Solar-Powered Dream Home Saves Money, Lowers Emissions
September 16, 2019
SEEKONK, Mass. — On a recent Friday morning, the doorbell rings. Ronald Bennett greets two neighbors who have stopped to take a look around his new home on Read Street.
This house — a 2,400-square-foot ranch powered solely by solar energy — is a dream Bennett, president of a solar panel installation company and a licensed contractor, has been steeping for the past 20 years.
“Here, let me give you a five-cent tour,” he says, leading the way.
Dressed for work in a blue polo embroidered with a tiny sun that shines inside a light bulb, Bennett takes the group through the modern central kitchen-living area — vaulted ceiling, bamboo floors — to the back of the house, where a wall of windows affords a panoramic view of an algae-slicked pond and the oak-and-maple forest beyond.
But, at the moment, the view is of the windows themselves: triple-paned, made by Schüco, and imported from Germany. Both the frames and the glass panes themselves have insulating properties. The same goes for the doors.
One of the neighbors, who works in internet technology (IT) and wears white glasses, examines a doorframe.
“If you wanted to break in, you’d have an easier time busting through one of the walls than getting through the door or a window,” he says.
“As you know from breaking into people’s homes,” jokes the other neighbor, an artist with a square jaw and cascading hair.
Through the window, Bennett points out his solar panels, which line the roof of a wooden pergola he originally built for a client. He estimates they produce about 50 kilowatt-hours of energy every day. Although he’s only just moved in — tonight will be his third night in the house — he anticipates that this is more energy than he will need.
The extra energy he produces gets sent to the town’s electric grid. Since he first switched on his solar array in mid-July, he’s accumulated a credit of $317 with National Grid, which he plans to redeem in the form of electricity from the grid in the winter, when he isn’t producing enough solar energy to cover his needs.
But Bennett does get some actual money back for producing solar energy. He earns 13.6 cents for every kilowatt-hour he produces for the next 10 years, and he is entitled to federal and state tax credits for homeowners with solar systems.
“That fan looks like a propeller from a World War II plane,” says the IT guy, holding his palms up to feel the wind rushing off the 72-inch brushed-metal ceiling fan. “It’s like you can do gale-force winds in here.”
Bennett smiles. His goal was never to stir up a storm. Rather, he installed the fan to solve a common problem: recirculate the heat that will collect near the vaulted ceiling in the winter. But what is unique to his house is how little heat he will need to use.
His home energy rating system (HERS) rater, who assessed the house’s energy efficiency, told Bennett the place is so airtight he could heat it with a hair dryer.
This is thanks, in part, to an extra barrier of insulation buried deep within the house. Beneath the floor, a 6-inch-thick layer of foam board insulation supplemented by a 2-inch foam board ring around the base allow the house to retain a steady temperature, despite the fluctuating temperature of the ground. This is important because while the temperature deep within the earth — further than 5 feet down — remains a relatively stable 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the exterior walls of the house only extend down 4 feet, where the temperature varies more.
Bennett wasn’t always so devoted to renewable energy. Although as a kid he was inspired by President Jimmy Carter’s dedication to solar energy, his first career was in traditional construction. Then, in the early 1990s, he sold his corvette and bought an old postal truck into which he installed an 18,000-watt generator.
He and his buddy used this homemade generator truck to power the lights that made lightning for storms in movies, music videos, and wrestling matches, since on-set generators weren’t powerful enough to handle the necessary energy surges.
He returned to construction after 9/11, when the film industry in New York City, where Bennett did most of his jobs, relocated. Bennett got married and installed custom kitchens and additions up until 10 years ago, when a friend of his said he was thinking about getting involved in solar energy.
That conversation was the spark that reignited Bennett’s passion for solar power, leading him to attend seminars and to consult with people from electrical supply houses to learn more about the industry. In 2009, he sold his first solar array and, three years later, founded his solar installation business Got Sun Go Solar.
As his visitors head down the stairs, Bennett notes that initially he was concerned that the overhead lights, which are 1.5-watt LEDs, might be too dim. But he has found them to be plenty bright. The IT neighbor admires the polished concrete floors and lingers in the central space Bennett intends to use for entertaining, before the trio files into his home office.
Despite overlooking the backyard, the impression here is less panoramic and more hemmed in. Bennett frowns and notes that the glass panes in these windows — also Schüco —are much smaller than he intended. What he didn’t know when the Germans drew up the plans was that the area they mapped out for the windows included the glass plus the frames. Bennett thought the area they were talking about was only the glass.
“So that was a boo-boo on my part,” he says.
He then leads the group into the utility room, where he clasps his hand against a box affixed to the wall. This is his energy recovery ventilator system, which is where air entering the house intermingles with air leaving the house. This way, the outgoing air brings the incoming air closer to its temperature and humidity level, acting as a sort of pre-heating or pre-cooling system, depending on the season. This system decreases the amount of heat or air conditioning Bennett needs to use to maintain a comfortable temperature.
When he opens the box to reveal the compartment where the air exchange occurs, a jumble of dead bugs, including a handful of long-legged crane flies, falls to the floor.
“Wow, it’s a whole cemetery,” says the artist.
“I hope they’re not honeybees,” Bennett says. “My friend would kill me if she saw dead honeybees in my house. She’s a beekeeper.”
The group heads back upstairs and Bennett bids farewell to his friends, who apologize for coming empty-handed and debate what they’ll bring next time. They suggest flowers or salt, which the artist, who is from Minnesota, thinks might be a traditional housewarming gift in the South, although no one has heard of this. They shower Bennett with some final compliments about the house and head out.
After he shuts the door, Bennett shares that he finds this kind of praise embarrassing. He says he didn’t build the house to wow people with its beauty.
“It doesn’t take a lot to build something like this as opposed to something that you see down the street that has this big boiler in it and has a truck that comes in and dumps … gallons of oil in it every month,” Bennett says.
According to his estimates, the $38,000 he spent on the solar array, plus all the special features that make his house so energy efficient, added an extra 10 percent to the total cost of the house, money he expects will take five years to recoup.
“The reason that I really built it was to show people it’s achievable,” he says.