Fears about growing heating costs prompted many New Englanders to start looking for new ways to heat their homes this winter. But a resident of Columbia, CT, hasn't had to think much about keeping warm. She lives in what's called a solar envelope house.
"My name is Carole Williamson. I live in Columbia, Connecticut,welcome to my solar home.
"This is in the airlock, a space between the garage and the living area that buffers it from the cold winter air. You open one door and you close it and then you go."
Williamson's house sits on almost thirteen acres of rolling fields. She and her family started building in 1979, completing the 2000 square foot home in a year and a half. Williamson picked the solar envelope house design after nine years of research. It became popular in the late 1970s after the oil embargo. Think of it as a house within a house.
"I didn't want to have pay the oilman, I didn't want to have to pay the electric meter, I didn't want to pay for a lot of the conventional things that you have to pay. And so I started to find ways to eliminate those."
The first step was the design. An outer wall envelops the north and south sides of the home acting as a buffer against the elements.
Williamson walks over to her living room window where the inner and outer walls are visible.
"The outside of the structure is 2' by 6' construction with foil face foam insulation, fiberglas, a vapor barrier and then there's the sheetrock. And there's a one foot airspace here that allows the air to circulate around the house. In fact if you look over there you can see a spider web blowing happily in the breeze, that's just convection."
On the other side of the living room is the south wall which is all glass. Williamson leads me through a door into a room she calls her solarium. The eight foot deep room is bathed in light from tall panes that stretch up two stories. Venting on the solarium floor allows warm air to circulate around the envelope.
"And it absorbs the heat in the winter with the dark tiled floor and dark wall. And it moves the air up around into the attic which we will see, around the double north wall with a one foot airspace and down into the basement. And it just kind of goes round and round. At night time, because this glass is cooler than that wall, it goes down this way and reverses the action."
"There's always been some controversy when it comes to envelope homes."
Joel Gordes is an independent energy consultant. In his home office in West Hartford, he flips through a folder about envelope homes.
"See here he is showing the basic double envelope.."
He points to an article about a Rhode Island home that was studied by the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
"When they instrumented the house, they found that a lot of the theory about the natural circulation was not working. They found that basically it's a super-insulated house."
Gordes says this is the real reason why Carole Williamson's envelope house is so efficient. Gordes says insulation is the key to making any home more efficient. But Williamson waves off the skeptics. Her envelope house design works for her.
"In fact, my husband and I use half a cord to three quarters of a cord a year and that's keeping the house between 75 and 82 degrees because my husband likes it tropical."
A half a cord of wood to heat a 2000 square foot home is pretty impressive but even with the envelope design, the Williamsons were still paying about about $2400 a year for electricity. That was until they purchased thirty-two photo voltaic solar panels for the south roof of the house.
They immediately saw their monthly bill drop from a couple hundred dollars a month to bills that range from $5 to $35 dollars. The extra electricity they produce is sold back to the grid and the Williamsons will actually see a refund check from Connecticut Light and Power at the end of the year.
The solar panels cost them $52,000 but a hefty state refund and a rebate from the federal government meant the out of pocket expense was less than half that amount. They expect to make their money back in less than ten years.
Willamson's success has made her a sort of ambassador for solar envelope homes. She is often hosting neighbors, boy scout troops and has even invited lawmakers to her home, none have taken her up on the offer, to illustrate that a carefully planned house can work.
"This is a fix, this house is a fix. This will cure your disease of oil dependency. To think of people of limited means, the elderly who just literally will be freezing in their homes and it's not necessary. I mean you could build elderly housing in this style and they'd be comfortable and warm with minimal input."
It's wasn't easy finding other envelope homes in Connecticut. National interest in the homes declined in the 1980s but Carole Williamson hopes that her home can be a model for living more efficiently.