Hybrid solar living in a self-sustaining home
What on Earth does a sophisticated, contemporary home have in common with a pre-historic cave dwelling?
I learned the answer when I visited the Penn Valley home of Mark and Nancy Machado recently. Mark and Nancy are passionate about independence and living green.
“That’s why we built our home using the proven, age-old principals of passive solar design,” Mark said with conviction. “Our home uses the latest technology, so we produce most of our own electricity. Not only do we enjoy consistent comfort, but our dependency on utility companies is minimal – and our fuel bills are laughably low. We pay an average of $15 a month to PG&E. Many of our neighbors pay 10 times that amount. Our propane bill is less than $200 a year.”
Built in 2001, the two-story Machado home is 2,300-sq.-ft, with three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths. With the master bedroom, en suite bathroom and half bath on the ground floor, living is easy, and life is good.
The open-floor-plan great room features a vaulted ceiling and fan. The interior wall that separates the living area from the master bedroom features what appear to be two column-like tanks. Although they are painted and plastered for tasteful disguise, each 12-ft. tall tank is filled with water.
Now comes the clever part. The house faces due south, and makes the most of the sun. The tanks are situated so they absorb maximum heat from the winter sun through strategically-placed windows, including clerestory ones. By making the most of winter sunshine, the water in the tanks helps keep the home warm and comfortable throughout. “Occasionally, we rely on our centrally-located, wood-burning stove for a little extra warmth,” Nancy explains. “The combination is so efficient; we only use a half a cord of wood a year.”
“Remember the old steam heaters?” Mark asks. “Well, these tanks operate in a similar way, and they truly are efficient. The ceiling fan helps distribute the heat from the tanks, and that keeps the temperature consistent throughout the house.”
For summer comfort, the same success works in reverse. The trick is simply to keep the house cool – and keep the sun off the glass. Outside overhangs and careful monitoring of highly efficient interior and exterior shades achieve much of this goal. However, there are other design advantages, including the absence of windows on the home’s west side. Strategically-placed deciduous trees also help shade the home in summer. Once they shed their leaves, they create an open invitation for the winter sun to shine right in.
“It’s all in the planning,” Mark admits. “It’s about creating a solar mass that attracts and holds what nature provides. If you’ve ever been in a cave, you’ll have noticed how the temperature stays constant throughout weather and seasonal changes. That’s how we’ve built our home.”
“The walls are built with two-by-six-inch studs, and they’re covered with extra-thick insulation. The insulation was sprayed on, and resembled an angel-food cake. The result helps create a draft-free environment,” Nancy says. “It’s also an easy home to maintain,” adds Nancy. “We’ve chosen floor tiles with generous insulation underneath and granite counter tops that stay cool in summer and warm in winter. The home is constructed in a no-leak way that keeps pollen and pollution outside – and that makes a real difference. The air we breathe inside is clean.”
I’m getting carried away with the technology. It’s also important to emphasize how attractive and stylish the Machados’ home is. Beige-and-soft mauves, grays and natural earth tones give it tranquil warmth. The step-up dining room is inviting and private. Simplicity is the key to the sense of style that prevails – with large, framed Ansel Adams prints as well as particularly dramatic illustration of Jean Harlow. What appealed to me particularly is the lack of clutter. Clearly they follow the adage: “Have what you love, and love what you have.” Family antiques live in harmony with contemporary pieces, and it works beautifully.
Outside, in the porch area, just above the potted herbs, there’s a 12-panel solar electricity producing system. Unobtrusive and not unattractive, this system is vital to their commitment to environmentally-aware, self-sustaining lifestyle. To the side of the porch is an organic garden with tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots, lettuce, garlic and onions, just to name a few. The Machados also make their own wine.
One energy-saving feature I really like is the discreet clothesline hidden in the courtyard garden behind the home. “I like my towels and sheets to have a fresh, crisp feel from drying naturally,” Nancy said, “and think of the electricity we save.”
Mark is a private pilot who has won several awards for the planes he’s built. His technical awareness as well as a shared environmental awareness both he and Nancy share have created a suburban home with loads of curb appeal … simple style … and tons of commonsense.
“We now have six grandchildren, so family life here is active and welcome,” Nancy said. “We like to think that our environmental awareness is something they will appreciate as well.”
“I’ve yet to visit a home that doesn’t offer a new insight,” says Courtney Ferguson, “and I left this one with so many reminders of ways I can live more energy efficiently.” Each homeowner and home has its own story to tell, and I’ll share my next discovery soon.
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