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Do-it-yourselfers have homemade energy cuts

April 10, 2008
Sean Harkins
Sixth in a series

In five years, Ron McDonald hopes his wind turbine does more than just produce electricity — he hopes it protects his pocketbook.

McDonald and his wife, Lori, plan on erecting a 30-foot wind turbine this spring at their Alpena Township home.

The couple bought a Skystream brand turbine with 12-foot blades from a company in San Diego for $8,123 in hopes they could save on their power bill.

“My power bill keeps raising,” McDonald said. “I just can’t justify it.”

He said his bill fluctuated up to $188 last year. He said he is counting on the turbine to produce 80 percent of the power he uses.

With the money he saves on his bills, he figures the turbine will have paid for itself in five years.

The McDonalds are only one example of area residents going green with their homes.

For many of those people, cost was a major factor in their decision to use eco-friendly alternatives.

“I think of the economics first. As long as the economics work for me and its not detrimental to the environment, that’s what I go for. If the economics are not correct then I will not use it,” said Royston resident Chuck Ruhl.

Ruhl had his house built in 1999, and included many eco-friendly concepts in its design, including a geothermal heating and cooling system.

The system uses a system of buried plastic pipes that use the earth’s natural energy to heat or cool a home.

There are two main types of geothermal units — open and closed loop. Open-loop systems draw from a water source, while closed-loop systems are filled with water or other solutions.

The water or solution is pumped to electric compressors and heat exchangers and heat is released into the home. To cool a home, heat is removed from the air and put back into the earth.

Geothermal heating and cooling is considered green because it does not rely on fossil fuels, only the electricity used by the equipment in the system.

Timm Construction Company President Dennis Schultz said a geothermal system is about 20 percent more expensive than a traditional system, but heating bills can be reduced by one-third to two-thirds.

An added benefit is that homes do not have to be hooked into the gas lines, which can be costly, he said.

Ruhl said his system also has a water heater component. He has two hot water tanks in his house. Well water enters the first tank at about 40 degrees, and the geothermal heat brings the temperature up to about 60 degrees before the water is sent to the second, traditional, tank.

“That’s a fairly significant energy savings,” Ruhl said.

Although there are many benefits to going green, it isn’t something to jump into, Ruhl said.

He has blown-in insulation in his home to prevent air leakage, and his system was installed when his house was built. He said it more difficult to retrofit an older house with geothermal.

McDonald said there are a number of things to know about wind turbines before purchasing one.

They are required to have a brake system so if the power goes out, the turbine isn’t back-feeding power into the grid — which could potentially harm workers fixing power lines.

To prevent internal damage, McDonald’s wind turbine also turns off if wind speeds exceed 55 mph. The turbine produces energy once wind speeds reach 8 mph and will continue producing when wind speeds decrease to 3 mph.

“They’re pretty simple... what you want to look for is what speed they operate at,” McDonald said.

Aside from a wind turbine or geothermal heat, Schultz said there are other things being done by home builders to improve the efficiency of new homes.

“Blown-in cellulose insulation, caulking of all framing joints, fresh air makeup, air to air exchangers, and house wrap are the minimum,” he said.

Green buildings aren’t limited to homes. The Brush Creek Mill in Hillman uses solar panels and is hoping to install a geothermal system in the future.

”The solar panels produce more energy than we use on a sunny day,” mill coordinator Edith Lennox said. “(They) are more than worthwhile.”

Cindy Vezinau is developing the Purple Martin Inn in Rogers City. She said she used lumber waste to create paths and plans to reuse rainwater.

She said she will not have grass because it requires water and fertilizer, and energy to cut it. She also is hoping to eventually install geothermal heat.

“I’ve always been a naturalist,” she said. “I try to care for the environment and leave as little a footprint as possible, and I love Rogers City, it’s a beautiful town.”

Sean Harkins can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 358-5688.

Article Photos

News Photo by Lori Werth
Alpena resident Rod Thompson puts wood into an outdoor wood boiler he built for his home. The wood heats up an outer chamber of water which then travels to baseboard heating in the house. Thompson said this is a more efficient and even heat because it is constantly heating and only requires wood added once a day.



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