Vintage Solar

Solar power still has its skeptics. Like the fabled flying car, it always seems to be an idea hovering just over the horizon. Building a house that runs off the sun may sound like a modern amenity, but historic homes aren’t inherently excluded from increasingly affordable technology that lets you push power back to the grid.

“If you continue waiting for the best TV, it’s never going to come out. You never quite get there because there’s always something a little better down the road,” explained Matt Goodman. He and his wife Christy installed a two-part solar array cleverly concealed on the rear roof and garage of their Westgate home, built in 1940—not that you’d notice.

“Most of our neighbors did not even know we had them installed,” Christy noted. “Until we mentioned we had them, someone from the street couldn’t really see them at all.”
Solar installations, regardless of the size or cost, all share one obvious requirement—the sun. But the direction and angle are crucial. Ideally, they should face due south and still catch enough daylight during the winter months when the sun hangs lower in the sky.

“That was one of Christy’s main concerns, how it was going to look. I didn’t mind; I thought it was kind of cool looking,” Matt said. “My brother’s a designer, my dad’s an architect, and we talked about how the perfect roof is one that you retrofit and it just blends in—or the house is built with the idea that the roof will have solar panels to begin with. But we didn’t have that option with an older house.”

“When we think of historic homes, we generally consider those houses that are 50 years or older,” explained Susan Keeny, director of the Home Preservation Program at Columbus Landmarks Foundation. “Berwick has a lot of mid-century ranches, which are very popular right now. The south side also has many homes that are essentially untouched and have retained their charm. There are lots of little neighborhoods waiting to be discovered. These homes often have original wood floors, trim, and windows—which we always encourage people to preserve, if possible.”

In addition to their 40-year mission of education and advocacy, Columbus Landmarks Foundation’s recent Home Preservation Program provides insight and access to low-interest loans to help improve the energy efficiency of older houses, while mindfully maintaining their architectural integrity.

“The greenest building is one that already exists,” noted Keeny, “Updating a historic home with modern technology is always a challenge. But maintaining the street façade retains the value of the home and the character of the neighborhood.”

The Goodman’s quaint Cape Cod had already seen its share of energy improvements in the two decades since they moved to Westgate from Chillicothe. Updated appliances were easy enough, removing the aluminum siding and the original wood beneath was a bit more involved. However, the happy accident of wrapping the entire home in Tyvek as part of that previous project set the stage for solar.

“Ecohouse Solar will tell you not to do this if your home isn’t well-insulated or has other, more pressing problems,” Matt noted. The company that installed the panels, wiring, and the basement inverter was impressed by how “tight” the house was already regarding efficiency.

‘“Matt had been researching solar installations for a couple of years, but then the price finally went down,” Christy said. The project was eligible for ECO-Link financing. The Energy Conservation for Ohioans program buys down interest rates on home-equity loans aimed at improving efficiency through qualifying upgrades.

“I expected this to be a $40k project, and it wasn’t anywhere near that,” he noted. “Our interest rate through ECO-Link was only .89 percent.”

Even with that enviable rate, paying off the investment economically and environmentally is more difficult to calculate.

“It’s hard to predict because you have to guestimate how much electricity you’re going to use and the costs ten years from now. We’ve already made the house more efficient, and had two kids leave our home, so our energy costs have gone down anyway,” she revealed. “I don’t have any regrets. Our average electric bill is about 20 bucks—which means we have months we don’t pay anything, and winter months, or months when maybe it’s very cloudy, where the highest bill is $50.”

“I stopped paying attention to that long-term payoff date. Once it’s on the roof, the monthly costs remain lower, and it adds to the value of the home,” Matt added. In fact, the only concern is whether they might generate too much electricity. “We had to sign a contract with AEP that we wouldn’t become a net energy producer.”

Doing so could inadvertently classify the couple as a small-scale power plant of sorts. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, though Christy said they were just fine running an extension cord to their neighbors to keep that from happening.

The Goodman’s home was already part of the Green Energy Ohio tour shortly after the installation. But those interested in how the couple carefully combined overall energy improvements with the restoration of their historic home will have their chance as well. The house will featured on the Westgate Home & Garden Tour on June 10th, along with several homes in the early to mid-century neighborhood.

“We never really thought of ourselves as being overly green. But the improvements we’ve made over time clearly suggest we’re concerned about keeping energy consumption and costs low,’ Matt confessed. “In 20 years, this either will look very antiquated—like any other appliance—or it will look very ordinary.”

For more on Columbus Landmarks Foundation’s Home Preservation Program, visit columbuslandmarks.org. Information on the ECO-Link partnership is available at tos.ohio.gov/ECOLINK. Details on this year’s Westgate Home & Garden Tour are online at westgateneighbors.org.

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