Old meets new: PV on a Victorian home

Old meets new: PV on a Victorian home

By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, President and Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy Association

On the top of a hill at the end of a long lane stands a 140-year-old house with 21st century solar panels. They are reached by crawling through a trap door onto a widow’s walk that offers a spectacular view of the rural Oregon area countryside. The site is ideal for solar panels: on a steep, south-facing roof above a third-floor attic, high above surrounding trees.

When asked why she chose to install solar electricity, the owner, attorney Melanie Madsen, responded: “I’m an ecologist. I grew up in Zion National Park. I was a naturalist there. And I believe in producing what I use, not just taking.” Emitting no greenhouse gases while producing electricity, the system supports its owner’s environmental values.

The 1.8-kilowatt system consists of 24 Astro Power single crystal panels, each capable of producing 75 watts of electricity. Excess electricity is stored in 18 Trojan deep-cycle batteries. The workhorse batteries store enough power to keep essential services going for at least three days, the longest that Madsen believes grid power has failed to reach her. “I don’t really know how long it’s been down,” she admits. “Everything I need is connected to them, so I don’t notice when it’s out.”

The system was installed during 2000 and 2001 by Madsen and a friend. It is grid connected, and was partially funded by a rebate from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. Personnel at DCCA were so dubious that Madsen was actually involved in the project herself that a delegation visited the site to inspect it firsthand and question her about her system. They didn’t realize that she is both a rock climber and a skydiver, and was more comfortable on the roof than they were. The beautiful old home has been fitted with new energy-efficient combination windows. “I wanted to keep the wood sashes, but these are nice and tight.” Most of the incandescent light bulbs have been replaced by compact fluorescents. Numerous decommissioned fireplaces enhance the home. If they are to be used again, they will be fitted with propane. The old furnace had been a wood and coal burner, then was converted to oil. The current propane furnace will soon be replaced by a new, energy-efficient model. Of course, no appliances are left on unused. There are plans to replace the old porch with a sun loving design which will provide solar space heating.

Someday, a wind system may be added. But for now, the solar panels are providing a substantial amount of the electricity that their owner needs. And they don’t compromise the appearance of the historic home. “I was afraid that they’d look bad on this house. But no one even notices that they’re here.”

If you have any questions about this installation, contact Madsen at

P.O. Box 145, Oregon, 61061. We hope to include her home on the 2003 tour of solar homes on Oct. 4.

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