OTOW’s 8-kW solar arrays, designed by ECI Solar, are featured on ten of the developer’s homes. The company hopes to offer a fully solar community in the near future.

On Top of the World Communities (OTOW) hopes to one day offer a fully solar-powered community. It’s always been at the forefront of environmentally friendly retirement living. Its 15 neighborhoods in Ocala, Florida, have offered active retirees Energy Star-certified homes since that program was introduced in 2000. (OTOW is one of the only Ocala builders to participate in the program.)

Currently, OTOW’s portfolio includes 10 solar homes averaging 34 panels for the eight-kilowatt systems designed by ECI Solar. Another five houses are solar ready. The OTOW model solar home has a HERS rating of 18 and hasn’t generated an electric bill in three-and-a-half years.

In the proposed neighborhood, a collection of solar panels would be housed in a common space—an area dedicated to green space or drainage, for example—to help defray the upfront costs associated with solar energy generation. Homeowners could then tap in to that resource to meet the power needs of their homes, day and night.

The main obstacle to this dream is the lack of economical systems for storing that electricity for use at non-sunny times. “Once that gets more cost-effective, [solar power] is definitely something that we’re going to pursue,” explains Sheryl Johnson, director of construction for OTOW.

The solar community would represent the next step for an organization that has already demonstrated its dedication to sustainability, largely due to the commitment of its president, Kenneth Colen. “All building is designed and created with a focus on the environment, with conservation and sustainability in mind,” Johnson explains. The Energy Star initiative provided OTOW with an opportunity to put Colen’s interest in conservation into practice. Now, 975 of the development’s 5,000 homes, or nearly 20 percent, are Energy Star certified.

The homes achieve this distinction through several strategies: They are equipped with right-sized Goodman air-conditioning and heating units with SEER ratings of 15 (higher than the Energy Star requirement). Low-E double-pane argon gas-filled windows from MI Doors and Windows and a Thermostat radiant barrier sheathing by Georgia Pacific help to regulate internal temperatures, reducing the need for air-conditioning. Gas appliances boost energy efficiency, and a rebate program offered by TECO Peoples Gas provides approximately $800 for each home that is fully equipped with gas appliances and heating systems.

Kenneth Colen, president of OTOW, accepts the Florida Water Star Award from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

In addition to energy efficiency, OTOW also has provided leadership in efforts to reduce water usage. One of the development’s communities, Renaissance, was the first in the state to be Florida Water Star certified. “We were the testing ground for that new system,” Johnson says. Hunter irrigation controls use sensors to monitor moisture levels, restricting and activating the system as needed, and the community features Florida-friendly landscapes populated with specially engineered grasses that are drought- and pest-resistant.

In addition to its initiatives to conserve resources, OTOW draws in new residents by offering a plethora of amenities, including 30,000 square feet devoted to fitness. Lifelong-learning activities range from archaeological digs to art appreciation, and residents also can make use of softball fields, a miniature golf course, and Olympic-sized swimming pools. “Anything you want to do as a recreational activity—it’s here,” Johnson says.