Passive Solar, Net Zero Home: Goldendale, WA

Passive Solar, Net Zero Home: Goldendale, WA

We first heard of Francis when we met Chris of Winter Sun Design in Edmonds, WA. We asked Chris if he could introduce her to us as she fit the profile of our green homeowners.

Multnomah Falls, the most famous of the Columbia Gorge waterfalls

We had originally planned to head south from Edmonds, so the drive to Goldendale was a considerable distance out of our way east. The resulting tour and area highlights made us happy that we changed direction.

Not only were we able to tour waterfalls on the Columbia Gorge, when we got closer to Goldendale we found ourselves in a dry desert area with a unique beauty.

What really surprised us, was the endless wind turbines. We later found that this area is home to one of the largest wind farms in the world.

The Goldendale area of Washington is quite dry and the sun shines through most months of the year. It can be quite hot in the summer and cool in the winter. The area is apparently very windy – thankfully absent during our visit –  and the wind and land suits these huge turbines, not only visually but because the dry climate makes growing difficult.

Touring Francis’s Passive Solar Home

Francis’s dream began with 20 bare and windswept acres and a distant view of these enormous turbines. She had a desire to build a home that existed in harmony with nature and the environment. The acreage is framed by flatlands and pastures as well as large year-round creek located at the edge of her property.

She has been here for just over 6 years. She says that the land is just beautiful and she tries to take care of it. It has been good to her.

Francis originally came from Davis, California. When asked why she chose this area of the country:

I have family that’s all up and down the board. I said to them, I’m coming home now. I went to California and now I’m coming home and I want to buy some property. One of them said, Go to Goldendale, it’s the only place I know where they have 5 and 20 acre parcels. So I went on the Internet, found a Goldendale realtor and they brought me here.

Francis horses dog bob the cat

Francis's horses, one of her three dogs and Bob the cat

She couldn’t be happier. Francis shares her acreage with two horses, three dogs and Bob the cat. Bob, a manx of unknown breeding, showed up one day, decided she liked living with these animals and the nice human and stayed.

Chris of  Winter Sun Design did the original design for Francis’s home and worked as an adviser in the building process. He is a Residential Building Designer with specialties in passive solar and sustainable (green) building design and consulting. He helps people with alternative and energy-efficient, low toxic building materials & systems and has been doing this since 1987. He was Francis’s home designer and advisor, giving her guidance and essential information needed to complete her dream property.

Chris extolls the benefits of a passive solar design:

Passive Solar design utilizes the architectural components and features of the building to naturally provide for the occupant’s heating, cooling, and lighting needs. It uses no outside energy, except the sun, creates no pollution to operate, and the only maintenance required is to wash the glass.

goldendale passive solar entry

Francis's front entry acts as an air lock and vents can be opened or closes from here to control temperature

goldendale passive solar sunroom

The front entry solar sunroom north wall showing windows with vents up top

True solar south is optimum for siting a passive solar home (Northern Hemisphere) and the best time to find this is the summer equinox. The local observatory advised Francis to stick a stake on the ground at 11 o’clock on June 21st, which would be noon, daylight savings time, and then the line it made would be true solar south. She says that the contractor  placed the stick in the ground and they were both laughing because it was so high-tech ;), but it worked!

Francis’s home is built wide and faces south. It measures 28 feet deep by 70 feet long. Her southern entry is a room in itself, and acts as an air lock. This inviting space shields the home from excess summer warmth and winter cold. The concrete wall and flooring on the north side of this room work as a heat sink. This stores heat during the warmer daytime and lets it off in the cooler evenings. This room has smaller windows topping the north wall and this allows natural lighting into the home without excess heat or cold. Francis uses vents from this room to control the temperature inside the home.

I had these vents put in, which I could open and close. In the winter, I leave them open because this spot becomes so hot in the winter. The sun is clear up to here and it’s just radiating. When it snows outside, it’s just a blast furnace. I open both end doors and it isn’t uncomfortable. It’s wonderful. You come in from outside and you start taking your cloths off, this is wonderful. It just works.

passive-solar-dryer

Passive Solar also works as a dryer in this south facing room

Francis has plants in the entry sunroom that add humidity to the home. She says that passive solar can be a little dry but the plants give off enough moisture to make it just right.

Francis’s laundry room enjoys this same southern exposure. She counts the placement of this room as one of her best ideas.

I have no dryer, although I had the vent and element in case I ever sell this property. But, I’m not pulling all that electricity from the dryer. I can hang out in the room, I can hang my laundry, and it’s just delightful. I sew in here, I wash the clothes and it works so well. In the winter, to be in here and have the cloths being dried by the sun is really very nice.

The moisture from the laundry room also gets pulled into the house. She has central heat and a vent in the laundry room that pulls the moisture from the room and distributes it throughout the house.

Windows Use No Gas Fills

Her windows are dual pane. Francis chose a plain glass rather than a gas or Low -E filled type and did this in order to get maximum solar gain. The east and west exposure has a colour built into the glass, each side different from each other. This improves the percent of incoming solar radiation. A darker colour will generally absorb a greater amount than a lighter one.  A bright white generally reflects from 80 to 98% of the incoming energy.

Francis’s southern facing windows are clear without a coating. Clear glass transmits 80 to 90% of solar radiation, absorbing or reflecting only 10 to 20%.

Francis installed exterior blinds to the south and says:

It’s like sailing in a ship. I know of no more perfect analogy because I keep track of the weather forecast daily, and when these shades go up and down according to the weather. They might be halfway down, they might be all the way down, all the way up, whatever. That’s what you’re doing, you’re sailing a ship. If you make a mistake, it could be really cool or really hot. This method works really well.

Earth Banking and Temperature Control

The north side of the home is earth sheltered and four feet underground. This too helps to keep the temperature steady. This makes the bathrooms cooler as they are both against the north wall of the house. Francis says she doesn’t spend much time there anyways so she assigned them to this side of the home.

goldendale passive solar banked rear

The north portion of the home is earth banked

goldendale passive solar sunroom

The home is also patially earth banked to the west and east

Francis also has a storage room on this side. The concrete walls are unfinished in this room and the earth banking next to the concrete helps the temperature remain steady summer and winter. The room is earth sheltered for a significant portion and is a steady 55º whether it is 100º above or 20º below. In the summertime you can open the door to allow cooler air to circulate through the house.

She has air-conditioning but it is never used as the home has never gotten above 76º, even in the hottest weather.

There are two sources of heat for her home. During the coldest days she uses a furnace. As Francis decided to have no petroleum products in her home, she opted for an electric-powered furnace rather than gas. Because she makes her own electricity this is not a major expense. Even so, the electric furnace is used as a last resort. In fact, the first two years she lived in the home this furnace was never turned on.

There was a couple of years lately where the temperature dipped to 20º below and on those days she turned it on.

I can tell on the bill because it really soaks up the electricity, electric furnaces do. I’d say it maybe two months out of the year, it will kick on a few days out of a week.

Her major source of heat, other than the passive solar is a small heat pump. A heat pump can be 3 times more efficient than a regular electric heater as it does not convert electricity to heat. Instead, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another. This is how they achieve their efficiency. Heat pumps are not new, they are basically a modified air conditioner and they will pump heat out of the house in the summer and the reverse in the winter.

The Renewable Energy Systems

Francis has 12 – 180 watt, Grid-Tied, Solar Photo Voltaic system, mounted on her garage. Her energy use each year is Net-Zero, meaning that she doesn’t pay utilities.

goldendale photovoltaic solar fran

Francis installed her solar photovoltaic array on her garage roof

Washington has great incentives for renewable energy installations. Because Francis has a Washington build inverter, she gets $500 back every year from the utility company. If she were to have Washington-built panels, she would get even more.

Francis even uses solar power to cool her attic.

Out there, you see that grid up the hill? There’s a little solar panel up on top of the roof. It’s an attic fan. I think it’s so perfect because when sun goes down it stops and then the sun goes back up it turns on. Then when it gets cold in the winter I just have a toggle switch, so I just turn off.

Francis had experimented with a Solar Thermal water heating, using Solar Evacuated Tubing, but her inexperienced installer made an error when installing. The tubes weren’t working correctly. In fact, there was a bit of a disaster that involved a minor explosion of one of the tubes. The installer replaced this first set then installed a second set with the same result. That was enough for Francis. She gave the remaining tubes to her friend Tobiah.

For her hot water use, Francis uses an electric On-Demand hot water system. On-demand water heaters are noted as considerably more efficient than a conventional water tank as you don’t heat water unless you are using it. They are said to save up to 30%.

A Loft helps Cool the Barn

Francis also built her barn using some of the same principles.

These two big doors are storm doors, they face east which is where we get the least amount of weather. So every morning this is a very warm spot. You can see it’s sheltered by the barn. The barn you can see is four feet down in the earth. It’s insulated on the west side, which is where we get most of our weather. This makes it very warm and very easy to handle, temperature wise. The way it’s worked out has just been unbelievable. It also has a loft for the hay which further insulates it.

loft area in barn

Francis opens the loft area in the barn to help it keep cool in warm weather

The loft door opens on the north side and there is a permanent opening to the south. In the summer when it is hot outside Francis opens the loft door and enough breeze will come through to remove the heat from the barn. She says she has vents on top also but it is not a quick or effective as the sweep-through.

Francis talks of a day when she had a newly born foal that was injured and running a fever on a very hot day. She was able to put her in the cooler barn and not have to worry about the foal getting hotter.

If She Could Do it Over Again…

Francis loves living in this energy-efficient home and taking care of the land and acreage in a sustainable way. Her biggest complaint has been finding contractors who could help her install things like Geothermal and other energy-saving devices. She says she found a good contractor to build her home but no one in the area knew about Geothermal Heat Pumps, something that was on her wish list. She says that if she were to do this over again that she would come down a year early to researching and find these people who could help her with her green wish list.  She says yes, she is net zero but she would have like to do even more.

Respect for Mother Nature…

Francis is living in her dream but she is respectful of the environment. She says that if we really took note of Mother Nature and the forces, we’d say we don’t want to mess with that. Mother nature always wins.

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