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Published April 20 2013

Green houses: Local homeowners think big in making homes energy-efficient

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Dennis Jacobs’ and Karen Branden’s swimming pool isn’t just good for a few laps.

The couple, who went to great lengths designing an energy-efficient home, use the pool to help heat the rest of the house.

Jacobs, a professor of multidisciplinary studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and Branden, an associate professor of sociology at MSUM, built the house in the 1990s with a sustainable lifestyle in mind.

“It’s not a question of ‘Should we or not?’” Jacobs says. “I just think we have to. We have to cut down on our carbon usage in this country, and the world, because of climate change.”

To that end, a few local homeowners have gone to great lengths to try and make their houses “greener” by properly insulating, finding alternative energy sources and choosing more energy efficient fixtures and appliances.

Jacobs says it was important to build their house with thick walls and heavy insulation.

That way, it would be resistant to losing its heat, he says.

Larry Mayer, an energy engineer who owns Solution Design in Fargo, agrees that proper insulation and sealing are important for any home to be able to conserve energy.

“It’s critical that a building’s ‘envelope’ has to be very tight and very well-insulated,” says Mayer, who works with builders and homeowners in the area to create energy-efficient houses.

“That results in a higher level of comfort and air quality,” he adds.

After Jacobs and Branden ensured that the house was well-insulated, their next step was to make sure that the home had some source of energy to draw on – in this case, the swimming pool.

The 22,000-gallon pool is located in a separate room with large windows that’s connected to the house. When the pool room gets warm enough, a fan turns on and passes the warm air through small ducts into the house.

Those were the most important foundations for the home, Jacobs says, and needed to be constructed first. Everything else he’s had in mind for the house has come in the form of later additions.

“The important thing is insulation and energy storage, whether it’s electrical or thermal,” he adds. “All the rest of the stuff you can add later on.”

For example, a few years ago he added a solar water heater to the roof of the house, which serves to heat the pool. That, in turn, creates even more heat for the home.

Jacobs’ next steps include installing a heat pump and further insulating the area around the pool. That way, he’ll be able to “draw more heat from the surrounding ground to heat the house,” he says.

Jacobs hopes that with future additions, he can eventually get the house to be carbon negative.

A more conventional green home

While other homeowners might also want to conserve energy, not everyone has space to have a pool in their home, especially if they’re living in the middle of a city.

That’s how it was for Faith and Gary Simonson of Fargo, who took a more conventional approach to building an energy-efficient home in 2010.

“We had to evaluate how far you want to take it,” Gary Simonson says. “We wanted a conventional home. We didn’t want a geodesic dome, or anything like that.”

So they worked with Baird Construction of Fargo to create the house they had in mind, and then turned to Mayer to help them make the home as efficient as possible.

As in the case of Jacobs’ and Branden’s home, the biggest step in building the Simonsons’ house located on 26th Avenue South in Fargo was to make sure that it was well-insulated.

Mayer also pressure-tested the home during construction, and performed thermal-imaging tests to try and pinpoint specific points in the structure where air was escaping.

In addition to the insulation and sealing, the Simonsons’ house also has other features that keep energy costs down, including three-foot exterior soffit overhangs above windows to protect from hot summer sun, geothermal heat, LED and fluorescent lighting and triple-paned windows.

The windows have been especially effective at keeping energy inside the house, Simonson says.

“We’re very, very happy with the windows so far,” he says. “It’s pretty significant.”

Simonson also created a heat recovery system that uses hot water from the home’s master shower to preheat cold water headed to the heat exchanger.

Simonson says he’s able to raise the temperature of the water by 10 degrees, saving roughly 20 percent of the energy normally required.

The result of all those eco-friendly features is that the Simonsons’ electric bill this winter has averaged around $100 per month, about a third of what their bills were in their old home, Simonson says.

They didn’t always get a lot of support in the process though. During the planning of the house, Faith Simonson says people would tell her the savings of the energy-efficient features ultimately wouldn’t justify spending so much money on them.

But that’s not necessarily why the Simonsons opted for the new home, she says.

“We did it because we’re going to live here and enjoy it,” she says. “A lot of it isn’t always about the payback. It’s the right thing to do.”

Make your home more energy-efficient

Without spending too much money, here are some simple tips from Larry Mayer, an energy engineer who owns Solution Design in Fargo, to make your home more energy efficient:

• Check the temperature settings on your hot water heaters.

• Unplug portable devices when you’re not using them.

• Turn down the temperature on your programmable thermostat.

• Replace older furnaces with higher-efficiency systems.

• Replace other appliances with more efficient, Energy Star models.

• Use compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) instead of regular incandescent ones.

• Contact your energy provider for other tips and information.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535