Scientist builds solar-powered ‘geriatric’ home

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By Tessa Salazar
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 19:56:00 05/16/2008
MANILA, Philippines””Necessity is the mother of all inventions, the saying goes. So when a 71-year-old environment scientist found it necessary to build a “senior citizen-friendly” home, you would expect that abode would be environment-friendly, too.

And that’s what US-based Filipino scientist Kelvin S. Rodolfo’s dream structure exactly looks and works like-an enclave that he now shares with wife sociologist Kathleen S. Crittenden.

During the couple’s recent visit to Manila, they described to Inquirer Property how they made their house in rural Wisconsin not just “geriatric-friendly” but solar-powered as well.

Accessible by wheelchair

Rodolfo explained how the 200-square-meter home was constructed with only one level, with a living space of about 150 sq m and a four-foot wide hallway-wide enough, he joked, “so (my wife and I) could race on wheelchairs when the time comes.” All doorways, he added, were three feet wide.

Though the couple is not yet wheelchair bound, the master bedroom and the showers are accessible by wheelchair. All electrical outlets are at least knee high, so they could plug things in while sitting in a wheelchair.

The Rodolfo abode is in the middle of a picturesque 3.2-hectare organic farm. The nearest hospital is nearly 6 km away, or 5 minutes by car.

‘Earth-sheltered building’

To keep the couple from feeling claustrophobic in what they call an “earth-sheltered building,” they made the ceiling height at 9 feet or 2.75 meters.

“The house is exceptionally well-insulated to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but when we use the stove in the winter fresh air is drawn in. In the summer, we can open as many windows as we want,” Rodolfo wrote in a follow-up online interview.

But is this home burglar-repellent, as well, considering that two elderly people would be living here in the future?

Rodolfo said rural Wisconsin is virtually crime-free. The couple routinely locks the doors, even while, as they observe, most people in their area do not, even when they are away. According to him, their neighbors even keep the keys of their car in the ignition slot because “someone in an emergency may need it.”

Capturing sunlight

The house’s façade, which faces south, has many windows to capture winter sunlight during the cold months. The floor is heated by collecting solar energy with a flow of glycol that is heated in black glass tubes contained in a vacuum, so that sunlight can come in but cannot escape.

The heated glycol enters the house, coils inside a water tank that heats water, then emerges from this tank and enters a network of pipes that weave back and forth under the concrete floor and underlying two feet of sand, before exiting the house and returning to the heating array. The heated water goes into a holding tank for use in the kitchen and bathrooms.

“The house was finished a little too late (October) to gather all the subfloor heat we needed, but even so, even after we were in the Philippines for all of January and February, when we returned here the outside temperature was -12oC but inside it was 16oC, and our wood stove easily made us comfortable,” Rodolfo shared.

Electric consumption

The photovoltaic panels provide 2 kilowatts of electricity. The company that provides the house’s electricity applies “net metering,” which means Rodolfo doesn’t have to store the PV-generated electricity in batteries, but lets it feed onto the grid. “If we use more than we make, we pay the difference; if we generate more than we use, the company pays us the difference at retail rates. Our March electricity bill was $11 (around P462), of which $8 was the ‘customer fee.”‘

This month, Rodolfo revealed, the couple will be augmenting the PV-generated electricity by installing a 2-kw wind generator. “So we expect the company to pay us every month, instead of us paying them.”

The couple’s bedroom is at the east end so they can wake up to the morning light. The garage is at the west.

“To keep the hallway from being too dark, we had capiz panels made in the Philippines to use as clerestory windows that let in light from the well-lit front rooms. The capiz panels also remind us of our beloved Philippines,” Rodolfo said.

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