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What Does it Mean to Have a Net Zero Home?

Anonymous | Updated 06/24/2021 12:00pm


You may have heard the term “net-zero home” in conversations about sustainability, but what does it actually mean for you as a homeowner? Put simply, a net-zero home produces as much energy as it consumes, by combining energy-efficient building design with a renewable energy source, such as solar panels that harness the power of the sun.

If you’re looking to boost your home’s energy efficiency, but you’re not in a position to go full net-zero right now, don’t despair. There are still plenty of things you can do to reduce your home’s energy footprint and, as a result, bring down your utility bills and create a healthier indoor environment. We spoke with Mike Topitzhofer, a residential building science expert and the national business development manager at Trane, to learn how to go about it.

Benefits of a Net-Zero Home

Keeping the lights on, running appliances 24/7 and blasting the air conditioner add up to more than just hefty power bills. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, buildings account for nearly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. Going net-zero helps reduce harmful emissions by generating energy through clean methods like solar panels and solar water heating, and incorporating energy-saving design principles such as airtight insulation, energy-recovery ventilation, energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting in the design of your home.

Getting your home to net-zero status can be a significant investment, but it’s one that will pay off in the long run. For starters, indoor temperatures are maintained with lower energy usage, which means lower utility bills. In addition, “there’s a really good case to be made that net-zero homes are also healthier homes,” Topitzhofer says. “They’re energy-efficient and they likely follow strict standards. They’re often airtight and do a good job of eliminating uncontrolled airflow. Net-zero homes generally have very efficient ventilation and filtration systems, which can improve indoor air quality and occupant health.”

Get to Know Your Home Energy Footprint

Not all of us have the means to achieve a net-zero home, but there are plenty of ways we can reduce our home energy footprints. As a starting point, it’s helpful to know which appliances and systems of your home are the biggest energy guzzlers — and prioritize investing in energy-efficiency versions accordingly.

“In single-family homes, heating and cooling systems are generally the biggest energy consumers, accounting for around 55% of household energy usage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration,” Topitzhofer says. Other home appliances, such as water heaters, laundry machines, stoves, refrigerators and televisions, as well as lights, account for the remaining 45%. So if you’d like to get a step closer to net-zero, it makes sense to invest in energy-efficient heating and cooling systems to significantly reduce consumption.

Choose Energy-Efficient Heating and Cooling Systems

While replacing your entire HVAC system might seem like a major undertaking, it can be a worthwhile investment that can significantly reduce your home’s energy consumption. “You typically get 15 to 20 years of performance from a furnace. If you have an older furnace, it makes sense to upgrade, as today’s heating and cooling systems are a whole lot more efficient,” Topitzhofer says.

You can compare the efficiency of furnaces by checking the AFUE rating; the closer to 100%, the more efficient. With air conditioning units and heat pumps, look for the SEER rating; a score of 16 SEER or higher is considered efficient.

You should also pay attention to heating and cooling systems’ output capacity. “Basic systems have one speed — on or off — while more advanced technology is either two-stage — low or high modes — or variable-capacity. Two stage and variable-speed systems are the most energy-efficient,” Topitzhofer says.

Trane offers highly efficient variable-speed air conditioning systems with SEER ratings as high as 22. When paired with Trane’s communicating thermostat, the air conditioning system automatically adjusts in tiny incremental changes to avoid indoor temperature swings.

You can boost the efficiency of your cooling or heating system further with a variable-speed air handler, which circulates clean, filtered air to every corner of your home. Trane’s variable-speed air-handler is an energy-efficient system designed with refrigerator-style insulation that prevents sweating, condensation and bacteria growth.

Assess Your Building Envelope

Even if you have a top-of-the-line, highly efficient air conditioning system, if all that cool air is escaping through gaps beneath doors or through thin windows, you won’t have an energy-efficient home — or reasonable utility bills. That’s where the building envelope comes in. This term describes all the physical barriers that separate the interior environment of a home from the outside.

Topitzhofer says that assessing and, if necessary, improving your building envelope is a key step toward creating a more energy-efficient home. “Run times for your furnace and air conditioner are directly related to insulation of your home. If you have a leaky building envelope, your systems won’t run efficiently,” he says. “If your house does a good job at keeping outdoor conditions outside and indoor conditions at a comfortable temperature, you don’t need to spend as much energy on heating and cooling.”

Home energy assessments are often conducted by local building science professionals, whom you can find through your utility company. “Have that person poke around and check for things like leaky ductwork and for any gaps in the attic ceiling insulation. They’ll then propose what building envelope improvements can be done,” Topitzhofer says.

Reduce Home Energy Use

If you’re building or renovating, it’s a great time to implement smart design strategies to improve your building envelope and get your home one step closer to net-zero status. Windows are a good place to start and a common weak point in building envelopes of older homes. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Saver resource, heat gain and loss through windows is responsible for 25% to 30% of residential heating and cooling energy use. You can reduce this by upgrading to double- or triple-glazed windows to suit your climate or by opting for energy-efficient low-E glass.

Make sure your floors, walls and ceilings are well insulated to stop unwanted heat gain or loss, and install energy-efficient LED lighting throughout your home. In warm climates, shade windows with awnings or strategically placed trees to minimize unwanted heat gain and use energy-saving ceiling fans or an air conditioner set on the lowest setting to keep your home cool on moderate days.

Another easy way to boost your home’s environmental credibility is to switch to “green power.” “Your local energy company may offer an opt-in program for renewable energy sources,” Topitzhofer says.

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Susan Thomas

Beach City Brokers

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