Maybe I’m showing my age, but I remember when the little town of Antelope was almost blown off the map, literally. This was in 1973, and it was all over our local news. A wheel overheated on a train and began to spark, which lit the wood railcar carrying bombs for the military on fire. Miraculously, nobody died that day, but Antelope, which was tiny and didn’t even have its own postmark back then, was completely leveled—every last building.
I don’t think any of us knew it at the time, but Antelope being knocked down and rebuilt from the ground up was a unique opportunity for it to grow into a fantastic, liveable town—it’s now one of the most modern spots in our area. In the late ‘80s, it underwent a housing boom that lives on to this day, turning it into an extremely well-planned city of more than 45,000 people. there are a real forward-thinking feel to Antelope, with plenty of land still open for development. New homes keep going up rapidly, and many are embracing solar power.
I’ve talked about retrofitting houses for solar power, but I want to bring up building an energy-efficient solar home from the ground up. If you’re constructing a brand new house, you have the chance to use solar energy in a way that can save you money for decades to come, something vitally important in this era of low fuel supply and soaring energy costs. So let’s take a look at those design plans, from the roofline to the insulation.
A Solar Home from the Top Down
Obviously, Antelope is one of the best-planned towns in our area because it had the opportunity to develop from scratch about 30 years ago. Building a solar-powered home from the ground up creates a similar chance to plan ahead, especially in Northern California locations that receive massive amounts of sunlight. In the summer months, for instance, Antelope averages a minuscule .2 inches of precipitation. Here are the most important factors to consider when it comes to solar-focused construction:
- A south facing roof: This is the single most important facet of building a solar-powered house. You simply must make sure there is a south facing roof with plenty of room for solar panels. Now, it doesn’t need to face perfect solar south, which is at 195 degrees—you have about 90 degrees of leeway in either direction—but the closer to perfect south you can get, the better. With this in mind, you may want to consult with a solar energy expert when identifying a lot for your new home—Antelope’s developing status means flexibility and an abundance of available spots.
- Roof pitch: The ideal roof pitch, or the numerical measure for how steep a roof’s angle is, falls between 5 and 12 for solar panels. The number represents the ratio, in inches, of rise or fall per foot of roof. So, a roof pitch of 5, for example, means there are 5 inches of rise or fall for every 12 inches of the roof’s length. In Antelope, you’ll get the most efficiency from a lower sloped roof, which is ideal for our excessively sunny summers.
- Avoid obstructions: Dormers, chimneys, vent pipes, and other utilities that are mounted on a roof can interrupt the span of blank area where the panels sit, which is bad because it lessens how many total panels you can install. Avoid them entirely if possible, especially dormers, keeping all of those obstructions on the north, west or east facing tracts of roof. If, for whatever reason, you have to have a vent pipe or a chimney on the south-facing roof, place it as close to the ridge, or to one end of the roof, as possible.
- Shingles: This one is pretty simple. Asphalt and standing seam metal roofs are ideal for solar systems because they’re more supportive of the panels. Metal shingles, cedar shingles, and exposed fastener metal roofs don’t work out as well because they don’t give panels the same level of support. Avoid the latter group altogether if you can—you have that luxury if you’re building a new house from the ground up.
- The utility room: Solar panels on the roof require pipe and wire runs, which are pathways for the wires and water that solar panels need to function. Since you’re building from scratch, you have an ideal opportunity to put one of these runs within your new home’s frame, instead of having to retrofit them after a build.
I want to stress one key point before we move on, which is that new construction of solar-powered homes does not have to be more expensive than a traditional one. The cost to build a house that is suited for solar panels, as well as the panels’ installation costs themselves, will be quickly recouped by energy savings, especially in California, where some estimates peg total solar savings at $35,000 over 20 years. So, the only real question you should be asking is, “Should I lease or buy my panels?”
The Big Solar Debate: Lease or Buy?
When it comes to paying for the actual solar panels that will go on that perfectly constructed and positioned roof of yours, you have a major decision to make: do you want to rent or buy? I mentioned this above, but it’s worth reiterating here: the cost of having solar panels installed quickly pays for itself based on the money you will save on your energy bills. With that in mind, focus on the long-run savings, rather than the short-term costs. Leasing panels may be cheaper up front, but you’ll have to continue paying a leasing company a monthly fee for the panels, typically over a 20-year contract, which may or may not even be equal to the money you’re saving on energy costs.
This becomes particularly problematic over the lifetime of the panels. The financials behind this are complex, but solar leases are generally offered on 20 or 25-year terms, while the terms for solar loans to buy panels vary from 5 to 20 years in length. Monthly payments for most solar leases increase at a predetermined rate between 1 or 3 percent annually, whereas solar loans typically have fixed monthly payments. With all that in mind, the monthly payments for a 20-year solar loan to buy panels are likely to be lower than the total cost you’ll pay for a 20-year lease on panels. How much lower, however, depends on whether your solar loan is secured or unsecured. So, while leasing companies may seem attractive due to deals that require no money down, the better move, long-term, is often to buy.
Even more cost efficient is buying panels through a financing program, like PACE or HERO, that covers 100 percent of your solar panel purchase and installation. These are government programs designed to help people with tight budgets adopt solar energy for their homes. The interest rates on these loans vary, dependent on a homeowner’s property tax bill. However, in California, any interest paid is often tax deductible. As a census-designated but technically unincorporated part of Sacramento County, Antelope is very much eligible for these programs because while PACE programs only cover certain towns in Sac County, but all unincorporated areas are covered.
Passive Solar Efficiency Tips for New Construction
Since you’re building a new home and starting with a totally clean slate, there are a few other energy efficiency suggestions you may want to consider to support your goal of going green, including:
- Windows: Vertical, south-facing windows are more efficient than others at reducing heat loss in your home because their direction allows them to absorb solar energy better, the same reason you want them on your south-facing roof. Even with Antelope’s average of 3.4 inches of rain in December, the climate still gets quite a bit of sun each winter. Efficiently designed windows that are double or triple-paned are thicker and able to retain heat inside your home for extended periods of time. It’s tough to change the shape of windows after a build, but if you’re jumping in on Antelope’s boom of new housing developments, you can choose the direction your new windows face before construction starts.
- The furnace: A couple options I suggest to new homeowners in Antelope are condensing furnaces and propane-heat pump hybrid units. Condensing furnaces are like conventional ones, but they use less energy by capturing almost all the heat produced from the fuel rather than leaving some in the exhaust a furnace releases. Meanwhile, a propane-heat pump hybrid is perfect for a place like Antelope, where the temperature in the winter only dips into the 30s a handful of times. A hybrid uses an energy efficient heat pump when the temperature is above 40, but has the propane furnace as a backup when it gets any colder than that.
- Insulation: A major problem for homes is air leakage, which forces furnaces to work harder in the winter and AC units to do the same in the summer—consult with a trained professional who can tell you what sort of insulation will be best for your new home as it relates to energy efficiency. In general, I recommend loose-fill cellulose insulation for any home in our area, and for a home in Antelope I’d recommend going a bit thicker on the insulation in the attic since summers are harsh. In climates with hot summers, the temperature in an uninsulated attics can rise upwards of 140 degrees, causing the ducts in those spaces to also heat up. That heat is then transferred to the air moving through them—and out into your home. If the outside air is passing freely in and out of a house because of poor insulation, there’s really no point to those other efficiency measures.
A freak explosion back in the 70s cleared away the few small buildings that made up Antelope at the time, giving the town a clean slate for development. Many of the cities in our area have neighborhood after neighborhood first laid out and built decades before solar energy was a realistic possibility for a new home. But that’s just not the case in Antelope. There are, of course, plenty of other towns in our area where you can build on blank lots as well, and these tips for solar houses apply there, too. But, wherever you decide to build, just know that starting from the ground up is a great chance to create a solar efficient home that will be as good for the environment as it is for saving money on your power bill.
Trained solar professionals can help you build the perfect new solar home—and find the funds to finance it. Contact Bell Brothers today for more information.