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Building for the Texas Climate

From Texas Co-op Magazine, by Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Imagine power bills of $25.00 month. Impossible, you say? Maybe to heat a doghouse. Or maybe a home on the California coast. Actually, it is possible to heat, cool and light an average-size Texas house for less than the cost of cable or satellite television, as Pedernales Electric Co-op members Mark and Diane Weidner proved.

From meticulously choosing the perfect home site to constructing an energy-efficient doghouse, they incorporated every energy-conserving detail and technology they could find to build the most energy-efficient house possible. In addition, they adopted living habits that minimize power usage.

As an impressive result, the Dripping Springs couple pay an average monthly electric bill of $25 – even during the summer.

“We wanted to build a place we could afford to live in 30 or 40 years from now,” Diane Weidner says.

According to Eddie Albin, Consumer services/environmental supervisor with Southwest Texas Electric Co-op in Eldorado, designing and building an energy-efficient home makes both financial and environmental sense. And more and more Texans are doing so.

He should know. Last August, he completed a new 2,177 square foot house that utilizes numerous energy-efficient features, including a geothermal heat pump. His monthly electric bills hover around $85.

“We’re all conscious of our environment and our limited resources,” he says. “So if we build an efficient home, in the long run that will help us preserve the environment. And if we manage what we have and use it efficiently, that will keep us from building any more power plants.”

Ronnie Robinson, general manager of Comanche County Electric Cooperative in Comanche, two years ago also built an energy-efficient, totally electric home. His monthly electric bill averages $83.

To achieve optimum energy efficiency, Robinson utilized a number of money saving features, such as a wraparound porch on the home’s south and west sides, radiant barriers under the roof, double pane windows, R-30 insulation in the ceilings and walls, a hot water recovery system, and – most important – a geothermal closed loop heat pump.

“I start heating and cooling my house at ground temperature, which is 68 degrees,” Robinson says.

Geothermal systems do not create heating and cooling action. Rather, they transfer heat from one location to another. The system is created by putting pipes into the ground where the earth’s constant temperature is 68 degrees. Fluid in the pipes then exchanges heat with the earth and brings the heat – or cool air in summer – into the building.

Are you thinking about building a new energy-efficient home? First, educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about construction techniques, choosing a home site and orienting the house, energy-saving materials, efficient cooling/heating systems, and efficient household appliances.

A number of resources are available to help you in designing the most energy-efficient plan possible. For instance, many electric cooperatives offer energy conservation programs, such as Sensible Saver or Good Cents, which provide customers with plenty of valuable information and even a rebate for meeting construction criteria. The Green Building Program in Austin can arm you with information on both efficiency and sustainable building methods.

Doug Rye, a renowned Arkansas residential energy architect, who hosts a radio program called “Home Remedies”, emphasizes the energy impact of air infiltration into a house and stresses the importance of sealing every nook and cranny during construction of a new residence. In his video about energy tips for building an efficient home, Rye advises viewers to pay attention to nine critical areas, including framing, insulation, windows, doors and light fixtures, attic ventilation, and ductwork.

Before ever breaking ground on their home, Mark and Diane Weidner paid attention to those features and more. Much more.

On their rural Hill Country acreage, the couple worked with a compass and a stake, which they drove into the ground at different locations. Careful observation of when and where the ribbon they attached to the stake flapped the most in the prevailing breezes ultimately led to their final home site. From there, the Weidners precisely oriented the house north to south, using the compass.

“Orientation is the key feature to keeping this house cool,” Diane Weidner says. “We had an air conditioner built into the house, but we’ve never used it. That’s because it never gets any hotter than sitting under a shade tree.”

Orientation combined with an efficient design makes the most cost effective difference, stresses the Weidners’ architect, Peter Pfeiffer of Barley and Pfeiffer Architects in Austin. “The more efficient the house is by design, the less important those fancy air conditioners become,” he says. “So save your money and put it into a good design.”

From the outside, the Weidner house appears “normal” with its limestone walls on the first story and corrugated metal siding on the second. In fact, most visitors to the household are surprised to learn the home is so energy efficient. With a laugh, Weidner recalls the day in October 1993 when more than 500 people tromped through her house during the “Independent Homes Tour”, sponsored by the Real Goods catalog.

“They were blown away because the house looks very conventional, and they were expecting an earthen home,” she says. “they couldn’t believe anyone could have such an attractive, normal looking home and have an electric bill of $25.”

Nearly every feature, from the roof’s continuous ridge and soffit vents down to the first level’s tile floors, plays an active role in the home’s efficiency. Inviting front and back porches, coupled with 26 inch eave overhangs and six inch gutters, shade windows from the sun, which tracks directly overhead in the summer. During the winter, the sun’s lower position provides passive solar heat.

A “thermal chimney” hopper window on the home’s highest northern point creates a continuous flow of circulating air through the house, even on calm days. Tiles bonded directly to the concrete foundation keep the first level cool during the summer, and, for winter warmth in the near future, the Weidners plan to channel hot air from a greenhouse into the house.

Other energy efficient features in the Weidner home include a passive solar water heater with a back up demand water heater (fueled by propane gas), radiant barriers, wet blown cellulose insulation, double pane windows with thermal breaks, fluorescent and halogen fixtures for all high usage lighting, and ceiling fans in all rooms.

To further curb power and water usage, the Weidners have an energy efficient washer, refrigerator and dish washer. In addition, all appliances are unplugged when not in use so that they do not draw power unnecessarily. In fact, only the refrigerator and answering machine are plugged into electrical outlets when the couple are not home.

“We are very concerned about the environment and the greenhouse effect, so our goal was to minimize our power consumption as much as possible,” Mark Weidner explains. “The low electric bills will be great, too, when we retire.”

With so much attention to detail, the Weidner house must have cost a small fortune, right? Not at all.

“You can design extremely energy efficient homes that are not expensive to build,” Pfeiffer responds. “The Weidner home cost under $75 per square foot to build.”

Not to be overlooked is the Weidners’ doghouse, a mini-model of energy efficiency. Well insulated, sporting a double-pane window and oriented for passive winter heat, the canine cottage even has its own heater – a light bulb – a luxury for their pair of short-haired dachshunds especially appreciate. “Sometimes they stay out there in the winter because it’s warmer there than in the house,” Diane Weidner says.

Which just goes to show that even a doghouse can be a comfortable yet energy-efficient place to live, if it’s built right. Just ask Suny and Logan, the grateful dachshunds.

Tips for Energy Efficiency

To make your existing home more energy efficient, consider doing the following:

  • Increase attic insulation level to a rating of R-30; make sure all walls, as well as the roof or attic, are insulated.
  • Install radiant barriers under the roof.
  • Replace regular screens with solar screens.
  • Install double-pane, low emissivity-glass windows.
  • Seal doors and windows where air leaks occur.
  • Insulate hot water pipes with foam pipe insulation
  • Wrap hot water heater with a water heater blanket. (Note: Certain new water heaters recommend against blankets.)
  • Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact flourescent bulbs, which use one-third the power, last longer and produce less heat than regular bulbs.
  • If your furnace or air conditioning system is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with a more efficient unit.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that shade the house.
  • Install awnings over east or west facing windows.
  • Add a roof overhang or porch.
  • Ask your coo-op to do a heat pump cost-benefit analysis.
  • Have your co-op or other professional perform a home energy audit.




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