Owners of Seward eco-home turn their ideals into reality


In these days of Inconvenient Truths, Jim Jacobson and Jane Garvin are role models for those of us who hope to turn inspiration into action. For the past few years, they’ve grown increasingly aware of alternative energy systems and have gradually transformed their Seward home into a model of energy efficiency.

In recent years, Jacobson and Garvin have installed a photovoltaic solar heating system in their home at 2815 E. 25th St. near Matthews Park, which will be among area homes on the Solar Home Tour Oct. 7 (the exterior only). They’ve used recycled building materials in their home renovations, are replacing old appliances with state-of-the-art energy-efficient models, use only compact fluorescent bulbs, and even unplug “phantom load”contributors such as LED displays on remote-controlled televisions and microwaves. In their driveway sits a Honda Insight hybrid.

“We tried to raise our awareness of all our energy use and garbage and consumption,” Garvin explains. “We bought a Kill A Watt meter, so you can see how much your appliance uses. We read our bills to understand how much we use.”

Inspiration and action
It all started at the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, California. “They’ve got demonstration sites all around showing how solar panels work, building techniques, permaculture and more,” Garvin says. “That was an inspiration for us. There was a sign as you were leaving: ‘Now turn your inspiration into action.’ We thought it would be too expensive, but we did it anyway.”

The couple got serious about turning their ecodreams into reality about three years ago, when they learned that 75 percent of their electricity comes from coal. They consulted Home Power magazine for details and contracted with Innovative Power Systems to install solar panels. The cost—$19,000 after a $6,000 rebate from the state Department of Commerce—was not prohibitive for the couple, who make their living as freelance classical musicians.

The solar energy system works great, says Jacobson. “In the summer we make far more power than we need, and in winter far less, so we break even.” Xcel Energy buys back the surplus energy the system generates in sunnier months at the same rate they charge. But Garvin and Jacobson have found that Xcel often misreads the meter, so they read it themselves regularly and send the correct figures to Xcel to receive the proper credit for their excess energy.

And maintenance has not been a problem. “We haven’t touched it since it went on,” Jacobson says.

But there are caveats. For instance, your home should be well-insulated before investing in solar panels. “That’s the first, most important thing you need to do,” Garvin says.

They also recommend switching to compact fluorescent lights before installing the system. “They’re getting cheaper all the time and lasting longer,” Garvin says. “And in summer, they make your house less warm. We also recommend conserving energy and water, and reducing your consumption, before getting the panels.”

To add the solar panel system, Jacobson and Garvin had to change their roof alignment. Deciding to make it functional and aesthetically pleasing, they added a third level to their home. They also super-insulated the ceiling so they didn’t need to add a supplemental heat source for the third floor addition.

They used the services of Richard Venberg, a local carpenter and builder who specializes in alternative energy systems, to rebuild the roof and do renovations. The third level, where the panels are close enough to touch, is reached by climbing a charming spiral staircase that encircles an indoor tree. The sunny room with beautiful hardwood floors opens onto a small deck outfitted with copper, salvaged wood and other miscellany; the deck overlooks a lush garden filled with organic pumpkins, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes and watermelon.

The solar panels cover the steep southern side of the roof. Each of the 18 three-by-five-foot panels generate 170 watts of power.

Embodied energy
This couple is thoroughly conscientious on both a local scale and beyond. “We think of embodied energy,” says Jacobson, “and buy as much as we can locally.” And much of it is recycled, Garvin adds, “We get as much building materials from used resources as we can, such as the Reuse Center. We got the third-floor windows, flooring and skylight from there. We used redwood for the deck.”

The builder had to remove part of the roof and used as much of it as he could for other parts of the house, such as stair banisters and rafters. He also found some materials in a day care Dumpster.

The beauty of reusing building materials is more than skin-deep, Garvin explains. “We do this so we don’t add to fossil fuel use and new manufacturing costs, such as fossil fuels there, and also materials are not being added to the landfill. So much energy is used in remodeling houses!”

That mindset, she adds, becomes almost routine. “Once you start, you don’t stop!”

Jacobson agrees. “Once you get it out of your head, and start doing the physical implementation, purchasing and installing, you become obsessed.”

But don’t forget to do the research—especially on energy-efficient appliances—before emergencies. That way, you won’t be tempted to buy a standard one in a pinch. “We were tempted, but we did not!” Garvin quips. They exchanged their old washer and dryer for a combination model: a used Equator from Italy that cost $500. It’s very compact, only about three feet high and two feet wide.

And they replaced their former 40-gallon standard water heater that died last year with a tankless one, which has reduced their gas use by 50 percent. It cost $1,800—$600 for the water heater, $1200 to install it—but they’ll get a $300 tax credit from the IRS. The tankless water heater uses no pilot and doesn’t maintain a set amount of water at a constant temperature, instead, as water enters the heater, it spins a small turbine, generating a spark to ignite the heater. So it not only offers significant energy savings, but provides an unlimited supply of hot water.

They also look forward to installing a more efficient furnace when their current one dies. “We’ll be able to get a geothermal heat pump,” Garvin says. “That’s another dream.”

Garvin says she looks forward to the day when all this technology is accessible to more people. “My wish is that the panels would get cheaper and that there would be government subsidies,” she says, adding that she also wishes buildings would have to meet a code for efficiency.

[italics]Jacobson and Garvin recommend the following resources: www.homepower.com, www.fresh-energy.org (formerly Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy), www.mnrenewables.org, and www.bauersalvage.com. For information on state and federal tax incentives, go to www.dsireusa.org. Q’s to Jim and Jane: jimandjane@mac.com.[end italics]

Solar Home Tour
Saturday, Oct. 7
Sponsored by Minnesota Renewable Energy Society (MRES)
Call or check their Web site for a guidebook.