Brattleboro group produces renewable heat home

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(Host) It’s often remarked that building “green” is a luxury reserved for homeowners with disposable income to invest in the newest technology.

But the Brattleboro chapter of Habitat for Humanity wants to prove otherwise.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports on the group’s first efforts at building a home that produces its own, renewable heat.

(Hammering sound)

(Keese) Greg Frost’s future West Brattleboro home wasn’t planned as an active solar building when his family was chosen for this Habitat project.

It was Frost who suggested adding super-insulated wall panels to the home’s pre-assembled shell. As he and the group’s volunteer builders started clearing the site, they realized the house faced due south.

(Frost) “Before you knew it, it was a no-brainer that the site was perfect for it. And they were all for it if we were willing to be a guinea pig. And I said, Sure, why not? I’m willing to try it.'”

(Keese) Now the roof of the three-bedroom house boasts eight large solar collectors. Designer Andy Cay says during the warm months the panels will capture enough solar energy to heat up a huge insulated tank of water in the basement.

Hot water from the tank will circulate in pipes through 300 tons of compacted sand. The sand is sealed in a vault under the basement.

(Cay) “So it acts as our battery for the solar system. It allows us to turn on the solar system in July and by November you’ll have approximately 9 million BTU’s of usable energy inside that sand vault.”

(Keese) Cay, who is also the president of Brattleboro Area Habitat for Humanity, says those BTUs represent just under half the home’s yearly heating needs.

The water running through the hot sand will circulate in pipes running through the floors, and provide radiant heat to the home.

(Cay) “By the end of February we will have exhausted that heat reserve and we’ll be strictly working off of the solar panels up above. But our solar gain is greater by March. And so this system will carry us all the way through the winter.”

(Keese) The system will also provide the family’s hot water. Cay says the installation added about $37,000 to the cost of building the house. Twelve thousand of that will come from Vermont’s Solar and Small wind incentive program.

Of course the habitat situation is unique, because the house is subsidized by donations and volunteer labor.

But Cays says this family won’t have to worry about rising costs for heating fuel. And that’s a good thing.

(Cay) “Because fossil fuel increases disproportionately affect folks that don’t have as much money.”

(Keese) The question is: Will it work? The computer modeling says it will. But Cay admits there’s probably not another home just like it in New England.

He says Habitat will monitor the system and provide any necessary adjustments.

The Brattleboro chapter is committed to making all of its homes as close as possible to zero-net energy. That means its houses will produce as much, or nearly as much energy on-site as they consume.

(Cay) “There’s a misperception that average folks can’t afford to incorporate these kinds of practices and these kinds of technologies into their own homes. And what we’re trying to do here with affordable housing is demonstrate that it can be done.”

(Keese) Cay says he hopes Vermont will offer more incentives for green building. He also hopes commercial lenders will begin making allowances for future savings built in to renewable energy homes.

For VPR news, I’m Susan Keese.

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