You might not know this is a net-zero home by looking at it -- that’s the point
Creating at least as much energy as it consumes, this 1970s ranch on a lake shore in Tennessee resembles most other Middle American homes, which is a good thing. It is proof that you can work with what you have, don’t have to be fancy or complicated, and can accomplish a lot. Owner and renovator David Bolt says of his net-zero home, “We haven't paid a utility bill since April 2006."
A process and a story
David is both the owner of this house and the founder of a forward-thinking energy consulting company, appropriately called Sustainable Future. When he started this project, he could have used his now better-educated self for the advice, products, and services he dispenses today. Even with his negative utility bill, he still considers his home to be a work in progress.
A quick itemization of upgrades he’s done over the last five years includes a robust installation of PV panels and solar hot water collectors that provide all of the home's electrical power and hot water and meet most of it's HVAC needs; structural changes that made the building tighter and better insulated; and various small remodeling projects that made the house more gracious to live in, like installing bamboo flooring and ceramic tile to replace carpet and vinyl composition tile (VCT).
However, just as big an ‘upgrade’ was adjusting to his own goal of living (and having his family live) within a daily energy budget of 10 kW hours (according to the Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. household uses more than 70 kW hours).
The first thing he did was install a whole house meter to track down where his electricity was going. He discovered significant draws from so-called phantom loads—the energy that still gets expended even when you think everything is turned off, or that dribbles away because some appliance needs a tune-up or replacing.
Lifestyle changes play a role
David’s family found that many small, easy changes added up—so they made them. They plugged electrical devices like TVs, the microwave oven, computers and stereos into power strips, and turn the strips off when the devices are not in use. Freshly made coffee goes right into a thermos, which eliminates the tiny amount of electricity needed to keep it warm in the coffee maker. When they can, they hang laundry to dry in the fresh breeze. They got a new refrigerator—the old one gobbled energy. It all adds up over time.
Their motivation led them to a heightened awareness — “Is it really necessary to have an electric doorbell?” David wonders, assessing their total carbon footprint. They might switch to “an old school doorbell” — a door knocker. This curiosity and thoughtfulness is catching. Even their 12-year-old daughter, suspicious of the number of drinking straws she might add to landfills over her lifetime, has sworn them off.
Many parts add up to the whole
David’s attic is only two to three degrees warmer than the rest of the house, even on a sweltering summer day (a typical home might see a 30-60 degree difference). This means the family can largely do without air conditioning. Some of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the solar panels on the roof. The highly reflective metal roof bounces off more. On the inside, David has followed well-established best venting practices providing ample flow of air between eave and ridge vents, something usually paid lip service, if followed at all. He has also improved on it by isolating the attic space from the rafter bays with a skin of plywood and then a 4” layer of open-cell soy-based foam.
Double pane windows, spot air sealing, a whole-house fan, an 18 SEER heat pump, and the well-integrated, high-performance solar hot water system round out improvements. David still tracks his energy usage regularly, and tinkers, and plans. His next house, he says, will have hydronic radiators.
An engineer, David is the first to say “this home is a big experiment.” He acknowledges it can be hard to choose the best green path, even for an expert, but he concludes that “at some point you just have to throw the dice and go with it.” He advises people to act on what motivates them, whether its efficiency, aesthetics, financial constraints, or behavioral changes.
He chose the route of efficiency and deep personal involvement, and did much of the work himself. Constantly improving on his efforts, he suggests you don’t have to do it all at once. His solar water system was improved five times as he surmounted inadequate information, rapidly advancing technologies, and discovering how to orient his solar panels for optimal summer and winter bias. Until he made this last change in 2007, for instance, they’d run out of hot water in October and had to warm it with electricity from the grid.
It’s still hard to make a financial case for some green upgrades like PV. But, he says, state and federal incentives and financing help, such as those he got from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has one of the most generous programs in the nation. To check what’s available in your state, go to: www.dsireusa.org, a comprehensive database of local, state, federal, and utility company incentive programs.
Every little bit helps.