Solar solution – ‘Energy guy’ uses sunshine to save money, waste |

Solar solution – ‘Energy guy’ uses sunshine to save money, waste

The Union photo/John HartRay Darby, who calls himself "The Energy Guy," stands behind one row of solar panels and in front of another that is above the window on the south side of his Cascade Shores area home. Harnessing the power of the sun with the panels is just one of the ways Darby conserves energy.
John R. Hart | The Union

Imagine a pleasant, two-bedroom house with a gorgeous view that stays comfortable year-round, but uses less than half the energy of a new home of the same size.

There is such a house.

Located in Cascade Shores, it is defined as “a classic example of a low-cost, high ‘return on investment,’ pollution reducing remodel/addition” by its owner, “the energy guy,” 48-year-old Ray Darby. He’s a man on a mission: to teach the world how to save energy, reduce waste, and save money, just like his family does every day they live in their home.

It began as a tiny cabin in 1974. Today, after remodels and additions over 20 years, the cabin has become a 1,750-square-foot house that is shared by three people who live a normal life in every way with stereo, computers, appliances and lots of light ” all powered by clean, cheap solar electricity.

The house is kept toasty in winter with passive solar and radiant

heating in the floors, and there are hot showers for its occupants with water heated by the sun. It’s a lifestyle that is not only easy on the environment, but also on the pocketbook, Darby said while quoting facts and figures that can make one’s head swirl.

While he has a bank of 20 solar panels on the lawn, Darby said there are cheaper ways to start. Using a tree metaphor, he recommends to people that they do what he did: “Start with the low-hanging fruit first ” passive solar, where a small investment can save huge amounts of money. Our stock, for example, is worth one- half of what it was 10 years ago, yet our investment in the sun has paid off big time, from a low of 10 percent for solar electricity to several hundred percent for passive solar. Energy efficiency in solar is by far about the most reliable and high return investment a person can make.”

For the Darby household, passive solar means a large bank of windows facing the south and materials, such as double Sheetrock and plaster, that hold the heat of the sun. Summer cooling, on the other hand, relies on reflecting the sun with window shades, an attic radiant barrier and plain old shade trees.

Electrically speaking, the well-insulated house is on the grid, but unlike conventional houses, their solar electric system is designed “to zero out the electricity cost over a year’s time,” said Darby, a situation many home owners would love to be in during this era of rising energy costs.

Saving energy in every conceivable way is his specialty. For

instance, when there’s snow, he chooses that time to back flush his water storage tank onto the driveway, thus saving himself the trouble of plowing.

When growing up, his kids got used to a sign above the energy

efficient dryer reading “Use Mr. Sun,” a reminder of the clothes line outside. “I’ve been called the energy Nazi by my family,” chortles Darby, unrepentant.

But even all that is a drop in the bucket of conservation, he said, when compared to the No. 1 problem in environmental impact, transportation. That’s why Darby has electric vehicles. “About half of my family’s transportation requirements are provided by (solar) electricity.”

This percentage may rise in the future, as he plans to install more solar panels. Darby claims his Web site has one of the best electric vehicle sections in the country.

A popular misconception he likes to shoot down is that solar takes lots of maintenance.

“I make a huge deal,” he said, “about how simple and low maintenance solar is. Ours is 21 years old. We have the same water storage tank and the same collectors. You can get up to 40 years (on these components). In fact, a good quality electric water heater can last almost indefinitely if you back flush it and change the anode.”

How did Darby get to be such an expert on these things? At Cal Poly, while in training as an environmental engineer, he helped create a passive solar handbook for the California Energy Commission.

Since then he’s worked for the Commission yet again, helping craft the 1990 building code, and is now the owner of a business

appropriately named “The Energy Guy.”

Apparently, wife Kate and 17-year-old son Gavin share his enthusiasm. “While they’ve had to sacrifice a little in terms of convenience,” he said, “they like the cost savings that sustainable behavior results in.”

One of those minor inconveniences is using appliances during noon and 6, or nonpeak hours during the workweek.

The neighbors benefit, too. “Although I can’t speak for them, I think they love me madly, and vice versa. The electrons my family doesn’t use go back to the grid, taking the shortest possible path ” to our neighbors. I also give them boxes of compact fluorescents that use one-quarter the energy of incandescent light bulbs.”

Darby works hard at motivating people to reduce their waste. “It starts with individual responsibility, and not just waiting for the government to do it. I have tools on my Web site that show how to make that change.”

A man who puts his money where his mouth is, Darby not only periodically opens his home to tours but also is busy creating a consortium of engineers and contractors of all types under the name of Sustainable Energy Group that will help businesses and people from concept to completion.

But the work, he feels, has really just begun. “Even though we achieved a whole new level of efficiency (with the new code), we’re still not even close as a state to sustainability,” he said. “We lost the vision with the solar tax going away, the rebates going down (to $2.80 a watt this January). Even me, I’m still working on it, moving up the tree to the higher fruit,” which means a solar hot tub is in the works.

Summarizing his passionate concern about energy consumption, Darby said simply, “I’m concerned for my kids. I think they’ll have to learn to live with a whole lot less because I see very high prices (for oil) coming.”

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