Farming’s in their genes. Well, jeans, too. There are plenty of those to hang on the washline when you see the work that this young couple plowed into their new home and property. It’s a 60-acre parcel that’s now attached to Keith Frey’s family’s Central Pennsylvania farmland—with the Freys since 1895—bringing their total tillable ground to 154 acres. This leaves more than 30 acres for pasture and buildings. Keith is now a fifth-generation farmer here. He and his wife, Jenessa, wed in 2011. When the property next to the family farm went up for sale a few years later, they jumped at the opportunity to build an energy efficient home. The couple wouldn’t just live off the land, they decided. They’d be its stewards, from the way they would conservatively farm it to the home they’d build there.

Jenessa’s long-time dream was to build a log home with stone accents, loads of sunlight and a roomy kitchen. Keith wanted a big fireplace where he could hang Christmas stockings for all the kids (yes, Jenessa, you read it here).

On The Farm

What time has given this family through the years is a Norman-Rockwell-like experience. Keith’s father John and mother Miriam’s salt-of-the-earth lifestyle enriches all those who come within its sphere. There’s genuine gratitude in all that they do, even when work piles up. Keith and his four siblings grew up on the farm; Mom and Dad did well.

Today, John, Miriam and Keith’s brothers and sisters are glad that Keith and Jenessa have chosen to maintain the family farm. For Keith, who left Penn State University with an agribusiness degree back in 2009, it was meant to be.

On the now-larger farmstead, with good soil and climate and plentiful spring water, the Freys plant field corn, soybeans, grass hay and grain. Their large barn and combined storage capacity of more than 10,000 bushels permits them to sell some of their harvest when prices suit best. To supplement the income from their traditional farm crops, Keith and Jenessa have started growing oats organically and milling them. They also bought a local coffee roasting business.

Keith’s parents still live in the farmhouse on the larger parcel, so they combine efforts during the growing and harvesting seasons, canning and freezing a variety of food. There’s a spacious tractor garage and machine shop, too, built and managed chiefly by Keith’s father. In there, they’ve got a tool for just about every conceivable job.

The Energy Efficient Home

Keith and Jenessa’s dream took form in a 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home with space for two additional bedrooms. Jenessa’s kitchen occupies one end of the large open area on the main floor, blending easily into the great room. Upstairs, there’s a master suite, an additional bathroom and two bedrooms.

Yet the drive-in, walk-out lower level is where the home’s most unique areas are located. When Keith and his friends completed substantial excavations there, the insulated concrete foundation, chosen for its stability and insulation value, was set, then poured. “We also used a combination of batting and spray to achieve R-36 in the walls and R-44 in the roof,” said Keith. “I grew up in a drafty old farmhouse. We learned that a dollar spent on insulation goes a long way.”

It helped that Jay Weaver, Keith’s father-in-law, is an electrician who was eager to pitch in. The Freys wanted a log home but settled for log siding. “Log is wonderful, but not so good for energy efficiency,” said Keith. “With log siding, we got the look we wanted but with no compromise in efficiency.”

Harvesting BTUs

The geothermal, radiant heating and cooling systems specified for the Freys’ home were much smaller than they expected because of the home’s heavy insulation. “That meant less cost to buy the HVAC gear and also a lot less energy to operate the equipment,” said Keith.

The Freys spent considerable time doing online research about all facets of the home. A local Watts Water Technologies rep spoke with them about the significance of bundling offerings across the company’s many brands to provide overall value. “Our mechanical contractor was impressed by the volume of equipment and material we could source through a single company, then purchase through wholesalers near here,” Keith added. He and Kurt Shreiner, co-owner of Mountain View Heating & Cooling, tapped Watts for a wide range of gear.

In the spring of 2014, Kurt’s technicians installed a mile of PEX and synthetic rubber radiant heat tubing in a five-zone system that would warm most of the home’s floors. They also hung prefabricated panels to manage hydronic (hot water) system flow. Meanwhile, several deep trenches were dug in which were buried the “geoexchange” tubing for the geothermal heating and cooling system. By that fall, the Freys’ BTU-harvesting trenches were invisible, covered by a robust crop of soybeans.

The Freys moved into their new home in February of 2015. “Being my own general contractor added substantial time to complete the home,” said Keith. “But we saved a bundle, most of which allowed us to improve the home’s carbon footprint. The geothermal, radiant heat systems and water quality equipment are the facets of the home we’re most proud of. Some folks go for elaborate furnishings and foreign sports cars in the garage. That’s not us.”

“We never imagined having a home as comfortable as this one,” added Jenessa. “The floors were cozy warm all winter long, even with record low temperatures. We were so comfortable that we almost forgot about the fireplace.”

High-Tech Systems

The Freys learned a lot about mechanical systems during the construction of their home. Keith and the mechanical contractor learned to use Watts’ TRITON pipe fusion technology, which utilizes electromagnetic technology to weld plastic pipes to complete all of the fluid circuits to the geothermal heating and cooling system.

The Freys and the mechanical pros chose a 125,000-BTU Laars LX modulating condensing boiler as the primary source of heat for the home, heating both the extensive radiant heat system and all domestic water. “I especially like the system for its high efficiency and that the company makes the boilers here in the U.S. It’s got an advanced control system and outdoor reset, and it’s so dang quiet,” said Keith.

He added that the boiler is paired with two 120-gallon Bradford White water-heating tanks. “We chose these for their very low standby loss,” said Kurt Shreiner. “One of them is used as a buffer tank for the hydronic system. The other tank is an indirect water heater with a large stainless steel coil inside to heat domestic water.”

The Control System

Populating the control panels and managing flow for all of the home’s five radiant heat zones are three-speed Taco 0015 circulators. A Taco 4900 air separator posts quality-control guard duty for the entire hydronic system. “We’ve installed Taco circs, pumps, zone valves and zone controls for years,” added Shreiner. “With a system as robust as this one, there was no way we’d use anything but the products we’ve come to trust.”

The Freys also installed a small SunTouch electric radiant mat below the tile in their guest bathroom, complete with its own programmable thermostat. “I didn’t want my guests to experience cold feet here. It was a very small splurge,” said Jenessa.

Keith explained that Tekmar controls were chosen to manage the home’s geothermal and radiant heat systems.

Better Water

The Freys have a good on-site well. But, common to many agricultural areas, coliform bacteria and nitrates are present. After testing for minerals and contaminants, it was clear to the Freys that water treatment systems would be needed.

Their well water now passes through a sediment filter and into a Watts ultraviolet unit to kill bacteria. From there, water moves through a non-chemical iron removal system. Domestic water then makes its way through a OneFlow scale prevention system to control water hardness; the system’s scale media operates catalytically without salt or chemicals and doesn’t produce wastewater.

“The OneFlow doesn’t even require electricity,” said Matt Woodcraft, president of Lifeflow Plumbing, who installed the water treatment, filtration and plumbing systems.

This article is from the winter 2019 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at

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