Case History: Heating with only Solar and Wood

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The Chandlers solar house in Phippsburg Maine photo courtesy of Nancy ChandlerHere's a success story for you, about what a couple of resourceful people have done to become free of fossil fuel heating. Thanks to Nancy Chandler of Phippsburg for contributing her first-hand account, below:

Wanting to live responsibly on the earth, use as few natural resources as possible, and build our own house inexpensively, Chip Chandler designed and with Nancy built a 1600 square foot solar and wood heated house near Small Point Harbor, Phippsburg in 1980. We raised two children for 20 years, using solar heated water and thermal heat, so only needed 3 cords of wood per year and 400 kilowatts electricity per month.

The house is a 40 foot by 25 foot A frame design, set on east west oriented, 3 foot vertical underground concrete walls, to add cooling in the summer and ground insulation in the winter. Quilted curtains are raised at nights and on cloudy winter days to reduce heat loss.

The house was originally a passive design, with sun hitting 16 black, 50-gallon barrels, which stored the heat through the night. Two layers of 30 foot by 12 foot Kalwall translucent plastic, at the ideal 60 degree angle, have performed as the solar wall for 33 years, with periodic plastic liquids applied to maintain strength.

After a few years of living with a cool lower floor, and opening the windows as the rooms got too hot with more than 4 hours of sun, we added a rock storage bed containing perforated plumbing pipes under the concrete block first floor. With a thermostat in the narrow attic, hot air would be blown down into the rock storage bed under the first floor. Thus the passive solar system was converted to an active solar hot air system that saved most of the sunlight received.

The house would maintain a low temperature of 20 degrees above outside temperatures through the year. Around 1995 we added a propane heater in the lower level to be able to travel in the winter without turning off the water system. We did not use the propane to heat the structure, since we felt no need to maintain a centrally heated space when sleeping. On sunny days, even in the winter, with only 2 hours of morning wood heat, the house would be heated to 80 degrees.

By taking advantage of a full south solar orientation, adding 6 inches of insulation over the back, upper front walls, and sides of the structure, and being willing to adjust the use of our hot water and space around the sun, we built a comfortable house, using no fossil fuels.

Since we did all aspects of house design and construction, including carpentry, electrical and plumbing systems, and foundation work, materials cost only $21,000 in 1980, which correcting for inflation would be $59,370 in 2014. In fact, the $1100 cost of our solar wall was paid back through the federal solar tax credit.

Other clever, creative, self sufficient Mainers can build their own solar hot water systems and improve their house functioning with a solar wall or addition.

The couple has since also create a solar heated greenhouse for seedlings at Phoenix Farm, now Four Loves Farm, in Monmouth. To do this, they added a solar wall and roof, of a similar design but more modern material, onto a dairy barn.

In submitting this story, Nancy Chandler added the following note to readers:

Please ask your legislator to support two solar bills, HR 1652 and HR1252, the funding mechanism to restore $1 million in solar rebates through Efficiency Maine. Transitioning towards highly decreased fossil fuel use for heating water and buildings is essential to Maine’s sustainable and affordable future, and the state’s energy policy must promote the use of solar, wind, small and large scale hydropower, and wood heat.

If you have questions for Nancy about her solar house design, please contact her via email or mail:
Nancy Chandler
53 Sprague Rd
Phippsburg, Me 04562

Photo credit: Nancy Chandler.