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Senior apts. use power of sun for electricity, heat

Standing in front of the Oxford Square Apartments are (from left) OLHSA Sustainable Technical Coordinator John Adams, residents Linda Bratic and Chuck Egbert, and OLHSA Chief Executive Officer Ronald Borngesser. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
October 10, 2012 - Oxford Square Apartments (39 N. Washington St.) was showcased at a special Oct. 9 event as a prime example of how alternative energy technology can improve quality of life, reduce traditional energy consumption and save money.

Located in downtown's northwest quadrant, the small apartment complex – which primarily houses senior citizens living on fixed incomes – utilizes the natural power of the sun's rays to generate electricity and heat the air inside each of the 10 units.

The technology was provided by the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (OLHSA), which is dedicated to helping low-income, elderly and disabled individuals facing challenges become self-sufficient.

OLHSA showcased Oxford Square Apartments as a way to celebrate and spread awareness that October is Weatherization Month.

Through its Weatherization Assistance Program, OLHSA provides free energy conservation services for eligible low-income households to help reduce energy usage and lower utility bills.

Using approximately $250,000 of a $3.765 million federal Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers (SERC) grant received in 2011, OLHSA was able to install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar hot air systems for each 650-square-foot apartment. A hybrid, energy-efficient hot water heater was also installed to serve the complex's community room, where residents do their laundry.

Installation of this technology began in November 2011 and finished in April 2012. The technology cost about $150,000 (or approximately $15,000 per unit), while the rest was for labor and other associated costs.

"The residents that we've talked to have been really appreciative of it," said John Adams, who's the sustainable technical coordinator for OLHSA's Energy Services Division. "They really, really like the systems. We've received great feedback from all of the clients over there."

A total of 770 square feet of solar PV panels were installed. Each apartment received four panels, each of which measures 19.25 square feet in size. Each panel generates 250 watts, so four of them generate 1 kilowatt of electricity for each unit.

"Most residential homes use 60-watt lightbulbs, so one 250-watt panel would (power) four lightbulbs," Adams said. "We're servicing all their lights inside their (apartments) and then some."

The sun's rays are also being used to heat the air in each southward-facing apartment thanks to a new thermal hot air system. Basically, air inside collector panels is heated by the sun, then circulated into the apartment as needed via a 1-amp fan and thermostatic control system. "This keeps your normal furnace system from kicking on so much, lowering fuel oil, natural gas or electric bills for heating," Adams said. "They'll see a drastic difference in their heating bills."

Adams noted that during the winter months, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., all of the apartments will "get free heat for the day as long as the sun's out."

"My front room really stays warm," said Oxford Square resident Chuck Egbert, who's lived there for about 4½ years.

"Mine does, too," said resident Linda Bratic, who's lived there for about four years. "I don't even turn on my heat. It keeps things nice and comfortable in there."

Because everything at Oxford Square Apartments runs on electricity – there is no natural gas service to this property – these two renewable energy technologies are working together to reduce these senior citizens' electric bills by 25 to 35 percent. Each apartment is separately metered. "That was an average for the whole year," Adams said.

"It's going to save a lot of money. I know it is," Egbert said. "I think it's about a third to a quarter. That's a big savings, especially when you're a senior citizen and Uncle Sam determines how much you can make."

Not only is this reduction in electrical usage saving them money, it also improved the quality of their lives this past summer by allowing them to have something they didn't have before – air conditioning.

"Prior to us installing (the renewable energy technologies), they didn't have any air conditioning systems because it was just too expensive (to run)," Adams said. "It was another electrical load."

The use of alternative energies changed all that. "We were actually able to get the (apartment complex) owner to install air conditioning systems in each of the units without (the tenants') bills going up any higher than what they were before the systems were in," Adam said. "We got them air conditioning and their bills haven't gone up."

Adams said the seniors' "quality of life has gone up tenfold, if not more, especially based on the 105-degree summer we had."

In addition to installed renewable energy technologies at the Oxford Square Apartments, OLHSA also spent approximately $20,000 (an average of $2,000 per unit) on weatherizing the complex, according to Doug Symons, associate director of weatherization.

OLHSA sealed leaks (i.e. holes, cracks, gaps, etc.) where cold air from the outside gets in; added energy efficient lightbulbs to all units and energy-efficient refrigerators to four units; installed programmable thermostats; added insulation to attic spaces; and replaced all the front doors. The old refrigerators were using about 1,400 kilowatts per year. The new ones utilize about 354 kilowatts annually, according to Symons.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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