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Solar in the Real World: Tour of Solar Homes Begins in October

September 28, 2009 - 12:26pm


The National Solar Tour takes place annually during the first Saturday in October in conjunction with National Energy Awareness Month. Last year close to 140,000 attendees visited some 5,000 solar buildings in 3,000 participating communities. Find the tour nearest you.

Initially, the tour began about 20 years ago when a solar retailer and installer in California organized some of its customers and got them to agree to open up their homes once a year to the general public. The owners enjoyed showing off their solar homes to the public, the public was eager to learn about solar technologies, and the solar company drummed up additional leads and sales. It was a win-win situation. The solar tour became a popular annual event and tours began springing up elsewhere. The nonprofit American Solar Energy Society (ASES) took over organizing the tour as it became a nationwide event. It's now in its 14th year under ASES.

As Drew mentioned in an earlier blog, the Solar Decathlon takes place on the National Mall from October 9th through the 18th, with all houses closed to the public on the 14th. I enjoy visiting the student-designed Solar Decathlon homes to talk to the student design teams, and to see the latest and greatest in solar and sustainable products and design ideas. On the other hand, I'm eager to visit the homes on the ASES National Solar Tour to see how people are building or retrofitting their homes to use solar and to be more sustainable, and to talk to the homeowners who have been living a solar and sustainable lifestyle.

My wife and I first bought a tour guide for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C.-area Tour of Solar Homes and Buildings, our local tour, more than a decade ago. In addition to listing and describing the solar homes on the tour, and providing solar information and a list of local installers, the guide is also your ticket to visit the homes and talk to the owners.

At the time, there were a couple dozen homes on the tour, scattered throughout Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. I scanned the brochure for the homes I was most interested in, such as an underground house in Virginia, a home in Washington, D.C., with triple-pane windows, and a Maryland home with a solar-zoned hydronic radiant space heating system.

Then I carefully mapped out our route so that we could tour as many of these homes as possible during the one-day event. That allowed for 3 or 4 home visits, depending on the distance from each other. The following year, I picked other homes of interest to visit. Of course, I was interested in learning about the experiences of the owners with their passive solar design, solar water heaters, and photovoltaic solar electric systems. But I was even more interested in their homes' energy efficiency features, which I could more easily replicate. I wanted to learn what worked, and what didn't—or what didn't work as well as expected. I also wanted to learn about real-world installed costs.

After I had a small solar-electric system installed on my roof (that's me in the photo), and joined both the American Solar Energy Society and its local chapter, the Potomac Region Solar Energy Association, I began to help out with the Washington, D.C., area Tour of Solar Homes. This will be my sixth year helping to recruit, organize, and publicize the Greenbelt, Maryland component. I've had as many as five Greenbelt solar homes on the tour at one time.

Clustering the homes really encourages people to come—they know they can visit a lot of homes within a very short time. Each year, I get hoarse answering questions and describing the many solar and sustainable features of our Greenbelt home. I've gotten to know many of the solar homeowners where I live. Homeowners of two passive solar homes participated in the past. This year on the tour I'll have a neighbor with a solar water heater and another with a large 2-kilowatt photovoltaic solar-electric system, nearly 4x the size of my home's system.

Solar energy doesn't really make sense until you first make sure your home is energy efficient. I'll be talking a lot about our high efficiency ductless heat pumps; the window quilts that keep the cool air in during the summer and the warm air in during the winter; our fluorescent and LED lighting; and a host of other sustainable features in addition to our solar electric system.

The Washington, D.C., area Tour of Solar Homes and Buildings has grown so large—we have more than 70 buildings on the tour this year—that we've gone to a two-day event. Some of the homes will be open on Saturday, October 3rd, while the others will be open on Sunday, October 4th. The guide is good for both days, so you'll have twice as much time and be able to view more homes.

The Greenbelt, Maryland, homes are open on Saturday this year. If you're in the neighborhood, come on by. I'll be leaving the door open for you.