Bringing Solar Home

Small Changes, Big results

Inside this Article

Gene and Kathy Dolphin's 600-square-foot home
In their modest, 600-square-foot home, the Dolphins have brought solar energy to the mainstream.
Gene and Kathy Dolphin.
Gene and Kathy Dolphin.
Thin-film PV modules and a solar light tube
Thin-film PV modules produce 100% of the Dolphins’ electricity. A solar light tube provides daylighting for the home’s interior.
Kathy with upgraded, more efficient, appliances
Upgrading to more efficient appliances was one of the ways that Gene and Kathy reduced their electric bill.
The Dolphin's solar batch heater
The Dolphins’ solar batch heater reduces their water heating costs by half.
One of the Dolphin's PV arrays
One of the Dolphin's PV arrays
An SMA America Sunny Boy inverter converts the DC electricity produced by the PV array into standard AC household electricity.
Gene and Kathy Dolphin's 600-square-foot home
Gene and Kathy Dolphin.
Thin-film PV modules and a solar light tube
Kathy with upgraded, more efficient, appliances
The Dolphin's solar batch heater
One of the Dolphin's PV arrays

Big things can happen in small, ordinary spaces. Kathy and Gene Dolphin’s tidy bungalow in the storefront-lined Normal Heights neighborhood of San Diego is proof in point. The stucco cottage, hugged by small gardens and fruit trees, effectively challenges the solar stereotype referenced by California’s clean-energy advocate Bernadette Del Chiaro, who said, “Solar power has, for a long time, had the stigma of being something for a backwoods hippie or a Malibu millionaire, as opposed to something for Main Street.” In their modest, 600-square-foot home, the Dolphins have brought solar energy to the mainstream, setting an inspiring example of clean and efficient energy generation and use for everyday people.

By employing technological fixes, such as solar-electric and solar water heating systems, and adopting new energy-use habits, Gene and Kathy have made their on-grid abode so energy efficient that their utility meter spends more time spinning backward than forward. Effectively, their home produces more electricity than it uses each year. Despite their home’s Spartanlike use of electrons, Gene and Kathy live with all the modern conveniences—including a clothes washer, computers, a big-screen LCD TV—even heated towel racks. “Guests who come to our house are amazed beyond belief that we are meeting our energy needs without sacrificing creature comforts,” says Kathy.

Seeing the Light

The Dolphins’ first introduction to solar power occurred during an annual celebration hosted by their local food cooperative. Kathy and Gene were struck by the solar-powered stage—the sound system and fans all run by the sun. “It really left an impression on us,” explains Kathy.

Then, while browsing the bookshelves at the co-op one day, Kathy happened upon a solar cooking book. She bought the book and, using the plans, she and Gene built a simple solar oven made with cardboard boxes and a glass front. Being amateur astronomers, they first used the oven at an informal gathering of telescope makers in Riverside, California. At dinnertime, the Dolphins shared their sun-cooked meal with conference-goers, and the oven was an instant hit.

This experience, along with a belief in conservation and outrage over the rate-tripling California energy crisis in 2000 and 2001, inspired Gene and Kathy to seek ways to shrink their energy footprint. “My first reaction was to pull every plug in the house,” says Kathy. Though they had long researched energy efficiency and solar energy—Kathy had even once researched local PV system installers—they were now inspired to put their ideals into action.

Rethinking Energy

Kathy and Gene started with the small, easy stuff. They replaced incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, reducing their electric lighting energy requirements, and sought out phantom loads—appliances such as remote-controlled TVs and computers that constantly draw electricity, even when they’re turned off. Kathy says that having phantom loads is “like leaving the faucet running all day because you might want to get a drink at some point.” To eliminate this unnecessary energy drain, the Dolphins purchased a handful of plug strips to conveniently—and completely—turn off home electronics that were once phantom loads.

As their original appliances began to wear out, Kathy and Gene replaced them with more efficient models. In place of their old refrigerator, they installed an Energy Star model that uses 493 KWH per year—about one-third of the energy required by their old fridge. Their old washing machine, which used 50 gallons of water per load, was replaced by a more efficient Staber machine, which uses only 16 gallons per load, reducing their household’s water heating demand. For cooking, they upgraded to a gas range that does not use a continuously burning pilot light.

A solar light tube in the kitchen brings in ample natural light, reducing their need for electric lighting during the day. The tube admits sunlight through a diffuser, which helps distribute daylight within the room while minimizing glare. The solar tube’s design does not result in overheating interior spaces during the warm months like skylights often do. At night, the solar tube offers an additional benefit—when the moon is up, it serves as a nightlight.

San Diego’s mild coastal climate offered the opportunity for the Dolphins to forego one of a household’s biggest summertime electricity loads—air conditioning. Instead, they actively manage ventilation through the house, opening the windows in the evening when the air is cool, and closing them in the morning to keep out the heat of the day. On the hottest summer days, they also rely on a workshop-type, 350 W fan placed near an exterior door to quickly draw cooler air into the house from the outside.

Investing in Solar Energy

Appliance upgrades and simple changes in their daily habits cut the Dolphins’ household energy use. Still, they had long been dreaming of using solar energy, so when their old water heater broke, they seized the opportunity to integrate solar water heating into their energy mix. Local installer Mark Naylor installed a 40-gallon solar batch heater on the roof and replaced their old water heater in the garage with a more efficient gas-fired tank heater for backup during cloudy weather. Together, the two tanks provide a total of 90 gallons of hot water storage. The total cost for the upgrade was $2,090.

Pleased with the simplicity and success of their solar-heated water system, Kathy and Gene decided to invest in PV. Through a referral from the People’s Co-op, they called on Martin Learn, owner of Home Energy Systems. When he arrived and inspected Gene and Kathy’s energy bills to size a suitable solar-electric system, he was amazed: The Dolphins had reduced their electricity use by 65% just by switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, using power strips, and replacing their old, inefficient appliances, making their goal of covering all their electricity needs with PV easy to reach. They bought a 2.1 KW PV system, which, after rebates and tax credits, cost about $6,900. 

As summer approached, the Dolphins were thrilled as they watched their daily energy generated by the PV system climb from 10.6 KWH in February to surpass 12 KWH by April. That first year, the system generated 3,000 KWH and sent 1,100 KWH of excess energy back to the grid.

Although Gene says that they were told initially not to expect the system to produce more than 7 KWH per day during the winter, their solar power plant had no problem exceeding that on most days. Gene says that they were so excited to see how well the system actually worked that he began charting daily measurements from the inverter’s digital display and comparing them to the utility meter readings.

“I was particularly interested in seeing if the original energy production estimates were true, and if true, how long it would take to roll back the meter to the January 7 meter reading—when the system was first installed,” says Gene. “It took less than a month. We use about 4 to 5 KWH per day, and this system takes care of us very nicely.”

Small Obstacles

Though the journey was mostly a smooth one for the Dolphins, they did encounter a few minor (albeit tall) obstacles—two looming palm trees that cast a shadow on the south side of their house, blocking solar exposure to the PV array. True to form, Kathy and Gene’s commitment to conservation kicked in to overcome this hurdle too. They acquired a removal permit and called a relocation service that replanted the trees elsewhere—for the same price it would have cost to just cut them down.

There was also the question of what to do with the excess energy the PV system was generating. California offers annualized net metering and the Dolphins would not get paid by their utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), for anything they generated over their annual KWH usage. So, they put their excess electricity to work by installing luxuries that they would otherwise never consider—heated towel racks, an electric fireplace, a fountain that flows all day and night, and a freezer in the garage. They also run electric heaters in the winter, instead of relying on the home’s gas-fired floor heaters. Kathy acknowledges that some of these appliances are a little ridiculous, but the thought of the power company profiting from their surplus energy angers her. “It’s unjust,” she says. Until they come up with more creative uses for the rest of the surplus, they begrudgingly send about 50 KWH per year back to the grid.

Looking at the Bright Side

After seeing their small changes have such a dramatic effect on their energy use with little or no inconvenience, Kathy admits that the general lack of understanding most Americans have of their energy consumption can be frustrating, but says, “What we can do is be an example for people.”

And they’ve done just that through their actions—both at home and in their community. In addition to generating their own electricity and using it more efficiently, the Dolphins streamlined their whole lifestyle. “When you are aware of one kind of waste [energy], it makes you think about how other things are wasted too,” Kathy says. Through careful recycling and composting their food scraps, the Dolphins reduced their garbage to one small bag per week. With their compact gardens, they also grow some of their own produce, cutting down on the energy costs of trucked-in, store-bought food. And when SDGE sponsored a compact fluorescent lightbulb exchange program, the Dolphins inspired their church to trade out their incandescent lights.

In a land known for McMansions, Kathy and Gene’s old-fashioned stucco house might seem Spartan. But for them, it brings pride and the simple happiness that comes with having just enough: a garden, fruit trees, a comfortable home—and plenty of energy.

Their experience has taught them that the technology is readily available to generate your own electricity, and to do it at home. It’s the mind-set that needs to change. As Gene explains, “We have to look at resources as something important, and to think of our needs versus our likes and desires.”


Christina Ammon ( approaches life one word at a time in beautiful Ashland, Oregon. Drawing on her experiences as a vineyard worker, farmer, skier, and adventurer, Chris explores a broad array of topics in her writing. She is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts fellowship for literary nonfiction.

Mark Naylor, Solar Specialists, 7930 Arjons Dr., Ste. C, San Diego, CA 92126 • 858-695-9465 • • SHW system

Martin Learn, Home Energy Systems Inc., 6996 Convoy Ct., San Diego, CA  92111 • 858-278-2300 • • PV system

System Components:

Servamatic • • Solar water heater

SMA America • • Inverter

Uni-Solar • • PV modules

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