House location and design are the starting points in achieving resilience—with such considerations as where the house located, how well it can weather storms and flooding, and how effectively it retains heat and utilizes passive solar for heating and daylighting.
Beyond that, we should look to renewable energy systems for back-up heat, water heating, and electricity. In this blog I’ll review a few of these options.
In rural areas, clean-burning wood stoves provide an easy option for back-up heat. With a compact, highly energy-efficient (resilient) home, a single, small wood stove can effectively heat the entire house when there is a power outage or interruption in heating fuel. Even in our current home, which is far from what I would call “resilient” (relative to energy performance), we use a wood stove as our primary heat source—albeit accepting significantly cooler temperatures in parts of the house that are distant from the wood stove.
Wood stoves are dirty, though—even EPA-compliant models (as all new wood stoves sold new today must be). In a rural area, such as where I live, reliance on wood heat may be acceptable, but in more densely populated areas extensive use of wood heat would cause significant pollution problems.
Even in our area, when there is a power outage and more residents fire up their wood stoves, the air quality deteriorates. Thus, wood heating makes the most sense when the house to be heated is highly energy efficient so that little wood needs to be burned to maintain comfortable, safe conditions. And then, the wood stove should be operated for maximum combustion efficiency (minimum smoke production).
Masonry heaters are cleaner. These also burn cordwood, but usually cut to smaller dimensions. A small, intense fire charges up the thermal mass, which keeps delivering heat for several hours.
Like wood stoves, pellet stoves can do a good job of heating an energy-efficient house. Because of the fan-supplied combustion air, pellet stoves tend to be much cleaner-burning than wood stoves. The need for electricity to operate, though, makes pellet stoves inherently less resilient.
Our pellet stove—the sole heat for the apartment above our garage—works like most pellet stoves when AC electricity is available: electric coils ignite the pellets during start-up, a fan brings combustion air to the burn-pot in the stove, and another fan blows the heated air into the room. In the event of a power outage, however, our pellet stove—unlike most—can still be operated. The fans in our Quadra-Fire Mt. Vernon AE have DC motors, and we have jumper cables that allow us to operate the stove during a power outage by clipping them to an automotive or other deep-cycle 12-volt battery. This back-up power isn’t enough to start the pellet stove (we have to do that manually with pellet starter gel or some kindling), but the battery can power the two fans.
The ultimate in resilience can be achieved with a solar-electric (photovoltaic) power system that can be used when the grid is down. Photovoltaic (PV) systems directly convert sunlight into electricity.
PV modules can be installed on a roof or on ground-mounted racks. Most use silicon wafers that are specially made so that photons of light excite electrons and generate direct current (DC) electricity. With most PV systems, an inverter then converts that DC electricity into alternating current (AC) that can be used by standard household appliances and also fed into the utility grid through a net-metering system.
The problem with most grid-connected (net-metered) PV systems is that when the grid goes down you can’t use the electricity. This is a partly a safety feature with grid-connected PV systems to prevent them from feeding electricity into the power grid when linemen may be repairing down wires.
To serve as a power source during a power outage (key to resilience), it is necessary to install some battery back-up. The system can either be stand-alone (not connected to the grid at all) or “hybrid,” allowing it to be connected to the grid during normal operation, but then isolated from the grid during a power outage so that it can power key loads in the house.
These systems, sometimes referred to as “islandable” PV systems, are more complex (and costly), because they include a battery bank as well as a specialized inverter that can either tie into the grid or work in this islandable mode. Only a few inverters on the market can function in this capacity, including the Radian Series line from Outback Power.
Solar water heating
To heat water when the electric grid is down the best option is a solar water heating system that can operate without AC electricity. Some active solar water heaters have DC pumps with integral PV modules that operate the pump when the sun is shining—thus the PV module serves both as the controller and the pumping power.
There are also two types of passive solar water heaters that require no electricity. Thermosiphoning systems have the solar collector mounted below the storage tank, and solar-heated water rises through natural convection into the storage tank when the sun is shining. With batch or integral-collector-storage (ICS) solar water heaters, the water is stored right where it is heated (with water pressure delivering that water to a collector on the collector on the roof).
A solar water heating system can be augmented with a heat-exchanger in a wood stove to ensure adequate hot water during the winter months when there is less solar energy. If considering heating water using a wood stove, be sure to have someone with experience carry out that modification to the wood stove.
Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.