Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Smart Home: Part I

by, Rob Rutledge

Smart Home

Diagram of a Smart Home

As winter fades away, I am drawn to the question of this summer’s weather.  I suspect it will be hot, based on the relatively mild winter.  That means that the money I saved in heating bills this winter will be extracted from me in the form of electric bills to run air conditioning on sweltering days this summer.  Water bills will increase to keep our lawn at some minimal level of existence and nurture our vegetable garden.  What should I be doing now to help offset these increasing bills and have the added benefit of convenience?  I have heard about the promise of a smart home.  Is there some technology out there that will allow me to save money on a monthly basis and make my home more livable, or at the very least not increase the maintenance of my home?  As I think about the options, it gets even more complicated.  There are multiple competing technologies that provide very similar benefits.  Light control options alone take the form of light switch replacements, light socket replacements, or smart LED lights directly.  The underlying technology also varies, although a few front runners, may make this an easier decision soon.  The range of solutions can be overwhelming, and because of that there are options for home controllers, hubs or brains that will help coordinate all of these devices in a central location.  I am not sure I am ready to take the full dive into smart home yet, or that I could even afford it.  How can I decide where to start with a smart home option that will also reduce my carbon footprint?  I need to use a simple criteria to determine what to explore first:

  • Easy to understand and install myself
  • Proven benefit for my environmental impact
  • Financial benefit of reduced monthly bills (at least during the summer)

Upon examination of my monthly summer bills, the largest upward swing is in electricity and water.  Electricity is driven almost exclusively by air conditioning and water usage is driven by yard maintenance.  Electricity bills are much higher than water bills, so I will focus on that first.

A Poem

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit

We are made of earth and to earth we all return

We are deep-air mammals living at the bottom of an ocean of air

We live by the slow fire of oxidation

In landscapes shaped by fire, air, and water

We are creatures more water than solid; eddies in one watershed or another

All part of one great watershed

We are spirits made matter, but we are spirit and that matters

We are sojourners in a mystery called time

by, David W. Orr

from Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building

An Interview: Jay Treat from SolarCity

An Interview with Jay Treat from SolarCity

Jay Treat

by, Liz Rutledge

I had the pleasure of interviewing a representative of SolarCity last month.

Liz:  “When is a good time to go solar?”

Jay: “The best time to go solar is right now. The sooner you go solar, the sooner you start saving money and making a positive difference on the planet. People are already spending money every month for electricity – we make it easy for them to shift that money into building equity in their house. It’s the difference between renting electricity and owning it. That’s a concept people have never had the opportunity to get their minds around before. But, if I’m a homeowner, I know what it means to rent and I’ll choose owning every time.

Of course, the overall goal is to reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible. This can be done by swapping out appliances for more energy efficient ones, swapping incandescent light bulbs for CFLs or LEDs, insulating your home, for example.  But, not everyone has the luxury of being able to do all of these things immediately. However, if these energy saving measures are instituted, customers will generate a credit balance of energy in their solar bank account, but all of the energy they create contributes clean energy to the grid.”

Liz:  “We’ve been told our house is ineligible for solar panels.  What are some of the limiting factors?”

Jay: “The construction of a roof (pitch, orientation) and shade from nearby trees all impact eligibility – whether or not solar is an option.  Sometimes, the type of roofing material used poses a challenge…for example, if your roof is cedar shake, Spanish tile, slate, or t-lock shingle, it’s not viable for either the company of the customer to install solar panels.  Of course, with cedar shake and T-lock shingles, the homeowner will likely replace their roof within a few years anyway and typically, people move from those types to composite shingles. Then, they’ll be able to go solar. We can only mount solar panels on 40-50% of homes because of these various factors.”

Liz: “How much electrical usage can a customer off-set with solar energy?”

Jay: “Typically 60-80%. But the swing can be 0 to 100%, of course.”

Liz: “Why not 100%?”

Jay: “The offset is determined by two factors: the homes’ usage and the roof. The roof mostly because of shade or roof space/construction; obstructions (like sky lights, vents, gables, chimneys, evaporative coolers, etc.) all can impact offset.  But, other factors like the size of a family (which increases usage just because there are multiple people in multiple rooms) or whether you have two hot tubs and two freezers in your garage – your usage is going to be sky high).” The panels are always only going to produce so much and offset a fixed amount, regardless of usage.

Liz: “How long do solar panels last?  What happens to old solar panels when they’ve reached their end of life?”

Jay: “Solar panels typically have a 25-year warranty. But, they almost always last longer than that – there are still panels from the 1970’s that are generating energy. But, when they reach their end-of-life, they will be re-purposed.  SolarCity is opening a million square foot facility to produce solar panels, the largest on the planet (the first of several) will soon be opening a factory in Buffalo, NY.  It will be for panel manufacturing, but will also re-purpose old panels.  For the older and different technology – (that SolarCity does not use) called solar thermal technology, the copper can be removed and reused.”

Liz: “What’s the story with SolarCity?”

Jay: “SolarCity was created July 4, 2006 – the date is no accident – Independence Day – independence from fossil fuels was and is our goal.  It was founded by Lyndon Rive and his brother, Pete, bothcousins of Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla), who is also our chairman.  We have 350,000 systems across America, last month we booked 21,000 new customers so the total is increasing quickly.”

Liz: “Why have you chosen this career path?”

Jay: “I have always felt a deep connection with nature.  When I was a kid in Minnesota, I would run around in the woods for hours.  I developed a gratitude for nature and a passion for doing right by the planet.  Sometimes, I would witness dumping of garbage in the woods and was aghast.  I just couldn’t believe that someone would treat nature that way. We only get the one planet. When I learned I could contribute directly to making the air cleaner, the future brighter and save people money, I was hooked. We’ve got three kids and they are already having a different experience than we did as children and I want a bright and healthy future for them as well. Of course, people like to save money, so even if the planet is not a concern, solar still makes sense and I make a living. It’s a win across the board.”

To learn more about SolarCity and/or get a quote on getting your solar on, click here (full disclosure, I am an Ambassador and will also personally benefit financially if you choose to go solar – and you can too!):

You can get rewarded for referring others to SolarCity by becoming a Solar Ambassador, too!

For some exciting news about why it’s critical to support renewables, check out this article featured in the Washington Post:

Collectively, renewables are making a difference and as a planet, we’re trending in the right way!