Mother Earth Living

Four Simple Ways to Go Solar

From baby steps to big steps, tapping the sun's energy is easier than ever
By Valerie Streeter
January/February 2008
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Installing rooftop solar panels is just one of several great ways to use renewable energy
Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison

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There are lots of ways to use the sun to power your home. Though a large investment, solar panels add value to a house and profit homeowners in the end. Even if you’re not ready to take this big step toward renewable energy, you can still use this natural resource—it can be as easy as planting a garden or shading your windows. Read on for tips to go solar at any level. 

1. Grow solar.

Any time you grow a plant, you’re taking advantage of solar power. Converting sunlight into energy, plants produce the fruits, vegetables and blooms that provide us with nutrition and beauty. Go one step farther and make solar energy part of your home by creating a roof garden—or green roof—on your workshop, shed or doghouse. Green roofs take advantage of rain water, can help control indoor temperatures and add outdoor space to your house. Jon Alexander, a builder who put a green roof on his garage in Seattle, raves about his view of it from the house. “I love watching the changing colors of the plants and all the birds that visit,” he says.

2. Go passive.

A passive solar house is almost too easy; no moving parts are needed. “Passive solar uses the energy of the sun for space heating,” says Kelly Lerner, architect and co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006). “You just need to design your house according to your climate and your heating needs.”

A home’s thermal mass—any thick, heavy material that holds sunlight, such as concrete, tiles or layers of sheet rock—absorbs the sun’s heat during the day and releases it slowly throughout the night.

A passive-solar home requires:

• South-facing glass windows, sized for your climate (usually 7 to 12 percent of the floor area of your home)

• Adequate shading in the summer

• Indoor thermal mass—such as concrete, tiles or layers of sheet rock—that can store heat

• Proper insulation

You can retrofit an existing home by installing insulated shades to keep in heat on winter nights and keep sun out in summer, or add more heat-capturing thermal mass such as extra layers of plaster on the walls. “A trellis with the right kind of plants for the climate will shade the house in the summer months and die back to allow the sun in during the winter,” Lerner says. For more on passive solar design, visit and click on “Products” then “Residential Energy Design.”

3. Use the sun to heat your water.

Solar thermal systems, which heat water without electricity, are a great introduction to solar energy. There are two types: flat-plate panels and evacuated tube collectors.

Flat-plate systems represent most of the domestic hot-water market. “Water is pumped through a series of tubes through a black surface that’s good at converting radiation into heat,” says Mike Nelson, solar proponent at Washington State University’s Energy Program. Equipment and installation costs range from $7,500 to $10,000, but the system will greatly reduce your home’s energy costs and you can earn a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost, up to $2,000.

Better suited to cold and cloudy climates, evacuated tube collectors gather the sun’s heat and retain it, much like a thermos. “The element in the tube collects heat from the sun and doesn’t lose any to the cold air outside because it’s in a vacuum,” says Sean Izzarone of Puget Sound Solar in Seattle. “It’s a super-efficient system.”

Starting at $6,000 for 20 tubes, equipment and installation, evacuated tube collectors can help heat 70 percent of a home’s hot water annually in the Pacific Northwest. This type of system is also eligible for the federal tax credit for residences.

4. Profit from the sun with photovoltaics.

Stuart and Patricia Macrobbie of Sequim, Washington, built their grid-tied, solar-powered house as a political statement. Stuart, a retired doctor, believes renewable energy and conservation can help the country become less dependent on foreign oil, so the couple invested in solar panels tied to the power grid—no batteries or backup generators required. “We give power to the public utility district in the summer but depend on them during winter,” Stuart says.

The home’s eighteen 165-watt multi-crystalline solar modules allow the Macrobbies to pay less than $10 a month for electricity in summer. In their first full year of solar, the couple covered all their electrical needs and made a $353 profit by selling their electricity back to the local power company through a process called net metering.

Although not available nationwide, 16 states have net-metering regulations. Check out to learn about renewable energy incentives in your state.

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