When John Howard built his South Hadley home nearly 40 years ago, he knew he wanted to build a home that would be as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as possible, using recycled materials and powering his home with solar panels.
Today, Howard has added new additions to both the home and its energy fixtures, and his goal is to switch over everything he uses from fossil fuels to renewable energy. And he’s nearly there; he has a gas-powered snowblower and a small generator (which he only turns on for about five minutes every two weeks), but that’s about it, he said.
Six sections of solar panels, purchased throughout the years, sit on the roof of his home. And while his house is connected to the grid, he doesn’t need to draw power from it most days — and he’s been sharing his home with the public through open houses and an informational website to try to increase awareness and promote using sustainable energy, particularly as the climate crisis becomes more imminent.
“I’ve also found that as I’ve put more solar panels up, I’ve found more things to use it on,” Howard said, standing in the garage of his home and pointing to an electric car plugged into a charging dock.
Howard added the last section of solar panels to his home in 2018. He knew that throughout the years, the panels would become more efficient and less expensive. While the first panels he bought only generated 1 kilowatt of electricity and cost $10,000, his neighbors just installed a 5 kilowatt system for $14,000, a large portion of which they didn’t even have to pay for, he said.
And he’s adamant about telling his friends and neighbors about the different reimbursement programs offered through the local, state and federal governments, which vary by location and can reduce the cost of buying and installing the panels, often by thousands of dollars.
Howard, who worked in the Theatre Department at Mount Holyoke College for 33 years and retired 14 years ago, bought the land for his home in 1981. Ornate leaded glass windows and hefty wooden doors from the college, which were either given to him for free or sold at rock-bottom prices (the windows were $10 each), are installed throughout the home, and two-thirds of the siding on his house came from trees cut down on his property.
In addition to solar, Howard has focused on making the entire house as energy-efficient as possible. He’s had an energy audit done every two years, each time finding new ways to tighten the home and prevent energy loss.
One of those ways is through movable insulation, like interior plastic storm windows, or a bifold window covering, which also acts as a privacy screen in the bathroom.
“You know how on windy days some people’s curtains blow inside?” he asked. “Storm windows like these keep a better seal around the windows to prevent that.”
Outside the home, Howard has made his lawn care minimal, too, by planting vinca (also known as periwinkle) in the front yard, which doesn’t need to be mowed, he said. For the backyard, he uses an electric mower.
Earlier this month, Howard hosted an open house for the public, where he gave about a dozen people a tour of the property. Nearly a quarter of them already had solar panels for their home, he said.
One recommendation he has for anyone looking to make their home more energy efficient easily is to install insulation around hot water lines, since a lot of heat is lost through pipes. Fiberglass insulation, which he put in the walls of his basement, also helps the house retain heat.
But as the home has gotten “tighter” throughout the years as he’s sealed doors and windows to keep air from escaping, it’s also created the need for a ventilation system, to ensure the house can “breathe” and get rid of the toxins in the air. For that, he installed a heat recovery ventilator, which ventilates air from outside without losing the heat from the air inside.
And he still keeps two wood-burning fire stoves, which do emit some toxins into the air, but at least aren’t burning fossil fuels, and he likes the warmth and ambiance of the wood stoves in the winter, he said.
And the dinosaur footprints imprinted into rocks decorating the base of the fireplace near his kitchen, which he found while blasting rock for the foundation, look pretty cool, too.