BuildingConsumerismEnergy Systems

Zero Net Energy Households

A "zero net" home is a household with zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions annually — essentially, the idea of a zero net home is a building with a virtually invisible carbon footprint. As renewable and clean energy sources become more affordable and accessible to everyday homeowners, we should hopefully see an increase in both zero net homes, and homes that consume slightly more energy than they produce, commonly called "near-zero energy buildings" or "ultra-low energy houses". Carbon emissions have been dropping a little in recent years, but humanity still has a long way to go, and more zero net and ultra-low energy households offer a possible next step.

Beyond merely reducing carbon emissions, zero net energy buildings would also effectively reduce (and one day help eliminate) our dependence on fossil fuels; traditional buildings consume 40% of the total fossil fuel energy in the US and Europe and are significant contributors of greenhouse gases. Although they are still rare, zero net homes are not as far-fetched as one might think — and they might even be a necessity in the near future.

There are some simple tips that homeowners can follow to move toward living in a zero net home. The first step is simply changing your behavior: turn off the lights when you leave the room; turn the A/C down a few degrees; and unplug small appliances from the wall when they are not in use. These simple changes in habits can make a huge difference when it comes to reducing the amount of energy you waste — which should, in turn, reduce your electricity expenses.

And, although it’s always an important consideration, especially in these times, saving money isn’t the only reason you should be concerned about conserving energy. An adjustment is needed to help curb humanity’s crippling dependence on fossil fuels, like oil and coal. These adjustments are becoming more economical and better for the environment; it’s a win win situation. Where else can you contribute to a good cause and save money at the same time?

Once you have changed your habits, it is time to start making more permanent, physical changes to your home. Many people don’t realize the amount of gaps and leaks their house may actually have. In most households, if all the gaps and leaks were somehow magically clustered together, you would have a giant hole in the middle of your living room wall. What a colossal waste of energy (and magic). Gaps underneath doors, in between windows, and in basements/attics can let out heat during the winter or cool during the summer. Use caulk and opaque insulation for your walls, ceilings, and basement to improve the insulation of your home. Also make sure to purchase windows with a high R-value. 30% of heat loss is through windows, so purchasing curtains, blinds, or shades can be a worthwhile investment too.

Once the home is all sealed up, you can add to your long term savings by donating appliances older than 10 years, and springing for more efficient appliances — or you may find you can reduce or eliminate their use altogether. The efficiency of these newer appliances makes them well worth the initial purchase. You can also replace all of the light bulbs in your home with CFL bulbs, which use one fifth to one third the electric power and last eight to fifteen times longer compared to incandescent bulbs. That means they will save you money and time running to the store to buy more bulbs. You might forget you even have to replace them.

Once you have exhausted all of the low tech and simple changes, and you’re ready to take things to the next level, it’s time to start thinking about solar power. Solar power is an easy way for any homeowner to begin to produce their own electricity without having to worry about their service being interrupted. Purchasing and setting up solar panels can seem intimidating at first, but in reality it isn’t that difficult at all, and there are many helpful resources available to you. Many home improvement stores even offer full service help with purchasing and installing the panels. Or, if you are more of a DIY kind of person, than there are a number of YouTube tutorials and step by step instructions on how to install them properly.

Buildings that produce a surplus of energy over the course of a year may be called "energy-plus buildings" and your home may one day be one of those buildings. But you could theoretically reduce your energy use to such an extent that your solar panels would not only offset your expenses but actually earn you money — if you have a surplus of power, you can begin to sell that power back to electric companies, which often provide a way for you to access this power from the grid for your own use during periods without sufficient sunlight. If you get to that point, congratulations — you’ve turned your money-saving, energy efficient zero net house into a profitable “energy plus” home!

These changes are relatively simple, and whether or not you decide to go all the way and purchase solar panels is totally up to you as the homeowner. Every little bit helps, and these seemingly easy tasks could become essential in the near future. Think about the advent of the electric car. At first the electric car seemed like an inconsequential luxury vehicle, available to too few consumers to make any sort of significant difference. But, more and more economically and environmentally sustainable cars are rolling out the factories and into many homeowners’ driveways, charging stations are appearing in communities and in the parking lots of shopping malls, and hybrid cars are using electric car technology to make gas powered cars ever more efficient. Soon zero net homes will likely follow a similar trajectory, so be ahead of the curve and inspire change!

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  1. CFL bulbs do NOT last longer for general use in a household. In fact, they last a lot less than incandescent. Also the mercury pollution from a single broken CFL in the house is well above the safe levels for humans. CFL is just another political scam story…

  2. Unlike the previous response, the CFL’s I’ve used have lasted 10 times longer than the old bulbs. However, I was hoping the article would mention newer advancements in lighting like LED’s and tell us how cost effective they are.

  3. Good article for the beginner however I think that the thermal performance of a house (amount of energy needed to heat and cool it) has been enormously understated here. This is arguably the primary factor in whether or not you will be fighting an uphill battle energy wise for the life of the building or not. Plugging gaps is great but if you live in a poorly insulated house with no thermal mass in the right place – or all of it in the wrong place (i.e. as external walls) then it needs some serious attention. What is currently termed ‘super insulation’ is in fact about the break even point that most houses should be aiming for as heating and cooling houses is the single largest energy eater and cost driver for most households.

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