Ted Clifton plugs the charger for his Tesla into his solar-powered house in Bellingham on March 2.

Ted Clifton plugs the charger for his Tesla into his solar-powered house in Bellingham on March 2.

Bellingham house uses the sun for heat, water, power, cars

BELLINGHAM — There are several interesting features about Ted Clifton’s “Power House” in Bellingham, but for many people, the most interesting things are what you won’t find there.

Electricity bills and heating bills, for example, and no gasoline bills for their cars.

That’s because Clifton’s two-story house at 2515 St. Paul St. uses solar power to heat its household water and warm the floor, and to generate electricity to run the house and two all-electric cars.

Clifton, a self-employed house designer and contractor, said the house cost about $150 per square foot to build, which puts it in the mainstream of residential construction costs.

“Most people don’t realize we can build a zero-energy house on our kind of budget,” he said. “These ideas aren’t just for wealthy people.”

At his company, TC Legend Homes, Clifton focuses on building homes that break even, or come out ahead, energy-wise, and do so at prices that are affordable to more than just environmentally minded millionaires.

His projects have won several awards from the U.S. Department Energy, and his Bellingham house recently won an award from Green Builder Magazine in the “Alternative Building” category.

Learned from dad

Clifton, 40, grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska, and on Whidbey Island. He got into the construction business early working for his father, and started building houses on his own a decade ago.

He and his wife, Rachel Lee, a nurse practitioner, and their three young children, moved into the 2,700-square-foot house a year ago. They co-own the house with a longtime friend, who lives in a separate apartment on the upper floor.

A 700-square-foot common area on the ground floor has room for a clothes washer and dryer, beer-making equipment, and a climbing wall, yet to be built.

As with any energy-efficient residence, the position of the house on the property and details of its structure and its heating and cooling systems are paramount.

The two-story residence has a long southern exposure, with large windows that let the sun’s heat warm the interior, notably the 4-inch concrete floor.

On March 2, the sky was a bit overcast, with the sun an amorphous blob in the sky. It wasn’t take-off-your-shirt warm, yet the house registered a pleasant 70 degrees inside, so the solar-warmed, radiant-heat pipes in the concrete floor weren’t needed.

There’s no carpeting, but the sun-warmed floor was easy on my stockinged feet, and the floor’s acid stain gave it a palette of aqua blue, browns and greens that suggest an impressionist’s painting of a forest floor.

Hot water for the radiant heat in the floor and for domestic use comes from a solar panel on the south side porch roof, and from a quiet yet highly efficient heat pump on the east end of the house. The solar panel and heat pump work in tandem, with the solar array doing most of the water warming in hot weather, and the heat pump taking command in cold weather.

An attached greenhouse adjacent to the kitchen also makes use of the sun’s warmth, and allows the family to grow tomatoes, herbs and other edibles a few feet away from where meals are prepared.

The south side windows came from Poland. Vinyl and metal frame the triple-pane windows, and the glass allows more of the sun’s heat to pass through than do usual windows.

A house in, say, Phoenix, would need to limit solar heat passing through its windows, to avoid overheating the interior, but that’s not a concern west of the Cascades.

“Here in Bellingham, we want as much as we can get,” Clifton said.

Of course, it makes no sense to warm a leaky house, so the walls, roof, foundation, and floor are all well-insulated.

Electricity from the sun

Atop the house’s metal roof sits a large array of solar-electric panels that generate enough power for the residence and for their Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF.

The house sends power to Puget Sound Energy’s grid when the sun is shining, and draws power during the night and on cloudy days. Over a year, the panels produce more power than the house needs, with extra left over for the cars.

Two charging stations on the alley side of the house are within easy reach of the cars. It takes a few hours to charge the LEAF, which has a smaller battery, and eight to nine hours for the Tesla.

“It’s like a phone,” Clifton said. “You plug it in when you get home.”

It cost $40,000 to install the solar-electric panels, but Clifton benefited from a federal tax credit of about $10,500, and a Washington state solar-production credit of about $5,000 a year until 2020.

Clifton said the panels started paying for themselves immediately because the share of the mortgage for $40,000 worth of solar panels is less than their electric bill would be.

Outside the house, three plastic cisterns — two for the house and one for a shop building — together collect up to 3,000 gallons of rain from the metal roofs. They use the stored rain to water the lawn and garden beds during dry months. Excess runoff is channeled to a small pond.

Nearby, an outdoor hot tub also runs on solar power.

“You don’t have to give up all your luxury items to have a super-efficient energy house,” Clifton said.

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