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People find ways to stay green while staying warm

Environmentally friendly alternatives are available to meet homeowners' heating needs.

By Warren Cornwall
Taken from

SEATTLE Seven years ago, Jeremy Smithson decided it would be neat to heat and light his home with solar power.
Then he did the math.

His 1908 Craftsman on the western slope of Phinney Ridge would need a roof four times bigger just to hold enough solar panels to meet his energy needs.

Now Smithson has a house so tightly insulated "that a BTU can't wiggle out of it." Efficient fluorescent bulbs poke out of the light sockets. Solar panels and tubes line his home's south-facing roof and wall.

"What we discovered is that if you super-insulate, then you reduce your heat requirement to the point where you can solar heat," Smithson said.

Over the year, the home will need roughly 2,000 kilowatt-hours of power from outside sources, down from around 18,500, he said.

Smithson's house demonstrates that with enough determination and careful planning, it's possible to find more renewable, environmentally friendly ways to meet at least part of your heating needs.

But it also shows that it's not simply a matter of throwing up some solar panels and turning on the thermostat.

Across the country, eople are trying a variety of ways to stay warm while taking less of a toll on the planet.

Some fuel their oil furnaces with a mixture of vegetable oil and regular petroleum. Some hook their ducts to a super-efficient system that sucks heat from the ground or the air. Some heat water with solar tubes. Others design rooms to soak up as much sunlight as possible.

Those are some of the chief home-heating alternatives available, energy experts say. But those experts caution that just because those energy sources are cleaner doesn't mean they make economic sense.

"If dollars be damned, there are lots of things," said Tom Eckman, manager of conservation resources for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an intergovernmental agency that studies the region's power needs. "If dollars are precious, there are a lot fewer options."

Take solar heat, for example.

Homes can be built to absorb more heat from sunlight during the winter with large, south-facing windows, part of a strategy known as "passive solar."

While that often makes sense, using solar panels or solar tubes to run a heating system is more problematic, said Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, part of Washington State University's Energy Program.

"Passive solar pencils out the quickest," Nelson said. "If you're adding flat plate and evacuated tubes (that use sunlight to heat water) you better approach that with a pretty sharp pencil, and you better have a good designer."

Smithson, who now runs a business installing solar systems, heats his home partly by running hot water through red hoses that snake beneath his floorboards.

Some days in the winter, the sun comes out enough to warm a tiny fraction of the water with solar tubes mounted on the outside of the house. But he relies primarily on an electric water heater.

He hopes to expand the number of tubes to meet roughly 15 percent of the home's heating needs.