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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Revisiting the Sunrise House in Fairbanks

Thorsten Chlupp sold his superinsulated house

The south facade of this house in Fairbanks, Alaska, includes 12 large solar thermal collectors. When the sun shines, a circulator moves the fluid warmed by these collectors to a 5,000-gallon insulated tank. [Photo courtesy of Martin Holladay]

Longtime readers of Green Building Advisor will remember reading about a Passivhaus residence in Fairbanks, Alaska, called the Sunrise House. Designed and built by a contractor named Thorsten Chlupp, the superinsulated house generated widespread interest from journalists and energy-efficiency experts. The home has an elaborate hydronic heating system that includes a dozen solar thermal collectors connected to a 5,000-gallon insulated water tank. The backup heating system consists of a wood-fired masonry heater with stainless-steel heat-exchange tubing that transfers heat from the wood fire to the large water tank.

In 2011, GBA published a news story on the Sunrise house. That same year, Chlupp posted several comments in response to a Q&A thread about his house.

And a few years later, in 2015, GBA published a report on a presentation given by Chlupp at an energy-efficiency conference in Vermont.

During the summer of 2019, when my wife and I were visiting friends in Fairbanks, we accompanied our host one evening when he delivered some construction equipment to a job site in the Fairbanks suburbs. Looking out the vehicle window, I realized that we were driving past Thorsten Chlupp’s distinctive house, which I recognized from the photos published in GBA. “Let’s stop and see if Thorsten is home,” I said.

When I knocked, a stranger came to the door. “Is Thorsten home?” I asked. No, the stranger answered. Then he introduced himelf: “I’m Andrew McDonnell. I bought the house from Thorsten.”

After exchanging a few pleasantries, Andrew graciously agreed to be interviewed about the performance of his home. I told him I’d give him a call when I got back to my office in Vermont.

Busy with other articles, I neglected to call Andrew for several months. Recently, however, we had a long telephone conversation about the Sunrise House.

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4 Comments

  1. Jaccen | | #1

    A fascinating follow-up. Thanks very much for this article.

  2. Vivian Girard | | #2

    Kudos and thanks to Chlupp and the following home owner for sharing the experience of their extreme home in an extreme climate.

    Considering the tremendous insulation (R80 walls - R120 roof -12 tons of cellulose!) the use of the 3 cords of wood/season (70 to 75 million BTU) seems rather high for a 2300 sq ft house, even with Fairbanks 14,000 heating degree days. Then it occurred to me that there is a wood masonry heater that’s likely leading to high ACH, bringing in a large amount of cold air. It also seems like it would make the indoor air very dry on the coldest days.

    With under 5 hours of daylight in the depth of Winter, no matter the U-value and South facing orientation, the large windows (and ineffective shutters) must also lead to some serious net loss. Although I can appreciate how they would contribute to the resident’s happiness.

    I am a little surprised at the original builder’s attempt to build seasonal thermal storage with a 5000-gallon tank. I once looked into long term thermal storage for the North East in a climate that’s less than half as cold (6000 HDD). While assessing that plan, I found out that a gallon of water can only store about 500 BTU for practical hydronic-heating use. Given that a typical energy efficient home anywhere North of Kansas will still require 5 to 10 million BTU in January for space heating alone -and not much solar replenishing- I quickly got over that idea. But I am still grateful that someone with a lot of determination was willing to give it a try and and give us an honest report of how it turned out!

  3. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #3

    To clarify "solar thermal systems" ... the article is referring to collectors which store solar heat in a circulating fluid, which is pumped to a tank, storing the fluid warmed by solar energy. In the old days, we called this "active solar", since it requires pumps and energy to operate. It also involves circulating fluids, which can be problematic. Leaks, maintenance of pipes, or in this case custom storage tank liners. And generally all of this equipment serves only a single purpose: Collecting and storing solar energy.

    Passive solar refers to systems in which glazing allows solar energy to enter the home, strike surfaces inside the home, which transforms the light energy into heat energy. This heat energy is inside the home's thermal envelope. Some high thermal mass materials (concrete, stone, brick, or more problematic water) can absorb heat energy when the interior space becomes warmer than the thermal mass. So the thermal mass soaks up heat when the interior gets too warm (e.g., sunny afternoons), and radiates heat back when the interior temperature is cooler than the thermal mass (e.g., overnight or early morning before sunlight can contribute to heating). When designed well (quantitative modeling required), the elements to provide a passive solar system may cost very little, since a home has windows to collect solar energy, and could have polished concrete slab floors, or tiled/stone/brick floors or walls on the main floor, etc. to store thermal energy and reduce interior temperature fluctuations. So the costs to provide the PASSIVE solar heating could be negligible or low. That's not true about the active solar collector systems, especially after considering all the maintenance headaches of active, fluid-based systems.
    For an example of a well-engineered passive solar home in a sunny cold winter climate, see:
    https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/green-homes/a-passive-solar-home-from-the-1980s

    Of course Alaska is an extreme example, with bitter cold winter temperatures and very little solar energy shining on a building during mid-winter, when you need heating. I'm guessing that's why Chlupp wanted to do the impossible: Attempt to use the meager solar energy available in Alaska to heat a home located in the extreme cold winter temps of Fairbanks. Certainly not a good climate for year-long solar space heating or hot water heating. His system did work effectively in the Fall and Spring, though not cost-effectively (active solar costs) and couldn't store enough heat for months to handle the extreme winters. For more detailed information on solar energy for space heating and US climates, see:
    https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/a-quantitative-look-at-solar-heat-gain

  4. Granular | | #4

    Very thorough review. Feel a bit sorry for the new owner - I bet there's been more than a few moments of buyer's remorse trying to nurse all the Rube Goldberg systems along. And to learn it's now a rental? Yikes. I'd bite the bullet, rip it all out and install a low-cost conventional system and not dread calls from my renters.

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