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A Real Power House: Prototype home and vehicle are powered by the sun

Posted on February 16th, 2011

By Sandra Gubel, Blue Mountain Eagle

MITCHELL – No astronomical energy bills for this place.

A brand new employee home at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument’s Painted Hills unit harnesses the power of the sun.

Adding to the efficiency, Scott Ritner, the ranger and soon-to-be occupant, will use a utility-type vehicle on the job that’s also solar-powered. With a range of 50 miles per charge, he’ll plug it in at home, using solar fuel to “fill it up.”

The recently-finished Painted Hills one-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot house is first of its kind for the National Park Service, said the Fossil Beds Superintendent Jim Hammett.

He is enthusiastic about the concept, and the prospects for additional homes built in the future by the agency.

“We are proud of it (the home), but the concept and methods have much greater potential than park housing,” he said.

Ted Clifton agrees. His company, Zero-Energy Plans LLC of Bainbridge Island, Wash., produced the plans for the house.

Clifton recently revealed to his peers the details of the project – a house that provides its own energy, and enough power for a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf to be driven more than 13,500 miles each year without fossil fuels.

The innovative project came about as Hammett sought a design to replace one of three employee homes at the Monument. Among the flaws in the old house: it lacked a foundation, was hard to heat, and was essentially falling apart.

Hammett wanted a zero-energy home, and wasn’t pleased with the selection of stock designs available through the National Park Service.

When money became available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Hammett got the go-ahead to build the home he had in mind.

He chose Clifton’s small and simple design from several net-zero-energy homes the company has drafted.

Floor plan “R-1,” with various adaptations to make it fully handicapped accessible, was built last summer by Kirby Naglehout Construction Co. of Bend, with Clifton providing quality control. Naglehout hadn’t yet built one of the structures, which uses pre-constructed, insulated panels for exterior walls and the roof, crafted by a Bozeman, Mont., firm.

The cost of putting up the structure was $300,000, although for a private homeowner it would have been closer to $220,000, plus cost of the land. Because of site issues, the Painted Hills home needed a deeper-than-normal foundation that was steel-reinforced.

“This is the only unit in the National Park Service that’s entirely energy self-sufficient. It’s a big deal,” Hammett said. He’s enthusiastic the idea will catch on.

The panels for the walls and roof go together to very tight specifications, and once pieces were on site, the structure went up quickly, he said.

“The house is strong and so airtight, it’s pretty remarkable. It makes so much sense. The concept is very, very solid, the way houses should be built in the future,” Hammett said.

It has a preliminary Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score of minus-15, although only half of the available roof space is covered with solar panels.

Eastern Oregon, and much of the Northwest, should see similar solar success with the home-vehicle combination, Clifton said.

“Mitchell is a very average location in relation to others in the eastern part of the state. I have modeled the performance of the Painted Hills house in several locations around Oregon and Washington, and it performs similarly everywhere.”

In Yakima, Wash., for example, it would power the car for about 15 percent fewer miles, due to fewer sunny days, and a slightly colder winter. In Spokane, it would be about 20 percent fewer miles, and in rainy Seattle, about 35 percent fewer miles, he said. “On the flip-side, in Seattle the commute would probably be shorter, so the usefulness of the design would be about the same. In Redmond, results would be very similar to Mitchell.”

Clifton’s goal is to make “an entirely energy-neutral existence” a goal for normal people to attain, not just the elite.

“I want to build simple, quality homes that are durable, energy-efficient, easy to live in, provide quality air to breathe, and leave a smaller footprint on the face of the earth,” he said.

“There are dozens of good reasons to be interested in energy efficiency, from concerns about the cost of energy, to the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, to concerns about global warming and other climatic and environmental concerns,” said Clifton.

The solar equipment for the Painted Hills has been fully connected, and is producing power, said Hammett. The real proof of its zero-energy use capabilities are soon to come. Ritner, who is furloughed during a few months each winter, will move in next week.

Verifier of an energy audit made on the house, Andrew Gordon of Northwest Energy-Star, said the house is the most energy efficient home to come across his desk.

Hammett is confident it’s a step in the green direction, and no “green” will be spent on heating and electricity, or on powering the small utility vehicle. “Gordon has little doubt it will perform as specified,” he said. “We shouldn’t be getting any bills at all.”

For a link to see more on net-zero-energy homes, see www.zero-energyplans.com.

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About Ted Clifton

Ted L. Clifton has been a designer and builder for more than 45 years. Educated at Berkeley, California, Ted has worked in every phase of construction and knows first-hand what it takes to design and construct a quality home. Having built hundreds of homes as well as commercial and institutional buildings, Ted has the advantage of extensive knowledge of the means and methods used in all three. He has worked in three very different climate zones, from the foothills of California, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to Whidbey Island, Washington.

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