Home Energy Expert Soaks Up the Sun

By practicing what he professes in class, Fairchild stands to reduce his electric bill to nearly nothing.

Students taking “Physics 054: Energy and the Global Environment” learn a lot from Professor of Physics Robert Fairchild about the value of energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. But what they might not recognize is just how fully Fairchild has embraced what he teaches about energy use in his own life.

The professor practices at home what he preaches in class.

He and Professor Emerita of Economics Loretta Fairchild (’66) bought their University Place home in 1976. When the house was built in 1952, energy efficiency wasn’t exactly a top priority. “The windows were single paned and drafty,” he said. “There were about two inches of insulation in the attic and none in the walls.”

How you can use less

Are big home energy renovations outside your budget? Here are five things you can do to save energy that cost nothing.

Unplug electronics.
All those chargers and gadgets can use as much electricity as your fridge.

Use fans.
Keeping your thermostat five degrees higher can save you 20 percent this summer.

Close the damper.
When you’re not using your fireplace, keep that damper shut.

Wait for big loads.
Running fewer, larger loads of dishes and clothes saves water and energy.

Adjust your water heater.
Make sure your water heater isn’t set above 140 degrees. If your dishwasher allows it, turn it down to 120.

Today, no one could call the Fairchild home drafty. The couple added layers of insulation in the attic and sprayed it inside their walls. When they installed new siding, they added sheets of insulation from the outside. The single pane windows are long gone, and a basement refurbishment included still more insulation.

One of Lincoln’s first geothermal retrofits a few years ago dropped their electricity consumption significantly.

But a 2010 sabbatical in Australia—where costly electricity is largely produced from dirty brown coal—got Fairchild thinking he could do still more. Australians in Melbourne were taking bold steps toward alternative energy, and he saw no reason why he couldn’t do the same in Lincoln.

What he did next has the potential to drop the Fairchilds’ electric bill to near zero.

He hired SWT Energy, a Lincoln company, to complete what it called the largest solar electric installation of any kind in Lincoln atop the Fairchilds’ detached garage. (A large oak rendered the house’s roof too shady for solar panels.) Work finished this winter.

A meticulous data collector, Fairchild knows their annual electricity usage is a modest 11,000 kilowatt-hours. (They use no natural gas.) The U.S. average combined annual electricity and gas usage reaches roughly 18,000 kwh. The solar panels’ projected annual power output is 9,000 kwh. So, Fairchild estimates his electric bill will drop roughly 82 percent. That and a 30 percent tax credit on installation costs serve as powerful incentives, not that he needs motivating.

As summer approaches, Fairchild is excited to watch the sun pour down on his new panels. He’s equally excited to watch the data pour out.

“Watch,” he said, grinning. “Lincoln will have its first sunless Seattle summer.”