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Solar at Home


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Cool roofs are finally cool

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Scientific American‘s George Musser will be chronicling his experiences installing solar panels and taking other steps to save energy in 60-Second Solar. Read his introduction here and see all posts here.

We geeks never seem to get our props as trendsetters. My friends Adam and Joe and I were the first kids in our school to use instant messaging over a 300-baud modem in 1979. But I guess girls preferred guys with the latest bell bottoms. Now the frontier of geekdom is energy conservation, and this time, we’re finally getting some respect.

Today’s New York Times talks about how the latest trend in green houses is to paint your roof white— as we did last month. Our roofer stripped off the dark asphalt shingles, exposed the 1868-vintage tin roof, and layered on a thick white vinyl coating. Because the house now reflects rather than absorbs sunlight, we no longer have to shower after visiting our attic and have yet to turn on the a/c at all this year. To be sure, it’s been a mild summer here in New Jersey.

A commenter to an earlier blog post said that tin roofs are noisy, but ours hasn’t been. We’ve had some Noachian downpours this summer and slept soundly through them.

Although I’m pleased to be in the same company as Cate Blanchett and Jackson Browne, who have gone even further than us in greening their houses, the real test of a trendsetter is how many people follow our example. The take-up has been slow. As far as I know, we and some friends of ours are the only families in town who are working to install solar panels. I recently met one other solar pioneer, Mark Turits, who lives in the neighboring town. He’s working with a different contractor (Geogenix) and using a different brand of panels (Sunpower), but otherwise our experiences with the technology (and the bureaucracy) are remarkably similar.

New Jersey is second in the nation in solar power generation, but it’s a distant second to California. Solar advocate Larry Sherwood told the New York Times that one reason is that the state’s incentive program “has had many fits and starts.” Looking on the bright side, it also took a while before every garage in town had a Prius. Maybe soon every house will generate its own electricity from the sun. If so, I guess I’ll have to find some new way to stay such a trendsetter.

Our blindingly white roof, courtesy of RoofMenders





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  1. 1. pelleger 6:10 pm 07/30/2009

    As a physicist I never understood why all roofs were not white already.

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  2. 2. krabcat 6:48 pm 07/30/2009

    because the shingles are black and the roof is realy only made to protect you from the outside. it did not occure to most people to paint the roof to absorbe less heat, only to keep rain/snow/bird droppings…etc out

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  3. 3. tlinget 7:00 pm 07/30/2009

    The down side is winter heating. I would suspect that the latitude, elevation, shading plants, and amount of sun may be the best factor in determining if this is the way to go.

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  4. 4. jaqcp 8:41 pm 07/30/2009

    In the Colorado mountains, some of the roofs have a standard deck with felt paper, then 2x4s on edge with another deck and metal. The air is allowed to pass between these two layers, preventing the snow from melting and sliding off in multi-ton sheets after a snowstorm. This is called a "cold roof." When I lived in TX, I always wondered if the same principle could be used to keep the heat out of a home. It would be expensive, but you would never have the heat problems and never have leaks for 50+ years.

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  5. 5. Bops 11:35 pm 07/30/2009

    jaqcp…Sounds like a great idea to check out. Maybe it wouldn’t be as expensive as you think. There aren’t many 50 + year roofs around. Our condo just got a new roof $$$$ and it’s not white!

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  6. 6. Rob Hooft 2:13 am 07/31/2009

    No, winter heating is not a downside for a white roof. A white roof is actually better in keeping the heat inside in winter, and better in keeping the heat outside in summer.

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  7. 7. jerryd 8:00 am 07/31/2009

    Here in Fla I’ve been touting white roofs for decades!! It’s common on trailers as is a double tin roof so air goes in between cutting AC bills by 50%.

    My present home has 1" of urethane foam with tin on top and great summer and winter with my heating, cooling only costing max $25/month and that only 7mo/yr.

    Link to this

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