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At this home, power company pays you

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Neil Johnson
September 14, 2012

— The September sun was hidden by gray clouds, and rain was pattering down.

It meant the 20-foot-tall tower of solar panels in Stephen and Wendy Tupper's rural Milton backyard were basically idle.

But that didn't seem to concern Stephen Tupper as he clicked open a computer program in the office inside of his new, super-energy efficient home on North Raven Court.

The program, a home energy use monitoring system, showed a to-the-minute ratio of Tupper's energy use to energy production during the last month.

On a moving graph, red spikes represented daily energy use. Green spikes showed how much energy the backyard solar panels had produced. The graph showed much more green than red.

In fact, in the last 30 days, the Tupper home's has had less than zero energy use; it's actually produced about $10 more in energy than it has used.

If that trend keeps up this month, Alliant Energy, their power company, will cut the Tuppers a check for the difference.

"Imagine having the power company pay you. It's a great feeling," said Wendy Tupper.

Not shabby, considering that the Tupper's house has 4,000 square feet of mostly open space—and it's chock full of picture windows that bathe most of the rooms in natural light.

Yet when it comes to energy efficiency, the Tuppers have a one-two punch going at their new home. Completed in March by Janesville builder Greg Schauer of Schauer Construction, the house is a blend of alternative energy and sustainable construction.

For electrical production, heating and hot water, the house relies on 44 solar energy collection panels in the backyard.

It uses in-floor radiant heat and has a system that recirculates stale air and squeezes the residual heat out of it, the Tuppers and Schauer explained.

The house also is laid out so that doors and windows channel wind like a shotgun through the center of the open-concept upstairs, quickly venting the house.

"I've nicknamed the style ‘warm eco-minimalism,'" said Wendy Tupper, who is a kitchen and bathroom design consultant.

Schauer estimated the annual cost to heat the house at $264 and the annual cost to cool it at $62. And that doesn't count the Tupper's own solar energy production.

Then there's the actual construction of the house:

-- The triple-pane windows are individually "tuned" with a special coating help control the temperature depending on the season and the angle of the sun.

-- The exterior walls are sealed with a vapor barrier and built to float free from wall studs. That allows extra insulation and prevents warm or cool air from escaping the house through the studs.

-- The steel roof has no exposed fasteners, along with 3-foot window overhangs that shade windows from direct sunlight.

The house has an energy efficiency rating 88 percent higher than standards for new conhome construction, Stephen Tupper said.

"Even without solar power, it would be more efficient than a regular construction home," he said.

Schauer, 28, has a civil engineering degree and has done construction professionally since he was a student at Janesville Craig High School. But energy-efficient home building is a new foray for him.

When the Tuppers asked him to build the home a couple of years ago, Schauer took courses in "green" construction and learned the processes.

He said it took a year of daily collaboration between Schauer, the Tuppers and about 15 subcontractors to finish the house.

The house is being featured in a public open house for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association's Wisconsin Solar Tour on Saturday, Oct. 6.

The association highlights homes and businesses in the Midwest that embrace alternative energy and "green" building techniques.

For Schauer, who'll be leading the tour, it's his first "green" home. But he's hoping it'll become his bread and butter. He said demand for solar-powered, energy efficient homes is growing in Madison and Milwaukee. The Tupper project gives him hope there could be a demand in the area.

Stephen Tupper declined to say how much it cost to build the house or the solar power system.

But Schauer estimated that on average, it costs 7 to 10 percent more to build an energy-efficient house such as the Tuppers' and more to put in alternate energy systems such as solar panels.

In a way, the Tuppers could consider the extra mortgage cost as an up-front electrical bill that's locked in at a 3.5 percent interest rate.

Stephen Tupper said that's a comforting thought when he considers the specter of energy cost increases.

At current energy rates, he estimated it would take 12 to 20 years to break even on upfront costs of the home. Schauer said the solar panels are rated for 25 years before their productivity will begin to wane.

But it's not all about cash savings. Wendy Tupper said her father had built a solar-powered home before the idea was popular. She hoped to someday harness alternate energy herself.

"I always said if we ever built, we'd try to do it this way," Wendy said.

For the couple, as important as saving money is to simply save energy.

"It's just the right thing to do," Stephen Tupper said.


 
 

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