How Do I Convert My Home to Passive Solar in Austin?

austin-pilatesWe at Austin Passive Solar often get asked how a homeowner can make the most of passive solar energy savings with their current home.

Tough question, and sadly, a lot of it depends on your home, and of course, on its elevation, windows, topology, shade, current heating/cooling systems, and more. But still, I think rephrasing the question might help.

Really, I think most people are asking “What are some common ways to convert the average Austin house into a passive solar home?” And that question is one we can dig into without coming to your home or asking a lot of questions. In fact, this article sums up some of the common options pretty well, including some helpful diagrams that show how smart passive solar design can make a window a heat source in the winter and a shady viewpoint in summer.

We also thought that this article from Mother Earth News would be helpful as a case study of how one homeowner converted their standard home into a passive solar energy saver.

We hope that helps! As always, feel free to  for individualized answers.

Passive Solar: Is Passive Lunar the Next Big Thing?

Daniel Chang emailed me a few days ago with some cynical observations about the state of passive solar in Austin and in the country today. “Maybe passive lunar contemplation will lead to something,” he says.

As we all know, active solar and solar panels get all the hype while passive solar design is often invisible to the untrained eye. To most people, “solar energy” is active solar. But passive solar is still a reality, just like the thermal properties of stone, earth, and wood are an enduring reality.

A quick survey of information about passive solar shows that, although architects and builders in parts of the country are using passive solar concepts, there’s no discernable trend toward increased use of passive strategies. So although passive solar is effectively free (can you imagine a national TV campaign for free passive solar?!?) there’s still plenty of room for improvement — and for increased energy and utility bill savings. For a lot of homeowners and commercial property managers, this is money on the table just waiting to be taken, but these savings have to be realized well before the construction stage.

Our key discovery was a report entitled Energy Policy by Kelly Kruzner, Kristin Cox, Brian Machmer, and Leidy Klotz. In it, the authors performed a satellite image inventory of 1000 homes across the country and evaluated the homes for their orientation to prevailing sun, roof color, and sun/shade exposure. They found that home orientation in some parts of the country is trending toward conforming with passive solar strategy — but at the same time roof color in many areas of the country is counter to passive principles. And as mentioned earlier, there’s no trend overall toward better passive solar design.

Here’s hoping passive solar becomes more well-known. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be.

Monsanto: the bully at the dinner table?

Lately we’ve been thinking a bit about Monsanto, the agribusiness giant that sells the weedkiller Roundup and genetically-modified Roundup-resistant seeds to American farmers. As more and more Americans rethink the way their food is produced, Monsanto continues to promote its products to farmers and sue farmers who it thinks are stealing its products. Monsanto’s website claims that they don’t sue innocent farmers, but there seems to be evidence to the contrary.

Monsanto’s origins are no prettier. It got its start selling chemicals with bad household names like DDT, rBGH, Aspartame, and yes, Agent Orange. Agent Orange and Roundup — anyone see a similarity?

On the other hand, though, Monsanto is an important part of the food production picture. Monsanto produces a vast majority of common American crops — 90% of soy, 85% of corn, and 95% of sugar beets — all of which are genetically modified. “Even organic farmers… have little choice but to buy [seed] from them,” says Veteran News Now.

Global population continues to balloon, too. Implied in Monsanto’s website and market dominance is the concept that without Monsanto we will starve. No one wants to boycott a company only to doom innocent people to a death by starvation.

However, Monsanto’s products may not be the only solution to our growing food production problem. Bountiful harvests have been a goal since the beginning of human civilization, but much of our current technological and scientific energies are dedicated toward cheaper cellphones. Meanwhile, Monsanto’s claims of a trouble-free crop have already been debunked. The New York Times has already written about how a new breed of Roundup-resistant superweeds are forcing farmers to other herbicides and old-school methods of weed control. In the background, players like Dow Chemical, Bayer, and Syngenta are furiously researching strains that are resistant to other herbicides so they can jump in on the herbicide-resistant seed game.

Our prediction? Monsanto’s new image consultants will apply some of its $2.5 billion in profits (2013) toward a name change. Hopefully the new name will be something catchy and memorable.