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Don’t Leave the Light on–ways to save energy and money

Lindsey and Andreas Schmid are keen on keeping their carbon footprint small. On a recent rainy day, I stood in the basement of their 1885 farmhouse and watched the electric meter spin backward. The couple is striving for net-zero consumption—defined as producing more power than they consume—and they are not the only ones benefiting.

“We pump more power into the grid during the day than we use, and the power company sells that clean energy to our neighbors,” Andreas explains. Making a living as vice president of business development at Solect Energy in Pittsfield, he has embraced sustainability as a way of life—one that permeates all aspects of his family’s home.

“An old house is more sustainable to begin with,” Andreas says of the home he and his wife purchased almost eight years ago in Lenox. Each had a single requirement: hers was that the home be within walking distance to town; his was a south-facing roof for solar panels. What ensued was a series of investments in their century-old residence. First step? Pouring a concrete slab in the basement to replace the original dirt floor so a 96-percent efficient condensing boiler, fueled by natural gas, could be installed. This swap freed up the chimney and allowed for the installation of an 80-percent efficient wood stove—the home’s main source of heat—that burns just over two cords of wood each winter because it only runs in freezing temperatures. Finally, the home’s original foundation was insulated with spray foam for an air-tight seal.

Next came the installation of a 9.36kW solar array that provides electricity for lighting, hot water, cooling, and supplemental heat in the shoulder seasons. The Schmids opted for mini-splits—which allow for spot heating and cooling independent of a central system—in the upstairs bedrooms. Unlike a standard air-source heat pump, a mini-split offers the added benefit of air-conditioning in the summer, not to mention that it is quieter, more efficient and longer-lasting. Both heating and cooling systems were paid for with a pair of zero-interest loans from MassSave, the energy efficiency program run by the state’s utilities to help homeowners and businesses save money and energy. The statewide program is funded by rate payers through a surcharge on their utility bill.

The solar power converter in the basement.

There is a movement in the ecological design world—a field Andreas studied in college—to do more deep-energy retrofits. It’s a trend Ritch Holben encounters on the regular in his business as a Berkshire-based designer and architect.

Holben’s clients have been willing to pay a certain premium, but he has yet to see anyone go net-zero complete. Choosing a high-insulation package is the number-one way to go green on a budget, which is why Holben likes high density, spray-in foam insulation. This, coupled with tight-fitting doors and windows, creates an airtight house and reduces heating costs.

Holben is also a proponent of solar, having installed 14 panels on his Southfield office last year. The companies that sell and install solar systems do all the analysis for homeowners, and most offer free consultations. Systems are then designed around current energy use with a projection as to when the system will pay itself off, with all the applicable credits (see sidebar) after which the homeowner is generating income.  “It couldn’t be easier,” Holben says. While he is a fan of going geo-thermal—using the inherent stability of the earth’s temperature to extract heating or cooling measures through pumps—this choice carries a steep price tag due to upfront costs. That said, it is one of the easiest and most practical ways to get to net-zero.

“I’ve always been one of those people for whom the whole idea of reducing and reusing is a way of life,” says Lindsey Schmid, pointing to a pair of kitchen appliances rescued from the roadside in New York City. Then there is the charm of the old house—as evidenced by the original mantel over the fireplace that would have had to be ripped out to bring the wood stove up to code were it to be in that location. Andreas, whose father is Austrian, grew up influenced by the European way of life. His home’s 1,900 square feet is comfortable but not larger than his family needs; his children enjoy play dates that don’t require driving to friend’s houses; and school is nearby.

The next step is an electric car, also charged by solar, which Andreas anticipated by sizing the solar system larger than needed. “We’ve tried to pick the most low-hanging fruit to make the place sustainable using the resources that we have.”

How to Save Big

››Through the efforts of MassSave (masssave.com), Massachusetts has earned top ranking as the most energy-efficient state in the country, saving consumers hundreds of millions per year on their energy bills. MassSave offers homeowners in the state a myriad of benefits that begin with a no-cost energy assessment. Resi- dential rebates and incen- tives range from free in- sulation and installation of LED bulbs to zero-interest loans for home improve- ment projects. The state also allows a 15-percent credit—up to $1,000—for the net expenditure of a renewable energy system installed on an individual’s primary residence. Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART), one of the state’s most exciting solar developments, pays Eversource and National Grid customers a fixed rate per kilowatt hour of solar energy produced for ten years.

—HannaH Van Sickle




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