There are custom homes and then there are truly custom homes.
Two East Quincy residents set out to design and build the carbonless energy efficient home of their dreams, spending eight years in the planning and design phase alone.
For anyone who’s ever known anything about retired Feather River College instructor Bill Martin, they’ve come to learn of his fascination of conserving energy and saving money through practical lifestyle achievements.
One of the earliest traits friends and colleagues might have noted was his willingness to share a peek at his energy bill. Martin, one might say, had an obsession for seeing just how low he could get that bottom line. And he was dedicated to getting it lower than just about anyone else’s who wasn’t living off the grid.
As Martin’s interests expanded with the years, so did his knowledge and energy saving developments.
For instance there was the first home he built on Carol Lane East near Quincy. That was a start in the right direction.
Martin was a young man, with a young family, but he included some cutting edge energy-saving techniques into the home he started building himself in 1976.
Martin said other owners of that house were able to implement further improvements on the original energy-saving plan.
And then came the second house he was responsible for building from the ground up. Martin and his wife Susan Christensen purchased more than two acres of flat, lightly timbered property in East Quincy. They were in a bit of a hurry to get that home built. Martin said he really didn’t have time to research and learn about the conservation methods he wanted to install.
Although Martin and Christensen were able to start their third house before the second one sold, when it did sell, that money went toward another new construction.
The third house, built on the subdivided property, was what might be called the culmination of Martin’s energy efficient dream. This dream, turned reality has a name — QZNE — for Quincy Zero Net Energy. And what has the energy bill been? The “worst (and only) yearly bill (so far) after three years was $76,” Martin explained.
The bill came due to the wet winter and spring Plumas County received in 2017.
After the close of the fourth year, that’s this year, Martin said he’s planning to write a white paper on the results of their energy efficient home.
To accomplish what they set out to do, Martin and Christensen haven’t sacrificed size, lived with low ceilings, opted for an ice chest instead of a refrigerator or settled for a chemical toilet. Their new home is 3,265 square feet and all electric. It relies on solar and an underground heat exchanger and geothermal heat pump to meet all of their needs. “This all-electric house, burns no propane, oil or wood,” Martin said.
In the winter, the couple can maintain an even 69 degrees inside. During the summer it’s a very pleasant 73 degrees.
There are three zones to the house. Martin keeps an eye on each zone’s wall control although the system is designed to monitor itself.
“We wanted to push sustainable green construction as far as possible in our last house project because we believe in doing our part to combat climate change, however small a part that might be,” Martin said.
But before of any of this project could happen, Martin said he had to come to terms with how far energy conservation had come.
Martin was initially enchanted with solar energy. In fact he was involved at the teaching and construction level of it at FRC. Comparing his transformation with that of someone who denied religion his whole life he said that he “resists and resists and resists and then suddenly got it.”
With his newfound appreciation for things beyond solar, Martin was ready and willing to do the kind of research needed to see his third project through.
To streamline this process, Martin and his wife, a retired college instructor in communications, each took a portion of the home to design. Martin designed the exterior including the solar and underground heat exchanger and geothermal heat pump. Susan designed the interior. She decided where rooms were to be placed, paint schemes and décor. “You get what you want and I get what I want,” he remembered telling Christensen.
And to do that no stones were left unturned — literally — as Martin studied the portion of his lot where they wanted to build their third and final home.
After building the first house on the lot, Martin said the property looked like a war zone. Piles of rocks and piles of earth were left behind.
As Martin made his plans, he said he happened by one of the piles of dirt left behind. One day he took note of it. It was summer and when Martin ran it through his hands he said it was almost like talcum powder. Later, after it rained it turned into a thick, slippery substance he compared to dog crap.
“It is so bad that conductivity is bad,” he explained.
By this time Martin knew he was battling the soil on the property and trying to decide what to do. “I live on an alluvial fan of coarse sand, cobbles and larger boulders (up) to 24 inches in size,” Martin explained in a feature on the California Geo website. Martin is president of the California Geothermal Heat Pump Association.
Eventually Martin determined he could use what he called silt to pack around his underground Slinky (a registered trade mark) loops of high-density polyethylene pipe.
Martin determined he would need four 7-foot-deep trenches dug at strategic locations around the exterior of his house. The combined length of the trenches was 350 feet.
It was in these trenches that he had six inches of silt added to the bottom and then the black Slinky loop pipe laid.
Showing a length of the pipe, he pointed out how all the seams are heat fused. There are no joins, washers, gaskets or anything else that will deteriorate over time. And unless a stray rock somehow penetrates the compressed layers of earth, nothing will leak or break. This kind of piping just doesn’t wear out.
Like a few other things in his life, Martin said he got his timing a little off. He studied and became licensed in the underground heat exchanger and geothermal heat pump process, but that didn’t happen until after this phase of preparation began.
That experience still comes in handy for Martin. He doesn’t have a business and doesn’t sell anything, but he does like to spread the word and help others as they learn about ways to save energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
Once the high density polyethylene pipe was in place — 800 feet per trench — another layer of silt went down and then the carefully refined soil. To achieve this he and his crews brought in a vibrating grizzly rock crusher that pulverized all the smaller rocks not removed from the soil earlier.
“Using the shallow earth for thermal heat exchange, the home’s geo heat pump (located in the garage) is fed by 3,200 feet of horizontal Slinky pipe as a closed loop heat exchanger,” Martin explained. The 116 gallons of water and methanol mix — 80 percent water and 20 percent methanol — is in the ground loop and makes its way to the end of a loop trench and returns to the heat pump in 11 minutes. Because this is a closed system, the same water is used repeatedly and doesn’t evaporate.
“The geo heat pump exceeds nameplate performance because its loop produces higher than nameplate temperatures in winter, (and cooler ones in summer),” Martin explained.
“Via its de-superheater, 3,500 BTU/hr is added to a separate hot water pre-heat tank upstream of the electric (storage) water heater, every hour that it operates,” he explained about the home’s plentiful hot water availability.
For demonstration purposes, Martin turned on the hot water tap at a utility sink in the garage. Counting “one thousand, two thousand,” the hot water arrived in just two seconds.
While still on the topic of the loop system he chose, Martin cautioned others about the length of pipe they install or have installed in their trenches.
There’s a procedure called short looping that might sound good on the financial side when installing the pipe, but what happens is that the lack of pipe puts undue pressure on the compressor associated with the geothermal heat pump.
A new compressor is one of the most expensive parts of the heat pump system, Martin said. He knows someone who had this happen and it cost $2,500 for a new compressor — plus there’s the heating or cooling costs required while the system is down, and distress associated with something going wrong. And this isn’t an isolated problem. About every three months for as long as the homeowner is willing to replace the compressor, this will continue to occur.
When this happens, Martin said there are essentially two choices the homeowner has — he can fix the problem by adding more pipe — an expensive plan, or switch to a conventional heat system and abandon the energy efficient project. The latter is a waste of money and defeats the purpose for the original installation plan.
But in the more than three years Martin has lived in his home, his keen sense of ensuring that everything works according to plan has paid off.
“This bonus is due to its bedding, coverage and compaction in special silt, and its underground irrigation via downspouts, and surface flow captured by drainage boxes,” he added about why the system he chose works so well.
Paying attention to every detail, Martin said he had a drainpipe company install leaf-guard drains all the way around his home and garage. He also installed special drains that would catch the water and divert it to specific areas on the property. The “irrigation by laser-leveled leach pipe were all used to offset poor conduction and dry underground conditions,” Martin explained. “Decent soils found in most other locations would have shortened this ground loop by up to half.”
All of the rocks that were removed haven’t gone to waste either. The rocks were piled and later used to define planting areas around trees and a wide rock fence toward the front side of the property. Martin is in the process of building this feature and is pleased with how straight he’s managing to keep it.
“Want to watch the meter spin backwards?” Martin asked as he gave a tour around the outside of his home.
We were on the south side of Martin’s house where the roof is covered with solar panels. With the exception of the wet winter and early spring in 2017, the solar system produces more energy than they require. The unneeded energy is sold back to the power company and earns Martin and Christensen a little additional cash each year.“Using the utility as its electric battery, the 7.4 kilowatt rooftop solar PV (photovoltaic) array regularly exceeds internal house loads and exports up to 7,600 watts per hour back to the grid under a Net Energy Metering program offered by Pacific Gas and Electric,” Martin explained.
“Solar photovoltaics paired with the geo heat pump system is an effective marriage of two technologies allowing all the juice to come from the sky and all the thermal energy to be accessed from or rejected to the earth,” Martin said.
While the ground was prepared for the new house and an 1,800 square foot attached garage in fall 2010, Perry Bertocchi in the Quincy area started the block work in early spring 2011.
Martin said they continued to live in their neighboring house, but when it sold they found out they had to be out in a hurry.
As it turned out the couple would spend 16 months living in their travel trailer inside one third of their large garage. All of their furniture and belongings were stored in the other side.
Martin used local contractors as much as possible with his home. Buster Heiman and his son Jeb and some additional workers did much of the building. Martin said that worked out well. When he was helping out, he did all of the ordering so the builders could concentrate on that process.
Martin did admit he had some difficulties when it came to finding just the right contractor for installing the energy saving projects. He said he was adamant that he be involved in the physical installation and most contractors didn’t want to work that way. But Martin finally found someone who would work with him. Having built two other homes and remodeled at least one other, plus the extensive research he had done, he didn’t feel that he was a novice. Besides, he was spending a lot of money and he wanted things done a particular way.
As the exterior walls began to go up, there was nothing standard about their construction. Martin’s plan called for eight-inch walls, at least two inches thicker than in most homes.
Besides thicker walls, Martin used two kinds of wood and metal plates at the top and bottom of each wall. “The single story conventional structure combines eight inch wall plates with inner and outer 2 X 4 offset studs to achieve an R-33 wall and the near elimination of thermal bridging,” he explained.
“I’ve always been crazy for insulation,” Martin said. Besides his walls being packed with double the amount most other homes contain, the ceilings are insulated to R-49 and the floors over the crawl space are R-30.
An R-value is a measure of thermal resistance in preventing the transfer of heat. The larger the number that accompanies the R means the greater the insulation is at preventing heat conduction or loss.
“The building has a heat loss of less than 20,000 Btu/hr at a winter design temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and is served by a three-zone, ducted three-ton geothermal heat pump,” according to Martin.
A Btu or British thermal unit is a unit of heat. It is the amount of heat needed to increase the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
“I didn’t want to go overboard with the windows,” he said pointing to one of two dining room windows, Martin didn’t seem thrilled with them, but they do the job. “Windows are insulated vinyl with a .27 U-value,” he said.
In the overall design, Martin kept the number of windows to a minimum and on the small side.
But at the front of the house is a covered porch they have arranged as an outdoor living space. Wide, generous front steps take guests to the large entry area gives the impression of almost being somewhere else — not Plumas County. And the traffic way skirting the patio area, leads right to the wide, nine-foot front door.
And on the other side of the house is a large deck that adds a sense of openness that might otherwise be missed with fewer and smaller windows.
Entering the home, the 9-foot ceilings add a sense of light and space to the rooms. There’s a dining area to the left. The entryway and dining area are divided by an arts and crafts- style feature. Christensen found the design in a magazine showed it to their contractor and they built it. Earth tone walls, and rich, chocolate brown sofas and chairs are arranged in front of the faux fireplace.
A real fireplace didn’t fit into Martin’s energy-saving scheme. But they wanted the sense of having a fireplace. Originally, they wanted Greg Kinne to create a water feature inside what would have been the firebox. When they learned that Kinne no longer created those falls, Susan chose a feature with slender, black twigs reaching upward around a series of electric candles.
Off the living room is a less formal living area where the couple can relax and watch television.
Next to this is a breakfast area and then the generous kitchen with high-end cabinetry painted in a light color, and an island. Susan chose a wood-like finish for the island, which provides ample workspace, but also the countertop stove. Martin said he had to look along time to find the right stove with a down draft vent, not an upward one. The other countertops are done in black.
And between the kitchen and living room is a butler’s pantry where wine is kept and there’s plenty of space for serving pieces and other items.
This house has three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms. There’s a large study where both homeowners can work without getting in one another’s way.
Martin said they designed the home with potential wheelchairs and walkers in mind. That’s why it’s single story and all areas are large enough to accommodate those devices.
Martin is heavily involved in energy conservation and efficiency and is always willing to offer advice and share what he’s learned over the years. He can be reached at WillyCliff@gmail.com.