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PROGRESS: Solar home saves money, helps environment

Sustainability sussed in special Signal section Sunday

Posted: March 29, 2008 3:05 a.m.
Updated: May 30, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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The following is just one feature story from The Signal's 2008 Progress special edition, published Sunday. Be sure to see the entire Progress section for more on energy sustainability in the Santa Clarita Valley.

John Hoskinson stood on the northeastern edge of his five-acre property high in Newhall's Wildwood Canyon, taking in the spectacular view. He gestured toward the hills down below, dotted with several homes as large or larger than his 7,100-square-foot hillside abode.

"My neighbors typically pay between $1,500 and $3,000 a month for their electricity," said Hoskinson, president and CEO of Valencia-based Gruber Systems Inc. He paused for effect as a visitor did the mental mathematics. That's $18,000 to $36,000 a year - a whopping expense even for people who can afford it.
"I paid about $375 last year," he said, grinning.

That averages to $31.25 a month.

There are two reasons his bill is so low. First, in 1999, Hoskinson and wife, Janice, had their six-bedroom, seven-bath home custom-designed and built partially into a hillside, using the earth to help insulate the bottom two of the three floors and save to big on electricity for heating and air conditioning.

To save even more, the couple's building contractors also installed the most energy-efficient heating and air conditioning systems (five), double-paned low "e" glass, indoor and outdoor lighting, weather and sound insulation, water heaters, kitchen appliances, laundry units and whole-house fans on the market. They used an X-10 timer system and other computerized timers and simple motion sensors to automate and maximize control of all things electrical - both inside and outside the house.

This reduced the Hoskinsons' monthly outlay to Southern California Edison to about $400-$500 a month, Hoskinson said.

But that was still too much, the couple thought. So in December 2005, they had an $81,000, 12.42 kilowatt photovoltaic solar energy generating system installed by Thousand Oaks-based Advanced Solar Electric to power the house. After California Energy Commission residential rebates then in effect, the Hoskinsons' out-of-pocket cost was about $51,600.

Just pay service charge
The photovoltaic system went on line in late January 2006; the bill for that month was about $100. After that, because the system produced almost as much energy as the home used, the Hoskinsons nearly achieved "net zero." They only had to pay Edison about $1,000 at the end of the first year, in addition to a $1.50 per month service charge.

"It would have been just $18 for the year, but the system was down for two months before we discovered it, because we weren't yet monitoring it that closely," Hoskinson said, adding that the solar company repaired the system as soon as it was notified.

For the second year, 2007, the total cost for electricity was about $375, as Hoskinson noted. Again, if net zero had been achieved, it would have been just the $18 service charge, but one of the four inverters was offline for a month waiting for parts.

Still, Hoskinson said, compared to what his neighbors shell out, "I wrote that one check for the entire year. That felt really good."

Hoskinson confessed that initially, aesthetics had more to do with building their home into a hillside than saving energy.

"The truth is, my wife and I looked at a lot of houses in Santa Clarita, many of them where the hillside was just cut and the house put on top, and to us it looked like it didn't belong," he said. "So when we hired our designer (Louis Romero), I told him I wanted the house to look like it belonged there, and he's the one who came up with building the house into the hillside."

The Hoskinsons soon realized the energy-saving advantages of such a design would be significant. "The house has three levels," he said on a recent walkthrough. "The bottom level is 75 percent underground. That level contains the oversized four-car garage, a gymnasium with a 3/4 bath and steam unit, a secondary laundry room, the elevator control room, a wine cellar, a mud room, and a big huge understair closet.

"All of that is built into the hill. We have a separate heating and air conditioning system for it, and it almost never has to run."

The middle level is about 25 percent underground, Hoskinson said, "but the underground still helps on the efficiency side. That's the living area - a game room with its own 3/4 bath, a wet bar, very large living room, very large dining room, large kitchen, double dishwasher, double sink, big pantry, very large family room, the elevator of course goes there.

"One air conditioning system handles the family room. Another handles the living room and dining room, and that only runs for a couple minutes a day to keep the system working. Other than that, it only runs when I'm having an event."

The house's top level is the only one that's 100 percent above-ground. "There are two heating and air conditioning systems for the upper level," Hoskinson said. "One does the master bedroom and bath and the two bedrooms; the other does the guest suite and the game room down below. They're only on when we have guests or the house is being used for an event.

"Otherwise, of the five systems, during the day we typically only run the ones in the master bedroom and down in the family room area, and the one in the master bedroom only comes on at night - we don't run it during the day.

"They're all timed to be on only when the house is occupied."

Wildfire-resistant, too
Being built into a hillside in the Santa Clarita Valley could increase the house's exposure to wildfires, but Hoskinson took that into account.

"We put a lot of consideration into the terrain and basically built a fireproof house," he said. "All my decks are done in tile, my roof is cement tile, all the eaves are stuccoed, all the fascia is covered with a steel gutter and downspouts.

"So the idea was to design the house so it could withstand a significant event like a fire - the house is also fire-sprinklered, by the way - and at the same time build in all the energy efficiency we could."

The house's water comes from a well and is pumped up to and stored in tanks about 80 feet up a hill overlooking the property.

"When we need water, gravity feeds it down," Hoskinson said. "I have a separate meter that runs the well, which is not hooked to the solar system.

"That'll be another project for another day. I run the well at night, when power's least expensive, to fill the tank and have water to use during the day. Since I don't need extra electric pumps for that, it helped drive down some of our costs."

In 2005, to further cut costs, the Hoskinsons installed four ceiling fans, strategically located throughout the house. "They have timer controls on them, and pull air through the house and up through the attic like a whole-house fan, but they're quieter and more efficient," he said.

With rebates from Edison's Quiet Fans program, the couple's cost was about $1,400 for the four.

"After I installed them, they made at least a 20 percent reduction in our power bill - a huge difference," he added.

At the end of 2005, looking at the rate increases Edison was projecting for 2006, the Hoskinsons took the next step - going solar. Instead of locating his solar panels on the roof, he had them installed on a hillside just below the house.

"The roof structure of my house is extremely complex, a very unique, high-quality design, and I didn't want to interfere with the integrity of the property or the integrity of the structure of the house," he said. "You can see the panels when you're at them, but from most places in the property, it's not uncomfortable aesthetically."

Break even within nine years
The home cost $1.6 million to build in 1999, and the replacement value of the structure and land would now be in the $3.8 million to $4 million range, "plus about three to four years of your life - that's what it took me to get this project through the hoops," Hoskinson said.

He added the photovoltaic system adds value to the home, "but only to the extent that they would look at what they're saving in energy costs and compare that to the cost of buying the house."

Figuring conservatively that they would have paid $450 per month for electricity in the 26 months since January 2006, the Hoskinsons have saved approximately $11,700 in energy costs by installing their system. At that rate, the system will have paid for itself in eight or nine years.

Meanwhile, according to its inverter meters, the Hoskinsons' system has saved more than 100,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses in the last two years by not using energy generated by Edison's fossil-fueled power plants, quietly contributing to the sustainability solution.

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