Builder uses solar power to heat Fairbanks home in the winter
March 14, 2011
By Molly Rettig at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: FAIRBANKS — Sunlight poured into a large south-facing window and drenched the stained concrete floor, stones and flower beds in warmth. Like batteries, these features capture, store and dispense energy to the 2,300-square-foot house year round. Sun coming through the window has provided all the home’s heat since mid-February.
Outside, a dozen solar thermal panels stared at the Alaska Range and drank in the mid-morning sun. The panels and a stone masonry heater (complete with a bake oven) are the only heat sources in the home.
“You wouldn’t believe how many engineers have told me in the past year that it’s impossible,” Thorsten Chlupp said of the fossil-fuel free system. “I already know I need to build an outdoor swimming pool because I have too much heat.”
Chlupp, a general contractor and owner of Reina LLC, built the home off Old Chena Ridge Road in the fall and moved in with his wife and young daughters in January. The wood-frame house uses local lumber, recycled insulation and sustainable flooring and contains high-efficiency lighting and appliances. While elegant and comfortable, its biggest asset is its insulated thermal mass.
Chlupp designed the house to prove that solar energy, combined with tight construction and proper heat storage, can work even in Fairbanks. It’s poised to be the northernmost passive house in the world (a label for buildings that consume very little energy). He plans to produce his own energy when he adds photovoltaic panels this summer. Chlupp wants to see the design take off in the area. But first he must dispel the myth — among the public as well as building and solar experts — that the heating system won’t work in this climate, he said.
After all, Fairbanks is cut off from solar energy for all of December and January. Yet Chlupp has hoarded so much heat during the past few months that he has burned only one cord of wood. The last fire was three weeks ago.
“We create more storage, and we have the ability to bridge long periods of time when we don’t have sun,” Chlupp said. “In this house we can store eight million BTUs of energy within the tank and within the foundation.”
Eight million BTUs is enough to heat the home for two months.
Chlupp, 37, moved to Fairbanks from Germany as an outdoor and mountaineering guide in 1996. He began building homes 12 years ago and discovered the shortcomings of conventional building in a cold climate. He started incorporating green concepts from Germany, like passive solar and airtight walls, into houses here. But when he pushed for renewables, people said it wouldn’t provide enough year-round energy for this climate and latitude. So he set out to prove the systems were effective and affordable. Read more