This couple has one cool crib

A geothermal pump offers a new way of living

Staff writerMarch 28, 2009 

— Everyone wants to save money. And it's fair to say many people also want to become gentler friends with the planet.

But can you do both without busting a blood vessel from the effort or overloading your wallet from the expense?

Husband and wife Carmelo Moro and Cristina Mickiewicz say yes. The empty-nesters are eager to share how they did it after downsizing from a 2,300-foot Chapel Hill home to a 1,900-square footer in Mebane in July.

Their home is comfortable. Their energy bills are lower. These days, they await the sun, for its beauty and its source of clean energy.

"I walked in this house the first time and turned on the hot water," Mickiewicz says of using their new solar water heater. "I don't know; it was like a religious experience. I wasn't thinking of the savings. I felt good that we weren't contributing to the problem of global warming."

Mickiewicz, 55, and Moro, 61, are working people. Their marriage is the second for both; they have four grown children between them. When the couple began planning for retirement two years ago, they wanted a new, smaller home.

They had no specific interest in green living until Mickiewicz began researching global warming and alarms went off in her head.

It took planning and some extra money. But, they say, the pricier equipment will eventually pay for itself.

They're already paying off in another way, Mickiewicz says. "You live without the guilt."

Getting started

More than a year ago, Mickiewicz attended a meeting on global warming at N.C. State University. The speaker, a NASA physicist, showed time-lapse photography of the melting polar ice cap.

"It's not like we've been into this forever," she says. "We were just at the right place at the right time. The information about all of this started spilling out. And we met people who wanted to help and knew how to help."

Mickiewicz and Moro began executing their green plan in December 2007 by partnering with Cimarron Homes and asking for help finding green technology.

Now the earth heats and cools their house with a geothermal pump. The pump uses the constant temperature inside the earth to heat or cool the house. The pump runs occasionally and the noise isn't loud. "It's like a heartbeat," Mickiewicz says.

The sun heats their water, using two solar panels on their roof that feed into a 40-gallon tank in their garage.

All the family's appliances are efficient Energy Star models. The faucets, showerheads and toilets are low-flow versions. One family car is a hybrid.

The family paid for two types of insulation -- a layer of a new type that is essentially styrofoam and a layer of the regular kind.

The house is also equipped with special barriers to keep the temperature stable. One looks like a metal sheet attached to the roof, where 90 percent of a house's heat or cool air can bleed out.

Mickieiwicz shows the other, called an attic blanket, to a visitor. Opening the attic door, she unzips a padded metallic cover on the door frame, laughingly calling it the house's "lasagna cover."

The big-ticket items were the solar water heater, which cost about $5,000, and the geothermal pump, which cost about $16,000 after Cimarron cut the price as an incentive to use the home on the annual North Carolina Green Tour.

All of that helped kick the price from $170,000-180,000 to $222,000. Mickiewicz says lower land prices in Mebane helped them make up the difference.

Bills, bills, bills

Mickiewicz admits she constantly worried about energy bills when they lived in a bigger house in Chapel Hill.

"I would worry about all the glass windows," Mickiewicz says. "Oh I'm losing heat. The bills! Then I heard about global warming and I'm like, 'Oh I'm contributing to this mess. My grandchildren! Oh my God!'

"The [Mebane] house is a stress relief for us."

Southern Energy Management crunched the numbers and showed the family how much they'd pay in the smaller house using green technology versus conventional systems.

Mickiewicz and Moro say their Duke Energy bills have decreased in the Mebane home. In June 2007, they paid $94.36 to cool their old home. Last June, in the Mebane home, they paid $75.54, a total that was distorted some because of humidity in the home when they first moved in.

For mid-January to mid-February 2008, they paid $216.71 to heat their old home. Last February, they paid $83.50 in the new one.

"The sad part is that people look at doing this as something political," Moro says. "Like if you are for something efficient you're on one side, and if you're against it you're on the other side. We're doing it because we're getting close to retirement. We need to reduce expenses. This will help. Hopefully we can save a lot."

Troubleshooting

Still, there were moments of worry. When they first moved in, it was humid for months.

A flap on the geothermal pump that regulates moisture was open at 90 percent when it should have been at 10 percent. It took two months of running three dehumidifiers around the clock, but eventually the place got back to normal.

"That was the only time we really felt like, 'Oh no, we're using all this electricity with the dehumidifiers! What have we done?'" Mickiewicz says.

Mickiewicz likes the feel of the air now.

"It's softer somehow," she says. "You know how the forced air just dries you out? This doesn't."

Another time, Moro was showering this winter when the water never got hotter than tepid. The family has an electric backup system for the solar water heater but didn't realize they didn't have it turned on for the first six months. It didn't become an issue until December when the sun began hiding for longer stretches.

They called Southern Energy, who'd installed the unit. "Just push the reset button," a utility representative said. The backup electrical system kicked in.

Future is now

Moro wishes their grass were further along. Digging for the pump -- it took two days and the noise bugged some neighbors -- stalled its growth. He's going to start a vegetable garden in the backyard of the 0.4-acre lot. They'll have to be careful not to dig into the PVC pipes that sit just 3 feet underground and run some 40 feet from the backyard into the garage.

Mickiewicz and Moro look forward to when more people buy the geothermal pumps, which normally run about $23,000, and drive the price down.

They look forward to the day they can use solar power to run their whole house, not just the water heater.

While building the home, Cimarron had wired the house for the next generation of green doodads, called nanotechnology, which will replace solar panels. Soon, homeowners might be able to paint their roofs with solar paint or build with solar bricks. The paint and bricks will draw the energy from the sun and feed into the family's electrical grid for home use.

"We feel more connected to the world, to the Earth," Mickiewicz says. "And we think differently. Do we take a shower now or wait? It's all part of our thinking now."

The couple took the plunge and found the waters leading to greener living weren't so deep.

To others contemplating the same, Mickiewicz offered this advice: "Just do it."

luciana.chavez@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4864

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