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Solar home keeps bills low
Columbia Township house helps save energy, money
 
BY MIKE BOYER
 

Builder Chris Smith didn't start out to build his dream home with geothermal heating and cooling and a solar-power system to supply electricity.

But when your dream covers 7,000 square feet, includes five bedrooms and a million-dollar view from a hillside in Columbia Township, finding ways to reduce heating and cooling bills just made sense, said Smith, general manager of Showcase Building and Design.

"I'm interested in the future," said Smith, 48, who started in the custom building business 30 years ago working as mason for his father. "I wanted to do something outside the norm, and geothermal and solar just seemed to make sense."

Smith's showcase, which he designed and built over the last couple of years, is one of the highlights of the fourth annual Solar Tour in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky next Sunday. It's one of 20 free, self-guided community tours across the state sponsored by Green Energy Ohio to showcase energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

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SmithSolarHome
Chris Smith (left), 18, Zana Smith 1, Chris Smith and wife VaRite Smith
stand near their solar panels on their Columbia Township home. "It's neat to
watch the electric meter actually run backward," Chris Smith says.

The annual statewide event plays an important role in getting the word out on what's happening in renewable energy, says Bill Spratley, executive director of the nonprofit Green Energy Ohio. "What we find is that 40 percent of the people installing solar arrays on their homes, once attended a solar home tour," he said.

New federal incentives that give homeowners a $2,000 tax credit for the purchase of solar electric and solar water heating systems is also spurring consumer interest, he says.

The Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area might not seem like a hotbed of solar power activity, but Spratley, formerly of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, said, "There's a good story developing here."

Melink Corp.'s new 30,000-square-foot solar-power and energy-efficient headquarters in Milford this summer was the first building in Ohio to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council's gold rating for leadership in energy and environmental design. The new Twenhofel Middle School in Independence is pursuing the same rating certification.

Next fall, a team of students and faculty from the University of Cincinnati will be one of 20 college teams designing a solar house on the Washington Mall for the Department of Energy's annual "Solar Decathlon." Duke Energy Ohio, which has supported solar installations at Twenhofel, at the Cincinnati Zoo and at its corporate office downtown, is the first large utility in the Ohio to be a sponsor of the solar tour.

Smith's 6-kilowatt solar array, built on the hillside below his large brick-and-stone house, was installed with a $25,000 state energy grant. Spratley said it's the second-largest residential solar array he's aware of in Ohio. The largest is a 9-kilowatt array on a new home in Akron, he said.

"With utility costs going up and the costs of solar and other renewable energy coming down, it's starting to make sense to more people," said John Fanselow, coordinator of the Cincinnati area solar tour, which allows participants to tour six different residential and commercial projects around the area.

CHEAPER ALTERNATIVES

Not all the projects on the tour are as high-tech, or expensive, as Smith's home.

For example, Jerry and Mary Friemoth on Pandora Avenue in Pleasant Ridge will show the 10-by-14 foot passive solar greenhouse they built on his 80-year-old two-story Tudor home for about $10,000.

The two-year-old addition, designed to collect the sun's heat in winter but not summer, radiates heat back into the main house during the night. "Even on the coldest day, it's never more than 50 degrees in (the greenhouse). It's very comfortable," said Friemoth, a physician and teacher at the University of Cincinnati.

Even simpler are two two-foot-by six-foot, homemade thermal panels Friemoth built on the south side of his home. The panels cost about $50 each to build but cut his annual natural gas bill by about $30, paying for themselves in a couple of years.

Smith's high-tech showcase includes motion-sensing lights and a voice-activated audio-visual system.

Despite insulated windows and extra cellulose insulation in the walls and ceiling, the monthly power bills could run as high as $900, he said.

SAVING MONEY

But Smith says his power bills have been cut by two-thirds to about $300 a month with the photovoltaic solar collection system. The $46,000 solar array includes a net-metering system, which allows the home to feed the solar-generated-electricity it doesn't use onto Duke Energy's electric grid.

"It's neat to watch the electric meter actually run backward," he says.