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A 1950s Rambler Goes Solar

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Sep 6, 2019

It all began with a leaky roof. Don and Pat Vasatka, of Eagan, Minnesota, have owned their classic 1950s rambler-style home for 40 years. They experienced snow build-up and ice dams that caused leaks, which were threatening the integrity of their home. The couple, who raised their two sons in the home, take environmental stewardship seriously. So, they had been reading up on more energy-efficient approaches to solving their roof problems. They were looking for solutions that wouldn't just fix the roof, but provide them with clean and zero-cost electrical power for the decades to come.

"At first, we knew we had to fix the roof, but we were thinking about how to re-roof while putting in a lot more insulation, says Don Vasatka. They considered adding solar to power their electricity. "We were wondering how to put it all together."

The couple consulted with four companies on how to address the ice dam and leakage issues. Many of those companies were only interested in increasing the insulation in the roof and enhancing airflow in the attic, Don explains. But the problem area was the roof above the vaulted area of their home. "Over the years, heavy snow had resulted in large ice dams, which caused water to back up inside the ceiling and drip down inside the kitchen walls." In addition, the roof had limited ventilation and inadequate insulation.

At the same time, they asked about solar. Their roof was not that old, "but it would cost an additional $3,000 (minimum) if we installed the solar and then had to take it off, should other fixes not address the ice dam problem," Don adds. After discussing several options with Applied Energy Innovations in Minneapolis, they decided to approach the roof with a holistic, step-by-step approach.

First, they removed the old insulation. Then, they installed seven inches of polyurethane spray foam insulation, bringing the roof's R-value to 50.

roof insulation
Photo Credit: Clean Energy Resource Teams

Several components of the new roof help keep it leak-free:

  • New air chutes on the north side of the house from the eaves to the roof ridge;
  • Air seals around all attic venting and plumbing penetrations; and
  • An ice and water shield 12 feet from the eave

They covered the roof in laminate shingles. Solar was on the horizon, but not quite yet. First, they needed to test drive—literally—some new technology to move into a new comfort zone, so they bought a Prius.

Test Driving the Tech 

"We're not early adopters of technology," Don admits. "We want things to be well-proven and to have the bugs worked out. But because we do what we can on behalf of the environment, and we wanted to save money on gas, we bought a Prius. It was our first step. It made us comfortable that new electrical technologies can work easily and properly." Four years later, they bought an all-electric Nissan Leaf. "Having those electric cars led us to solar panels for the house," he adds.

electric car charger
Photo Credit: Clean Energy Resource Teams

It was a journey. The Vasatkas attended several solar home tours, conducted their own research, and installed an upgraded electrical panel. Then, about eight years ago, the couple installed 30 solar panels —in two phases. The home now has 14 Solar World American-made modules of 240 Watt Mono-Crystalline. They purchased M-215 Enphase micro-inverters to create a system that generates more than 7,500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity every year.

The solar electricity they generate powers their electric clothes dryer, stove, and lawnmower. It powers their new Tesla, which they charge between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. when they get the best rate from the electric company. "It only costs us one penny a mile to drive," Don says.

The couple's current energy costs? "That's a fun question," Don says. "I can't remember the last time we paid an electric bill. Oh, we might have owed something one month, but we had so much credit we used that." A blower door test revealed how much the house had tightened up. The couple enjoyed receiving energy rebates. Their Envoy, energy monitoring system shows them how much energy they save and where their use could be improved. 

"It's fun coming home and seeing how the system performed that day," Don says. "It is working seamlessly, but just like any new technology, there is a learning curve on how to get the most out of it."

Lessons Learned

Snow in Minnesota can reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the panels. "I was told that since the panels are black, I should just let them clear themselves," Don says. He learned that there are exceptions to any rule. The south-facing roof on which the solar panels were placed has a slight slope. "When you get 12 inches of snow in December, it can take a while to clear off. Especially if it then rains and refreezes," Don says. He decided to buy a roof rake specifically designed to remove the snow from solar panels. If he partially clears the panels, the snow melts more quickly.

Now, about the maple tree. "We love our solar panels, and we love our trees, so we have a dilemma," Pat says. "The tree shades our solar panels for part of the day. We're tempted to take down the tree, but we love the tree and the shade." Even though "we might get 15% more solar production if the tree was gone," Don adds. "So we're constantly considering the tradeoffs," Pat continues.

The home currently has a gas furnace and gas water heater. "If those ever quit, we'll look at electric options," Don says. "But the furnace is only 12 years old."

Homeowner Recommendations

When considering an upgrade to solar, Don recommends that homeowners be open to learning new technologies—"their advantages as well as their limitations," he says. An energy monitoring or tracking system "is a great tool for watching how much energy you use," says Pat, who uses an app on her phone. "It helps you stay engaged with your system and your energy use. You can cheer yourself on!"

A tracking system can point out mechanical outages. "It pointed out that we had a problem with one of our inverters. Luckily the inverters were still under warranty, so we quickly got that fixed." Don suggests that homeowners, when considering solar, look closely at the financial aspects of switching to renewable energy, as well as the non-financial benefits.

"By integrating many strategies—roof insulation and solar, as well as a low-maintenance prairie garden in the front yard, composting, and irrigation from water collected in a rain barrel—we're working to minimize our environmental impact and costs," Pat says. "Little by little, things add up." In the process, the Vasatkas have become educators and advocates as well.

solar house
Photo Credit: Fresh Energy

Both of their sons now power their homes with solar. The couple is known in the neighborhood as "the solar house." As Don says, "The choice was really about the environment, and we wanted to decrease pollution and have a positive impact." Adds Pat: "It's good for people to see neighbors using and enjoy energy-saving technologies like solar panels. We'll talk to anyone who walks by!"

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-23T16:32:02+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.