Biltmore Science

George Vanderbilt pushed the technology envelope when building Biltmore Estate, and his descendants still promote technology with a solar farm. The estate also raises canola and collects cooking oil from restaurants to make biodiesel fuel.

ASHEVILLE — No matter how many times you see Biltmore, the nation’s largest house still leaves you in awe.

With 250 rooms, George Vanderbilt’s summer retreat was the largest construction project ever started for a private home. Work began in 1889 and took six years to complete with Vanderbilt officially opening his home to visitors on Christmas Eve in 1895. Those folks had quite a bit to explore with over four acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces.

Vanderbilt wanted the latest in technology in his house, so Biltmore was wired for electricity when it was constructed. That was a rarity in cities, and unheard of in private homes at that time. The house also boasted electrically-powered refrigerators, a central heating system that used natural convection to deliver steam heat, and one of the nation’s first electric elevators. The elevator, by the way, still works today.

What’s more, Vanderbilt designed his estate to be sustainable.

“When you think about the workforce that was needed to keep the home and the grounds going, he needed an estate that was self-sufficient,” explains Vanessa King, Sustainability Manager for Biltmore. “So he built a big production garden to feed the house and the employees, he needed to produce income so he did sustainable forestry management on the estate, and he had a generator in the basement to power the estate.”

With that vision of sustainability it’s not surprising that on nine acres of estate land, out of view from the main house, you find the latest addition—7,000 solar panels generating one-point-seven megawatts of electricity. That’s enough power for roughly 200 homes.

“They are at an angle that will give the most sunlight and we also have an area that has no shade, so when there is sun we get all of it,” adds King.

But that’s not the end of Biltmore’s push for sustainable technology. In a 100-year-old barn on the west side of the estate, sustainability comes full circle.

It starts with a tiny seed, just a little larger than the size of an “O” on a page.

“This is canola seed and this is what it looks like after its harvested with a combine,” says Ted Katsigianis, Vice President of Agriculture Sciences at Biltmore. He’s holding a small handful of tiny round black seeds in his hand. “Canola is a mustard, and while it is very tiny it is also very oily."

In fact, about half of the seed’s weight is in oil. That might not seem like much with a tiny seed, but the estate grows about 50 acres of canola bushes. That’s enough to produce roughly 2,500 bushels of canola seeds.

“The canola meal comes out of the bin and then is moved upstairs on a conveyor belt where it is cleaned,” says Katsigianis, gesturing as he walks around the barn. “It then comes down through that pipe into the crusher bin in front of us. The grinders on the bottom crush the seeds and canola meal is expelled in the front and the oil goes down the trough into our storage tanks.”

The canola meal is fed to the livestock. The oil is put into a wash where it is combined with water and methanol. After several chemical reactions, the biodiesel is ready to go. The process produces about 25,000 gallons of biodiesel. That’s enough to power the estate’s 60 pieces of farm equipment with some extra oil to sell.

“It really is a perfect situation,” says Katsigianis as he proudly holds up two jars of oil. The slightly darker and thicker version is the canola oil. “You get a canola plant that you put into the ground in September and you harvest in June. That produces a beautiful blooming field in the spring. You get canola oil that can be used in fryers or on a salad, you get biodiesel, you get meal for livestock and glycerin for soap. Glycerin is a byproduct of the making of biodiesel. It doesn’t get much more efficient, which is pretty neat.”

You get the feeling George Vanderbilt would be proud.

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