Charles Davis: Most Efficient Man in the South?

At 20 mph, barely a sound is audible save for the dirt road crunching beneath the tires and the good-natured voice from the driver’s seat. The voice belongs to Charles Davis, president of The Earth Comfort Company, and the tires to his Chevrolet Volt, which is one of two in the state of Georgia. As he drives slowly around his Guyton, Georgia, property, Davis explains the many perks of the electrically powered car: one of the catchiest being its incredibly low maintenance requirements, as in an oil-change-after-24,000-miles low maintenance. After parking beside his house, Davis removes a cord from the vehicle and connects it to a charging station on the exterior wall noting that it’s “the same charger Jay Leno installed in his garage.” Davis’ house is far from typical of other homes in Southeast Georgia. It’s a customizable, prefab structure and, like his car, it exhibits his commitment to renewable energy. After purchasing it as a foreclosure in the Atlanta area, Davis had the house delivered to his one-and-a-half-acre property in Guyton. The property is one of nine and the first step toward the goal of creating a zero-energy community (a working organic farm already exists on site). The prefabricated, modular “i-house” is a model made by Clayton Homes, the largest manufacturer of modular homes in the United States. With clean lines and a modern sensibility, the i-home is advertised as being “built from the ground up to be environmentally friendly” without sacrificing aesthetics or comfort. From its specialized roof designed for the collection of rainwater and the installation of solar panels to energy efficient windows and insulation, the i-house is clearly geared toward efficiency aficionados. But that’s only the framework upon which Davis crafted a system that allows him to bring the first net-zero energy home to Savannah. The Man Behind the Plan Originally from the Macon area, Davis points to his college days as the beginning of his passion for renewable energy. “I was in college years ago and Jimmy Carter was going to have a war on energy; that got me fired up. This was going to be the future and the next thing you know it’s never mind.” While some of the social and governmental drive toward renewable energy may have lost some steam, since those days, Davis’ interest in putting the concept into action hasn’t flagged. The Earth Comfort Company was born 18 years ago while Davis was working for a LaGrange based electric cooperative and travelled to Washington, D.C., to learn about geothermal heat pumps with the goal of returning to teach Georgia companies about the technology. Geothermal heat pumps are a renewable energy technology that have existed since the late 1940s and function by taking advantage of the fact that the earth’s underground temperature is constantly around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. With several different variations, the pumps circulate water or fluid through a piping system placed a few feet underground, often in a series of loops, by means of an electric pump. Using 40 to 60 percent less energy than conventional systems, geothermal heat pumps pay for their installation within five to ten years and have an estimated 25-year service life, with the underground components extending to 50 plus years, according the U.S. Department of Energy. As an added bonus, enough hot water is produced as a free by-product to cover 60 percent of usage. Owners of geothermal heat pumps also receive a 30 percent federal energy tax credit, which Davis points out almost pays for the additional cost of installation. After learning about geothermal technology, Davis put his passion for energy efficiency to work and began The Earth Comfort Company, basing it in Savannah. Today the company provides a variety of energy efficient installation services, including solar, wind and insulation, and prides itself on being “the go-to source” for geothermal heat loop systems. Focusing primarily on larger scale commercial projects, The Earth Comfort Company has completed numerous projects including the installation of a geothermal system for Florida State University’s Sustainable Energy Science and Engineering Center, one of 14 off-grid zero emissions buildings in the country. In 2008, Davis joined The University of Georgia’s Marine Extension Service in Brunswick in an ongoing effort to provide a tangible example of efficient energy use through various renewable energy equipment. He helped get geothermal, solar, and energy efficient lighting technologies on a 16,000-square-foot building built in 1991. With the bulk of construction finished in December of 2010, the associate director for the Marine Extension Service, Keith Gates, who has since retired, says of the project, “The geothermal [heat pump] is fantastic; it dropped our electric bill around 50 percent, which is pretty amazing. And not only were we improving energy, the idea was to teach folks down the road about the whole operation.”  

Photography by Shawn Heifert