A Little Bit of Heart and Solar

By Sandra Zunino

As electricity costs soar and homeowners become more conscientious of energy alternatives, solar power has gained in popularity. Solar power pioneers, Alan and Nancy Schnoebelen of Centreville; however, have lived in their solar-powered home for 23 years.

“Most people doing this today will not do it the way we did,” says Nancy. The Schnoebelen’s existed for two decades without being hooked up to the grid, finally getting connected two years ago. Currently their electric bill runs about $10 a month, according to Nancy.

Designed by a solar architect, the Schnoebelen’s home maximizes sunlight and air circulation to maintain year-round comfort. Nestled on 25 wooded acres, the single-level home takes full advantage of the tree canopy during summer to keep it cool. Eleven sliding doors and 14 ventilating skylights allow breezes into the home, reducing the need for air conditioning. These also allow abundant sunlight, so the Schnoebelen’s never require lighting during daytime. Additionally, porch overhangs shade the outside walls of the home, and the house is raised off the ground to further promote cooling. A couple years ago the Schnoebelen’s installed A.C., but until then went without.

Utilizing cathedral ceilings and open-area design, two woodstoves – the home’s primary heat source – keep the living space comfortable during cold seasons. The Schnoebelens use roughly four cords of wood a year from dead and fallen trees on their property. A greenhouse, attached to the southern side of the home, heats up to 85 degrees during winter. The Schnoebelens need only open the sliders to the greenhouse to let in the warm air. They pull shade-like quilts over windows during winter evenings to prevent heat from escaping. The northern side of the home has smaller windows entirely.

Six solar panels, located in a nearby clearing, provide the Schnoebelen’s electricity. Power travels through wiring to a three-battery storage in the Schnoebelen’s mini power plant, located in a closet-sized room inside the house. Here equipment converts solar energy into usable electricity. Monitors show how even on cloudy days, power still trickles into the batteries. Incidentally, these batteries last about 20 years.

Power is stored in DC amps, powering the home’s lighting. However, if the Schnoebelen’s need to run an appliance such as a television or vacuum, they flip a switch in the power room to covert the DC current to AC. “DC requires only 1 amp to run a light. If you change the light to AC, it requires 10 amps,” explains Alan. “You have to produce 10 times more electricity to run an AC appliance.”

When batteries are low, the Schnoebelens flip another switch and draw directly from the grid. Prior to hooking up, they used a propane generator for backup power. Larger appliances such as the oven, refrigerator and washer run on propane, as these would draw too much power from their solar system.

Today’s solar powered homes are connected to the grid gaining homeowners access to power at night. Solar panels produce electricity for use during the day with excess sold back to the power company. Since costs to install solar systems start at $35,000, it may be a long time before a system pays for itself.

Benefits to the environment are priceless, however. “Electrical producing plants are one of the biggest polluters of mercury and all other pollutants,” says Nancy. “Any amount of electricity you can produce helps…, even 20 percent.”

The Schnoebelens admit they have made an extraordinary lifestyle commitment. Running fewer appliances than most, they have neither dishwasher nor computer, dry their laundry on a clothesline, and watch limited television. Composting, recycling and forest management on their property are also part of the plan.