People on the street are hurrying by, collars turned up against the chilly February wind. But you’re basking in the sun in shorts and a tank top, the air freshened by green foliage. How can this be? Think greenhouse. Think sunroom. Think passive solar.
In order to experience these things for yourself, come to the Solar Homes Tour on Saturday, Feb. 7. On that day, three retrofitted houses will be open from 11 am to 4 pm. The tour, sponsored by Sustainable Las Vegas –the local chapter of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association-- is free. For a map and addresses of the houses go to the Corner Brew Coffee Bar in the El Fidel Hotel at Grand and National (open at 6 am).
The first two houses feature attached greenhouses. The third house does not, but has many other “green” features.
Tropical plants in an adobe house
The adobe walls of David and Rosemarie Stoltzes’ century-old house helped keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
However, the last 25 years have been much more comfortable because greenhouses against the south and west walls now optimize passive solar heating. The southern greenhouse is often very warm even on winter days, with a temperature in the 80’s and 90’s. Heat passes directly from the greenhouse into the rest of the house through doors and windows, heating both the air and the adobe walls. In winter months, hot air from near the greenhouse ceiling is also distributed within the house through the ducts of the original central heating system, after it is pulled into a tall duct by an exhaust fan. The other heating vent in the greenhouse provides radiant floor heat at the back of the house for the laundry room and bathroom. In warm months, vents in the greenhouse ceiling exhaust hot air, preventing overheating of the whole house.
As a result of the greenhouse heat reaching the rest of the house in these ways, the oil heating bills are a fraction of those before the retrofit. The oil-burning furnace is usually only turned on in the winter time, providing back-up heat on cold days when there isn’t much sun.
Plants of all kinds, from tropical to herbal, thrive in the translucent light provided by double-layer plastic panels. A night-blooming cereus cactus blooms several times a year, filling the house with exotic scent.
An evening soak in the hot-tub, glass of wine in hand, has a near-tropical ambiance, humidified by the plants and warmed by the day’s sun. Both the hot-tub and the tap water are heated with solar panels on the roof of the greenhouse, saving more fossil fuels.
“Solar energy is the way to go in the Land of Enchantment,” Rosemarie concludes.
From Cold, Dark Stone to an Indoor Garden Spa
Walk into Linda Halouzka’s 1892 sandstone house and see how she transformed a dark and cold house into an inviting one with its own spacious indoor garden and hot tub.
A two-story greenhouse on the south is the primary source of this magic. During the last 16 years, she has been enjoying the filtered light and heat provided by the double-layered polycarbonate walls and ceiling of the greenhouse. The greenhouse heats the stone wall on the south and the flagstone floor directly, which radiate heat at night. Even on cloudy days, the sun’s rays provide heat. In summer, a canopy of deciduous aspen trees prevents overheating; with autumn leaf fall, their bare branches don’t block the sun. Year-round, her indoor garden with its profusion of vegetables and flowers creates a spa-like setting for her hot tub.
Windows on both stories, an enlarged door opening into the house, and a two-story duct with thermostat-operated fan also bring heat and light into the house interior. An efficient wood stove supplements this heat, as does in-floor heating in a new bathroom.
She removed part of the kitchen ceiling, further opening the stairway and the second floor rooms to heat, light, and space from below.
Kitchen cabinets built by Raymond Fink, a local woodworker, are some of the other “sustainable” features. Another one is a stone wall to retain rainfall for the aspen trees, the secret of their vigorous growth.
This didn’t happen all at once. “I built one project at a time, as I could afford them,” Linda noted. One of the first projects, begun soon after she bought the house in 1986, was enclosing the porch on the west, where the afternoon sun now streams in during winter to create a cozy, warm nook; in summer, leafy branches filter the light.
House and Yard as a
Emelie Olson and Glenn Yocum are retrofitting a 1950s “ranch-style” house.
Energy-efficient changes range from the cheapest — foam inserts for electrical outlets — to the moderate: additional attic insulation. A major investment was replacement of the original leaky, single-pane,wood-framed windows.
The new super-efficient duo-pane windows include a low-emissivity film that allows the sun’s heat to enter but filters out UV rays that damage wood and fabrics, and bounces interior heat back into the house. They are framed in hardened fiberglass, which will not warp or fade like vinyl windows, nor need oiling like wood windows.
Emelie’s office (the former garage) is almost a sunroom, warmed by the addition of two large new windows and energy-efficient patio doors. Awnings keep summer sun out but allow winter sun in. The feline owners, Maharaj and Jet, endorse the new comfort by soaking up rays in the daytime and keeping Emelie company into the evening, with very little use of a space heater.
A pellet stove now heats the original house; its heat will be supplemented by passive solar heating from a large sunroom when it is completed.
Glenn cooks lunch nearly every day in a solar cooker, which is eaten outdoors nearly every day on a protected south-facing patio, even in winter. This is truly passive solar!
What do pine chips, a composting toilet, “urbanscape,” a “chicken tractor” and bird feeders in their large yard have in common? Come and see. Also see how gallon jugs filled with red water, a “hothouse,” a “ribbon” driveway, swales, and five rainwater cisterns support year-round gardening. All these components—and more--are evolving into a feedback system resembling an organism.
There are also two high-tech additions: a solar water system and a photovoltaic (electric) system.
Come see it all, at the Solar Homes Tour, Saturday, Feb. 7.