Solution to the household energy crunch: Try a Zero Energy Home

The reality of higher energy prices taking bigger bites out of the household budget grudgingly makes its way into our checking balance and consciousness. One of the ways to counteract is when you move into the next house. While logic dictates that one should reduce energy consumption in your present home, it may be considered more “convenient” to do this in a move, something we still do every seven to eight years.

Finding a house that will have significantly low utility costs has many obstacles. Homebuyers are overcome with visual appeal, whether of the house itself or its location. When they ask real estate agents, developers or contractors about the home’s energy efficiency, they are met with blank stares or a rote, “of course, it’s energy efficient,” similar to what a car dealer says of the 10 mile per gallon Bloatmobile on the lot.

It’s not a hopeless struggle, but will require more work than ordering a pizza and arguing about the toppings. Fighting societal inertia, hundreds of thousands of people are buying hybrid vehicles, or other really fuel-efficient vehicles, making a dent in the market place. Similarly, more people are sticking to their guns (or mortgages) and seek out homes that operate on much lower utility costs. They can have maximum insulation levels, efficient furnaces, air conditioners and appliances, and not feel like a drafty barn. A small, but growing number, are rated Energy Star, generally meaning they are at 15 percent more efficient than most building codes. There is also a movement toward a Zero Energy Home, or ZEH.

A Zero Energy Home generates about the same amount of energy that is used for basic heating, cooling, lighting and appliance functions. It can be small or large and look avant-garde or “regular.” A ZEH has the following characteristics:

Its initial design reduces energy consumption to a fraction of a business-as-usual home.

This reduction allows cost savings to go into generating systems like solar and wind power, and geothermal for heating and cooling.

Zero Energy Homes have vastly reduced utility costs, usually running hundreds of dollars a year, not per month. Depending on the homeowner, it might even be zero some months or year-round, with or without the meter charges. How is this possible? It is the combination of technology and lifestyle—both are needed to make a ZEH work. Like the hybrid car market, it’s not for everyone, but a growing number of people who are concerned with world environment and their household budget.

Like most trendy things, the majority of Zero Energy Homes are in California, but they are cropping up in nearly every state. Skeptics may question whether they really work, and more vociferously, whether they are “worth it” and “cost-effective.” Without getting into a Ph.D. dissertation, yes, they do work. As to a Zero Energy Home being “worth it” for the extra thousands or tens of thousands of cost, I put the question to you. What would you rather spend money on for a new home? Spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on granite countertops and pink marble for the master bath suite that will not reduce your utility bill? Can you be just as happy with a 2,500 square foot home instead of a 3,000 square footer, or 1,500 feet versus 2,000? Because giving up a few hundred square feet of space that would likely be a junk repository generally makes the cost difference between having a Zero Energy Home or not. If you can answer “yes” to less frippery or a smaller house, then you can delve into the minutiae of what constitutes a ZEH.

To find out more about Zero Energy Homes, start out by checking the U.S. Department of Energy site at And keep your eye peeled to this publication for more activity that may take place closer to home.

Mark Burger is president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, a chapter of the American Solar Energy Society, and principal of Kestrel Development Company, a renewable energy consulting firm and developer of zero energy building.

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