Burlington Flats, New York
By George Harvey
Built in 1817, Rob Head’s home has been in his wife’s family since 1830. It is a typical farm house of its period in many ways. At 4200 square feet, it may be big by modern standards, but not by those of its own times.
When Head took his turn caring for it, it was uninsulated and had leaky windows. Its boiler used 3,000 gallons of oil per year, providing hot water for radiators throughout the house. Its electrical system was hardly new. Head had a lot of work to do, and, as an electrical engineering technician, he knew pretty much what he wanted to do.
He also had a fair amount of experience working with renewable electrical systems. He and other members of his family shared a summer camp, and they worked together to install an off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) system to operate lighting and a pump for the well. The PV system has been functioning ever since, over twenty-seven years.
Insulation was put into the old farm house, consisting of blown cellulose and spray foam, depending on location. The windows were replaced, and air sealing was done. The effect was a reduction of nearly 50% in the amount of oil used. Improvements did not stop there, however. The entire electric system was revamped, and Head began planning to move to solar power and heat. Along the way, the home was divided so he and his wife could live in one part of it, while in-laws lived in a separate unit. The heating and electrical systems, however, would not be separated, so the improvements to renewable sources for the house would provide for both units.
Several years ago, as the price of oil was spiking, he decided to install a wood gasification heating plant. In some parts of the house, radiant heat was installed in the floors, though radiators were retained elsewhere. The system required thermal storage, and so he put in a large tank, 2000 gallons, to hold water for household heating. With the system installed, the house used nine cords of wood, instead of the oil it had once burned. The wood comes from the old farm’s own woodlot.
Knowing about the potential for solar power, Head next designed and built an array of six hundred evacuated tubes to heat the heating water tank. The solar thermal system is the main source of heat now, and the wood gasification system is only used when the temperature is very low or during a period of low sunshine. The solar thermal system cut wood consumption by 50%.
Head and his family like to swim, and they have a swimming pool to use. The solar thermal heat, which provides for the house in the winter, also heats the pool, making it warm in the summer and extending the swimming season. Solar power may be free, but it is not wasted.
One thing Head really wanted, for many years, was to provide all his electricity from solar PVs. When he began thinking about this, the price of solar PVs was still much higher than it is today. As the price of solar systems declined, he began looking for a company that could put in the system he wanted. He was very particular about knowing that company that did the work was absolutely the right one and the quality of the work would be up to his standards.
He found what he wanted with Revolution Solar in Milford, New York. Together, they planned the system Head wanted. It would have a capacity of twenty kW, provided by 72 solar panels on three trackers. AllEarth Renewables, of Williston, Vermont, provided the trackers.
The system is grid-tied, but requires very little electricity from the grid. What it does need is offset by the extra power the system feeds into the grid, through net-metering.
The Head homestead now produces, on balance, all of its own heat and electricity. It is a very neat example of a deep-energy retrofit in a building that is very nearly two hundred years old.