Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 23, 2011

Home and garden go solar

Nature pays off for Pleasanton family as it shrinks its carbon footprint inside and out

by Glenn Wohltmann

What two people do in the privacy of their own home may be their own business, but in this case, Steve and Joie Spooner are comfortable telling the world.

The Pleasanton couple and their two sons have taken big strides to leave smaller carbon footprints, mounting solar panels on their roof and installing native plants in their front and back yards.

Steve, whose pet project was installing solar panels, said his interest "was kind of my fallout from 9/11."

In 2003, he read an article about big oil and realized energy was only going to increase in price.

"I never previously had any interest at all, but it kind of piqued my interest and I decided to learn more about it," Steve said. "I read seven oil books in one year, basically. Originally I wanted to call PG&E and say, 'Take all the wires out.'"

He turned to the Internet to research products and prices and quickly realized that going cold turkey wouldn't be practical because getting off the power grid could present problems; for instance, how to store power. Finally landing on a prepackaged deal, he bought two $13,000 sets of solar panels.

"It was kind of a 'do it yourself' kit. It's basically a 4.5 kilowatt plant," Steve explained. "It was combination of trying to lower our footprint and saving energy."

Rather than pay the $10,000 or so it would cost to have the solar panels installed by a professional, Steve drafted his sons and even his wife to help set them up on the roof of their home in the Birdland neighborhood.

"I'm not a great height person, but I went up a couple of times," Joie said, adding that her sons Chris and Jason, who were 10 and 13 at the time, loved the opportunity to climb onto the roof.

"The city was really helpful," Steve said. "They loaned us a solar pathfinder, which is a device that will tell you where the trees are in the way."

He added that his home was among the first in Pleasanton to go solar and that the city inspector came out again on his day off because he'd never seen a homeowner do his own solar installation. The entire project took about two months of weekend-only work.

"I didn't really take any time off," Steve said. "I didn't have any outside help, aside from my family."

Installing the panels gave the Spooners a $10,000 credit, money they used to make their home more energy efficient, installing a new heating system and adding insulation to floors, ducts and pipes. They also put a whole house fan in the attic, which draws cool morning air into their home and nearly eliminates the need for air conditioning.

"We're pretty conservative. Generally we're using 14 or 15 kilowatt hours a day. I generate about 32 kilowatt hours during the summer, 3 or 4 in winter," Steve said. "It's about break even -- we generate as much energy as we use."

He's recently begun working out of his home and using computer servers that do require air conditioning, but the family is still seeing energy savings

"Our energy bill for the year is minus $100," he said. "It was minus $400."

Although the Spooners are in the minus column, that doesn't mean they get paid by PG&E. In fact, they still have to pay $6 a month for their meter, even though it often runs backward, feeding into the system rather than drawing on it.

The Spooners also took advantage of good interest rates. When they refinanced, they came out owing $56 more a month, more than offsetting the lowering of their average bill, which was $172 a month in 2004.

The excitement has died down from those first days when the Spooners checked their bill every week -- Steve actually plotted a graph at one point -- but the system has been trouble free.

But Steve pointed out there's a bigger price than the family's energy bill.

"There's this concept of return on energy investment," he said. "They say it takes six years to generate the amount of money that was put into making the panel."

The sun also powers a number of smaller lights that dot the back yard and offer light after dark, when Steve and Joie like to sit in a rocker under the stars. The family has replaced the grass in both its front and back lawns under the guidance of Joie, whose background is in horticulture.

"I used a lot of native and Mediterranean plants that are drought tolerant and I also enjoy edible landscaping," she said, adding, "It's nice to be able to out to our back yard and get dinner."

Although Steve and their sons installed a raised planter and a raised vegetable bed for Joie in 1998, not long after they moved in, it wasn't until 2008 that they made big changes.

In the back yard, the family tore out its grassy lawn and replaced it with a butterfly garden that also draws bees and hummingbirds, along with a vegetable garden and lots of native plants.

"Besides all the edible stuff that tastes so good and gives you such a bounty, I've always liked succulents. Some of them, like sedum, the butterflies and the bees like them. Finches eat a lot of the seeds of the stuff I plant, like the agastach and the salvias," Joie said. "I have about 30 finches that come and eat the seeds."

Joie said she's less concerned with how her garden looks than what it does.

"For me, I don't care if it looks all perfect. I leave it for the birds because they come and eat all the seeds. I like to have fun. I don't want it to be perfect," she said.

A walk around the back yard also shows plants Joie is propagating for others, including a number of botany groups around the area, like the Livermore-Amador Valley Garden Club, the Native Plant Society and the Bancroft Garden, a succulent and Mediterranean garden in Walnut Creek. She's quick to point out that her gardens were among the first featured in the Bay-Friendly Garden Tour.

"In 2009, we ripped out our front lawn and put in the dry creek -- probably about 70% of the plants came out," Joie explained.

They also installed permeable pavers that let water percolate into the ground instead of running into storms drains and ultimately the Bay.

Joie is also passionate about getting youngsters involved in gardening.

"I've been working in school gardens since my kids were in preschool. A lot of kids don't get that at home. I worked with the ecology club at Harvest Park last year. The kids are just amazed to see worms in the soil," she said. "These kids just go wild in the gardens -- they're interested in everything."

Steve's energy crusade has rubbed off on his older son, Jason, who's now 18.

He worked this summer for Rising Sun Energy Center, which employs local young people between the ages of 15 and 22 to do green consultations.

"We would go and tell how energy efficient peoples' houses were and we made changes. We added water efficient aerators or CFL lights," Jason said. "Our organization is spread across 12 cities. We save people millions of dollars every year on their utility bills."

Jason does his laundry early in the morning or late at night, when off-peak rates apply, and unplugs things that consume energy even when they're not actually on, pointing out that the cable box is a big draw.

"Vampire electricity -- it's about 25% of your energy bill, actually, things that are plugged in but not in use," Jason said. "It's hard to remember everything, but I try to use power strips around so when I need it I can click it back on."

While other teens come home from school, turn on the TV, charge their cell phones and fire up their laptops, conservation is a fact of life for Jason.

"I was raised the green lifestyle, growing our own food, making our own electricity," he said.

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