'Zero net energy' home being built in Hilmar

Solar, geothermal systems result in net zero energy use

pguerra@modbee.comAugust 17, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Patty Guerra
    Title: Breaking news editor
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    Bio: Patty Guerra has been an editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 13 years. She has a journalism degree from Fresno State and previously worked at the Turlock Journal and Merced Sun-Star.
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— Under construction on a corner in Hilmar is the house of the future — seven years or so in the future.

Local builder Clint Wood, of CMW Builders Inc., is building a home designed to use minimal, if any, conventional power.

Wood said he has been looking for ways to make "zero net energy" homes without raising costs significantly for the buyers, and he thinks he's found it.

To see what's different about these kinds of houses, you have to look up and then down. Solar panels on the roof generate electricity, and the heating and air conditioning is provided through a geothermal system, which runs underneath the ground.

Water runs through pipes underground, where it is cooled in the summer and warmed in the winter. Though temperatures in the Northern San Joaquin Valley get quite high in the summer and occasionally below freezing in the winter, "underground, it's always the same temperature," Wood said.

By 2020, the state calls for "a significant portion of new residential and commercial buildings in California (to be) zero net energy and existing residential and commercial buildings (to) have decreased energy consumption by 30 percent to 70 percent from 2008 levels," according to the California Energy Commission.

That's not all that difficult to achieve, Wood said, if money is no object. But that's rarely the case.

Wood said he's had a few attempts at reducing energy use, with mixed results. Increased insulation was one answer, but it is expensive and not always practical. Now he thinks he's found a winner.

Home buyers pay for the solar panels in monthly installments that should echo what their neighbors are paying the local electricity provider. But in a few years, those payments stop. The geothermal system means there's no gas required for a home. But the underground piping system makes it unwieldy for current homeowners, particularly those in areas without a lot of land.

David Verdegaal did not have that restriction. The Oakdale farmer had Wood install a geothermal system about a year ago and said he's very happy with it.

"The problem was (that) nobody knew about them," Verdegaal said. "There wasn't really anybody I could ask. I figured I'll just try it and pulled the trigger."

Though it cost $5,000 more than a conventional heating and air conditioning unit — Verdegaal dug the trenches for the pipes himself — Verdegaal figures he's saving money in the long run. While others in his area pay an average of $500 per month in electricity, Verdegaal's bill runs around $350.

That sounds pretty expensive, but Verdegaal is cooling a 4,000-square-foot house. And he is using the system far more than he would otherwise.

"I just turn it on and I forget about it," he said.

Wood said he's excited to see if his system catches on, and where it can go in the future. About the only problem he's come upon so far are cooks who prefer to use gas cooktops — that includes his wife.

He's got a ready answer for them:

"Get a 10-gallon propane tank and hook it up to that," he said. "It beats paying the propane company."

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.

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