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Power to the people
Public gets a look at net zero energy i-house
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At his home on Green Bridge Farm, Charles Davis has geothermal and solar power for his house. Friday and Saturday, he hosted an open house to let the public see how his house is powered and how he can track its usage. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

The truth of the matter is, Charles Davis does have a power bill.

“I’m just trying to eliminate it,” he said.

Davis showed off his net zero energy home, built with energy efficiency in mind in every nook and cranny, at Green Bridge Farm. A modular home, it’s 1,000 square feet — with bamboo floors and extra insulation among its energy-saving features.

The home, a Clayton Homes i-house, also can produce energy. It has geothermal capability, tapping into the earth’s heat, and taps into the sun’s energy with an array of solar panels.

“We’re emphasizing efficiency first, and then thinking about production,” Davis said.

An energy monitor allows Davis to track his electricity usage, even by appliances that are off.

“It can break it down by the minute,” said Brandon O’Connor, Clayton Homes I-house product manager. “It can show you the energy you think you’re saving by turning stuff off.”

Davis can pull up the e-monitor on his TV or laptop and see, for instance, “how many watts the refrigerator is using,” he said. “I can see how many watts the solar panels are producing and how many watts I’m selling back to Georgia Power.”

He also gets an alert that tells him when he’s using too much power. “Most people get their electric bill and they’re shocked because they don’t know what caused it,” Davis said.

The home has R30 insulation in the ceiling and floor and R21 in the walls.

“That’s not typically what you see around here,” O’Connor said.

The insulation is so abundant that when Davis moved into the home in February, the temperature inside didn’t drop below 67 degrees — even though he didn’t have the heat hooked up yet.

Along with the extra thick insulation and the bamboo floors, there are also 2x6s rather than 2x4s in the walls. The appliances are Energy Star rated and there is compact fluorescent lighting and low-flow faucets.

“Not only are we conserving electricity, but water too,” O’Connor said. “And that’s becoming increasingly important too. And then you work with someone like Charles, who takes it to the next level, who puts in solar panels and geothermals.”

Davis’ home on the organic farm and environmentally-conscious development is the product of leading manufactured home producer Clayton Homes.

“Our building process is one of the cool features that never gets talked about,” O’Connor said. “It’s so well insulated, Charles can put solar panels on the roof and it powers the home fairly easily. It starts with the house.”

The house is oriented to the south and the roof is sloped two ways. That allows for the collection of rain water, which is stored in a 500-gallon tank.

As soon as the house was built, Davis began putting in the geothermal system. His company, The Earth Comfort Company, puts in geothermal systems for schools and military bases. There are four bore holes, all 250 feet deep, and the system is a closed loop.

“You fill it with tap water once,” Davis said. “It’s the most efficient system in the world.”

What Davis has done fits right in with what Michael Maddox had in mind when he came up with Green Bridge Farm.

“I didn’t even know about net zero energy until he came along,” Maddox said of Davis. “I had a basic standard that I was going to pursue, geothermal, foam insulation and Energy Star appliances, and he just shot that standard through the roof. He set a whole new standard for the development.”

Inside Green Bridge Farm, there is no pavement — the roads are crushed concrete. There also are no streetlights. Now Maddox has designs on having the first net zero energy community in the country.

“It’s really a pleasure to be host to a house like this,” he said. “It’s so much more than I anticipated. I didn’t think anyone would exceed my standards. He took all of that and blew it through the roof. He just raised the standard 50 fold.”

Clayton Homes, a Berkshire Hathaway company, showed off its i-house at the shareholders’ meeting in 2009. The man who put together Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio, legendary investor Warren Buffett.

“We walked Warren Buffett through it,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said they will use Davis as an example to sell more models in Georgia. His i-house is the first permanent one in Georgia. They had the model in Atlanta, and Davis approached Clayton Homes about it.

“It belongs here and not in Atlanta,” O’Connor said. “We targeted certain markets and targeted certain people like Charles. He gets it. He understands what the benefits of this home are. Finding guys like Charles and Michael to partner with has been our task. But we’ve gotten a lot of publicity. It’s brought a lot of people to our company who wouldn’t have thought about coming to us before. To see one of these buildings is really phenomenal.”

The key to having a zero net energy house, Davis said, is to start with a good envelope that starts out super efficient.

“Then it doesn’t take much solar and geothermal to add that to it,” he said. “What I’m selling is efficiency and the method to a developer to be able to build a zero energy community. I think there’s property up and down this coast just sitting empty. I don’t think you’re going to build conventional homes.”

It isn’t just his house, and the detached guest room/office, that are energy smart. It’s his car, too, a Chevy Volt he plugs in and drives into Savannah.

“It costs me 12 cents to charge that car,” he said. “Georgia Power just came out with a plug in electric vehicle time of use rate. They’ll charge me 19 cents during their peak period of 2 to 7 in the afternoon. But I’m producing power during that time. I’ve shifted my usage to off peak. Off peak, they charge me 6 cents a kilowatt-hour, except at night from 11 to 7 in the morning, I’m at a super off rate, and they charge me a penny a kilowatt hour.”

The i-house is a start, to Davis. He thinks he can help Clayton Homes improve on its product.

“I was thinking beyond this already,” he said. “This was a convenient, affordable first step. This is a well-built home. But they could do a little better. I’m going to go to the factory and show them how to make it even better.”

O’Connor said the home and its surrounding development are a natural fit.

“This is the ultimate setting for this house,” he said. “You’re on an organic farm. You can’t get any better than that.”