Mountain Solar

Beginner

Inside this Article

The home and its PV array.
The 2,148-square-foot floor plan includes three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the main level. The home’s semidetached garage can be accessed via a workshop space off the laundry and mudroom.
The Palmers relax on their deck.
In the coal-heavy state of West Virginia, solar shines at Rita Hennessy and Sean Palmer’s new custom-built home in Shepherdstown.
Windows in the dining area.
Large windows on the home’s south face provide ample daylighting to interior spaces. They also admit solar gain in the winter, reducing the home’s need for supplemental heating.
Clerestory windows let hot air escape.
Clerestory windows, which are opened and closed by remote control, aid in cooling the house by venting any accumulated hot air.
Thick, insulated walls and double-pane windows slow heat transfer, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The 4-inch-thick concrete floor acts as a thermal battery, storing and releasing passive solar heat gain.
Masonry heater has an oven.
Rita pulls a pizza from the Empire masonry heater, which serves as a backup source for space heating.
Minisplit heat pump, interior component.
Sean checks out the minisplit multizone heat pump, which provides auxiliary cooling during the hottest part of summer.
The outside heat pump component.
Sean and Rita’s dog guards the air-source heat pump’s outdoor unit.
Charging the electric car.
In addition to powering their home, Rita and Sean’s PV system also provides the power for an electric car-charging station. Here, Sean plugs in a friend’s EV.
Rita in her energy-efficient kitchen.
Rita stands in the kitchen, which features a Thermador steam oven and other Energy Star appliances.
The home and its PV array.
The Palmers relax on their deck.
Windows in the dining area.
Clerestory windows let hot air escape.
Masonry heater has an oven.
Minisplit heat pump, interior component.
The outside heat pump component.
Charging the electric car.
Rita in her energy-efficient kitchen.

In the coal-heavy state of West Virginia, solar shines at Rita Hennessy and Sean Palmer’s new custom-built home in Shepherdstown.

After nearly two decades living in a drafty, 1940s Cape Cod-style home on the outskirts of Charles Town, West Virginia, Rita Hennessy and Sean Palmer were ready for an upgrade from the post-war cinder block and brick construction. “Even though we had made improvements through the years, it was still leaky and incredibly inefficient—cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” Palmer says.

Planning for retirement, the couple—Hennessy, a National Park Service park ranger with the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and Palmer, an engineer for a biotech company—paid off their mortgage ahead of schedule. In the years that followed, they focused on saving to realize their dream of buying land and building a home that better suited their lifestyle and values. After relying on West Virginia’s coal-powered grid electricity for nearly two decades, the couple made energy conservation a top priority, vowing to reduce their carbon footprint with passive solar design and a rooftop solar-electric system. “We are very concerned about climate change, and we want to do our part,” Palmer says.

Site & Design

“Our mission was to find a property with good southern exposure that was close to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and near protected lands,” Hennessy says. The couple focused their search along the AT corridor—looking first in Maryland, hoping to move closer to Palmer’s parents. “In Maryland, all the available land near the AT had steep slopes that were either east- or west-facing, which wouldn’t work for our solar plans,” Hennessy says. “We started looking in Virginia along the AT, but we didn’t find anything suitable there either.”

About two years into the search, the couple returned their attention to West Virginia, and in the fall of 2010, found a site just outside of Shepherdstown—14 wooded acres with southern exposure on a three-acre clearing. Hennessy and Palmer took more than a year to consider their building options. Finding a local architect with passive solar expertise proved more difficult than they expected. When their local search came up empty, they researched Web-based design firms and found Alabama-based architect Debbie Rucker Coleman, who specializes in passive solar and sun-tempered homes (see “Media” in this issue). “She had good reviews, and we were impressed with her credentials,” Palmer says. “The only real downside to working with a remote architect is that it takes a little more time to exchange ideas through emails and phone calls.”

The process began with Coleman’s 20-page questionnaire in which the couple described their lifestyle, and outlined their budget priorities and energy-efficiency goals. Initially, Hennessy and Palmer envisioned a smaller, single-story home—roughly 1,500 square feet—but answering the questionnaire made them realize that they wanted about 600 more square feet to accommodate a larger kitchen, a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, and a more spacious common area for entertaining. “We host a lot of parties. We’ll have 35 or more people in the house on any given occasion,” Hennessy says. “It became clear that we wanted a little more space.”

Pages

Comments (10)

Rise2012's picture

There was a mix up in the interpretation of the state tax laws. Originally we were expecting to take full advantage of the tie in of the car charging station and the large solar array that would have credited us with $10,000, but as the laws were not finalized at that time, we only qualified for $4,000. That is where the other $6K went to. The charging station installed and inspected probably added $2K to the cost. You can find cheaper ones at your local stores then add in the electrician and permit if necessary.

DM Lewis's picture

Thanks for the quick, and thorough response. I am sure you are heart broken over the lost $6k. I was hoping the charging station credit was $6k but only cost $2k -- then everyone would add one to their project. :-)
You still ended up with a very nice place. Enjoy.

DM Lewis's picture

At the end of the article, the PV system was listed as costing $34,860, with $10,458 federal credit and $4,000 state incentive. Where was the other $6,000 credit/incentive to come up with a net of $10,458? Was this the car charging station? Unfortunately, I cannot find any incentive in Virginia. How much do you think the charging station added to the cost? Thanks.

Debra Coleman's picture

Marc and Micheal, both of your comments on the slight easterly orientation of the plan/south wall are valid in that often it can be good practice in any location that has hot summers, but it does depend upon the particulars of the micro-climate, views, topography, etc. In even warmer climates I often recommend even further orientation that 10 degrees since the south wall can be in shade much sooner on summer afternoons. With one of my favorite design tools, the effect of plan orientation can be visualized and you can enter data on the other factors that affect overhang length: http://susdesign.com/overhang_annua...
Debbie Coleman, Sun Plans (Architect of the RISE house)

Marc Fontana's picture

The architect recommended that the house be oriented 10 degrees east of south to minimize afternoon heat gain in this West Virginia climate. That sounds like good advice to me. Wouldn't this practice be a good idea anywhere in the northern hemisphere?
What kind of water heater was selected ? With surplus PV energy, an electric heat pump heater would make sense.

Rise2012's picture

Hi Marc, Yes, an electric hybrid, heat pump, GE Geospring hot water heater.

Rise2012's picture

Hi Marc,

With my limited expertise in solar home construction, I could comment about the 10 degree east of south orientation. It would depend on the amount of southern glazing %, how much thermal mass the home may have, and how tight the envelope. A passive solar home with much less glazing may want to take full advantage of direct 180 degree orientation and summer heat gain would not be so much of an issue.

In regards to the hot water heater, we have two. The primary is a GE Geospring hybrid (heat pump/conventional) and a point of use Rheem under the kitchen sink. The POU eliminates the long run from the main heater and waste of water just to get warm at the faucet or dish washer. With the excess energy that we're producing I have found that it makes sense to run the primary unit in heat pump mode during the summer and gain some dehumidification and cooling of the air then switch to conventional during the winter months. It is harder to extract heat energy from cooler air and who needs to make the air cooler inside the house in the winter.

Regards,
Sean Palmer, the "SE" of RISE.

Michael Welch's picture

The benefit of offsetting from south a few degrees would also depend upon geography (are there mountains or buildings nearby), landscape (a forest to block sunlight on one side), and microclimate (is the area foggy for part of the day).

Rise2012's picture

RISE Builder - Thomas Sandretzky, TS Construction, Shenandoah Junction, WV

Debra Coleman's picture

It's unfortunate that the article didn't talk a bit more about Tommy's role in construction, but I know space is limited. Tommy did a very good job of paying attention to detail and listening to the client. Clients often tell me that they cannot find a builder with passive solar experience in their area, and my response is that since the passive solar components are typically nothing unusual, then look for a builder willing to listen and follow good building and energy principals in general.
Debbie Coleman, Sun Plans

Show or Hide All Comments

Advertisement

X
You may login with either your assigned username or your e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.
Loading