Now that Energy Star appliances are commonplace and the recession has trained everyday people to keep an eye on their monthly power bill, the pioneers of the green movement are moving on to the next stage: net zero buildings. Going a step beyond LEED certification and typical green home characteristics, the net zero home seeks to do what carbon credits and the concept of ‘carbon neutral’ did for emissions.
In short, over the course of a year, a net zero home produces as much electricity into the grid as it consumes. Of course, many people have done this before, but it once required enormous arrays of costly solar panels. Others simply moved far out into the country to get ‘off the grid,’ sacrificing year-round consistent electricity (or utilizing a dirty diesel generator) to make up for the gaps.
Fortunately, no more sacrifices are required. Smart homebuilding, intelligent planning, and an upfront investment that will repay itself are all that’s required to cut power usage to nearly nothing, and eventually, to zero.
Truly net zero homes are already on the way. Last summer, the city of New York awarded $1.25 million to the non-profit Solar One for the construction of Solar 2 (pictured), an environmental education facility along the East River (http://inhabitat.com/nyc/proposed-solar-2-eco-complex-on-the-east-river-receives-1-25m-from-city-council/). Part of the building will incorporate an actual net zero apartment that visitors can learn from, making changes at their own homes to cut down on their power bill.
Achieving complete energy use neutrality is already the goal of many new projects on the horizon, including everyday homebuilders around the nation. In order to fully capitalize on a building’s net zero potential, the following considerations need to come into play:
- Build For Efficiency
Not all homes are built equal, and utility bills will reflect that. If your goal is net zero energy usage, you’ll generally be better off to think small. Large spaces require more energy to heat and cool. Somewhat contrary to that, however, is the internal design you choose. A large room will heat and cool more efficiently than a series of passageways that create hot and cold pockets.
- Go for Glass
The quickest way to cut down on lighting costs is to use less of it, but you needn’t resign yourself to living in a dark cave. Skylights and sun tunnels can literally bring a room to full brightness without the use of any artificial lighting. Likewise, large windows and even glass walls can provide heat during the winter, and a simple screen can block heat while still illuminating the room during summer.
- Seal it Up
Leaky windows, doors, and walls are the second biggest culprits (after wasteful humans) when it comes to zapping a home’s efficiency. If you’re building or remodeling, look for thick insulation that will eliminate heat and cool air loss into walls. Check your windows and doors and look for gaps. The flow of smoke from a blown-out match held near the edges of a window or door will often indicate whether or not you’ve got leaks.
- Soak Up the Sun
Being net zero requires that you create your own power — enough, in fact, to power your home all year. Solar panels are still the go-to method, and the less energy you use, the fewer of them you’ll need. If you’re building a new home, design it so that the largest part of the roof angles toward the sun. Otherwise, create a freestanding display in your yard, or utilize the tops of storage sheds, carports, or garages. Again, this is where the real expense plays in, but you’ll eventually save the money back, and most states now allow electricity producers to sell their excess back into the grid.
- Look Into the Earth
Geothermal energy may be our largest untapped resource, when it comes to energy production. Isn’t it exciting to know that a simple geothermal well can pull warm air from deep within the earth, constantly circulating warmth through tubing underneath your floors? In the summer, the same pipes pull warm air from your house into the ground, circulating cool air. For a builder focusing on net zero homes, geothermal is now an integral part of the design.
- Get the Right Equipment
Although it may be greener to keep an old appliance in working order than to take it to the dump, it’s worth comparing how much electricity the fridge you inherited from your grandmother uses compared to the latest Energy Star models. Best of all, the newest lines of washers, dryers, dishwashers and other appliances hook into a smart grid that allows users to track their individual usage through their smartphones.
- Educate Yourselves
Ultimately, even the fastest car still relies on its driver to win the race. That principle matters for energy efficiency as well. Even if you’re stuck renting an aging house that’s anything but efficient, the decisions you make as a resident about turning off unused electronics, utilizing power strips, and even sealing up leaks can take huge chunks out of your monthly power bill.
Do you think it’s feasible that we may all live in net-zero homes twenty years from now? What steps have you taken to move toward that goal where you live?
Guest post author: Garret Stembridge helps residential and business customers who use storage units when they don’t have enough storage space on their own property. Garret’s company – www.extraspace.com – has locations from coast to coast, including a San Bernardino storage units yard.
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