Published Date Written by Tom EastmanSolar houses increasing in popularity as technology costs decrease and fossil fuel costs increase
By Tom Eastman
SWEDEN, Maine — The future is now.
That was the green message conveyed by local environmentally-conscious builder Justin McIver, 30, of Main Eco Homes of Bridgton, Maine, to a group of Fryeburg Academy students on a tour of a nearly-completed 2,000-square-foot “net-zero” energy house in mid-November.
He says as far as he knows, his first net-zero house is also the first in this part of western Maine.
“There are several companies building passive solar houses. My mission is be able to build these kinds of energy-efficient houses without sacrificing style,” said McIver.
On the tour with students, McIver drove home the point that climate change is no longer a 'what if?' proposition.
“These used to be 'could-be' photos,” he said to the students, while showing them photographs depicting the flooding in New York City as a result of October's tropical storm Sandy. “Now, however, as you all well know from the news, due to climate change, these things are happening now. If you think it doesn't impact you, it does. And the changes that your generation makes will make a difference. It's incumbent on all of us to do the little things, too. When you don't turn off the lights when you leave a room, for instance, not only does it cost more money, it also puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
It's all connected, McIver told the students: Global warming is heating up oceans which in turns leads to more energy-packed storms as they wind their way north from the south.
“We're seeing more and more violent storms which build up in the warmer waters, and head north, packing all that energy. We're seeing it now,” said McIver.
Fires caused by drier conditions out west are another consequence, he said.
Building energy-efficient homes makes sense both from an environmental and economic standpoint, he notes.
“More and more homes will be built this way in the future. It's a huge wave of the future and we're building it now,” said McIver.
A 2001 graduate of Fryeburg Academy, McIver started building houses in 2005. He founded his company in 2008.
McIver had as one of his teachers Mark Strange — and now here he was more than 10 years later, giving Strange and his current students a tour of the extremely energy-efficient, 2,000 square-foot contemporary chalet that is now listed on the market for $449,000 by RE/MAX at the Lake Real Estate of Bridgton.
“This is a net-zero energy home. Net stands for year, so at the end of the year, it means that it produces as much energy as it uses on an annual basis resulting in no utility costs; a house that costs nothing to operate,” said McIver. “Some day, I'd like to design a solar farm for the town of Bridgton to show them how we could supply power for the whole town.”
“My mission,” added McIver prior to the hour-long presentation, “is to bridge the local education sector to the business sector. My field is construction, so my goal is to share with the students my real world experience with renewable energy and to show them green construction techniques.”
Near Shawnee Peak
Located off Knights Hill Road, 3.7 miles east of Shawnee Peak Ski Area on Black Mountain Road in Sweden, Maine, the soon-to-be completed house is a marvel to behold — not because of its traditional design or looks, which are nice, but because of what's on the roof, and for what's inside.
Designed by McIver, the home features 39 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, with 27 on the south side.
The four-bedroom, 2.5-bath home features a kitchen and master bedroom with bath on the main level, with a deck and covered porch outside.
The kitchen’s appliances are all Energy Star rated. The range is an efficient induction cooktop.
The top floor features a bath and three bedrooms. The bedrooms all have cabinet space built into the walls, like a ship's interior.
The bottom level features space for a fifth bedroom and a family/game room.
It affords expansive sunset views to the west of Mount Kearsarge, north to Mount Washington.
“It's a $449,000 house because of the view and size,” McIver told the students. “We are currently working on a design to offer custom net zero energy homes that will cost around $225,000.”
He told the students that the Sweden home is designed for the future.
“It's becoming more practical to build homes like this,” he said. “I build these for efficiency and environmental issues. By building these, I am reducing carbon emissions and fossil fuels that harm our environment and which contribute to greenhouse gases. My mission is to become energy independent of fossil fuels.”
He said demand for net-zero homes has increased as solar costs have decreased and the price of fossil fuels is rising.
The unpredictability of determining fossil fuels prices has led more and more homeowners to consider net-zero homes, McIver said.
By using solar, he receives a 30 percent federal tax credit as well as a $2,000 state of Maine tax credit.
“The payback on the panels is approximately 11 years, and approximately 14 years on the net-zero cost but more importantly the additional upfront costs to achieve net-zero energy (no utility costs) rolled into a 30-year mortgage, your monthly payment is less than a standard house monthly payment with utility costs. And if you are paying cash for the upfront costs, you will get a 7 percent return on your investment.” said McIver.
All paints used in the house have no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are pollutants to indoor air quality.
On the lower level of the house (McIver prefers not to call it the basement, because the lower level can be utilized for so much more than that), McIver explained that the concrete walls are lined with three inches of spray foam with an R-value of 21 and six inches of foam board under the slab floor for R-30.
The walls are over 10 inches thick, with a hybrid insulation system to include foam board, spray foam and recycled blue jeans and newspapers. The spray foam is soybean based, and uses recycled bottle caps. The fiber cement board siding has a 30 percent recycled content.
“The wall insulation has an R-value of 44 — the code is for R-20 and the roof is an R-56,” said McIver, as the students listened intently, with a few asking probing questions which showed they had a keen interest in the subject.
The session was videotaped by a team of students as well.
The spray foam, contrarily, is three times as costly as normal construction, but McIver said it pays for itself in three years in terms of energy savings.
The house uses composite decking outside which lasts longer and has lower replacement costs.
Inside, the house uses bamboo hardwood flooring and recycled carpeting.
A heat exchanger extracts air from the outside and heats it as it brings it inside, while also sending out bad air from the kitchen and bathrooms.
“The Heat Recovery Ventillator lets the house breathe and provides healthy indoor air quality,” said McIver. “It takes care of all the extract and ventilation requirements, but also reduces energy consumption in the home by recovering otherwise wasted heat. A heat recovery system keeps this house fully ventilated throughout the year, while recovering the heat already inside your home. It brings fresh air from the outside and recycles the otherwise wasted heat from bathroom and kitchen areas. Anywhere where there is a high heat or moisture content will be used to power the heat recovery unit and keep efficiencies high.”
Although the home is extremely airtight, the exchanger prevents mildew that otherwise would result from having a building with no air exchanges, McIver explained to the students.
The home uses triple glazed windows.
Each solar panel costs $3.50 per watt, with 245-watt panels.
The all-electric home is able to sell energy back to the Maine power grid.
“We use the electricity grid as a storage center. So,” said McIver, “when we are producing energy, we are getting credits from our electrical company, Central Maine Power. Then, at night and in winter, we take back those credits we stored. That's why it's 'net zero' — it's done on an annual basis. (If it were a zero energy house, we would need battery packs and we would not be grid connected.) So, it’s effective to be tied to the grid, and to store it and get it when you need it. And, there is a good feeling knowing we are supplying power for our neighbors when we overproduce.”
He said the Sweden home will have a backup electric generator powered by a small propane tank. “It's there for the one or two times you have to use it,” said McIver.
McIver learned his building trade while working for his father's firm, DM Electric, of Bridgton, Maine. While getting his bachelor of science degree from Colby Sawyer College in New London, he took a few courses in environmental science.
“That's where the drive for Main Eco Homes comes from. I put my construction and family background and education together and saw an opportunity in the home-building market. I built my first house, and it has taken off from there,” said McIver.
His company has built over 30 custom homes overall since 2008, and 12 energy-efficient homes for clients this past year.
He said he believes his homes will appeal to energy- and cost-conscious consumers.
“I have read that 30 percent of people buy homes for environmental purpose, and 70 percent buy on the basis of energy efficiency. With the rising costs of fossil fuels, retirees on fixed incomes especially want to know what their costs are going to be. They are willing to spend a little more up front [on green technology homes] and then be able to have security financially, while knowing they re having a positive impact on the environment and future generations to come,” said McIver.
He showed the students that decisions such as the placement of windows in a house are essential to reducing heat costs. The north side gets the least number of windows; the south and west get the most.
As the company's logo notes, it's “Conscience with a View.”
• • •
Simones build solar house
Closer to Conway, another well-known local family is following their daughter and her home-building boyfriend into the solar field to build their retirement home.
“I feel bad that we weren't smart enough in my generation to do this earlier. But it has become more affordable, with the tax credits and incentives,” said former Brett School of Tamworth principal Tony Simone, who with his wife, Jenny, are working with their daughter, Meghan and Dave Eiermamn, to build a home in what is bound to become known as “Solar Row” in Bartlett.
In addition to Jenny and Tony's house, and Meghan and Dave's house, there are two additional houses with solar capabilities just down the road.
The Simones have been building their 1,800-square-foot, two-story house with a basement and garage since returning in June from their 13-year teaching sabbatical overseas.
“I have always loved getting my hands dirty and building stuff,” said Tony. “I was in teaching and education for 45 years, but when I first came here, I got involved in land development a bit in 1969, so I have always been a frustrated land developer but not a very successful one!”
Now retired from their respective careers in teaching (Tony was a principal, Jenny was a physical education teacher), they are building a house that will be educational, as well as unique to this area in that it will have a GPS sun tracker.
“I'm the first in the area to have this system,” said Tony. “The sun tracker moves every five minutes, following the sun, unlike most stationary solar collectors. It wakes in the morning and follows the sun's daily movement, regardless of clouds, and follows it all the way to sunset. When the sun goes down, it goes flat like a tabletop. If the wind exceeds 33 mph, it automatically goes flat, too, so it's not destroyed by high winds.”
They are being assisted by project manager Josh Baston and Will Kessler, both of ReVision Energy of Portland, Maine and Exeter.
“Built by a company based in Williston, Vt., the unique thing about the Allsun Tracker is that by following the sun throughout the day we'll get on average a 35 percent more production than a fixed array of solar panels,” said Baston, who has been in the business for five years. “I think it is a pretty clear consensus that we will not return to oil prices of a decade ago,” notes Baston. “The cost of energy will increase while the cost of solar the past two years has been decreasing. When you buy a solar array, you are basically buying all your solar costs at once at a fixed cost and you'll know what you're going to be paying.”
He said his company does more retrofits on existing homes than build new houses. He said the company has put solar on more than 3,000 homes, both existing and new, in Maine and New Hampshire since it was founded in Liberty, Maine, nine years ago.
The Simone house is served by the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which like Public Service Company of New Hampshire and Central Maine Power, offers incentives. Tony and Jenny Simone did not choose to use recycled blue jeans for their insulation, but Meghan and Dave did opt for that material.
“They have the most green house I know of,” said Tony. “Instead of sheet rock, they used a clay finish on the walls. Their floor is all wood — they have no chemicals in the house whatsoever. They are the leaders — we are the followers.”
“We joke that next we’re going to have to get an electric car,” said Jenny.
They hope to move into their new home come February or March, if all goes according to plan.
“As I said,” said Tony, “we're coming into this late. Others a lot earlier in this neighborhood started it ahead of us. So when they came to the house and gave me an estimate of what we could do, we were quite amazed to see what it could generate and what the payback would be. If it cuts down on my carbon footprint while I am here on this Earth, then it's all fine with me.”
Even in retirement, the ever-youthful and energetic Simones are continuing to inspire and teach by example — this time by building an energy-efficient retirement home.
Likewise, McIver, through his presentations to local students, is building a base of energy-conscious home builders and home buyers of tomorrow.