Theologian builds zero energy home

Presbyterian Hunger Program hosts webinar to help inspire those striving toward home energy efficiency

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

The net zero home in Henryville, Indiana, built by the Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull and her husband, the Rev. Don Summerfield. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE —  Presented by the Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull, an environmental theologian and author of “Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis,” led more than 50 participants through an online presentation highlighting her and her family’s journey toward building a zero  energy home located in Henryville, Indiana.

Zero energy homes are regular grid-tied homes that are so energy efficient they produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year. More than “green homes” with just solar panels, a zero energy home combines advanced design and superior building systems with energy efficiency and on-site solar panels to produce a better home.

the Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull

Tull, a former program director for Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light, has taught and led Earth care efforts among people of faith for the past 15 years. She and her spouse, the Rev. Don Summerfield, himself a Presbyterian pastor, built their Henryville home in 2018-2019, and she shared her experiences in the hour-long “Getting to Net Zero at Home” webinar on Wednesday. Tull said climate healthy homes are homes that not only benefit human and environmental health but are built or retrofitted to contribute much less energy pollution.

Except for the cold winter months, the net zero home generates more energy than it uses over the course of a year. (Screenshot)

“There are a lot of reasons for wanting an energy efficient home,” says Tull. “Besides polluting less, it saves money, is more comfortable and it helps gain some independence from monopoly utilities. Speaking as a homeowner who happens to be an environmental advocate, if I can understand these concepts enough to act on them, anyone can.”

Tull outlined 12 essential steps to achieve Net Zero Energy: building orientation, simple design, window orientation, thermal mass, tight building envelope, balanced insulation, balanced ventilation, heating/cooling equipment, domestic hot water, efficient appliances, efficient lighting and alternative energy.

Thanks to a bank of 26 solar panels on her carport, Tull’s home at times produces more energy than it uses, and she uses that energy to power her electric Chevy Bolt car. The excess energy produced by her home can also be sent back to the utility company – but that comes at a price.

“We can send excess power out to the grid, and we do,” said Tull. “But since we are on a rural electric co-op that doesn’t offer net metering, we are charged three times as much as we are credited for the power we produce. We send out as little as possible and store what we can in the battery, which also serves as a back-up power source much like a generator would.”

To build her new home, Tull enlisted designer and homebuilder Ted Clifton, owner of Zero Energy Home Plans based in Washington state, who designs homes and zero energy structures throughout the Northwest. Clifton takes a “whole house approach” to his designs, where each system is dependent upon the other to achieve a comfortable, more energy efficient home. With Tull’s residence, he discussed utilizing sun angles to maximize efficiency.

“Generally, we try to get a house facing south. But in this case we turned it to a 45-degree angle so that essentially we had two faces of the house — one facing southwest and one facing southeast,” said Clifton. “We built the carport with the solar panels facing due south and with the house we optimized everything for the actual sun angles. It’s unusual to do a 45-degree angle home but it’s not unheard of.”

Tull and Summerfield retrofitted their old home along the Ohio River to make it more energy efficient. (Screenshot)

Of course, not everyone is in the market to build a new home, and it is difficult to retrofit an existing home using the 12 essential steps model. Tull points out there are things you can do to any home and described efforts toward creating an energy efficient home in her 100-year-old Jeffersonville, Indiana residence, where she and her husband lived prior to building in Henryville. They included finding and plugging leaks in exterior walls, windows, and doors; replacing the old water heater with a tankless heater; adding insulation in the attic; installing a wood stove and ceiling fans; using energy star appliances; and installing a programmable Nest thermostat. There are also behavioral modifications, like keeping some room vents shut, using the microwave and small appliances more, rain barrels for gardening, and a clothesline to replace the dryer. Some of the replacement items came with federal tax credits and utility rebates to the homeowner.

By making smart energy choices, one can reduce energy usage even in older homes. (Screenshot)

“Maintaining that big house meant we had to work hard to conserve energy,” said Tull. “We started keeping spreadsheets to monitor our electric and gas use to know what we were spending. Then we got an energy audit to help find leaks in walls, doors, and windows. The first recommendation was to better insulate the attic to fill gaps in exterior walls, and we recouped some of that cost through a federal tax credit.”

Sustainable living and care for Creation are tenets of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which offers resources for congregations and communities that recognize we are called to respond to climate change. Download Moving Forward: A Guide to Climate Action For Your Congregation and Community. It provides information and resources to reduce energy use, build resilient houses of worship as refuges from a changing climate, and encourages support for policies that better care for Creation.

The Rev. Dr. Patricia Tull wrote the 2013 book “Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis.”

“We were so happy that Patricia could share her experience with other Presbyterians,” said Jessica Maudlin Phelps, associate for sustainable living and Earth care concerns with the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “We hope that they find encouragement and inspiration as they do their own work to walk a little lighter on the Earth.”

Tull, an A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Hebrew Bible at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, is now involved with Presbyterian Climate Advocates, a small group of church leaders who advocate with legislators for a carbon fee and dividend plan to help move toward a renewable alternative economy and help congregations, communities, and families conserve energy.

Tull hopes that anyone who is considering remodeling, replacing a furnace, adding a room — or even building a new home — will gain some ideas and inspiration for planning by watching the webinar. A recording of “Getting to Net-Zero at Home” can be viewed here.

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program is possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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