For 28 years, my company has been helping its customers meet their energy needs with the power of the sun, but only recently, with our move into a new headquarters, have we been able to walk our talk by operating in a net zero-energy facility. When I started this business, working with only a part-time plumber, I never would have imagined that the company would grow to a team of more than 20 employees. With each new employee, I’ve become more and more aware of the energy impact of our day-to-day operations.
In 2002, after almost ten years working out of a solar demonstration home that I had built near downtown Portland, Oregon, I moved our offices into a nearby commercial facility. Though the building suited our operations in many ways, it had one major drawback: The landlord would not allow us to put PV or solar hot water systems on the roof.
Because I’m in the solar business, I dreamed of housing our offices and warehouse in an energy-efficient building with solar systems providing 100% of our energy needs. Though I initially had mixed emotions about starting over in a new building, I began to see the move as an opportunity—the first step in achieving zero net-energy use.
Of course, while energy efficiency was a high priority, I had other considerations too—namely, I needed a loading dock. At our previous location, wheeling a 14-foot solar collector down the hallway, out the door, and hoisting it up onto the truck while cars sped by only a few feet away was precarious to say the least. So when I found a south-facing building with loading docks, it was a double bonus. The fact that the building was in a highly visible spot near Portland International Airport made it that much more appealing. Plus, the location was central to the city and Vancouver, Washington, where we perform most of our installations.
The 10,000-square-foot building had been built as a sandblasting facility in 1950. More recently, it had been used by a trailer manufacturer, with a portion of the space divided into offices. The building was sturdy as a rock and had both single-phase and three-phase electricity. On the other hand, it was filthy, and the low ceilings and lack of windows in the office area made it dark and gloomy. For six months, I resisted purchasing the building just because I dreaded the work that I’d need to do to get it into shape.
In December 2005, I finally gave in. The plan was to expand the existing office area, which had been sectioned into small rooms, to accommodate our showroom. The remaining 8,000 square feet with 16-foot-tall, open-truss ceilings would become a warehouse, shop, and production area.
From an energy and comfort standpoint, the building was a disaster—and I wanted no part of the $1,500-per-month energy bills that the previous occupant reported. The office area had only two windows. The carpet was more blackish-gray than beige from years of hard wear and greasy boots. The whole space smelled like a mechanic’s garage. Light-defying walnut paneling engulfed the four office walls. The ceilings were oppressively low and dingy.
Improving Insulation. The only insulation in the building was ancient R-11 fiberglass batting haphazardly placed above the false ceilings in the office area. The first order of business was to blow an 18-inch-thick layer of new cellulose insulation right on top of the fiberglass. This filled in many of the voids and raised the insulation value in the attic to an estimated R-50.
The building’s exterior walls are 1-foot-thick concrete. The interior wall surface was furred with wood nailers and covered with paneling. We attached R-16 rigid-foam insulation sheets directly over the existing walls and installed new drywall over that. Though the layering reduced the size of our already-small offices, the added insulation made all the difference in comfort.