Participant Forum: App Tech

Appropriate Technology on My Site

Picture of Deb Winther
Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Deb Winther - Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 11:49 AM

It's another sunny day on the Cape, but it's definitely starting to cool off. I finally had to break out a flannel shirt yesterday!

My house is south facing and is in full sun most of the day, even in the winter. For the past 10 years, I've been toying with the idea of putting solar panels on the roof of my house to cut down on my energy consumption. I finally reached out to a local solar company this fall to have a solar assessment completed. As I suspected, my site (specifically, my roof) is a good candidate for a solar installation. We started the permitting process, and are waiting for the local approvals to get started.

I don't have personal experience with solar generated power, but I did some research, and talked to a neighbor that recently had solar panels installed on his new home. He is a retired engineer and walked me through some of the pros and cons he encountered with his project. This gave me the confidence to finally start my own installation.

The following are what I think will be the pros and cons of converting to solar power:


  • Cash savings - probably one of the biggest advantages of generating my own electricity. The proposal for my site anticipates that I will be able to generate more than 100% of my electricity needs.
  • Clean energy - reducing my impact on the environment by producing clean energy. There is the future potential to convert from natural gas for heat and hot water to electricity produced rom my solar panels.
  • Energy independence - a future investment in battery storage will allow me to become energy independent in the near future.


  • Cost - solar installations, even on my small roof, require a significant cash outlay, even after taking into account state cash incentives, and federal and state tax credits.
  • Battery storage - also a significant cash outlay (almost as much as the solar panels!).
  • Historical district hurdles - my house is located in a historic district, but is not a historically significant structure (nor is my neighborhood historically significant). The historic committee has demonstrated an intense dislike of solar panels facing the street (which mine will), so we have an uphill battle to get clearance from this local committee.

This is a significant and costly undertaking, so it may not be practical for many sites. However, I'm excited and grateful to be in a position to take on this project on my site.

Peggy Berk
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Peggy Berk - Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 3:30 PM

Hi Deb,

I have been on the solar panel waiting list in my area since August 2019. It’s very frustrating, especially because I will be changing my heating system over to electric from oil at the same time, but don’t want to jump the gun on that install because right now electricity would be much more expensive than oil heat.

if you community board won’t approve front facing solar panels, you can look into  solar roof tiles.  They are a bit more expensive, but aesthetically more pleasing and might be more acceptable to your community.

Hope your approval process goes smoothly!

Picture of Deb Winther
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Deb Winther - Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 5:57 PM

Thanks for the encouragement, Peggy. I had to put a new roof on my house 2 years ago, and solar roof tiles weren't an affordable option at that time. 

Not surprising, it's not the community that objects to solar panels, its the 5 old white men on the historical commission that are a few steps behind the rest of the world. I've been told that I just need to drive around the historic district and take pictures of all the other homes (some even historically significant ones!) with solar panels facing the street. Apparently, they just like to give everyone a hard time. I think it's time for some younger, more diverse faces on our historical commission!

Good luck with your solar project, too. I'm looking forward to eventually "getting off the grid".


Picture of Christopher Schmitt
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Christopher Schmitt - Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 2:24 PM

Hi Deb,

My daughter empathizes with the conflict of balancing historical architecture with the concepts of clean energy. We own a 160-year-old farmhouse, and it would be an abomination to install solar panels on our original, standing-seam metal roof (it even has a history--we researched how it traveled by train to a nearby town, and then was brought by horse to our property!) This is why we are working on geothermal and wind options as clean alternatives to solar.

We hope for a time when historical architecture is taken into account when designing green technologies, since both are so important to unique and resilient communities. With my daughter in the lead, we are studying about certain aspects of historical building which are so much more efficient than the most advanced modern technology. For example, our original, downstairs 6-over-6 windows are by far technically superior to our modern, double-paned replacement windows upstairs, because of the old-growth wood used to manufacture the older windows, which is the best material to slow energy transfer, even more efficient than vinyl materials in the upstairs replacement windows. Also, the linseed oil glaze on the panes acts as a deterrent for heat transfer. Lastly, our original downstairs windows have never needed to be replaced, as compared to at least three sets of replacement windows needed upstairs!

The original windows might be a little blurry and fuzzy, but we love them, and they work pretty decently. They are held together with a very primitive tongue-and-groove setup, and they stay up with a stick--no mechanicals to go awry! As you can tell, we love to talk about our old house :)

Best of luck with your solar panels--we are curious to hear if your house has any historic features that contain elements of energy-saving, resiliency, and sustainability qualities.

Best wishes,

Chris and family        P.S. My daughter is posting a photo for you of one her beloved, original windows :)

Peggy Berk
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Peggy Berk - Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 5:23 PM


I always love hearing about your family's contributions!  I too have  6-over-6 mullioned windows that I love in my NYC brownstone apartment (built in 1890).  But they do leak a lot of energy around the mullions.

Have you done anything with geothermal yet? When I bought my house in the Catskills that was my first choice,  but my son (who is a sustainability consultant specializing in energy) told me that the pumps are failing around the 5-year mark, which was reinforced by the HVAC guy who maintains my heating equipment up in the Catskills. 

I'd love to hear about your experience with it.


Picture of Deb Winther
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Deb Winther - Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 7:22 PM

Hi Chris - I love that picture and can only imagine how beautiful they look on your family's house. I enjoy the beautiful old homes that are in my town and appreciate that we are trying to keep our historic architecture intact. However, most of the neighborhoods like mine are made up of small, ranch-style houses that were built in the late 50s-early 60s. Cute, but not historically significant. The members of our historical commission have strong personal opinions that often have no basis in historical architecture. Even the local press have referred to them as the "Curmudgeon Commission". LOL.

The major energy savings step I have taken to date is to replace my old furnace (oil) with an on-demand heat and hot water system that has been very efficient and cost effective. I did this the first year I bought the house because the old furnace died the very first time I turned up the thermostat!

Since I only have 1/13th of an acre on a level, suburban lot, solar seems to be the most viable option for me. Hopefully the Curmudgeon Commission will agree and approve my application. But, I agree with you that we need to figure out a way to preserve our historic architecture while doing what we can to promote cleaner energy. According to my son-in-law (an energy contractor with MassSave), you can accomplish a lot with insulation and caulk!




Picture of Kathy Partridge
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Kathy Partridge - Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 8:49 PM

As a matter of interest, the woman I interviewed for the permaculture site visit is totally off grid and manages just fine on a very small setup of only 3 photovoltaic panels - 175 watts each - so a 525 watt system with 4 deep cycle batteries. (I'll put a photo at the end of her panels.) When planning her system, she went through her entire house where she was living at the time, and made a list of everything she used electricity for. Then she eliminated every item she knew she could live without and came up with alternatives for others. That's a very important factor that's often overlooked, I think. We're so used to all these big (and small) appliances, and we forget that there *are* alternatives plus a lot of them are really "wants" not needs..

For example, she doesn't have a washing machine. Her straw bale house is quite small and it would have taken up valuable space, plus the water in  our area has lots of minerals and would be hard on a washer. She does her laundry at a laundromat, but brings the wet laundry home and hangs it to dry. In the summer, she dries it outside; In the winter, she hangs it in the house where it helps to humidify the dry air from the wood stove. She doesn't have a furnace.

She also doesn't have a refrigerator, but she does have a freezer. The freezer lives outside in her shed. In the heat of summer the freezer runs a lot, but that's the time of year when her panels are cranking out so many electrons, she can't use them all anyway. In the winter when it's cold and cloudy, the freezer doesn't have to run much at all, so it isn't that much of a drain on the system. She stores local grassfed meats and produce (much of which she grows herself) in the freezer.

Instead of a refrigerator, she uses a camping cooler. As she pointed out, most of the stuff we keep in the fridge doesn't have to be there, anyway. She keeps things like yogurt and cottage cheese in it. She also has two gallon jugs of water that she alternates, frozen, from the freezer to the cooler and back again. So her cooler always stays nice and cold.

Another alternative to a refrigerator that I've read about is a small chest freezer plugged into a temperature controller that keeps the freezer at 33 or 34°. Because freezers are so much better insulated than fridges, the cost of doing this is said to be about 90% less than running the typical refrigerator.

Also, her house wiring is 12 volt DC but she does have an inverter so she can run the few things that need 120-volt AC (computer, TV and DVD player, and her cpap machine for her sleep apnea).

Lastly, she has a generator which she sometimes shares with off-grid friends. Because our winters are so cloudy, sometimes the batteries get too low and there's just not enough sun to top them off. The batteries can't be allowed to drop below 50-60% or they'll be damaged. so it's important to have an alternative way of "filling" them if need be. She rarely, if ever, runs anything off the generator directly.

Hope this gives you some ideas for economizing on the cost of your system. I know of someone else with a big old 4 bedroom colonial that said she put 32 panels on it. I don't even want to know what that would cost, even with subsidies. Yikes!

Picture of Deb Winther
Re: Appropriate Technology on My Site
by Deb Winther - Thursday, November 19, 2020, 8:40 AM

Hi Kathy,

What a interesting visit that must have been! We take so many of our modern conveniences for granted, don't we? It's not until the power goes out that we realize how dependent we've become. 

I did a survey of all the small, single-use appliances I had accumulated over the years when I downsized into my small house on the Cape 10 years ago. My kitchen is small and cozy, with minimal counter space and storage. So, I donated the microwave, toaster, and coffee maker, just to name a few. I haven't missed any of them for a minute, but I have developed an addiction to cold-brew coffee! Haha.

Thanks for sharing all the creative and useful ideas you learned about through your visit.