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South Tampa solar-powered home is model of efficiency

Dan Fisher considers himself a geek.

He is, after all, an information technology scientist who might fit in with the cast of the Big Bang Theory.

Even so, Fisher says it doesn't take a computer whiz or rocket scientist to cut a residential electric bill that has reached $500 a month to as little as $17. That, in fact, is what he and his wife, Christine, have accomplished with modifications to their home in South Tampa.

In the past five years, they converted their now 20-year-old, 3,000-square-foot house from a drafty "energy hog" to an ultraefficient home. They have decked it out with solar panels, a solar water heater, solar-powered sprinkler system, LED bulbs, energy-efficient appliances and hurricane-rated windows with solar film.

His one caution: "Baby steps. If someone wants to do this, just take baby steps."

That's how Fisher began, a little at a time.

He is one of just 80 Tampa Electric residential customers who consistently operate at "net zero" levels. That means the electricity supplied by the power company is less than or equal to what the home's solar panels produce. The utility has 685,000 customers.

Before they went solar, the Fishers began with a less-costly improvement: They installed new attic insulation.

"That's a good place to begin," said Fisher, 53. "That's an easy fix."

They added solar window film to their existing windows, which can block out 60 to 80 percent of the radiant heat, decreasing the amount of cooling needed for the house. And they replaced the drafty front door with one that helped make the house more airtight.

When it came time to replace the water heater, the Fishers picked a solar-powered model, which removed one of their home's biggest energy users.

"Solar hot water has always been the low-hanging fruit," says Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "People pay a significant amount of their electric bill to heat water."

Glickman says solar water heaters range from about $4,000 to $9,000 — more than 10 times the cost of a standard unit. But homeowners typically can recoup that investment in four to six years in electric bill savings.

As other appliances needed replacing, the Fishers bought Energy Star high-efficiency units.

"In the long run, it will save you money," Fisher said.

Fisher saw his electric bill steadily decline and was inspired to look for more ways to save.

He replaced all of his lightbulbs with new LEDs, which last 25 to 50 times longer than conventional bulbs, do not produce heat and require less energy. LEDs are pricey, about $8 to $40 each.

Then projects got bigger.

Fisher bought new double-paned, hurricane-rated windows and covered them with solar window film. Finally, earlier this year, his largest investment: an 8-kilowatt solar array atop his roof.

Scott McIntyre, president of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, says the net cost for such a system these days with federal tax credits would run about $18,200. With rebates from utility companies, homeowners can cut that in half.

"We call it the path to zero," says McIntyre, who also runs a company called Solar Energy Management.

A retired Navy officer who now works as an IT scientist for the U.S. Central Command, Fisher uses the geek in him to track all his work with electronic meter devices around his home, apps on his smartphone and spreadsheets on his computer.

The stocky, graying technology maven watches them tick off how much electricity is costing him. One of his meters flashes 2 cents an hour, sometimes zero.

On a recent 92-degree afternoon, the meter said the Fishers owed Tampa Electric 38 cents that day.

"It's been like a challenge for me to do this," said Fisher, with a bit of a childlike grin. "I like the challenge as a technical guy."

The one thing the Fisher home doesn't do is look noticeably like a work of extreme efficiency.

But the Fishers carefully chose emission-free and recyclable materials that may also reduce heat, including tile and bamboo flooring as well as wall paint that does not contain unhealthy chemicals known as volatile organic compounds.

"We wanted this house to look like a house and not like an experiment," said Fisher, who heads the Tampa Bay Green Consortium.

The total investment in their home: about $60,000. Fisher anticipates it will take him seven to nine years to recoup his investment.

And to Fisher, it's worth every penny: "It's green. It's healthy. It's energy-efficient."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332.

>>fast facts

The path to 'net zero' energy use

Not everyone can afford a huge outlay of cash for thousands of dollars in improvements. But here are some steps virtually any homeowner can take to reduce their electric bills:

• Get a home energy check from your utility company. Duke Energy and Tampa Electric both offer this service. The service will not cost you anything when you request it, and it helps identify areas that need improvement.

• Replace incandescent lightbulbs with compact florescent or LED bulbs when the old bulbs blow out to minimize the impact of the increased cost.

• Keep your thermostat set at 78 degrees on hotter days to reduce electric usage by your air conditioner. Each degree you raise your thermostat will save you about 10 percent on your electric bill.

• Apply for solar rebates from the local utilities. Utility customers can receive thousands of dollars in rebates toward solar through the programs, which become available each fall.

South Tampa solar-powered home is model of efficiency 08/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, August 17, 2013 4:11pm]
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