In Methods of Design & Patterns, Permaculture Projects, Retrofit, Solar, Structures & Energy Solutions, Water


In 2007, Michelle and I spent six months as interns at the Nordic Folkecenter for Renewable Energy in Denmark. It was an incredible experience and truly opened up our eyes to the possibilities and opportunities with renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

When we returned to our hometown of Calgary, we decided to join forces with Michelle’s mother, and moved into her 25 year old typical urban home. This grid-connected home had terrible insulation, lots of lawn and a very old and inefficient natural-gas hot water heater. Our goal has been to slowly retrofit this house into a little urban permaculture homestead.

The front-lawn food forest and back-yard veggie gardens were installed in 2008, a substantial re-insulation project and rain water harvesting initiated in 2009, a passive solar greenhouse build in 2010, and this year so far (2012) we’ve focused on energy projects: a rocket mass heater for the greenhouse and a solar thermal array for the house.

Getting a solar hot water system was a big financial decision, and folks have questioned our choice of investment, especially considering the current low price of natural gas. So, here’s an attempt to explain our reasons for making this project a priority:

First of all, we had some savings and a decision to make about where to invest those savings. However, we were completely dismayed when considering the traditional options for investment. In addition, we recently watched a documentary called “The Inside Job” – which again highlighted the absolute corrupt nature of the investment banking industry. One more nail in the coffin, you could say.

Now, back to permaculture. One of the primary principles is to always obtain an ethical yield. When we invest in the stock market, we have no control over that yield, which could very likely be negative not only financially, but ecologically and socially.

On the other hand, we felt that meeting our future energy needs was a very good, secure and ethical investment. Despite the low cost of natural gas, we also feel that energy markets are not stable.

Next, consider the ethical use of energy in itself. Natural gas is a non-renewable resource. So – if (and perhaps more accurately, when) our culture uses the last of it up – there will be none for future generations. Currently it is extracted from the ground using wells, processed, compressed and then pipelined to a distribution source near you. In residential settings, the largest use is for space heating and domestic hot water. This incredible resource is a high-grade fuel and burns at 1200 degrees Celcius, whereas the domestic water it’s heating is heated to around 45 deg Celcius and space heat requirements are about 21 deg Celcius. Therefore, using natural gas to heat domestic water or heat homes is akin to cutting butter with a chain saw!

In other words, using a fuel that burns at 1200 deg celcius to heat water or air to 21 or 45 deg is a complete misuse of a finite, high-grade, highly valuable energy resource. Ethically, we feel that natural gas should be reserved for high-grade uses, such as melting steel and fabricating plastic for manufacturing durable and long-life products.

Solar energy, on the other hand, is a much lower grade, but highly abundant (you could say infinte) energy source which is much better matched to space and water heating, especially in well insulated homes like ours. Plus, once installed, there are no ongoing fuel costs!

About three years ago, I met Tom Jackman from Simple Solar, when I was subcontracted by MV Pedersen Engineering to do an engineering assessment and prepare an evaluation report for his solar array and system. Our assessment showed that his simple design was robust, effective and efficient. As soon as we were ready for our own system, I contacted Tom. His team installed the system in a matter of days, and we can now rely on taking secure, ethical, and efficiently heated showers for years to come! (If only we could capture and then recycle that water… sigh, a post for another day…)  

Here’s an interview that we put together with myself and Tom during the installation:


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  • Willa

    This looks like a wonderful system. I’m wondering whether the glass tubes for the solar panels are protected from any damage that could occur during severe weather systems like hail storms and high winds.


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