A Bright Idea: Outdoor Solar Lights

Outdoor solar lights are an easy way to conserve energy and are available in all of the same options as electric outdoor lighting, from decorative string lights and lanterns to spotlights and path lights. Moreover, their benefits go beyond lowering your electric bill and helping to save the planet.


Solar lights are easy to maintain because they automatically turn on and off according to the sunlight level. They don’t have the insulation and corrosion issues that wires do. And speaking of wires, your yard is a safer place without them – no tripping or injuries from exposed wires and less threat of fires. Another safety perk is that solar lights keep working even when the power goes out.


Many people have the misconception that solar lights won’t last very long, and that may have been true in the past. But now, with improved solar technology, solar lights can last for up to 10 hours.



Enlightening Tips


If you aren’t already using outdoor solar lights, here are a few things to keep in mind:


  • A minimum of eight hours of sunshine per day is ideal to adequately charge solar lights.Enlightening Tips
  • If areas of your yard are shaded, a photovoltaic panel can be used to power the solar lights in those areas. The panel can be placed on your roof or in a sunny spot in your yard and then connected to the solar lights.
  • Solar lights aren’t as bright as regular lights, so you’ll need more to achieve the lighting you want. For example, you’ll probably want to use twice as many solar lights to adequately light a pathway.
  • Solar lights vary in brightness according to their size and the quality of their photovoltaic cells. So a general rule of thumb is that the more expensive the solar light, the brighter it will shine.
  • Solar lights emit a bright white light. If you prefer a warmer glow, purchase tinted solar lights categorized as “soft white” or “amber.”


How to Optimize Your Home for Passive Solar Energy

To get your favorite flowers to bloom, you make sure the pot is situated for optimum sunlight. Though your house won’t grow from light exposure, it can benefit tremendously from the same kind of strategic positioning. The only question is: which way should your house face?



The Who:


The WhoA home’s orientation is important for those shopping for a home or piece of land to purchase. At this point, it’s easy to consider the direction the house faces. You still have the option to either keep shopping or have a home custom built.

That being said, current homeowners can also benefit if you’re willing and able to undergo some remodeling. There are smaller projects that can optimize when and where the sun’s rays shine through, such as increasing the size of your windows or knocking down a wall to allow sunlight to reach more rooms.



The What:


The WhatThe concept of positioning your home toward the sun to save on heating and cooling costs is called passive solar energy. Depending on where the sun is in relation to your home’s windows, it may help heat up your living space while keeping unused areas cool. The catch: there’s a lot to consider when setting up your home for effective passive solar energy.


You probably know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but there’s a little more to the equation than that. As explained by the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors, the Earth’s tilt causes the sun to rise and set a little bit to the south in the winter and a little bit to the north on warm, summer days [in the Northern Hemisphere]. With that understanding, these orientation tips will help you capitalize on the sun’s free energy, while enhancing your home’s curb appeal and value:


  • A rectangular home should run east to west, so that its long sides face north and south.
  • The south side of your home should get the most exposure to the great outdoors with large, floor-to-ceiling windows, glass doors and very few trees or obstructive roof overhangs. This allows for the winter sun to naturally heat your home. To truly optimize your windows, apply window film that will allow the sun to shine through while blocking harmful UV rays and cutting down on glare.
  • On the contrary, the northern side of your home should have fewer or smaller windows, more shade trees and a deep roof overhang or awnings.
  • The layout should bring frequently used rooms to the south side of the home to feel the effects of winter sunlight, while garages and laundry rooms should be situated on the northern side to block winter winds. For existing homes, you can re-purpose rooms or knock down walls to achieve the same results. Plus, an open-concept home is more marketable for resale.
  • Design walkways and driveways so that they run to the south or east of the house. Gravel and asphalt heat up quickly, which can impact your home’s overall temperature. Keeping these paths away from the strong summer sun can help prevent unwanted heat gain.
  • Utilize masonry floors and walls to absorb and store the solar heat coming through southern windows. This is a direct gain design, as described by Energy.gov, which releases the stored heat as the room cools after sundown.


The Why:


The WhyYour energy bills are mostly impacted by the cost of heating and cooling your home. By carefully positioning the direction your home faces, as well as enhancing certain features, you can take full advantage of free solar energy. Not only does your home become more cost-efficient, but you may also create a better view, increase curb appeal and raise the resale value of your home.


Getting Started With Solar Panels

Residents of the Sunshine State or those who live in the hot, beaming desert have likely given thought to solar-powered energy. Of course, year-round sunlight is most conducive, but even the cooler climates can take advantage of nature’s purest source of power. Learning how to use solar panels in your home can be overwhelming, so follow this guide to get started.



Terms You Need to Know


Terms You Need to KnowInstalling solar panels may be the most complicated energy-saving tactic, but it also has the largest payoff. If you’re ready to take on the project, there are a few terms to learn before you get started:


Photovoltaic (PV) cell: The building block of solar panels, this electrical device converts light into electricity.


Solar panel: A compilation of photovoltaic cells, which are situated in a way that harnesses sunlight and transforms it into usable energy.


Inverter: The unit that converts direct current (DC) energy from the solar panel into an alternating current (AC) that’s compatible with the electricity system in your home.



Factors You Should Consider


Factors You Should ConsiderThe top two factors to think about before diving deeper into solar power are 1) the climate in which you live, and 2) whether or not you have open and direct access to sunlight during the peak hours of the day (10 a.m. – 2 p.m.).


Once you’ve determined your location is perfectly suited for solar energy, you’ll want to calculate how many kilowatts you use on average each month (your utility bills should help). You’ll also want to know the surface area of your roof to help determine how many solar panels will fit on top.



Power You Can Replace


Power You Can ReplaceIdeally, you’d power your entire home with solar-sourced energy. However, easing into it with smaller projects can still offer big benefits. From the simplest installation to the most complex, here’s where you can use solar panels around your home:


Outdoor lighting: You’ve seen them at your local hardware store. Solar-powered torches can be easily placed in the ground to light walking paths or driveways. Advances in PV cell technology have made these miniature solar panels much more powerful than the first generation.


Indoor lighting: Solar-powered desk lamps, wall-mounted lights and floor fixtures are easy to install and require a relatively small investment.


Water heating: Solar water heating systems not only cut down on your energy bill, but they don’t contribute to any greenhouse gas emissions. Energy.gov recommends finding a solar-powered system certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation. If you have a pool or hot tub, solar water heating is usually comparable to the cost of conventional systems. According to Energy.gov, heating a pool is the most efficient use of solar panels.


Home heating system: Known as an active solar heating system, this process uses solar energy to heat liquid or air. The hot liquid or air then travels through a collector, further heating up as it moves. These collectors are not your typical solar panel, but the concept is the same – just much more intricate. Solar liquid collectors are best used for central heating.


With several state and federal tax incentives in place, many homeowners have made the hefty investment to power their entire home. A Forbes.com article noted that installing solar panels can cut your carbon footprint by an average of 35,180 pounds of carbon dioxide each year – the equivalent to planting 88 trees. In money terms, you could save $84 on your monthly electric bill. Not to mention, the value of your home significantly increases with the smart decision to use renewable energy.


The Story of the Developer Who’s Trying to Build the World’s First Energy Self-Sufficient Rental Complex

When a family member or (very) close friend tells you she just found an affordable apartment, it’s hard not to at least wonder what she’s paying on a monthly basis. But even if she tells you, she’s likely to leave out an important detail. Her answer will be “X dollars” plus utilities.


“Plus utilities” is a devilish little detail. If you live in a place where energy costs are high, it can be the difference between a comfortable home and an uncomfortable home. (Let’s face it: who wants to spend the summer in Phoenix without air conditioning?)


One developer in Florida is trying to wipe that little detail—utilities—out of the equation entirely. Here’s the story of how one home builder is trying to build the world’s first energy self-sufficient rental complex, courtesy of our friends at Green Builder Magazine.



If you build an energy self-sufficient rental, will they come?


If You Build An Energy Self-sufficient Rental, Will They ComeIn 2010, developer Rick Lococo had a crazy idea. In the peak of a recession, he dreamt up the notion of the world’s first energy self-sufficient rental complex. He wanted it to be 100% energy efficient—anything that came into the house to cool it or power its appliances would stay there.


There was one major problem with his proposal: cost. Home prices were falling fast; how could he justify the luxury price tag of a home with pricey eco-friendly prices at a time when home prices were at rock bottom?


He decided to build the best version he could. And that if he did, like Field of Dreams, they would come.


Come they did. That first development, Seabourn Cove, would go on to win 2013’s multifamily project of the year from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Green Building Awards. One big idea can go a long way.



Eco-friendly amenities galore


Eco-Friendly Amenities GaloreSpeaking of going a long way, the list of energy-efficient amenities in Seabourn Cove is truly something. According to Green Builder:


“Green features included LED and compact fluorescent lighting; water-saving faucets, showers, and toilets; water piping with shorter runs to reduce heat loss; high-efficiency 16 SEER air-conditioning units; programmable thermostats; R-38 ceiling insulation; solar roof ventilation; ceiling fans; hurricane impact-resistant windows and doors; Energy Star-rated appliances; and even electric vehicle charging stations.”


Even with that amazing laundry list of appliances, however, Lococo and Co. have yet to unlock the secret to the completely energy-efficient rental complex. (Seabourn Cove did bring down energy costs significantly, however.) Here’s hoping they find it soon.


The Latest Building Trend: Passive Energy Homes

One of the most interesting and exciting trends in modern construction is the implementation of passive energy design in the construction of all kinds of buildings, including residential, commercial, governmental, and other structures. From a new massive housing project in Canada to an off-the-grid “Solar Earthship” in rural Colorado, passive home design is quickly becoming the go-to concept for architects and builders throughout North America, and indeed the world.



Introducing Passive Home Design


Introducing Passive Home DesignFirst, let’s take a closer look at what passive home design really involves. The core of a passive home design is solar energy. In the case of structures that are built from the ground up, the design of the structure is inherently and intentionally planned to reduce the heating and cooling loads that the building must carry, and then meet those needs either in whole or in part with energy derived from solar panels. Homes can also often be remodeled to take advantage of passive energy benefits, starting with a home energy audit to identify the most logical improvements.



Choosing the Right Build Site


Because of the unique nature of solar energy, the positioning of a passive structure is critical. Most importantly, the south side of the structure needs to have unobstructed access to the sun. Obstructions can also be generated over time, as new buildings are built in a neighborhood or community, or small trees grow into big trees. The windows that collect solar energy need access to the sun during the majority of daylight hours during the heating season, and should be shaded during cooling seasons to prevent overheating the home.



Choosing the Right Build SiteEssentially, passive home design works because the home or building collects heat as the sun shines through the south-facing windows and retains it in building materials that store heat, known to designers as thermal mass. The materials that serve as a passive home’s thermal mass often include common building materials such as concrete, brick, stone, and tile, but can also include more unusual materials such as water. This heat is then distributed to different areas via different methods, including conduction, convection, and radiation.



Passive House Principles


Passive House PrinciplesIt’s important to understand the fundamental principles behind passive home design before embarking on a project. The Passive House Alliance U.S. is a good place to start both to delve deeper into passive home design and to help identify architects, designers, engineers, and construction professionals who understand and have experience with this unique concept.


Getting to the level of energy efficiency exercised by passive home design can be a challenge. Maximizing gains in energy while minimizing the loss of energy isn’t necessarily a natural function of most homes. To that end, passive energy projects utilize very specific principles of design, including:


  • installing high-tech insulation throughout the entirety of the home;
  • making the building envelope airtight. Because the home is sealed most of the time, condensation and mold risks are reduced, but passive home owners can still open their doors and windows just as they would in a “traditional” home;
  • employing high-performance windows with low emissivity window glazing to minimize energy loss and maximize energy gain;
  • installing smart distribution mechanisms to collect and store solar energy, which may include items like sun-heated floors, heat transfer via air or water, and the use of different color palettes to absorb or reflect heat at different places in the home; and,
  • maximizing solar energy during the heating season and minimizing heat gain during the cooling season.


Examples of Smart Passive Energy Buildings


As builders continue to embrace passive energy design and net zero concepts, the number of passive design builds in North America and Europe continue to diversify.


In recent years, Canada has joined the Smart City movement in the goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. To that end, a massive passive home project is underway in Vancouver, with the goal of creating a six-story mixed-use building that combines street-level retail with 85 units of rental housing.


The project is called The Heights, and when complete will be one of the largest passive energy projects in North America, and the largest in Canada. The project uses a simple single envelope design to retain and distribute heat, meaning that each unit can be heated using a simple electric baseboard heater running on just 300 watts.



Examples of Smart Passive Energy BuildingsAnother interesting passive home project is nestled in the San Juan Mountains in southeastern Colorado, where the so-called “Solar Earthship,” is not only energy efficient but net positive, meaning it creates its own energy. In addition to implementing the passive energy principles detailed above, the home’s walls are nearly 100% thermal mass, having been constructed from 2,000 recycled tires packed with dirt, then covered with adobe.


Some inspired homeowners sometimes even retrofit their homes to fit the passive energy home design concept. From Quonset huts to antique farm homes, almost any structure can be assessed, reconfigured, and redesigned to take advantage of solar energy and passive home ideas, although introducing recycled materials into an existing structure may take more time and cost. Passive energy design has also been utilized in all kinds of non-residential structures including schools, office buildings, and even public swimming pools in order to better capture and utilize solar energy.



The Benefits of Passive Energy Design


The Benefits of Passive Energy DesignPassive energy buildings offer their occupants tremendous short-term and long-term benefits, not only in cost but also in comfort. Passive homes in general cost five to 10 percent more to build than traditional homes, but the long-term savings in energy costs more than offsets that investment. It’s worth keeping in mind that federal, state, or community tax credits or other tangible benefits may apply to your passive home project.


Regardless, the incredible efficiency of passive home design provides homeowners and occupants with unmatched comfort, excellent indoor air quality, extremely resilient construction, and the best opportunity to reach net zero and net positive energy standards.


A Development Group is Planning a City Fueled 100 Percent By Solar Power. Here’s Everything You Need to Know.

Southwest Florida doesn’t have the reputation of its eastern counterpart. Of course, it is hard for any area of the country to compete with the beautiful beaches and vibrant culture of Miami in Dade County, but one development company is hoping to help Southwest Florida become a premiere destination. A real estate development firm called Kitson & Partners wants to build the kind of city that has never been built before. They want it to run on solar power alone, and they want to call it Babcock Ranch.



The city of tomorrow, tomorrow


The city of tomorrow tomorrowThe Babcock Ranch plans are incredibly ambitious. They want to build a city fueled entirely by the sun that is larger than the island of Manhattan. Babcock Ranch will have 18,000 homes, six million square feet of commerce, and ample space for trails, parks, and lakes—and K&P wants to build it over the course of just 25 years. Syd Kitson, chairman of the development group, said he wants to make Babcock Ranch the country’s most hikeable, bikeable, walkable city. Indeed, environmental friendliness is paramount for Babcock Ranch. Kitson said in this promotional video, “We take our stewardship responsibilities very seriously and have taken steps to ensure that the city of Babcock Ranch will exist in complete harmony with its surroundings.” The development of Babcock Ranch will be a fascinating challenge.



How will they do this?


How will they do thisBabcock Ranch will be the first city in America to be built on the sun. Of course, this doesn’t mean astronauts will attempt to set foot on a ball of gas that burns at 9900 degrees fahrenheit. It means that the cornerstone of Babcock Ranch will be the solar industry. Kitson has donated a plot of land that will host the FPL (Florida Power and Light Company) Babcock Ranch Solar Energy Center. That 440-acre plant, the cornerstone of the town, will provide 74.5 megawatts of solar capacity to the people of Babcock Ranch.


As a Babcock Ranch fact sheet says, it makes sense to build a community around solar in Southwest Florida. “With its Southwest Florida location,” the sheet reads, “which has the state’s most intense sunlight, the solar plant will generate three to five percent more solar production.” Of course, for Babcock Ranch to work, government officials will have to be friendly to solar development, businesses and homeowners will have to buy in, and the solar plant will have to keep humming. But if Babcock Ranch can stay on track, Southwest Florida of 2040 could be the Southeast Florida of 2017.


Life in a Smart Energy Home

What if your home could generate energy rather than merely consume it? Some homes are already achieving greater than Zero Net Energy (ZNE), a term Edison International uses to describe a home “whose annual energy consumption is no greater than its annual energy generation.”

The Smart Energy Home Experience

The Smart Energy Home ExperienceThe idea is not a new one. For years builders and homeowners have used window film to help conserve energy and achieve ZNE, such as in this Florida homeThe Honda Smart Energy Home was completed on a University of California campus in the spring of 2015. The big news is that these homes are now being marketed. The SolarCity Smart Energy Home in Hawaii, for example, is already available for lease or purchase.

How a Smart Energy Home Works

How a Smart Energy Home WorksIn a smart energy home, including the SolarCity Smart Energy Home, a battery system stores solar electricity for use at night. The home’s gateway controls all energy devices to ensure maximum solar generation and consumption. An electric water heater, for example, uses solar energy collected throughout the day to heat water stored for use at night. The Nest Learning Thermostat modifies the home’s energy usage based on how much solar energy is available, ensuring the needed energy won’t be exported back to the grid.

Energy Customized for a Home’s Residents

Energy Customized for a Home’s ResidentsThe SolarCity Home’s technology and the size of the system that controls it are customized to the residents’ energy usage. In general, the homes offer all the comforts of other modern homes without the excessive energy use.

Will Smart Energy Home Ownership Change the Way You Live?

Will Smart Energy Home Ownership Change the Way You Live?Much of the technology featured in today’s smart energy homes is readily available. So whether you live in Hawaii or elsewhere, there’s a strong likelihood that a smart energy home will soon be available in your neighborhood. The question, however, isn’t whether you’ll want to live in one. If you’re like most smart energy home residents, it will be how could you have ever lived without one.

Learn more about Hawaii’s Solar City Smart Energy Home here.


3 Great Energy Conservation Websites for Kids

If you’re passionate about conserving energy and protecting our planet, one way you can help is by teaching the younger generation about energy conservation. These fun, interactive websites were created especially for kids and are filled with information about energy conservation. Pass on these links to the kids in your life.





energystar.gov.kidsFrom “The Quickest Ever Slideshow on Global Warming” to fun facts, this colorful site is filled with engaging activities and information. To show kids how they can save energy every day, it features a typical kid’s bedroom with interactive stars on items (click on “You Can Make Big Changes”). When you click on different stars, a window opens up to show how you can save energy with that particular item. Another neat feature is a section for parents and teachers (click on any internal page to see the gray “Parents & Teachers” tab on the bottom of the right side of the page) where you can download games and activities.





eia.gov.kidsThis website from the U.S. Energy Information Administration also acts as a resource for teachers, providing a whole range of energy lessons across all subjects and grade levels. In addition to giving all the basic information on energy, it offers a wealth of games and activities, including riddles, puzzles, and quizzes. Kids can learn about the latest adventures of “Energy Ant,” who travels all over the country on different energy field trips.





epa.gov.climatechange.kidsThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change” on this informative website. Kids are invited to go on climate change expeditions around the world where they watch videos to learn about different issues and complete challenges. They’re also invited to calculate their own emissions with an interactive calculator. These are just two of the exciting experiences that help kids learn about climate change, its effects, and ways they can save energy to help stop it.


Save Energy and Money with Google’s Latest Brainchild

With the promise of “mapping the planet’s solar potential, one roof at a time,” Google has launched a free online service, Project Sunroof, that helps homeowners harness the energy- and money-saving power of solar energy. A home’s capability for generating solar power is calculated through a combination of programs, including Google Maps, which can track shadows from nearby structures and trees; 3D roof modeling software; and apps that track various weather patterns. It then uses information from local solar providers to estimate solar costs and savings over the long term. Here’s a quick video on how it works:


Enlightening Savings


Enlightening SavingsProject Sunroof’s creator, Carl Elkin, came up with the idea while volunteering for Solarize Massachusetts and talking to hundreds of people. He learned that while most people were aware of solar energy’s eco-friendly qualities, many were unaware of the actual long-term savings on energy costs. So he developed Project Sunroof to not only recommend the right solar panel installation per home, but to also calculate savings. The calculation considers whether the solar panels are leased or bought, and which incentives and rebates can be applied. Because the cost and installation of solar panels has decreased sharply in the past few years, the payback time for the investment can be as little as three years according to AmericaSupportsSolar.org.



Hooking You Up


Hooking You UpThe final step in Project Sunroof’s service is to refer you to solar providers in your area. This may be the true genius behind Project Sunroof, because the solar providers pay Google for these referrals, which keeps Google’s shareholders happy. Currently, Project Sunroof only serves three U.S. cities: San Francisco, Fresno, and Boston, but they hope to expand their reach over time. The time is definitely right, as more and more people are turning to solar power for a reliable and affordable source of clean energy. In 2015’s first quarter, the number of U.S. solar system installations broke all records according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), bringing the total number of households using solar power to around 700,000.


To learn more about solar energy, visit SEIA’s Solar Blog.