Passive Solar Heat in Midwest Winter – Mother Earth News

Passive solar energy turned out to be the perfect way to regulate the temperature of this family’s country house.

Item picture

by Rich Schäfer

The author’s house has numerous large south-facing windows that enable passive solar heating of the entire house, even in the single-digit range.

By the early 1980s, an American energy crisis was over. My wife, Jean, and I had had our first child, and we wanted to do something that would secure, and not compromise, their future and that of our future children. So we dreamed and in 1983 we started making plans for a house in the country that would minimize our impact on the environment.

We discovered a beautiful country estate not far from where Jean and I grew up, with trees surrounding the edge of the property and an open field for a future home. Back then there were many approaches to building clearly energy-efficient houses. Apartments that were passively heated by the sun had large windows on the south side. Their own “greenhouse effect” could be used to heat a home during the cold winters in the Midwest. Our property had the perfect orientation for this option; it faced north and south, which was perfect for taking full advantage of the sun for heating.

So we planned and designed our own New England style house with lots of south-facing windows. The basement has three underground sides, and its fourth side, the south wall, receives excellent exposure to the sun through a winter garden which forms its outer shell. The thermal energy gained in the room is released to the interior of our house via fans installed in the winter garden ceiling.

On clear, sunny days with temperatures in the single digits, the winter garden can reach temperatures of over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which are distributed into our home via the winter garden fans. We use ceramic tiles throughout the house to store the daytime heat, as well as the heat capacity of the foundation walls on the first floor and the concrete floor. During the day, tiles and cellars slow down the rise in temperature in the apartment, in the evening the heat is slowly released back into the apartment. When the sun is not shining, we rely on individual electric baseboard heating with individual thermostats. All thermostats are programmable – another technology for reducing energy costs, as they can be adapted to our living habits.

Item picture

image by Rich Schäfer

The winter garden collects heat throughout the day and distributes it into the house via fans and windows with temperature sensors.

Design our home

Jean designed the floor plan, construction details and general appearance of the house. We have calculated the heating statistics for the house in Btus taking into account the heat gain and loss through south-facing windows, the number of square meters and insulation as well as the heat storage capacity.

Part of the first and second floors have vaulted ceilings with a ceiling fan for better air circulation, and strategically placed floor vents create a closed air path around the house. The fan is controlled by a thermostat so that whenever it is too warm upstairs, cool air from the first floor will help displace the warmer air on the second floor.

The winter garden was laid out with plastic foam insulation on the north wall with wooden cladding to enable rapid heat build-up, with three awning windows on the north wall of the winter garden (on the south side of the house). Since a closed air exchange was also required between the winter garden and the inside of the house, the winter garden temperature had to be monitored in order to determine when the awning window should be opened and closed manually. As luck would have it, we have found a new product from Andersen Windows & Doors that has been developed for motorized attachment to an awning window in combination with a rain sensor for closing when moisture is detected. With augmentation, it could be used to control the window between our conservatory and the interior of the house using a conservatory temperature sensor.

The conservatory also includes a heat exchanger that preheats the outside water before it goes to the main water heater to save energy.

The build

Item picture

image by Rich Schäfer

A ceiling fan on the second floor increases airflow between floors and improves the flow of temperature throughout the house.

At the time of construction, mortgage rates were around 14 percent so we borrowed as little money as possible and took out a mortgage on our property instead of using a typical construction loan. Except for the concrete foundation in the basement, we only built the house with family support. Weekends and weekends were filled with building. We were fortunate to have a talented group of hard workers who all helped. We opened the house in August, sold our former house the following May and moved in at the end of the month.

The house is in an open field and trees are strategic to shade the east and west sides from the summer sun. After moving in, we planted trees to create shade and shelter from the wind. On the east and west sides we planted beautiful oak and hardwood maple trees, while on the south side there were tulip trees, which formed a thin silhouette of branches to minimize shade in winter, but donated large leaves in summer to shade the house .

In summer we use an air conditioning system for cooling, which is supported by a roof overhang that shades the south-facing windows. The strategic placement of the trees that we planted around the house provides plenty of shade in the summer and, together with the natural cooling provided by Mother Earth, reduces our energy costs in the summer.

Live in the countryside

Living the rural American life was a dream Jean and I had for our family with the aim of minimizing our impact on the environment through our way of life. Our energy efficient home has met our expectations and has given our children a deep appreciation for nature and the environment in which we live.

Rich and Jean Schaefer have three grown children and six grandchildren, all of whom appreciate the outdoors and the importance of saving energy.

Do-it-yourself solar thermal plans


Heat Your Home for Free is a collection of classic articles from Mother Earth News showing how simple solar systems can heat your home, garage, business, barn, commercial building – virtually any building with a south-facing wall. And the best thing about it: This e-manual shows how you can plan, build and install solar-powered heating systems yourself! This title is available at or by calling 800-234-3368. Item # 3463.

Published on January 1, 2022


Hot tubs use a lot of energy. This solar pioneer figured out how to build an electric, off-grid hot tub.

Item picture

Earthbags offer a natural and inexpensive way to build an apartment that reflects your personality.

Item picture

Esmerelda Kent of Kinkaraco Green Burial Products speaks to us about the state of green burial options for natural death.

Item picture

Comments are closed.