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It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day

Newhall man converts home to solar

Posted: July 6, 2008 1:03 a.m.
Updated: September 7, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Workers install the solar panels on the roof of B.J. Atkins' home.

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Sipping lemonade under the recycled roof was sweet.

Nestled in the shade of several towering oak trees on Cross Street, off that winding extension of Market Street that meanders through the older section of Santa Clarita, sits the totally sustainable home of B.J. Atkins.

In contrast to the history here and the oak roots so big and old and strong that they push up every neighbor’s lawn, the Atkins home is on the cutting edge of new age living.

Today, the last of the solar panels are being fastened to the roof of the Atkins home, a bungalow painted a sunny yellow that extends across a lawn almost as deep as a football field, dotted in the backyard with two sheds in matching yellow.

“When they’re done, I’m going to enjoy watching the (electric) meter spin backwards,” Atkins said, raising his glass of lemonade.

Solar energy harnessed by the panels installed by Rec Solar is expected to produce more energy than is normally expended here, sending the meter in reverse.

Instead of using energy, the Atkins’ home will be producing energy.

“I’m going to go around and start turning on appliances to see how much I can power up.”

By appearances, B.J. Atkins — long-standing board member of the Newhall County Water District — looks the model of corporate America: strong jaw, short-cropped hair, shirt and tie.

It’s here under the roof’s extension (which he points out was made from recycled wood) that one realizes he’s anything but conventional.

Atkins thinks so far outside the box it would make the staunchest alternate lifestyler blush.

“See this?” he said, holding out the hollow rind of a half grapefruit.

A few steps over a stone bridge that straddles a homemade creek bubbling here and there with wee fountains, Atkins puts the rind on the creek’s shoreline by some shrubs. From the soil, he picks up another grapefruit rind that had already been placed there.

“Slugs and snails,” he said, displaying the inside of the rind.

Back over the wee bridge and Atkins shakes the slugs loose from the grapefruit, sending them plopping into the gentle stream.

“The turtles love them,” he said with a smile, knowing he’d made the most of a grapefruit, shedding the expense of pesticides and turtle food.

But, there are many other features of the Atkins home that make him beam with pride.

Sustainability is, after all, the cornerstone of his business, Atkins Environmental HELP (Hazard and Environmental Liability Professionals), Inc., which was established in 1987 to help companies meet environmental requirements.

“We need to learn how to use water and not let it go to the ocean,” Atkins said, “Our society needs to learn how to sip.”

His peers on the water board, he concedes, will undoubtedly ask him for an opinion on the solar panels since the water district is set to move into a totally “green” building soon. 

And, although solar panels are a lauded fixture of the new digs, the board has yet to settle on a solar panel provider.

“I’m sure they’ll ask, and I’ll be able to relate my thoughts regarding this particular company,” Atkins said.
And, what about water at the Atkins home?

B. J. Atkins loves it when visitors ask.

Inside the garage, already fitted with the newly-installed solar panels, is a lawn sprinkler control box that looks like any run-of-the-mill of control box.

This one, however, uses a cell phone affixed to the outside of the garage to “talk” to a satellite, which, in turn, checks with a nearby acre of monitored land for moisture, temperature, humidity and all the other environmental variables needed to assess the amount of water a lawn would require.

One of the features promoted by HydroPoint Data Systems, Inc., makers of the WeatherTrak system, is that regulated bursts of sprinklers promises to prevent water runoff by more than 70 percent.

“I saved 40 percent of the water I was using before I put this in,” he said.

He and his wife, Jeannie, joke about a day just last week, in the midst of Santa Clarita’s triple-digit heat wave, when they came home and found the sprinkler on.

The joke?

Each thought the other had turned on the sprinklers. Not so. That was the decision made by the automatic sprinkler system, which had assessed that extra daytime temperatures warranted additional nighttime watering.

The Newhall County Water District gave Atkins a $240 rebate on his $700 cost of installing the system — not because he’s a member of the board or an insider — but simply because he’s a Santa Clarita resident committed to conservation.

The rebate is available to anyone following the Atkins model — the sustainability model, not the turtle food model.

“It paid for itself in six or seven months,” Atkins said.

At the very back of the Atkins property is a swimming pool under a canopy. Not a single solar panel or satellite conversing phone in sight.

A motor creates a current whereby swimmers can exercise on what becomes a  watery treadmill.

Surely, heating the pool must be his biggest expense. 

Not so.

Again, with a proud grin, Atkins points to an energy-saving device. This time it looks like a long black mat that, when draped over the top of the pool’s canopy, conveys water across the canopy from one end to the other, under the intense Californian sun.

It’s called a Sungrabber above ground pool heater and it uses a series of connected tubes (the mat) that runs cold water in one end and heated water out the other end.

By the time the water gets to the other side, it’s hot.

“This will save me $50 a month,” Atkins said.

But, the same sun beats down on the his home. What about that?

Specially tinted windows cut down most of the ultraviolet light, Atkins explains, and what little does make it through is blocked by a roll-down screen.

With the lemonade glass empty and the interview near an end, there’s one environmental point to catch the enviro guru.

Walking down the driveway, expressing thanks for the lemonade, Atkins is asked about washing his car on his lawn as recommended.

“You mean washing it on these?”

Atkins points to a special grid designed to hold up a car for just such a wash.

Amazing.

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