Passive Solar Heating: The Basics

It has become abundantly clear, from your many comments, that most do not understand what passive solar heating means. Passive solar means there are no solar panels or any electricity involved in the creation and retention of heat within a building. The heat is created only by passive means of collecting energy from the sun and then retention of that heat by the physical structure of the home.

How is this done?

beginning to build on the slab comanche drive

Number 1: The positioning of the structure is essential. Mike made certain that our home was positioned facing directly south, with a whole wall of the correct type of glass doors and windows. In our case that included incredible views of the Spanish Peaks! You need full sun exposure on that side of the house. No trees, buildings, or other obstructions.

Number 2: In a passive solar home, the slab of concrete the home is placed on must be the heat-sink type and FULLY insulated from the earth. If it is not, the heat will come into the home during the day, sink into the foundation, and leak out of the slab, leaving the home cold at night when heat is most needed.

slab and framing of comanche drive

Number 3: Excellent insulation in the walls and ceiling of the home are essential. Holding the heat in once it enters the home is the only way it can remain warm when it is zero degrees outside. The home must be close to air-tight with quality doors and windows. Your floor must also be some sort of dark tile to help absorb more heat during the day.

new windows with Mike and Lee in photo

A view of the south-facing wall during construction

Number 4: Although the sun will be directly overhead in summer, proper overhangs on the south side of the home are essential to keep the sun from coming into the home too early in the fall. Mike also positioned our south-side overhang so that they are the correct size and angle to add solar panels later if needed.

Our home has very few windows on the north side, but a few on the east and west ends to absorb the morning and evening sun. We absorb solar heat most days in the winter, store it in our slab and it returns to keep us warm at night. Sometimes in mid-winter, we need to open a window at the warmest part of the day to cool off a bit!

clouds over Spanish Peaks summer

The view from our new PASSIVE SOLAR home!

So far in southern Colorado we have never fallen below 60 degrees at night no matter how cold it is outside. We supplement our solar heat with small room electric heaters. No furnace or propane needed. Ceiling fans help to distribute the heat.

Last January, when we lost electricity for three days because of a BAD ice storm, we stayed warm. With this system, we are able to average $100/month for all power to our home. A couple other unexpected benefits? Our home stays cool in the summer with its positioning to the sun and so much ceiling insulation, and it is so quiet inside all the time with no furnace turning on and off in winter!

The funniest part was learning that I didn’t need to turn down the thermostat when I left the house… the heat just keeps on coming in!

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A New Year, A New Photo Essay

View from our land

Retirement may suggest lifestyle change for some, but how many are willing to take on any real risks at age 60? Enter Mike and I, the quiet revolutionaries. Four years ago this month, we drove down to southern Colorado to purchase a few rural acres of pinon-juniper woodland west of Walsenburg.  Mike’s dream had always been to construct his own passive solar home with amazing mountain views. This was our chance to make that dream come true!

In June 2014 we packed up or got rid of most of our worldly goods, sold our nice  home in suburban Fort Collins, and took off to live in a 100-year-old rental home in Walsenburg, while constructing a new life twenty minutes west of there. Crowning ourselves the “NEW Old Farts,” I began sharing this retirement adventure with the world in October 2014.

Laura and Rasta the view 2014

Although my husband was a true believer from day one, this all felt like a gigantic leap-of-faith for me. With housing prices rising quickly in the metro areas of northern Colorado, I saw little chance of changing our minds later to return to the city if this didn’t work out. So I made myself believe in my relatively new husband’s vision, and you know what? He was right.

Three and a half years later, after too many doubts and incredible challenges to my idea of who I am and where I belong, I am now quite content in our country solar home looking out each morning at the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. My days are filled with supreme quiet and astounding beauty. I have also found a few good friends, a yoga class I like, and all the books I wish to read and movies I wish to view through the La Veta Public Library.

snowy west peak with comanche home in foreground

The view from our new solar home!

I find my need for distractions has dwindled. No, I do not miss city shopping, traffic, stress, noise or air pollution. In fact going into a city of any size is now the perfect reminder that I made the right choice for me. I have finally learned the power of living in this present moment. With so much more available to me and few distractions, I now have the time, energy, and awareness to fully appreciate the world around me.

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Sunrise that occurred while writing this post…

We moved here for a number of reasons: To live close to nature, to try passive solar living, to build the kind of home we chose to live in for the rest of our lives, and to find a far more peaceful, healthy and less expensive lifestyle than cities could offer us. We have received so much more by choosing to live in this beautiful, quiet place where life is luxuriously slow and overflows with simple pleasures.

Would you like to know more about our adventures? Check out my new memoir!

Colorado Divide: Rural versus Urban

colorado-divide-logo1We had a pleasant visitor today, a reporter from the Denver Post who is putting together their final piece for a series on rural life across our state. Kevin Simpson came down to visit with us about why we came here, and did we find what we were looking for in choosing the La Veta – Walsenburg area for retirement.

Here’s what he came up with. I think he did a great job of LISTENING to those of us who chose to leave city life behind

Colorado Divide: Why some Coloradans are cashing out of the Front Range and seeking their rural happily-ever-after

Laura and Rasta the view 2014

And, of course, that got me thinking along the same lines. The answer for me is a resounding YES! What has surprised me the most is how much my own choices have changed me.

As most of you know, I’m almost certain I would have never had the courage to move to this area on my own. I can now see our move to Walsenburg three and a half years ago was nothing short of traumatic for me. At first it felt like I was getting lots of tough things to adjust to with few upgrades in my lifestyle. In other words, I was very short-sighted. I have always wanted to be a go-with-the-flow type, but I’m not.

leap_of_faith blog sizeIt took me over a year and a brand new solar home to decide that I had made the right choice. Only after moving in and living here for a while did I fully appreciate an amazing new lifestyle for myself. And, there’s the rub. I had to take what felt like a gigantic leap of faith to find out how I would feel after I had lived here for a while. Some said rent for a year or two before committing to a new place, but that would not have worked for us. Decent rentals are extremely hard to find here, and living in your own solar home in the foothills outside of town is certainly not the same experience as living in a 100-year-old miner’s home in Walsenburg.

In this process I learned how much I love living close to nature and in silence. Overall I would say the BEST part of living here for me is the silence and lack of daily stress. My newfound ability to live completely in the moment has been a great and wonderful surprise!  OK, so I am a contemplative person, but as we age these things become so much more important to us.

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“…we all know how this ends, so rushing through life is senseless.  As our inner life grows ever more luminous, the chatter of the speed-and-greed world slowly fades, leaving us with greater peace, tranquility, quiet and contentment.”                                        —  Arthur Rosenfeld

Finding home…

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Northern Thailand around age 19

When the full moon woke me up in the middle of the night this past weekend, I started thinking about all of the places I have lived and visited. Actually it all began with trying to remember exactly which years I lived in Colorado Springs. This may seem strange, but when I started writing down all the places I have lived or stayed at least a week or two, it added up to six U.S. states and ten plus foreign countries. I lived in four different towns before first grade. No wonder at the ripe old age of 60 I was ready to settle down and stay somewhere for a while.

Dad Laura Diane and John small January 1961My Dad was a college professor and back in the 1950s that meant moving somewhere new every few years. I guess that got in my blood, because I never stopped throughout adulthood. My Mom used to complain that she had erased my address so many times the paper was wearing thin. She knew even back then to write my address in pencil. I have lived in eight different places in Colorado alone, and moved numerous times within each of these towns and cities.

This didn’t start out as a life plan for me. Things just worked out this way. Wherever I went I would stay a couple of years and slowly the urge would arise to move on. I remember when I got my first professional librarian position at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the director ask me not to stay forever in my first job. He needn’t have worried. I was out of there in exactly three years.

I used to kid with myself about “Moving on to greater failures…” Of course it helped that I didn’t marry until much later, and never had kids. I simply had no interest in all that. I wanted to see the world, exploring both the world outside my door, and the more interesting one inside my own mind.

Laura and the dogs 1997

Sitting with Mica & Calla in 1996

I also picked up a few college and graduate degrees along the way. For quite a while I wanted to teach Chinese history at the college level. Then, after learning Chinese and getting an M.A. in Chinese history, I decided I was sick of China and university teaching was too limiting in its depth and scope. Since Naropa University was located right down the hill from University of Colorado in Boulder, I walked down there to find a whole new perspective on life and psychology, transpersonal psychology. This was my spiritual home, and I have been pursuing it ever since. This is something you can study anywhere and everywhere. Human and animal behavior is my thing…

Laura standing at build site before slab 2014

Creating a passive solar home from scratch!

But still in all of that moving from here to there, I never found a place I could truly call home. What does that mean? To me it means a place where you will die knowing that you truly belong. That place where you can see your ashes blowing in the wind, and know you are finally home.

I didn’t know how I would find that place or if it would find me, but it did. At first I did not recognize this Pinon-Juniper woodland looking up at the Sangre de Cristo mountains as my place. I only knew I was home after we built solar here and then got comfortable for a few years.

cloudy Spanish Peaks with snow and garden

The view from our front door

I know every morning when I go outside and marvel one more time at the perfect silence of the sunrises and sunsets here. I know when I work in my native plants garden, collecting interesting plants from around the region. I know when new birds stop by to feed and drink or when a stray Road Runner peeks in my window.

amazing sunrise on Comanche Drive

I know because every time I return home I think,  Wow! Do I really live here?

Three Years Later in Rural Colorado…

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Today we celebrate three years of living in this magnificent part of Colorado. Granted, this was not all a pleasant experience. In fact the first year and a half, from the time we decided to leave suburbia in Fort Collins until our home was completed here, were grueling. Some synonyms for grueling that describe my experience best: backbreaking, challenging, demanding, formidable, and sometimes hellacious. Building in rural areas is not for the meek, and building in mid-winter has its own challenges, but we lived through it and now we are happy as clams!

(Exactly how happy are clams anyway?)

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We moved here for a number of reasons. To live close to nature, to try passive solar living, to build the kind of home we chose to live in for the rest of our lives, and to find a far more peaceful, healthy and less expensive lifestyle than cities can offer us. We received so much more!

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The greatest gift for me is a sense of freedom and natural silence that I have never come close to in my previous life. I now live in the present, choosing each hour how I want to spend my day. I awaken to the birds singing with the sun pouring in, and go out to work in my fledgling garden of mostly native plants, most of which will be sunflowers blooming very soon!

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Then, if I feel like visiting friends, I drive into La Veta on county roads with wildflowers popping up everywhere. Yes, the dining choices are slim here, just one of the “conveniences” you have to give up to live in the country. Luckily I’m a great cook and prefer to eat at home most of the time.

The hardest part for me was taking the original risk. Letting go of our nice home in suburbia was not easy, especially after seeing the one hundred year old miner’s house we would have to move into in Walsenburg for over a year.

decking Comanche home with mountains in backgroun

Then there were the challenges of working with the local contractors and our builder here. Just getting them to come to work was often the biggest challenge! Here’s where we were one year into the build. But somehow it all came together and everything works today, so we have no complaints.

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I know we will face many more difficulties and much stormy weather up here, but at least we finally know where home is. For now, this is certainly where we belong…

Laura and Rasta on insulation 2014 (2)Would you like to read the whole story of how we ended up here enjoying country living? Check it out: A Memoir of Retirement: From Suburbia to Solar in Southern Colorado.

Springtime Gardening near the Sangre de Cristos

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The West Peak is stunning in its new coat of snow!

Is there anything more wonderful than spring? Not for me! Especially this year when I finally have the ground prepared for my new wildflower garden! I’ve been in spring bliss in the past few weeks as I gather my precious new plants to decorate our Buddha garden. I enjoy Huerfano Nursery in Walsenburg and…

new plants at perennial favorites Rye

I finally went to experience Perennial Favorites near Rye, Colorado. That place is simply heaven to me, just as wonderful as I hoped it would be! My botany friend Jan says these feelings are in my genetics, with a famous botanist for a father I can’t help myself!

IMGP6036Here’s my small plot to plant and the lovely planting box Mike built for me this spring. I’m trying to grow a few native plants from seeds, plus I have purchased quite a few starters. The deer and rabbits are a concern, so I tried to choose ones they don’t like as much, lavender, penstemons, Blue Mist Spirea. As I took my walks around La Veta last summer, I noticed which plants were surviving the many deer prowling the streets there.

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I also took a few cuttings from a local cholla cactus. Love their magenta blossoms in JULY! It will be a few years before it blooms, but that’s what gardening is all about, tending and caring for your plants as they grow.

NM LocustAlso, I have a request for any locals reading this: Does anyone have seeds for the New Mexican Locust trees we see everywhere past La Veta on the road to Cuchara? I want to try growing them in our area! Thanks!  -LLC