Chasing the Sun

Ken Condon has solar panels on his house, under that spring snow, in Ashfield.   April 16, 2018
Ken Condon has solar panels on his house, under that spring snow, in Ashfield. April 16, 2018
Ken Condon has mini splits for heating and cooling his home in Ashfield.   April 16, 2018
Ken Condon has mini splits for heating and cooling his home in Ashfield. April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses wood when it is very cold out to help heat his home in Ashfield.   April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses wood when it is very cold out to help heat his home in Ashfield. April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses the sun to preheat the water in his hot water heater his home in Ashfield.   April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses the sun to preheat the water in his hot water heater his home in Ashfield. April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses mini splits to heat and cool his home in Ashfield.   April 16, 2018
Ken Condon uses mini splits to heat and cool his home in Ashfield. April 16, 2018

For Going Green

The sun bounced off the surface of Ashfield Lake, painting the interior of Ken Condon’s living room with light. Outside, the March wind rustled the trees that surrounded the one-story home, pushing the struggling warmth down into winter temperatures.

Inside the home, two heat pumps hummed softly, keeping the house a pleasant 68 degrees.

Condon, a lean man with energy in his stride, moved through the interior, pointing out the changes he has made to this 1953-era home.

“When we moved in back in 1991, it had baseboard electric with a coal- or wood-burning stove in the living room. I added a second wood stove to heat it, and started burning about 4 cords of wood per year,” Condon tells me.

Even with burning wood instead of just electricity, the costs were still higher than they liked, so in 2014, the Condons made the decision to switch to all sustainable energy.

Despite the trees that bracketed the home, Condon knew he wanted to take advantage of the solar energy that poured for free from the sky. He turned to the Solar Store in Greenfield, a sustainable energy business on Fiske Avenue.

According to http://www.seia.org, in 2017, Massachusetts ranked seventh in the nation for cumulative solar electric capacity, falling only behind the states of California, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey and Utah. Statistics on the site indicate that Massachusetts currently has the equivalent of 244,000 homes that are powered by solar energy.

There’s strong incentive to go solar. Massachusetts also ranks seventh in the nation for cost of electricity, making the task of heating a home with electric daunting. And Massachusetts is being proactive in the work of trying to eliminate older devices that aren’t as energy efficient or are polluting. Condon mentioned that he upgraded his wood stoves to newer models that burn more efficiently thanks to the rebates offered by the state.

Between these factors and the added incentives offered to go solar, the decision for Condon came easily. And there was the added satisfaction of closing the loop, so to speak, of being able to sustain one’s needs for their home without having to constantly be writing checks to utility companies.

But first, there were some things that needed to be done to prepare the home for solar installation.

He points out the solar array that faces toward the lake off of his roof, first indicating the roof itself.

“We installed standing seam metal roofing on the house. The solar array installation was really easy with that. The panels just clip right onto the seam.”

The house faces the lake, with an el at the end. The panels go along the two roof lines, which allowed some panels to be facing in a different direction. This allows the array to catch more light as the sun moves overhead.

It’s not just electricity Condon is producing on his roof; it also produces the hot water the family uses. The panels heat tubing that snakes back and forth before diving back into the hot water heater at the house. On this blustery day, he reads a gauge in the boiler room that is showing the hottest water at that moment is 144.1 degrees and the coolest at 105 degrees. When there isn’t enough solar to heat the tubing, he uses electricity to heat the water.

The two Fujitsu heat pumps supply your standard air conditioning mini split found in some homes or hotel rooms. The white, rectangular units are installed on the walls up near the ceiling. A remote control allows the home owner to set the temperature of the room.

Condon states they operate as sort of a “reverse refrigerator,” pulling air and heating it up. And although he still owns woodstoves, he now only has to use them on the coldest days.

Another welcome feature of installing solar is lack of a utility bill. The latest statement for the Condon home showed that from June through October, the average electrical bill for the home is zero. And the usage for the shoulder season months such as May are negligible.

A feature of the solar array Condon appreciates is the fact that each panel is now operating independently. When winter snows blanket them, you don’t have to shut the entire system down, being that one direction or the other will usually be cleared fairly quickly.

The wind kicked up again, causing trees to sway overhead. That led to the question of what happens if the power goes out? Will the array continue independently? The answer is no, for now. Condon doesn’t have a battery backup yet, but plans to add one.

The appearance of the home isn’t substantially altered by the addition of the solar panels. Coming down the driveway, it’s barely noticeable. The wall facing the driveway sports some extra utilities associated with the array, but nothing that is immediately noticed.

Condon pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and calls up an app on it from Solar Edge. In moments, you can see the actual output of each panel. If there is an issue with the system, you will see that right away.

And once a month, Condon calls in his solar production numbers from the meter to masscec.com, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. MASSCEC has information about getting rebates, vouchers or loans for residents looking to install clean energy as well as tracking the production of clean energy statewide.

Condon’s house has become so energy efficient that he has been host to several class tours from Holyoke Community College to see his house in action. With the lake in the foreground and the trees surrounding him, it’s easy to become enthused about living in a more sustainable fashion, with less of a carbon footprint.

And with that comes the hope that perhaps one day, man can lessen his impact upon the earth and the environment.

Author: Stephanie Funk

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