Al and Nancy League may have put a bit of extra investment — of both time and money — into the early stages of constructing their home at The Cliffs Valley, but their “future-proof” choices are already paying off in the two years since its completion in June 2017.
The League’s home generated two megawatts more power than they needed last year, which they put back into the grid at Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. They keep the home at 72 degrees year round, have free hot water, and 32 kilowatts of backup power stored on lithium-iron batteries at all times. These cutting-edge features — and more — are quietly running under the surface of a home with all of the comforts and the traditional appeal you’d expect to find in The Cliffs.
“I just looked at the art of the possible,” says Al, who once ran an advanced research and development lab for U.S. intelligence agencies. “I wanted to learn how to use the available technology, which works more efficiently and effectively when integrated. I wanted to put all my costs upfront, because I want to be here forever, and I wanted a $28 power bill.” That $28 connection fee powers the main 4,900-square-foot home, as well as 1,700 square feet of additional space that includes attics and garages. The Leagues stay “on-the-grid” to use co-op power at night when the sun isn’t shining, and the extra power they generate during the day benefits the grid. “We could go off the grid if we wanted to, and be self-sufficient,” he says.
While some people associate highly efficient, high-tech homes with a futuristic look, the Leagues wanted a more familiar design. “From the front, there is nothing obvious about the unique features of our home,” Al says. But a closer look reveals the home’s ultramodern methodologies.
The plan started with solar. Builder Arthur Rutenburg and solar engineer Adam Allman worked closely with Al to position the home so that the rear of the house faced directly south. The Leagues then installed 47, 300-watt solar panels that are completely invisible from the front of the residence and to all neighbors.
The collected power is stored in the mechanical room, where a MagnaSine system conditions the power and stores what isn’t needed in lithium-iron batteries — not lithium ion batteries, Al points out. Lithium-iron — also known as lithium ferrite — batteries are completely inert and never run out of duty cycles. The use of these batteries in the League’s home is the first residential application of the technology, which was originally developed for military special forces operating in the desert.
Another key aspect of the home’s self-sufficiency is its two geothermal systems engineered by Mike Estes. According to Al, they are “the most efficient heating and cooling technologies you can put in a residence.” The systems are at least twice as efficient as the most highly rated conventional HVAC system, and they will pay for themselves within five years. Plus, with few moving parts, its lifespan is much longer than most HVAC units.
Hidden under the driveway are wells that reach 400 feet into the earth. Water circulates through the wells at 56 degrees — the temperature at that depth — and is pulled into the geothermal systems to keep the house at 72 degrees, year-round.
A serendipitous byproduct of the geothermal process is the hot water generated by the heat exchangers in the geothermal systems, which allows the Leagues to store two 110-gallon tanks of free heated water at all times.
To maximize all of this efficiency, Al and his team made sure the home was airtight — up to four times federal Energy Star standards. This was achieved by installing triple-pane windows with foam board sheathing, along with open-cell foam insulation sprayed in for optimal coverage. All of the systems are automatically monitored and can be remotely controlled from Al’s phone, tablet, or any computer he uses.
While any one of the features in the League home offers an increase in energy efficiency, it
is the combination of all the systems that creates a dramatic effect. Al says designing and building the home was “about discovery and education,” and he hopes the results will help others realize that non-traditional energy options can save money and allow homes to practically maintain themselves. Thanks to the seamless integration of technology and design in the League home, Al and Nancy are certainly able to show others a beautiful, low-maintenance, and ultra-efficient home is possible.
This story was featured in Cliffs Living magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.