The Ultimate Guide to Net-Zero Energy Homes
Climate change headlines are the stuff of nightmares: melting glaciers, rising seas, broiling heat waves, power-punching thunderstorms, colossal hurricanes, and staggering droughts. Global warming’s chilling consequences are often overwhelming.
Working together, individuals and organizations can make a measurable difference, one step at a time. Living in a net-zero home is one way to do so.
What is a Net-Zero Home?
Net-zero is when the amount of manmade greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount removed from the atmosphere. It is the point at which global warming stops, according to Oxford Net Zero, an interdisciplinary climate neutrality research initiative.
Net-zero energy homes, sometimes called zero-carbon homes, incorporate building materials and technology that balance a home’s energy requirements with carbon-neutral practices that shrink the household’s overall carbon footprint. Carbon-neutral practices range from relying on solar panels to generate most of a home’s energy to installing and strategically using a smart thermostat.
Carbon and the average family home
The average U.S. household has a carbon footprint of 48 metric tons, according to University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. Look closely and you’ll find carbon contributions from both embodied carbon and operational carbon.
Because most embodied carbon is released during home construction, homeowners have limited opportunity to offset embodied emissions. Operational carbon is another story. Energy Choice plays a big part in determining a home’s overall operational carbon output, and simple steps to reduce consumption only bolster that impact.
Why you should adopt a net-zero energy home
Governments, businesses, and organizations are working together to reach net-zero emissions globally by 2050. They are collectively focused on the “net” in net zero—the balance between emissions and removal—because reducing all emissions to zero in the required timeframe is nearly impossible. Even then, once net zero is reached, it must become permanent. It’s quite a task—and that’s an understatement.
A growing population of net-zero homes aid the effort. They also provide homeowners with a bevy of benefits that make the effort worthwhile. Here are three:
1. Higher home valuation
Carbon-neutral practices are built on energy efficiency, which directly affects both your energy bill and your home’s overall comfort level. It’s warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and lighter on the wallet. Energy-efficient homes are also highly prized by home buyers. When you’re ready to move, selling your home may be financially rewarding.
2. Smaller carbon footprint
A more efficient HVAC system reduces overall energy consumption and choosing a clean energy plan furthers that effort. Even the smallest carbon-free household tip can impact your carbon footprint. You might be surprised by how much you can save when properly sealing windows and replacing weatherstripping around exterior doors.
3. More durable home
If you choose to build your zero-carbon home from the ground up, you can invest in newer building materials and techniques that are often more durable than standard construction materials. That translates into less upkeep and an extended lifecycle for your home.
How do I turn my house into a net-zero home?
If that sounds like it could break the bank, there’s good news. Achieving net-zero energy is possible on almost any budget. Consider it your Goldilocks strategy. Map out a plan to go net-zero that’s not too big, not too little, but just right for your budget and lifestyle.
Go big and grow home
Net-zero houses built from the foundation up are growing in popularity. Several energy consultants and builders specialize in zero-energy homes, like Charis Homes, based in Canton, Ohio. Houses built by Charis “far exceed code-built homes by achieving the Energy Star, EPA Indoor airPlus, and Zero Energy Ready Home Standards,” according to the company’s website.
An all-in approach often begins before any plans are drawn up. Net-zero builders want to take advantage of the local climate, from sunlight and wind patterns to average rainfall and so forth, so they will spend ample time searching for a property that provides the best of all those benefits. Then they will orient the house on the property to take advantage of those benefits.
Beyond renewable energy options like solar panels, wind, geothermal, and so forth, all-in builders will limit embodied carbon emissions by choosing salvaged materials like brick, concrete, metal and wood. Low-carbon concrete mixes exist, as do agricultural products, like straw insulation, that are carbon sequestering.
Find the happy medium
Going all-in and building from the foundation up can be expensive, of course. To mitigate the budget a bit, consider finding a home well-suited to zero-energy renovation. That home may be the one you’re living in.
If properly planned, you can pay for the renovation in part by making zero-energy choices. Manufacturing, transporting, and using concrete, steel, and aluminum accounts for 23% of total global emissions. Choosing to use sustainable, carbon-sequestering, and recycled building materials as part of any renovation will help reduce these totals. Carbon sequestering materials include mycelium insulation, responsibly sourced wood, and plastics made from biochar.
Many states offer sustainability incentives, most of which can be found on the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE), hosted by North Carolina University’s N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center. Many energy companies, for example, provide a rebate for installation of Energy Star products, including programmable thermostats, efficient showerheads and faucet aerators.
From a small seed
A true net-zero home is not achievable everywhere. Climate, site conditions, the age of an existing home and other factors can hamper a homeowner from creating a 100% zero-energy domicile. For other homeowners, the expense may be too much.
That shouldn’t stop you from trying to get as close as possible. Small investments in new technology can help lower your home’s carbon footprint. Forming new habits, like shorter showers and washing clothes in cold water only, will knock down greenhouse gas numbers as well.
You may even be able to turn your home into a passive house, or an extremely energy-efficient home that is heated and cooled with minimal power. Here are seven ways to get started:
1. Change your relationship with water
Water use contributes to climate change because it takes a lot of energy to treat, transport, and heat water. Simple water conservation can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint, and it’s relatively easy to do. Don’t let the water run while brushing your teeth or shaving. Wash clothes in cold water. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full. Repair leaks.
2. Seal your home
Eliminating air leaks will not only help cut heating and cooling costs, but it will also make your home more comfortable and increase your indoor air quality. Caulk cracks and space between door and window frames, weatherstrip windows and doors, and enjoy fresh air all year round.
3. Invest in a smart thermostat
Smart thermostats analyze information from your other smart devices, like when you switch lights on and off or run energy-guzzling appliances, along with energy usage data, and then make subtle adjustments based on that analysis to maximize energy usage and temperature control.
4. Install continuous insulation
It’s relatively easy for heat to escape through wall components and traditional insulation layers. Window frames, wood framing in the walls and so forth become thermal bridges, which drain heat from your home. Continuous insulation provides an additional layer of insulation outside the home, closing many of these gaps.
5. Consider a heat pump
Residential heat pumps replace traditional furnaces and air conditioners. They use electricity to transfer heat from a cool area to a warm area, typically from outside to inside, making the cool area cooler and the warm area warmer. The energy savings is in the transfer. There’s no need to consume energy to generate heat.
6. Find savings with a home energy monitor
Whole-home energy monitors are built to measure your home’s electricity usage, down to the individual circuit, uncovering ways to save on your energy bill. Note, however, that many smart devices can integrate in such a way as to provide the same information.
7. Follow Energy Harbor on social media
For even more carbon-free tips, follow Energy Harbor on Instagram and Facebook. Throughout the year, we’re sharing simple tips that will help you reduce your carbon footprint.
Choose a clean energy plan
If nothing else, consider making two changes to your relationship with energy.
- Change your behavior. It's making choices like flicking off the lights when you leave the room. Or purchasing timers to do it for you. One step forward, followed by another and another, will help clean our climate, too.
- Change your energy plan. A clean energy plan from Energy Harbor is another way you can make a difference by making a simple choice.
Nuclear power produces zero greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Over the course of its life cycle, nuclear produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per unit of electricity as wind, and one-third of the emissions per unit of electricity when compared with solar.
It’s safe, reliable, clean energy, and perfect for any net-zero home plan. Ready to compare rates and lower your carbon footprint?