Solar Panels for the Passive House: John & Nancy

Ten years ago, John and Nancy started thinking of moving from their home in St. Peter to the La Crosse area. They searched for years, but couldn’t find a home that met their needs or which they would be excited to renovate.

“We started the slow process of figuring out where do we want to live, thinking that at this stage of our lives, we want to settle down in a community and in a home that we’re going to be happy with for the rest of our lives.

“Ultimately, we got to the point that we didn’t really find a house, and we had looked all over between La Crosse and Lanesboro and on the other side of the river as well, but we really fell in love with the Lanesboro community,” John said. “Before we knew it, we were volunteering for the Rhubarb Festival and everything else going on in town, so that helped us narrow our focus to where.”

But without a house to move into, they had no choice but to build. Early in their search, John & Nancy were invited to an event hosted by the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center where they learned about the Passive House movement, an exceptionally rigorous building standard that results in a home which, using the latest technologies, has the smallest carbon footprint currently possible.

The concept hit home. John says he doesn’t consider himself an “environmentalist” per se; he just believes in living within his means.

“We believe in energy conservation. We believe in protecting our valuable non-renewable resources. But we’re also big believers in electricity and living the lifestyle we’ve come to know within reason, but just to do it more efficiently and more economically. We don’t have deep pockets, so we ask, ‘How can we conserve—use less? How can we best use what we are going to use?’ Economics are part of it as well as the environment.”

This home has both photovoltaic solar panels for electricity and a thermal solar panel to heat water

John and Nancy engaged a Passive House-certified architect, but since they general contracted the build themselves, they were neck-deep in information.

“It feels like I’ve been in graduate school for several years learning all the systems, and certainly solar power was part of it.”

John and Nancy interviewed three different solar contractors and decided to pursue solar for both energy production and water heating.

“Ultimately, we went with Solar Connection because we appreciated their curiosity and interest in working on a project like this, in helping us figure out where we would mount panels, how many we could do. They were sensitive to all the same things we were sensitive to. And a lot of it was just attitude, choosing people we thought could relate to what we were thinking about. They believed in what we were trying to do.”

Nancy added, “They took a lot of time making sure it was right, helping us choose the right thing, looking at what was available or not. They were just very proactive about giving us something that was going to work.

“We debated, I remember, about whether or not to get the water tank that had an electric heating element in it, and the size of the tank. They were careful to advise us on that. We went with a larger tank because we felt that the mass would hold the energy longer, and we don’t turn on the element very much.”

With their decision to not only build a home, but to spend time designing it to be ultra energy-efficient, John and Nancy also committed to documenting the process so others could learn from their experience.

“We stepped back and had conversations about what’s meaningful at this point in our lives and what kind of a legacy we wanted to leave. Then we said if we’re going to do it this way, we’re going to blog about it and teach as we go along to whatever extent possible.”

Their blog, Root River House (, has the house’s specs along with pictures and descriptions of each step of the build. As the blog posts narrate the house’s story, their values of moderation, contentment and personal responsibility shine through.

“Sustainability is living as part of the natural system. That will last longer. It’s real. It’s honest. It’s sustainable.”

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