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Weather wise: How to save thousands on rural Alaska heating costs

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Tom Marsik photo

Ask Dillingham's Tom Marsik and Kristin Donaldson how much electricity they used to heat and run their home last winter, and they will quickly point out that it was really cold, so the figure is unusually high. With temperatures hovering below zero most of the month and electric heat as their source of warmth, the couple used a whopping 680 kwh for January. That's a total utility bill of around $185.

For the year, they expect their total utility cost to be around $900 -- about 20 percent of the average home in Dillingham, where electricity and heating fuel run upwards of $5,000 a year.

What's their secret? Really thick walls, and arguably one of the tightest homes in the world.

And patience.

"When I moved to Dillingham two years ago, one of my stipulations was I wanted to have a nice place to live," said Donaldson, who hails from Kodiak. "We didn't know it was going to take two years."

An investment in the future

Marsik is an assistant professor of sustainable energy at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus. So when they set out to build a house, he based it on a prototype of sorts, a 12-by-16-foot office built using many of the principles defined in Passive House standards.

Essentially, the office -- and the house -- are boxes within a box. In between the two boxes is an airtight vapor barrier and about two feet of blown-in cellulose insulation.

The walls are rated as having an insulation factor of R90, the ceiling is R140 -- compared to a standard R-rating in most newly-constructed houses of R25 for walls and R35 for the ceiling. Did all that insulation cost more? You bet. But Donaldson and Marsik contend it's worth it.

"When you are talking about building a house, it's something that's going to be here for a very long time,” Marsik said. "If it is well built, it's not unreasonable to think it will be here for 100 years. So we have a higher construction cost, but there will be savings for many, many years. When you talk about insulation, you are talking about an investment into something that doesn't need any maintenance and is going to last basically forever."

One hopes, anyway. Marsik and Donaldson admit some of the products they are using, including the 12,000 pounds of shredded recycled newspaper that insulate their home are relatively new.

Though research has shown that it holds up well as long as moisture is kept out, it will settle over time.

Photos: Construction of Marsik-Donaldson home

"We are part of that research project," Marsik said.

The home also has other features not found in the average living space. Few windows are used, while the home's living space is reduced from 900 to 600 square feet because of its thick walls. Marsik and Donaldson say the two-bedroom home is plenty of space for them, and bright white walls and well-researched lighting help balance out the minimal number of windows.

The same building principles could be applied not only to larger new homes but also to renovating an older home that needs additional insulation. Marsik did a renovation of that sort on a cabin in Fairbanks, he said, building an exterior box around the existing structure and filling it with insulation.

Insulation started below ground, actually, with solid foam insulation placed around the perimeter of the foundation and covered with gravel. The floor is floating over more solid insulation, with an R value of 35 plus the additional outer insulation.

Since air has virtually no way in or out of the house, the home has an HRV system that captures the heat from outgoing air and uses it to warm incoming air.

Inside energy consciousness

While the outside structure of the home is unique, so is the interior. That's where Donaldson focused much of her effort while her partner was scaling walls and using come-alongs to hoist walls singlehandedly.

Researching all the features that would go into the house to find those with the lowest emission of volatile organic compounds, those that used recycled or sustainable materials, such as bamboo, and the highest energy rating on appliances took a lot of time. But the results are well worth it, she said.

"Overall, there are very few things we would change," Donaldson said. "But there was a huge learning curve."

All together, the home cost nearly $170,000, including the land. But of that, a good percentage would have been expenses incurred in any home construction in Bush Alaska.

Group effort

Like anything in a small community, the Marsik and Donaldson home drew some attention as it was being built. People would stop by, even after it was closed in, and ask to see the home. The flip side is that the couple depended heavily on being able to borrow tools and equipment from friends and neighbors. Marsik and Donaldson's fathers both lent a significant hand in the endeavor as well.

"It wouldn't have been possible without the connections we have in the community,"

Donaldson said, adding that they were grateful for all the help they received.

As for the home being a bit of an attraction in the community, that was just fine with them.

Marsik said the home was built in part as an educational tool for people to learn from.

"We are hoping people can see and learn from that," he said. "I have used the whole project as a learning tool."

The couple said they learned a few things beyond the reality of building a home off the road system when taking something back is not a trip around the block. For one thing, Marsik said he learned that with blown-in insulation, any impediment can cause an air pocket to form underneath it. And they both learned that you can, in fact, hold a wedding midway through the construction process, in your home.

But with most of the construction behind them, the couple, who moved into the house in January, said the bigger picture of offering up an example of an Alaska home that doesn’t cost thousands to heat was worth the extra effort.

"There are a lot of old and inefficient homes in Alaska, and they use a lot of fuel for heating and a lot of electricity," Marsik said. "Some people are concerned about the cost. Others are concerned about the use of energy as a societal issue. But most people see it as an issue. That's the reason we built the home the way we did — to show there's a solution to the problem."

Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com. This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission.