as storage of excess electricity from renewable sources and thus bypass the cost of the batteries, which was over $2000. This may be of value especially if the electric company is required to pay a fair price for the renewable energy put into the system. As far as I know this is not the case in Michigan, yet. But this option would be good for the conscience especially if more renewable energy is put into the grid than conventional electricity is taken out of it.

The total cost of our renewable energy system was nearly $25000 and the installer claimed that he gave us a good deal and that the cost should have been about $30000. Even if the subsidy of $3000 from the state, which encouraged renewable energy, is subtracted and if the (unknown) cost of building a power line in for a quarter mile were subtracted, it would still take many years at current prices for electricity to amortise the cost of the system. The system has worked without trouble or repair for over two years, but eventually we expect to pay for repairs. As rates for conventional electricity rise, renewable energy might be competitive in price, but at present this kind of system is justified on the basis of ethical rather than economic considerations.

II. Battery Room Ventilation.

Since batteries give off hydrogen gas when being charged, it is important that the battery room be properly ventilated. The batteries are in a plywood box on the floor and as long as there is no danger of freezing the lid is removed from the box and a window above the batteries is kept open in spring, summer and fall. It is good to remember that batteries also operate more efficiently when they do not get too cold. In cold weather, therefore, the lid is placed on the battery box and air from within it is exhausted by a small fan. At the same time a slightly larger fan mounted in the ceiling of the battery room is switched on to draw warm air from the main part of the house through an insulated duct. This warms the temperature in the battery room, creates a positive pressure in it, and helps to draw fresh air through the airtight house.

III. Heating System.

The heating system in “Sunflower” has three components: passive solar heating, the masonry stove, and the hydronic heating in the floor. The house is designed for passive solar input with many south-facing windows that have double panes of low-emissivity glass. The heat that enters through the windows is absorbed by the 5-inch thick concrete floor which is colored a dark brown with pigment fixed with acid, and by the brick masonry stove. Because the house is built very tight and extremely well insulated, it holds heat well for long periods. Keeping warm in winter is less of a problem than staying cool in summer. Curtains, especially on the east windows where the early sun shines in, help to curtail heat input. Trees shade the house from the low sun in the west. And, of course, windows and doors have screens so they can be opened. Summer temperatures in Michigan are usually moderate.

The “Heat Kit” masonry stove, built by Doug Fry of Sturgis, is situated near the center of the house facing the living room with the back of the stove in the bathroom and the chimney in the bedroom. The heat from the stove is radiated 24 hours or more into these rooms and the rest of the house. It’s 17 inch by 17 inch by 17 inch firebox is designed to be fired once a day or every other day. Air for the stove is drawn in through an underground duct from the outside. When the stove is fired a damper in the chimney is opened all the way so the fire burns hot and as efficiently as possible. In two or three hours, after the wood, in dry little logs from 2 to 4 inches in diameter, is burned and only embers remain, the damper is closed to retain the heat in the stove.

The fire in the stove heats walls of ceramic brick on each side of the firebox which then radiate their heat through the bricks for many hours. Because the heated air has to travel up about five feet and then down to the floor before it can go up the chimney it is necessary that the stove be warm before it is fired. When it is cold it needs to be preheated with propane torches placed in small openings on each side of the stove. Once it has been fired the stove stays warm enough to start the fire again for at least 48 hours or as long as 60 hours. Firewood is a renewable resource and our stove uses only one and a half to two cords a year which we harvest from trees already dead. As for carbon dioxide, it will be given off either as a dead tree rots or as it is burned.

   The cost of the masonry stove was nearly $7500, and this includes the chimney. This may be slightly more than the cost of a conventional forced air furnace with ducts and fans might have been, but the masonry stove will probably last longer and the radiated heat from the stove is much more gentle and comfortable than forced air. We consider the masonry stove the best investment in the house. Glass panels in the door of the stove allow us to enjoy the fire.

The third component of the heating system is the hydronic heat in the floor which is radiated by circulating hot water in “pex” tubing buried about an inch or two deep in the concrete floor. The hot water is circulated by “El Sid” pumps activated by two thermostats in different rooms of the house. This system is especially useful in late fall or early spring on cloudy days with limited solar input from the windows and when it is not yet, or no longer, cold enough to use the masonry stove. Because the heat is not immediate (it takes about twelve hours for the floor to warm up) it is necessary to plan in advance based on weather forecasts. Sometimes, but rarely, it is so bitterly cold that hydronic heat is used as a supplement to the masonry stove. Two sources for heating the water in this systemwill be discussed in the next section, but the third source, the heat source of last resort, is the propane-fueled water heater in the utility room. With this hydronic system the house could be left unattended for an entire winter without danger of freezing.Wind energy

IV. The Hot Water System.

Hot water is pre-heated by two renewable sources. One is a loop that thermosyphons through the masonry stove and an 80 gallon storage tank on the second floor above and beside the masonry stove. This loop preheats water whenever the masonry stove is used. The second source of hot water is a set of two 20 inch by 144 inch solar panels that are mounted above the large south windows on the first floor. These panels serve to keep sunshine out of the house when the sun is high in summer, and, of course, they preheat water whenever the sun shines. In order to prevent freezing, the water circulating through the panels is a glycol mixture, and it is circulated with an “El Sid” pump powered by a small photovoltaic panel. The tubes from the panels give off their heat to the potable water in the storage tank through a heat exchanger as tubes circle around the outside of the 80 gallon tank. The hot water is pumped with another “El Sid” pump from this tank to the 40 gallon water heater on the first floor as demanded by the temperature differential between the two tanks.

The cost of the hot water system was $2000 for the solar panels, $1000 for the 80 gallon tank, and a little more than $2000 for the pex tubing, pumps, plumbing, hot water heater and controls. Part of this cost can be charged to heating the house and part of it to providing hot water for domestic use. At times the propane water heater switches on but propane use is modest: about 160 to 170 gallons per year and this includes propane used in the cook stove in the kitchen. The initial investment in this hot water system will be recovered in a few years, far sooner than the investment in the electrical system.

V. Other Energy-Conserving Features.

  In order to conserve heat in winter and stabilize temperature in the house at all times, the north side of the house is earth-bermed up to four feet from the roof. Rainwater from the long (29-foot) north roof is collected in a 300 gallon tank set on the berm so it can be used for irrigation.

A cold pantry in the northwest corner of the house is insulated from the rest of the house and used to store canned goods and the freezer. A space under the floor of the woodshed, between the battery room and the main part of the house, has been made accessible with a trapdoor and serves as a root cellar. It is only four feet deep but works well to keep potatoes until spring. Since the energy used to produce the food purchased by the average American family is comparable to the energy used to heat the conventional home or to power the average family’s automobile, it is good to build a house where food can be produced and preserved. Raising fruits and vegetables for household use is a vital component of a renewable energy system. A clothesline for the solar drying of clothes is a similar kind of easily overlooked renewable energy application.