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DECC hosts Passive House convention

When it comes to saving energy in our homes, a group gathered in Duluth this weekend wants to do more than slap some insulation in the attic and put a blanket around the water heater.

When it comes to saving energy in our homes, a group gathered in Duluth this weekend wants to do more than slap some insulation in the attic and put a blanket around the water heater.

The third annual North American Passive House Conference is at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, with 140 builders, designers and suppliers gathered to share ideas on how to build a nearly zero-energy, carbon-neutral home.

The Passive House concept demands a 90 percent reduction in energy use from traditional new homes, using super-insulation and high-tech ventilation systems that can reduce and eliminate the need for traditional heating and cooling systems.

At a time when Americans are focusing on reducing their carbon footprint and spending less money on energy, Passive House promoters say their time has come.

"We start with the envelope, the walls and roof and windows, and work from there. If the envelope is airtight, and we eliminate the thermal bridges (heat escaping, cool seeping in), then we can look at adding solar panels or other systems on top of that,'' said Mike Kernagis, conference coordinator for the Passive House Institute U.S., based in Urbana, Ill., where several Passive House homes have been built.

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The first "Passivhaus'' buildings were built in Germany in 1990. Since then, more than 6,000 have been built across Europe, many in cold climates similar to the Northland.

As the name implies, the designs make great use of passive solar energy, facing windows toward the sunniest possible angles for light and warmth. But the passive part also refers to taking advantage of heat in winter and cold in summer that already exists in and near the home, rather than burning energy to create it. That includes body heat and heat in the ground.

"A lot of the elements and designs and systems have been out there and are being used, but not in a systematic way,'' Kernagis said. "We're trying to bring them all together in concert.''

Heating a house built to true Passive House standard requires only one BTU of energy per square foot per heating degree day. That compares with about 5 to 15 BTUs for a traditional home, up to 95 percent energy savings.

Convention-goers will tour the incredibly energy efficient (although not quite Passive House standard) home of Curt Leitz and Melissa Najarian on Skyline Parkway that has energy bills about 75 percent less than standard homes, thanks to innovations like 14-inch-thick walls and tripled-glazed windows.

Mike LeBeau, founder of Conservation Technologies, a Duluth company that's been working on energy-saving building designs since 1994, said Passive House has added new dimensions to the energy conservation effort, including quantifying "thermal movement'' in and out of a home.

"Their physics show we really had been underestimating heat loss, especially from the home into the ground,'' LeBeau said. "And Passive House has now set the bar high, at 90 percent energy reduction. ... It gives us an international standard to strive for as opposed to making incremental improvements over traditional construction.''

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