net zero

Net-Zero Energy Homes Pay Off Faster Than You Think—Even in Chilly Midwest

By Dan Gearino
View the original article here.

As solar and heat pump prices fall, these highly energy-efficient homes are paying for themselves faster. Here’s how they work and why they’re spreading northward.

Home-builder Bill Decker explains some of the techniques used to create highly energy-efficient homes in chilly southeast Michigan. New research shows that the extra cost of making a home net-zero energy can pay for itself in under a decade in Detroit and 11.4 years in Chicago. Credit: Dan Gearino

Home-builder Bill Decker explains some of the techniques used to create highly energy-efficient homes in chilly southeast Michigan. New research shows that the extra cost of making a home net-zero energy can pay for itself in under a decade in Detroit and 11.4 years in Chicago. Credit: Dan Gearino

 

LAMBERTVILLE, Mich.—On a drive down a country road, builder Bill Decker gives an off-the-cuff seminar about energy efficient homes.

He shifts from carpentry to electrical engineering, and then to theology—his belief that his faith compels him to take care of the earth. Every few minutes, he pauses and points out a house his family-owned company has built.

He has been in business since 1981 and only now is his industry beginning to grasp something he has been arguing for a while: Net-zero-energy homes—homes that are so efficient a few rooftop solar panels can produce all the electricity the home needs—can be built almost anywhere, even in places with brutal winters.

His case is bolstered by a recent report from the Rocky Mountain Institute showing net-zero energy houses can make financial sense in much of the Midwest as costs for some of the key components fall. The initial extra costs of making a new home a net-zero energy home pay for themselves through energy savings in less than a decade in both Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, and in less than 14 years in most of the 50 largest U.S. cities, the report says.

At the forefront are custom builders who specialize in efficient houses and helped to create this market, people like Decker, 79, whose southeastern Michigan company, Decker Homes, is just across the state line from Toledo, Ohio.

“It isn’t just energy efficiency we’re talking about here,” he says. “It’s the whole world. We’re talking about climate change.”

Indeed, housing is responsible for about 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, including its share of power plant emissions.

Yet his sales pitch is largely about comfort. An energy efficient house doesn’t have chilly drafts, and the temperature varies little from room to room, and those are things that appeal to most people, he says.

‘It’s the Little Things that Add Up’

Decker parks on the dirt driveway of a house in progress as a light rain turns to snow flurries. In a living room that is studs and bare wood floors, he notes the features that make this house highly energy efficient. The key is making insulation an essential part of construction.

Decker walks to the corner of the room and points out an opening of several inches between studs to allow for easy placement of insulation. Builders call this a “California corner,” which is an alternative to a typical corner design that is much more difficult to insulate.

“It’s little things that add up,” he says.

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Zero-energy homes start with well-sealed and well-insulated attics, walls and basements or slabs. They often use triple-pane windows, especially in places with cold winters. Inside, energy-efficient appliances, highly efficient LED lighting and smart thermostats help avoid energy waste.

Their designs often take natural lighting into account, too, and position windows and overhangs for additional solar heating in the winter and shade in summer. Since the homes are sealed to avoid letting cold or hot air in—and cool or warm air out—they also have ventilation systems customized to maintain comfortable circulation.

Decker recently completed his first house with an air-source heat pump, which is less expensive than geothermal heat or other electric options. In cold weather, the system extracts heat from the outside air and uses it to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature. In warm weather, the process is reversed, with the system gathering heat from inside and transferring it outside.

He is starting to use air-source systems because newer models work well in below-freezing temperatures, which was not the case just a few years ago. Heat pump advancements are one of the main factors making highly efficient homes more affordable in many colder climates.

This is in addition to a cost factor that affects all climates: Rooftop solar prices have plummeted in recent years and are projected to continue doing so. That is true of battery power storage as well.

In Detroit, Net-Zero Pays for Itself in 9 Years

The costs and benefits of building net-zero houses vary widely in major cities, ranging from San Francisco, where the benefits would cover the costs in eight years, to Philadelphia, where it would take about three times as long, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The largest savings tend to be in cities with high electricity rates and older building codes.

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The key point is that energy efficiency pays for itself, which is not the case for many other major expenses in a house, said Jacob Corvidae, principal at Rocky Mountain Institute, a research nonprofit that focuses on clean energy.

“Zero-energy homes are actually affordable,” he said. This is important because many consumers, builders and policymakers are reluctant to consider zero-energy homes because of the perception that costs are prohibitive, he said.

In Detroit, for example, a 2,200-square-foot net-zero energy house would cost $19,753 more than the same house with no solar and typical efficiency. The energy-bill savings would be $2,508 in the first year, and the solar and efficiency costs would pay for themselves in about nine years with inflation and other changes taken into account.

Bill Decker's son, Dale, shows some of the construction methods used to insulate and seal a highly energy-efficient home against air leaks and energy waste. Credit: Dan Gearino

Bill Decker’s son, Dale, shows some of the construction methods used to insulate and seal a highly energy-efficient home against air leaks and energy waste. Credit: Dan Gearino

The Midwest is well represented among cities with short payoff periods. Detroit is second in the report. Columbus ranks fourth, with a payoff of less than 10 years. Chicago ranks 10th and Indianapolis is 12th, with payoffs of about 11 years and 12 years, respectively.

Detroit has high annual savings in part because the city has some of the highest electricity rates, Corvidae said. Columbus’ high savings are in part because the city has an older building code, so standard houses do not have high efficiency standards.

A home with all the energy efficiency attributes of a net-zero energy house but not the solar panels will save customers money even more quickly, the report notes, though it doesn’t provide all of the climate benefits. In Detroit, a “net-zero-energy ready” house without solar would cost $1,574 more than a typical house and would pay for itself in less than two years. After that, the investment means hundreds of dollars in savings for the homeowner every year.

New California Mandate Gets Close to Net-Zero

Net-zero energy homes are a fraction of 1 percent of new housing being built, but their share is growing. Builders completed 13,906 net-zero housing units last year in the United States and Canada, a 70 percent increase from the prior year, according to a report by the nonprofit Net-Zero Energy Coalition.

California was the leader with more than 5,000 units, five times more than runner-up Arizona, where the Rocky Mountain Institute report shows net-zero homes in Phoenix can cover their costs in 11 years.

California’s lead is likely to grow because of a state building code update that takes effect in 2020 and will require solar panels on most new housing and have strict efficiency standards, the first state to do so. The code falls short of a mandate for net-zero energy housing, but it comes close.

Meanwhile, some of the country’s largest home builders, such as PulteGroup and Meritage Homes, are taking steps to offer net-zero energy options. In Cortez, Florida, Pearl Homes is building a zero-energy community that also incorporates energy storage and electric vehicle chargers.

The corporate moves are tied to consumer demand and because energy efficiency is becoming more affordable, said Ann Edminster, a consultant and architect who works with the Net-Zero Energy Coalition.

“We’re starting to see the tip of that iceberg, and when it really hits, it’s going to be huge,” she said.

Bill Decker thinks many more people would want an energy efficient house if they only had someone to explain the benefits. In his part of the world, that someone is him.

“It’s creating value, saving money, helping the environment,” he said. “In the end, you say to yourself, ‘Why would you do anything else?'”

Florida development brings net zero homes to the mass market

A 148-home central Florida development may be the sign that net zero living has gone mainstream.

View the original article here.

Long-time builders Greg and Sue Thomas have opened Green Key Village, a 78-acre net-zero home development in Lady Lake, Florida, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. The homes will be certified under the Florida Green Building Coalition, and one model home has already achieved a platinum rating, Thomas said. The homes will also be Energy Star and Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home. Each home will be HERS rated, and the goal is to achieve a HERS index of 50-55 prior to renewable energy installation. An average code built home has a HERS Index of 100.

Also, the homes have earned the Florida Friendly Landscaping silver designation in recognition of resource-efficient landscape design.

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To help them with the challenge of selling a net-zero community, the Thomas’s brought on Tony Richardson to help them sell. With more than 30 years of experience in green home building and marketing, Richardson is a Green Designee of the National Association of Realtors, and a USGBC Green Associate.

Green Key Village is the first residential neighborhood in the nation designed using software offered by Ekotrope that was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The software analyzes 10,000 variables to give designers data to compare each component of the home by its cost and energy efficiency. They can evaluate wall thickness, window size, insulation depth and every other aspect of the home. The development offers eight floor customizable plans in one- and two-story options. ranging from $318,000 to $414,000 and home sizes ranging from 2,755 square feet to 3,637 square feet.

Thomas said the Ekotrope analysis helped them make cost/benefit trade offs. For example, the home uses a 15-SEER rated air conditioning unit because the payback for a higher rated unit would have been longer than the life of the product. The analysis also showed that with the high-efficiency HVAC and a heat pump hybrid water heater, one of the most efficient on the market, the HVAC heat pump had to be only a 2.5-ton capacity in the 3,000-square-foot model home.

In an exclusive interview with ProudGreenHome.com, Greg and Tony talked about the challenges of presenting high performance, net-zero living to a mass-market real estate environment.

What was your vision for the community?

Greg: Where we live there’s a house with a big front porch and every afternoon the neighbors gather on that porch. In my mind, if all our houses had front porches I think it would be a great gathering place for neighbors to meet and fellowship. We wanted to build that kind of a neighborhood.

My dad was a builder, and I’ve been a builder for 30 years. It’s always been concrete block and stucco. That’s worn out. I said, let’s look for something different. We went to the coast, and saw houses with bright colors with lap siding, a metal roof and big windows covered with Bahamas shutters.

We put it out here in the middle of Lady Lake and have a great looking subdivision that isn’t made from a cookie cutter.

So that was our goal. We wanted to combine old Florida charm and new green living. I think we’ve hit it pretty good.

What are some of the challenges in communicating a high performance home to the general buyer?

Greg: I like to give them a brief overview and then back off until they ask more questions about it. It overloads them; actually, their eyes glass over when they’re just looking for the granite countertops.

It’s hard not to load them up with all the information, but we’ve spent so much money on this technology you hate to not to.

What makes your homes perform so well?

Greg: We used Ekotrope software to optimize the house design and balance all the HVAC loads, insulation and so on. We use open-cell spray foam on the underside of the roof deck, and the mechanical room is in the attic but it’s in conditioned space in the attic under the foam on the roof. Depending on the floor plan, the room can be 200 square feet to 500 square feet.

The GE heat pump water heater is in the room, and with it being a heat pump it keeps that area cooler and drier as it operates. It’s like having a dehumidifier up there. The manifold block plumbing system originates there too, right next to the water heater. And the HVAC ductwork is in there, too. It all works together.

It’s a nice attic room with stair leading to it homeowners could use for storage as well.

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What are some of the green aspects of the home?

  • Icynene open-cell spray foam insulation
  • Advanced framing techniques
  • GE heat pump water heater
  • Two Panasonic energy recovery ventilators
  • Amana 15 SEER heat pump
  • Double pain Low-E windows from YKK
  • LED & CFL lighting
  • Energy Star appliances
  • WaterSense fixtures

What is the result of your green building strategies?

We cut the air conditioning load almost in half by going with the open cell spray foam insulation on the walls and ceiling. With the A/C, water heating, lighting and all the appliances are Energy Star rated, we’ve brought down our power usage on this house. Here an average house uses 1,500-1800 kilowatt/hours per month, and we’re down to less than 1,000. Then we take care of that with the solar panels.

 

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What is your water conservation strategy?

As part of the Florida Green Building Coalition certification, we are certified to have less than a half-gallon of water in the lines. We use a maniblock plumbing system and PEX tubing.

Are you using advanced framing techniques, and how does that work with the wind load requirements?

We use regular 2×4 framing and what’s referred to as the “California corner,” two studs in the corners and we use horizontal blocking that gives you a nailing surface. You have to re-train your framers and help them remember that you can’t load up these corners with studs. We’ve heard of people going 24-inch centers but we haven’t gotten brave enough to do that.

All our homes have to be certified to meet 130 mph wind load. We use a solid sheathing with 4×10 OSB that helps fight uplift. Also the tie downs and anchors come into play to meet the wind load regulations.

Is there a price premium on the all the green attributes of the homes, and how do you communicate that to the buyers and the financial community?

From the water heater to the insulation the lighting to bath fans, to the ERV and solar panels, when you add all that up, the difference is $35,000 to $40,000 of additional value to the home.

We have prepared an addendum for our contract, because when you attach an addendum for the contract, the appraiser for the bank has to look at anything attached to the contract. For each model we have addendum that shows our cost for open cell spray foam insulation so and compare that to the traditional batt foam insulation on concrete block.

That also gives the homebuyer the documentation they need to apply for their solar tax credit.

How do buyers respond to the idea of a paying a premium for a high performance home?

We tell them, compared to an average $200 a month power bill, with the lower utility costs of these houses, you have $42,000 to $43,000 more power buying over the life of the mortgage. Whether you’re paying cash or using a mortgage, your overall buying power is that much more.

The math works. And you get a much a much healthier house. With the no-VOC paints, the low-VOC carpets and cabinets, your home is healthier. The ERVs are bringing in fresh air 24 hours a day.

Tony: These homes are priced very comparably to homes of similar size if they they had the same quality as these homes.

We can show on a cash-on-cash basis, they’ll be not spending more money but making money starting the first month and every month thereafter. There’s no flim flam here; it’s the truth.

Photos courtesy Green Key Village LLC.