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Solar is a bright approach to sustainable retirement living

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11 November 2021

We’re celebrating 3 million rooftops in Australia that have installed small-scale solar PV! To mark this celebration, we’re sharing the stories of people and communities who choose solar.

6 years ago, Jen Wetselaar moved from her farm on the Monaro and relocated to Canberra for a city change. Together with her niece, she bought a house and immediately started planning to build a smaller, energy efficient house in the backyard.

Jen’s planning was detailed. “I went to Sustainable House Day and I went on lots of See-Change tours. I got the Australian Disability (Access to Premises - buildings) Standards and the Your Home book. I researched green builders and I had a few meetings with the architect. I sought advice from Renew, the Alternative Technology Association, and I looked into solar passive house principles.”

“In my planning, I also thought about the kind of house I would need as I age. I wanted to build my home once and build it well. Solar panels were a no brainer part of that.”

In working with her solar panel installer, Jen found that it would be more efficient to put the solar panels on the existing house rather than her new home.

“While my new home faces true north, the roof is obstructed by a tree that cannot be removed. So, the panels had to go on the existing house which faces north-west.”

Jen Wetselaar standing in front of her solar passive home.
Jen Wetselaar and her solar passive home.

This solar panel arrangement worked well for Jen and her family, as her sister and mother live in the existing house on the block. The solar panels on the existing house, which total 5 kilowatts, are enough to power both houses for the 3 of them.

“I built a solar passive house, which means it stays cool in summer and warm in winter without needing artificial heating. As part of a solar passive house, you need to build it in mind with active inhabitants.

“In both houses, being an active inhabitant means that we run most of the appliances and hot water heater on timers. The timers are set to operate only between 10 am and 4 pm, which is when you get the most out of your solar panels. This means that you are not drawing from the grid when you don’t need to, and you can drastically cut your electricity bill costs.

“With the 200-litre electric hot water heater on the existing house for example, running it between 10 am and 4 pm heats it completely during the day and provides enough hot water that you can have a late-night shower without needing to pull from the grid. If you do manage to go through all the hot water, it will then reheat at 10 am the next day when it most economical to do so.”

Jen’s solar passive home includes multiple sustainable elements that cut bill costs. “I have a valve cosy on the outside of my solar hot water service which is said to save 15% on the bill, because without it I’d just be radiating heat which becomes wasted energy. And when I built the house, I also considered how best to use the hot water heater – in this house that means all my taps are as close together as possible to the hot water service, so I don’t fill the pipes with extra hot water that I won’t even use.

“I also have green eaves made from grape vines and raspberries on the north face, which grow vigorously in summer. On top of the double-glazed windows, the green eaves provide shade which cools the house down, meaning I don’t need to run the air conditioner at all.”

Jen Wetselaar's solar passive home with green eaves.
Jen Wetselaar's solar passive home with green eave shading.

In addition to building a solar passive house, Jen also designed her home with sustainability and longevity in mind.

“Design elements are sustainability in action. Having neutral tones is really important because you can dress the space up as you need without it quickly becoming dated. It’s about considering how long you can live in a home before you want to replace things in it - not necessarily because they are broken - but because they are outdated.”

Jen’s advice when building a home is to think about how it can work for you now and well into the future. While solar panels are often talked about as good investments for young families, they also represent excellent cost saving options for retirees.

“The good thing is for retired people to be able to stay at their address. I recommend that people build a smaller dwelling in their back yard instead of selling. This way you can keep your address, keep your neighbours, keep your routine, while renting out the older house in the front. With solar installed and a solar passive home, you end up with very low bills that can support you all throughout your retirement.”

Learn more about Jen Wetselaar’s solar passive home and our 3 million rooftops with small-scale solar PV installed.

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