When Dan and Margo Duesterhaus moved into their Ellicott City home 12 years ago, the solar power movement was still more concept than reality. But the couple had always been environmentally conscious, and they put their ideals into action.
Starting in 2007, the couple had 32 solar panels installed on three sections of the roof, two additional panels for their solar water heater and another smaller panel for a solar attic fan. They added solar daylight tubes at three locations on the main floor of their rancher, two small heat pumps and large windows with extensive insulation.
Over five years, the Duesterhauses transformed their 1950s-era home into a model of energy-efficiency.
"It was a long-term desire," said Margo Duesterhaus, an IT consultant for the Baltimore-Washington firm Triple TeQ. "We were interested in the long-term cost savings, and obviously we had a concern for the environment."
This weekend, the Duesterhaus home is one of the stops on the Metropolitan Washington Tour of Solar and Green Homes, which features 50 solar-powered homes in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. The Duesterhauses expected to greet at least 25 visitors when they opened their house Saturday; other houses in the area will be open Sunday as well.
"People want to know about cost," said Dan Duesterhaus. "In addition, they want to know which companies we worked with, and the federal and state tax credits."
Many of the homes on the tour — part of the larger American Solar Energy Society National Tour — are located along the Interstate 95 corridor between Baltimore and Washington, but the tour includes homes in Reisterstown, Glen Burnie, Owings Mills and White Marsh. The complete tour guide can be downloaded at http://www.solartour.org.
"We started with maybe a dozen homes in the D.C. metro area, but within five years we had grown to 35," said Chip Gribben, an organizer of the metropolitan tour. "Five years ago, we were up to 75 homes, but have since cut it back to 50 in order to better manage the event."
At a time when going green is considered pragmatic as well as environmentally conscious, the weekend event attempts to educate people about solar energy and the benefits of putting the technology in their homes.
"One of the great things about the tour is that you get to talk to the homeowners," Margo Duesterhaus said. "You're not talking to someone who is trying to sell you something."
The solar-energy industry has grown considerably in the past two decades. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were 3,645 solar panels shipped at a cost of $2.90 per square foot in 1990. By 2009, the number of panels shipped had risen to 10,511, while the price per square foot fell to $1.94.
The increasing popularity of solar energy is evident in Maryland, which was named a "Top 10 Solar State" by the Solar Energy Industries Association. The industry also provides a considerable number of jobs. In 2012, more than 2,000 people worked for about 100 solar companies in Maryland.
"Solar should be mainstream," Gribben said. "We're encouraging people to go for cleaner energy. When you see panels on a house, it should be normal."
The initial investment in solar energy can be large.
Three years ago, Frank Smith of Glen Burnie spent more than $44,000 installing solar power at his home, which was built in 1957. But significantly lower energy costs and tax credits from the state have helped offset that expenditure.
"I pay no electric bill whatsoever," said Smith, whose house is on the tour for the first time this year. "I will recoup my entire investment in just seven to 10 years. Now I'm also looking to put solar panels on the garage behind the house."
When Smith bought his Cape Cod-style home in 1985, solar energy wasn't an option. He's pleased that the concept has caught on.
"The lack of an electric bill was a primary factor, but we also wanted to reduce our carbon footprint," said Smith, who also owns an electric car. "You can't just throw panels on an old, leaky house. We also replaced appliances and light bulbs, and added 11/2 inches of Styrofoam insulation."
The cost savings was also an important part of the Duesterhauses' decision to renovate their home.
"The first year that we had the panels, our total electric bill was about $120. That was about a 90 percent savings," said Margo Duesterhaus, whose Toyota Prius hybrid sports a bumper sticker that reads "Fossil fuels are so last century."
The family's environmental awareness didn't stop with their house. The Duesterhauses, whose home is on the tour for the third time, installed solar sidewalk lights, two rain gardens, and a food forest — a form of woodlands gardening — on their property.
They also spread the conservation message in other ways, especially to their college-age children, Colin and Laura.
"I've been involved with our Boy Scout troop for about 11 years, and one of the principles that they espouse is 'leave no trace.'" said Dan Duesterhaus, who works for the NSA. "When we went camping, we could give that really important message to the Scouts, that we are all stewards" of the environment.
Thanks to this weekend's tours, many inquiring visitors could become converts to solar power.
"My next-door neighbor and one of my best friends got [solar energy] on my recommendation," Smith said. "It's the greatest investment we've ever made."
This year's Metropolitan Washington Tour of Solar and Green Homes is being held Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6. Guidebooks listing the homes on the tour, including a map and addresses, are available at area MOM (Mom's Organic Market) stores for $5 or can be downloaded for free at solartour.org.