Four months in, occupants pleased with super-efficient Equinox House

Four months in, occupants pleased with super-efficient Equinox House

URBANA – Four months after the move-in, the Equinox House has lived up to Ty Newell's expectations.

The super-efficient house in Urbana's Beringer Commons subdivision is not only finished, but furnished.

Newell, a retired University of Illinois professor of mechanical engineering, and his wife, Deb, have called it home since mid-November. They even had 100 people over for a winter solstice party.

But in some ways, it's more than a home – it's a laboratory, as Newell and his son, Ben, monitor its energy and water use and its ventilating system. Eventually, they hope the house proves a prototype for more homes to come.

Last week, the Newells opened the house to a tour by CCNet's Renewable Energy discussion group.

"The house looks a little different," Newell told the group. "Don't go away with the impression that it (a house built with the Equinox concept) has to look like this."

Newell, a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright designs, said he and his wife like open space. They haven't sealed or stained the concrete floors so experiments on moisture absorption can be performed.

The 2,100-square-foot house, which has four bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms, was designed to use only about one-fifth of the energy a conventionally designed home would use. It gets most of its power from a solar collector in the backyard.

The collector, in operation a full year, produces enough energy to heat and cool the house and to power an electric car for at least 6,000 miles a year. Newell said he hasn't bought such a car yet but has his eyes on a Ford Focus Electric.

The house is tied to the electric grid, supplying energy to it in the summer and taking energy from it in winter. Since Ameren gives homeowners credit for electricity they generate, the house has a "net zero electric bill."

Because the Newells don't have an electric car yet, "we have an excess of energy that will result in a 'donation' of almost 300 kilowatt-hours to Ameren," Newell said.

The house is superinsulated with 12-inch-thick wall panels and 18-inch-thick forms around the foundations. Pipe and vent openings are minimized to reduce energy leaks.

Another feature of the home is a water collection system and cistern. The Newells have gotten permission from the Illinois Department of Public Health to use that water in toilets. Eventually they hope to use the collected water for showers and laundry as well.

For air flow, the house relies on a conditioning system developed by Newell Instruments that ventilates, heats and cools the house. The system also dehumidifies the house and heats the water.

Designed to appeal to retiring baby boomers, the Equinox House employs a passive solar design with clerestory windows that provide daylight without the glare.

"Even when it's overcast, you can read anywhere in the house," Newell said, adding that LED lighting is used throughout.

Newell estimated the cost of the Equinox House at $270,000 to $280,000, plus $35,000 for the solar installation.

The house was completed last July. But the Newells had to wait for Italian kitchen cabinetry to arrive before they could move in.

Ty Newell said he wouldn't make many changes if he were to start from scratch again. But one change would be to adjust the positioning of the back door. During recent heavy snows, a massive pile accumulated outside that door.

Newell said he has discussed the Equinox House concept with builders in Minnesota and associates in Turkey. But he's also spreading the word through a Web site,

The "Features and Tech" link includes performance data on the house as well as information on economics, design and the home's "intelligent monitoring" system.

"We want people to know how the house really functions," Newell said.

These days, Ty Newell works with son Ben at Newell Instruments in Urbana, which does consulting work in refrigeration and air-conditioning technologies for appliance manufacturers, military contractors and others.

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