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House in Tampa gives new meaning to 'catching rays'

Lights were on throughout the house, images of Laverne and Shirley danced on the television screen, and music from a stereo system wafted through every room - but the local electric utility was not going to be paid a nickel for supplying the electricity.

This suburban Tampa home has become one of the few dwellings in the nation to be powered without an electrical hookup.

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In place of a standard electric meter counting out a bill, this house has panels on the roof filled with photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity.

Sharing the roof with those panels are solar collectors that heat water for washing, bathing, swimming, and relaxing in an outdoor whirlpool.

In a three-by-six foot area of the garage, batteries store the electricity generated during the day to run the lights and appliances at night and on cloudy days.

''This house is designed for a family of five to live comfortably entirely on solar power, and a little propane gas to run the stove, clothes dryer, and refrigerator,'' said Frank Arenas, a principal of Arcon Development Company and the designer of the home he calls Solara II.

''It has a backup propane generator that only switches on if there's an unusual electrical demand and the power level in the storage batteries dips too low,'' he says.

The price of the 2,800-square-foot home is not cheap. It would go on the market for about $250,000. But other, nonsolar homes in the neighborhood are similarly priced. Adding the solar features to the home cost $28,000, Mr. Arenas says, but he predicts that paying that added cost would be competitive with paying a monthly utility bill after factoring in the tax advantages of home mortgage interest payments.

And the energy payments will be nearly constant over the life of the 30-year mortgage, Arenas says. By contrast, the cost of electricity has been rising 15 percent a year for the past decade.

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The house has as many lights and appliances as possible designed for energy efficiency and that run on 12-volt DC electricity. It is wired throughout with one set of plugs that have DC current and another set that have AC. Mr. Arenas said more and more appliances are made to run on 12-volt DC electricity because of a growing solar and marine industry.

Covered with a superinsulated double roof, the house can be cooled with a one-ton air conditioner, even though a standard home of this size would require a five-ton unit, Arenas says. The south-facing front of the house is a large passive solar heater designed to look like a foyer. When the sun shines on the row of large windows, it will heat the foyer to as high as 90 degrees.

This house was designed to be as luxurious as possible, Mr. Arenas says. But solar can also be economical, he says, and he wants to prove it by building $80, 000 town houses that will also be solar-powered.

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