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Some researchers and architects are beating skyrocketing energy prices by building Zero Energy Homes. More....

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Doug and I have already figured out what to spend our $1200 Economic Stimulus tax rebate on – a single tank of heating oil.  Unfortunately, at $4.59/gallon, $1200 will not quite fill the 275 gallon tank at This Old House. 

Oil tank.
At today's prices, it could cost more than $1200 to fill a 275 gallon tank of heating oil. Some researchers and architects are beating the skyrocketing costs of energy by building homes that produce as much or more energy than they use.

Skyrocketing oil, electric and propane prices have spurred interest and research in the area of energy conservation.  One of the newest concepts is a Zero Energy Home. These uber-green buildings actually produce as much or more energy than they consume each year.  A net-meter allows surplus power to flow back into the energy grid.  The homeowner then sells the extra kilowatts they generate to the utility.

There is no magic involved.  Every aspect of the house’s design, construction and equipment is married with energy efficient, commercially-available technology.  This includes the building itself; heating, cooling and ventilation systems; hot water; appliances and lighting.  The result is a house that uses up to 54% less energy than a conventional house.

These houses employ passive heating and cooling principles.  Overhanging eaves and awnings deflect the hot summer sun while welcoming lower-angle winter sun.  Most windows face south.  Windows are also recessed, and placed to enhance cross ventilation.  High performance, glazed, double-paned glass filled with argon gas is used.

But that’s not all.  A photovoltaic system harvests energy from the sun.  The solar panels are mounted on a vented roof made of reflective metal.  Solar systems can be integrated with tankless water heaters and closed-loop water systems.  Ductwork is sealed with mastic.  Modified geothermal heat pumps; programmable thermostats; airtight, super-insulated walls; and advanced sensors and controls reduce energy use even further.

Since these houses are “tighter,” indoor environmental air quality is an important consideration.  To manage moisture and mold, advanced ventilation systems are integrated with heating and cooling systems and no-combustion or sealed combustion mechanical systems. Moisture barriers are installed in crawl spaces and basements, and CO2 is monitored. 

All appliances are Energy Star®.  Lighting is 90% fluorescent.  Water is conserved with low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets; irrigation controllers; cisterns that collect rainwater, and by recirculating cooled water back to the water heater.

For a project like this, it is essential to use experienced contractors who know how to install the advanced, state-of-the-art equipment.  It is also necessary to inspect and test all equipment for proper operation after installation.

These houses are comfortable because temperatures fluctuate less.  Less energy use means less pollution.  It also means big savings.  Per household miscellaneous energy costs associated with plasma TVs, DVRs, computers, faxes and printers, etc., are going up 3.5% per year.  Every time the cost of utilities rises, so will the savings from a Zero Energy Home. 

Zero Energy Homes are already being built for as little as $100,000 and as much as $1,000,000.  If demand increases and these houses go into mass production, construction costs will drop, making an eco-friendly home a feasible alternative to conventional construction.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on May 22, 2008

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