Rossland's Energy Smart Homes

Money For Nothin and Heat For Free

Dave Nutini was crooning when he switched out his 70’s era baseboard blowers for a slim pair of heat pumps.
Straight up, this was money for nothin’ and heat for free!


“I’m saving $200 per month at least,”Nutini said. “We installed the heat pumps ourselves and
had them paid off in just two years. Even if we’d hired a pro, the payback would only have been
four years.”
 
Here’s the magic: In typical Rossland winter conditions, Nutini gets three times more heat
energy out of his system as electrical energy supplied. Whoa there, you might say, that’s crazy.
But it’s true! A typical baseboard is 100% efficient, which means you get the same amount of
heat energy out of it as electricity put into it. But on a -5°C day, Nutini’s heat pump is 300%
efficient, and in spring and fall the efficiency is even better. If this all sounds impossible, we’ll
get there…
 
Dire Straits had just released their 1985 classic “Money for Nothing” when Dave and Marjorie
Nutini bought their poorly insulated house in upper Rossland. With four-inch walls and six-inch
ceilings stuffed with fibreglass, they found themselves spinning the meter to keep warm. They
made the most practical and cost-effective changes first, plugging drafts and adding insulation all
over the house, especially in the ceiling.
 
That helped, but they weren’t happy with their vintage wall-unit blowers. First one and then
another would rattle away, blasting dry heat. They considered central heating, but the hassle and
expense to install ducts seemed unreasonable. “We’d have had to rip the whole place apart,”
Nutini explained.
 
Six year ago, Nutini struck gold: A “mini-split heat pump” that’s easy to install in virtually any
situation. A retired math and science teacher, Nutini takes pride in calculated decisions, but also
in boldly trying new technologies. This new heat pump was a perfect fit for him, their house, and
for Rossland.
 
It’s deceptively simple to look at. Outside, a small, three-foot cube houses a quiet fan and
compressor that are connected by some wires and pipes to an elegant indoor unit that blows heat
gently and quietly into the room. It’s a "mini-split” because the two small components can each
be mounted separately in a convenient spot.
 
But hang on, what is a heat pump? Like the coils on the back of a refrigerator (but in reverse) a
heat pump literally extracts heat from the cold outside air and pumps it indoors. Yes, even in air
that seems really cold, heat energy is there for the taking.
 
The key is a refrigerant that boils at a very low temperature. Outside in the cold air, liquid
refrigerant under high pressure expands in fins like a car’s radiator as cold air blows over them,
causing the liquid to boils as it absorbs heat. The hot gas is pumped indoors where it condenses
to release its heat, and then is pumped back outside. In the summer, most heat pumps can also be
run in reverse to cool a room.
 
Heat pumps are especially appropriate for Rossland’s relatively mild winters. Efficiency drops as
temperatures get really cold. While it still “doesn’t skip a beat” at -20°C, Nutini said, the heat
pump is not much more efficient than a baseboard heater in that kind of cold, running at one-to-
one heat out for energy in. Three-to-one efficiency is reached at outside temperatures of about -
5°C. And when the weather hovers at or above freezing during the shoulder seasons, efficiency
gets even better.
 
Dave and Marjorie agree, living with a heat pump is great. Since installing two mini-splits six
years ago, they’ve never had to use any other source of heat, even on the coldest nights. The fans
are quiet, gentle, and easy to program, and the unit automatically ramps up or down according to
the need. Maintenance is minimal—almost non-existent—and in Marjorie’s words, “it’s a
comfortable heat.”
 
Nutini is unstoppable; he’s talking about adding solar panels, solar hot water, and more to keep
their electricity bill and ecological footprint low. He gets dreamy as he envisions modern homes
with tight, highly insulated envelopes that a heat pump could keep warm “for pennies.” But
perhaps he’s done one better than perfection, demonstrating how a simple retrofit to any old
home in Rossland can save money and energy.

- Article By Andrew Bennet

 

Net Zero Home

Solar panels were just “icing on the cake” for Jeff Herr when he designed and built his super-
insulated, passive-solar home in lower Rossland in 2010, but 4-kilowatts of photovoltaic icing
should tell you something about the cake.

PASSIVE SOLAR EFFICIENCY

“When we built this place, our goal was to make the best envelope possible,” said Herr, who
worked with his father to build his home with 12-inch walls, triple-paned windows, and lots of
“thermal mass” (such as polished concrete floors) to hold a steady, comfortable temperature all
year long. In summer, long eaves shade the south-facing windows and keep the floors cool. In
winter, the low sun streams in those same windows, heating the floor and filling the house with
light.
Passive solar — using sunshine to heat heavy objects in well-insulated buildings — is the
primary source of heat in Herr’s 1200 square-foot house. He supplements this with the heat
equivalent of a big pickup load of firewood. “The huge benefit of good sealing and insulation is
the comfort of the house,” Herr explained. “There are no drafts, no cold spots, and no hot spots.”
There are limits. “The most efficient design is a square building with no windows at all,” Herr
laughed. Even triple-paned windows are “basically holes in the wall” that lose more heat at night
than they gain during sunny hours. But few people, even the most energy-obsessed, care to live
in a box. Design decisions have to balance many needs.  

LIFESTYLE EFFICIENCY

To that end, Herr steadfastly refuses to discuss “cherry on top” solar panels until he’s talked
about “the important stuff.” Typically half of a residence’s energy is spent on space heating, and
appliances and hot water each take another quarter. So, whether for a new build or a renovation,
Herr’s recipe is simple: seal and insulate your home as well as you can, and monitor your energy
use to eliminate waste.
Herr used to operate a solar installation business, but he spent most of his time convincing
people to prioritize basic insulation and energy savings before spending their money on panels.
It’s good advice, so good that he claims he talked himself right out of business!
“Most of us know the miles-per-gallon of our car,” he said, “but how many of us know the
kilowatt-hours-per-day of our home?” Herr started to save money the moment he installed a
simple “Neurio” meter to track power in his house, identifying a wasted 800-watt load and
helping to keep his day-to-day power consumption in check.
“It’s just like budgeting calories for weight loss,” he said. “You can see that, yes, turning off
your computer at night really makes a difference.”

SOLAR PANELS

Herr installed 18 solar panels to his south-facing roof and connected them to his electric meter,
spinning it backwards. For 8 or 9 months each year, the panels produce more than enough
electricity for his home, with extra power feeding the large basement workshop where Herr
makes his living bringing mechanical ideas to life. This summer, wildfires cut his solar
production in half on smokey days, and very cloudy weather can have a similar impact, but
Rossland’s typically clear skies make photovoltaics a winner.
Living with solar is easy. “Really, you have no idea you’re living in a solar house,” Herr said. “It
makes no difference. You only notice it when you open your Fortis bill.”
Tying into the grid avoids batteries or charge controllers, often the most expensive and short-
lived part of an off-grid system. Including installation, grid-tied homeowners can expect to pay
about $3.50 per watt, so a 4-kilowatt system comes to about $14,000.
Panels install easily on many kinds of roof, including asphalt like Herr’s. Standing-seam steel
roofs are another option that make installation a snap. Snow loads, however, are a major
consideration. “Get the max,” said Herr, who purchased panels rated to 113 pounds per square
foot.
Maintenance is simple too. Most panels are performance rated for 25 years and will probably last
much longer. Every 10 or 15 years, a replacement is likely needed for the inverter (a box-on-the-
wall that converts the panels' power into regular household voltage) but otherwise there’s not
much to do.
“I haven’t been up there since I installed them. I should be out there wiping dust off from all this
construction,” Herr said, nodding to crews installing pipes and pavement on his street, “but the
snow will do it this winter.”
That’s right, Herr doesn’t even clear snow off his panels. “It’s not worth the effort,” he
explained. “There’s more bright sunshine in September than in November, December, January,
and February combined. Just optimize your summer angle and forget about the winter.”
Herr has similar “keep it simple” advice for trackers, contraptions that turn like a sunflower to
face the sun. “People love trackers,” he said, “but if you used the extra cost to buy more panels
instead, you’d be ahead in energy production and have none of the trackers’ maintenance issues.”

THE ENERGY BUDGET

In the big world of energy efficiency, Herr keeps it real. “I wish those solar panels did more to
offset the trip I just took to New Zealand,” he laughed. “I’m as guilty as anybody doing whatever
the heck I want, and flying and transportation are a huge part of our carbon footprint. A big
carbon impact of this house was keeping me too busy to fly anywhere for four or five years while
I built it!”

Joking aside, Herr’s super-efficient building will have a substantial effect over its lifetime. In the
US, buildings account for half of all energy use, and Herr thinks its worth the effort to learn more
about our impacts, especially the energy we use day to day.
“Everyone should go online and calculate their carbon footprint,” Herr suggested. “We run
around in circles talking about climate change, but most of us don’t even know what we do or
how we contribute.”  

  - Article By Andrew Bennet