Building the NewenHouse Kit Home: Living in a Passive House

| 2/12/2012 9:37:27 PM

Sonya NewenhouseSonya Newenhouse, Ph.D. is an eco-entrepreneur who enjoys providing practical and creative solutions to help individuals and organizations live and manage green. Her firm, Madison Environmental Group, provides LEED green building and sustainability consulting services. She is also founder and president of Community Car, a car sharing organization in Madison Wisconsin. Currently she is developing NewenHouse, a business that will provide super-insulated sustainable kit homes. 

I’m here to report what it’s like to live in a Passive House in winter in Wisconsin. Some blog readers have emailed me and wondered how the house is performing. I’m very pleased to report that living in a certified Passive House in Wisconsin in the winter is working. In fact, it’s working better than we expected. Since the New Year we have relied solely on the heat from the sun and the heat created from our daily home activities. We have yet to turn on any supplemental heat (our two Eco-heater 400-watt wall units nor our 250-watt bathroom ceiling heaters). The lowest the house temperature dropped was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. My husband Cecil and roommate Bjorn have been good sports in joining me to test the house. You know they are committed to the project when you ask, “Let’s see how cold it gets without turning the heat on,” and they agree to the experiment. Every day when we come downstairs for breakfast around 7 a.m., we check the indoor and outdoor temperatures. If I’m home in the middle of the day, I record the indoor temperature. When we go to bed (around 10 p.m.), we check both the indoor and outdoor temperatures again. 

We also keep track of the sun and record if it’s sunny or cloudy. We record when we turn on the back-up electric water heater, which we do only if the water temperature from the sun drops below 105 degrees Farenheit. Otherwise we leave the breaker to the water heater off.

80 Gallon Insulated Velux Solar Hot Water Heater With Electric Back Up 
Velux 80-gallon insulated solar hot water heater with electric backup. Photo By Sonya Newenhouse. 

Following are performance measures of the house for 30 consecutive winter days in Wisconsin, 27 of which were below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (below 0 degrees Celsius). When it’s sunny out, the temperate inside during the day is pretty steady around 74 degrees F (23 degrees C). There were 12 days where the indoor temperature was above 64 degrees F (18 degrees C) when we woke up. The lowest it ever dropped to in the house was 55 degrees F (13 degrees C ). We only had three days where the indoor temperature reached below 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) when we went to bed, and overnight the average temperature drop was only 3 degrees F. The greatest drop over night was 6 degrees F. The large triple-pane fiberglass Inline windows from Canada work great and lose little nighttime heat. Out of the 18 days when we recorded the mid day temperature, there were 14 days when the house warmed to above 68 degrees F (19 degrees C).  

A reminder—we intended to use our heaters to stay above 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) every day, but we wanted to test the house and see how it performs if we don’t turn the heat on. The total heat output of our four small electric radiant heaters is similar to the amount one hair dryer generates. So it’s clear that one hair dryer in fact can keep this house toasty warm. Remarkable. Thank you to Carly Coulson and the Passive House experts in the U.S. and Europe who have worked hard to improve building standards to achieve such deep energy-efficiency results.   

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