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Making the alternative the norm

Local energy conservation efforts picking up steam

April 23, 2008
Actor Ed Begley Jr. recently said, "Energy conservation is not just a fad anymore, but a fundamental shift in our culture." And for some people in this area, the time has come to act on saving energy, and in the long term, saving money.

A crane lifts a concrete wall panel to where a house belonging to S.A. Indigo was being put together at Leavenworth. (Photo by Wade Bell)
In, of all places, the little town of Milltown, a person can actually see, and even purchase, such things that many of us have only heard about — geothermal heating/cooling systems, solar collectors, wind turbines, radiant floor heating systems, solar hot water heaters, wood stoves — and good, solid advice on what will work best and be the most economical for residential or commercial use.

Tony Phillips, who owns A.C. Phillips Plumbing and Heating in Milltown, opened a new business in Milltown last year called "The Alternative Energy Source."

The store, located across the street from the Blue River Café, is Phillips' effort to complement his regular plumbing and heating business with alternative choices for people who are looking to, not just conserve energy and save money, but to address environmental issues, all of which are linked.

"This area has one of the lowest electricity rates, but some of the highest electric bills," Phillips said. "That doesn't make sense to some people, but we live in a coal-producing area, and electricity is cheap here, compared to other places. And when its that cheap, people make little effort to conserve. In California, the rates are higher and people conserve more.

"There are so many ways to conserve energy, many we don't even think about. TVs and stereos now have phantom loads. In other words, when you turn them off, they're not really off. They are still using electricity. This allows them to come on instantly when you turn them on instead of having to warm up like the old TVs used to. It's a nice convenience, but it uses energy."

Phillips then talked about trying to reduce expenses and fuel use in his business vehicles.

"We use between $1,500 and $2,000 in gas every month in our service trucks," he said. "We're trying to reduce that by doubling up and cutting trips. At some point, we may have to look at something like lighter-built vehicles that will use diesel fuel or less gas. But we can't just stop. We need vehicles to do our job."

And for those who need vans and trucks to do their jobs, there are few alternatives for conserving energy. However, for those who drive automobiles, more and more options are available, including hybrids, and many are still being studied, such as hydrogen-powered cars.

But for houses and other structures, there are options available that can reduce energy use for heating and cooling.

"One of the best ways to start is to be sure your house is property insulated." Phillips said. "That's really important. And if you have single-pane windows, you should look into getting double-pane ones. That will make a huge difference. Then, start looking at non-conventional sources of heating and cooling your home."

One method of home heat that is getting a lot of attention lately is radiant floor heat.

"This has been used in the orient for 100 years," Phillips said. "It's not new technology. But the metal piping that was used didn't last and the method fell out of favor for a while. But now, with new space-age plastic pipes that are available, it has become popular again.

"I've installed 40 or 50 units over the years, and there's never been a problem with any of them. The distribution of heat comes through the floor, where the people are, not at the ceiling, where most heat goes with forced air systems. These systems don't pressurize the building, and this type of heat doesn't dry out the air."

The systems can be installed under the floors of existing structures, and can even be used under carpeting with extra insulation under the floors. Radiant floor heat is also being used now in workshops and garages with concrete floors. The pipes are usually installed before the concrete is poured. The source of heat for these systems comes from a hot water heater that circulates hot water through the pipes. The systems also work well with solar heated water. The systems are efficient and economical and can save 20 to 40 percent over conventional heating systems.

S.A. Indigo of Leavenworth has been planning a new house for a while and finally settled on a pre-fab concrete house. The house, which raised a few eyebrows as it was being constructed recently, is made of pre-cast concrete panels 10-1/2 inches thick with 2-1/2 inches of Styrofoam sandwiched in the middle. The wall panels, sold by Superior Walls in Shelbyville, Ky., are set in place with a crane, and each floor can be done in a day.

"My house is a two-story structure," Indigo said. "It's the first one the company has done. After the walls are in place, then slabs will be poured for the floors, which will have tubing running through the concrete. The tubing will be connected to a solar panel on the south side of the house for heat (radiant floor heat). There will be two holding tanks for the heated water to circulate from. I'll have a walk-out deck with a beautiful view of the Ohio River. The interior walls will be finished with cedar paneling that is being made by some Amish friends of mine. I'm also adding a 1,000-gallon cistern because I don't want city water."

The 1,000-square-foot house will cost between $75,000 and $80,000 to build.

Another system that lends itself well to this area is the geothermal system of heating and cooling. In rural areas, many people who formerly used wells for their water supply have now hooked on to water lines (city water) from municipal systems, leaving many wells unused. These are perfect for geothermal applications.

Well water, which has a constant temperature, can be pumped from the wells to a type of heat pump that will draw BTUs from the water and convert them for both heating and cooling purposes. Conventional heat pumps draw BTUs from the outside air. But when the air temperature gets really cold, efficiency goes down because few BTUs are available and an electric element comes on to produce heat for the home. But well water temperature is constant, year round, making a geothermal unit much more effective and efficient.

"We really need help from the federal and state government on these systems," Phillips said. "Tax breaks and incentives for anyone installing alternative heating and cooling methods would make a tremendous difference. There would be no cash outlay for the government and it would encourage a lot of people to be more energy efficient. That would be good for the economy and the environment.

"These systems may cost a little more, but not all that much. If someone is going to replace their old heating system, they should consider radiant heat or geothermal," he continued. "If nothing else, they should at least consider one of the new high-efficiency two-speed systems. They are much more economical than a regular furnace. But people are bottom-line oriented. They don't see four or five years down the road, and it's a shame. If you install a geothermal system and the electric rates go up, so do your savings.

"Our thirst for energy is really high, but as costs go up, we're going to be looking at ways to spend less. But alternative energy sources, which seem expensive, are like an investment. If you invest in the stock market, it takes a while before you get a return on your money. It's the same with alternative energy. There will be a payback."

Phillips can be reached at 633-4252 .

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