Growing Up Green

Meet a "regular guy" with an uncommon passion for energy efficiency.
By: Kristen Hampshire

A home-energy conversation with Jeff Wilson is like trying to fill a small plate at a vast all-you-can-eat buffet. You'll need to load up on seconds and thirds before you can begin to get a taste of the menu — and every trip back to the smorgasbord, you'll find something new to try.

Jeff is doing a Deep Energy Retrofit (DER) of his home, which will dramatically reduce his energy bills and improve the indoor air quality. A DER involves identifying areas in a house that waste energy, like air and moisture leaks, and making major improvements to "tighten up" the building's structure. It is a major undertaking, so to understand what kind of guy embarks on this kind of project, you should know more about Jeff Wilson.

Jeff is a techie from the heartland — a degreed classical pianist who has worked in construction for 20 years, including hosting on HGTV, the DIY Network and He's a fusion of hands-on and bookish wisdom. And his passion for green drives the way he works, lives and even buys groceries.

"I believe that efficiency is really the key to unlocking the whole energy future," Jeff says.

No, solar panels won't stop foreign oil dependency. A compact fluorescent light bulb won't cure global warming (and Wilson believes this is definitely occurring). But practical, energy-saving principles that any "regular guy," as Jeff calls himself, can implement at home can save families money and clean the air. And this contributes to the bigger picture, he says.

The Green Gene

Jeff has been percolating sustainable ideas since he was about 10 years old, influenced by his maternal great-grandfather, an architect/civil engineer and enthusiast of solar energy. As a progressive, his great-grandfather believed in democratizing energy, making efficiency accessible to the common man.

Jeff describes one of his great-grandfather's zany inventions: a homegrown solar heating system constructed from plastic milk jugs filled with water and strapped to an old shelf — and it actually worked.

Jeff's great-grandfather lost everything in the Great Depression, and the highly educated but destitute thinker began looking for solutions for the everyman. Jeff inherited this progressive gene.

But Jeff also adopted ideas from his father, a civil engineer/businessman with conservative values. Jeff rebelled against his father's pragmatism as a teenager, but now he can appreciate those ideas. Jeff's father lived through the 1970s oil crisis and was captivated by passive solar energy — the idea that you use the sun's energy for heating and cooling a home through simple energy efficient systems. "He saw it as a way to insulate his family from energy price hikes," Jeff relates.

Jeff's father was also a high-tech guy. He installed a geothermal heat pump in the family home in the 1980s when no one knew what that was. Jeff recalls his father's desk, stacked high with issues of Mother Earth News (Jeff continued the subscription for himself), and the plans for a home that he and Jeff's great-grandfather began designing together.

Jeff was about 8 years old when the family house project began. His father purchased a 13-acre farm plot in Michigan, between Ann Arbor and Plymouth, where he prepared to build his dream "green" home. Together, the two generations fused their efficiency ideas into a plan, and eventually executed those principles and created a structure that changed Jeff's life. A teenager by the time the family moved into the home, Jeff helped finish the interior, honing his interest in carpentry.

"The process turned me on to the idea of passive solar energy and it was something I took up heavily," Jeff says, referring to his DER project. "I never lost my interest in all this."

Putting Family Values Into Practice

In 2001, when Jeff, now age 42, and his family settled in the rural college town of Athens, Ohio, he began to renovate their 1,000-square-foot 1940s Cape Cod. The home is as much a journey as a dwelling — it's a portfolio of Jeff's green ideas, and an example of how a "regular guy" can take on energy consumption in an aggressive, practical way.

"Why would you pile five solar panels on a house to create all the energy that you are already wasting?" Jeff asks. "Why wouldn't you first try to save the energy that is going out of the windows and seeping out of the walls? Why wouldn't you fix what's broken first and then employ the high-tech?"

Like that buffet of ideas, these questions keep stirring in Jeff's head. Now, he's exploring what works hands-on while retrofitting his home.

Meet Jeff Wilson. This is his DIY expedition to achieve a net-zero energy home.

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