Are They Worth It?
Living today, in the 21st century, many of us think about the future and how we can better conserve the energy that we use, whether for financial or environmental reasons (or both). Prime examples that are buzzing around home and building design are zero-energy buildings (ZEBs), also known as net-zero energy buildings (NZEBs) or zero-energy homes. A zero-energy building or home is just as it sounds—a place that has zero net-energy consumption. Although the ZEB concept is fairly new, it is clearly defined by energy.gov as “an energy-efficient building where, on a source-energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.” In other words, the goal is to use renewable energy (from a source that is not depleted when used, such as wind or solar power) to offset energy consumption.
It sounds great, to conserve energy while also conserving funds, because the building makes renewable energy—however, if you are like most of us (who use electricity for just about everything), the idea may seem next to impossible, at first…
Most would agree that the average person uses a lot of energy, especially in how most technology relies on it. According to zeroenergyproject.org, “Buildings alone are responsible for 40% of the total energy used in the United States.” In terms of energy, most homes and buildings use electricity, heating energy, cooling energy, and fuels—that is, most standard homes and buildings require heating, cooling, ventilation, domestic hot water, lighting, and plug loads.
ZEBs are great because they not only help the environment (e.g. fossil-fuel free), but they also help homeowners and businesses save money. The electrical grid provides most ZEBs for about half or more of their energy while later returning the same amount (and sometimes more).
Of course, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up needing the A/C, heater, and the water heater. However, ZEBs often use air-source heat pumps on their water heaters (it takes hot air from the room to heat water). During the summer, it helps cool the house. In the winter, the heat pump can be turned off to run full electric—even though it’s more expensive and uses more energy (the electricity cost is offset by the savings made in the summer).
If you’re like me, you don’t look forward to utility costs such as the PG&E and water bills—which are not going down—especially after the San Bernardino fire incident and California drought. For those who don’t remember, last winter was super cold, and with the summer heat already here, I’m using my classroom’s A/C almost every day.
As such, finding ways to conserve energy in order to save money and time (spent to re-heat or re-cool an area) seems like common sense to me. Some simple ways include keeping windows and doors closed, especially when running the A/C or heater.
However, learning to master energy conservation and renewability through proper home and building design is what is key to ZEBs. Of course, ZEBs take keeping windows and doors closed to the next level by using highly insulated windows and doors in their design. Zeroenergyproject.org states, “Windows and doors are like big energy holes in a well-insulated, airtight building envelope, and are the third most cost-effective strategy for making a home energy efficient. Control window-and-door heat loss and gain by selecting appropriate window and door products, carefully locating them, and optimizing their size and orientation.”
Another critical component to ZEB design is exploiting solar energy. Zeroenergyproject.org elaborates: “Using the sun for heating through south-facing windows during the winter lowers heating costs. Shading those same windows in summer lowers cooling costs.” Solar energy is free energy that we should take better advantage of. The best part of ZEB design is that it does not require expensive solar paneling like some people may initially think, though they can be added as an additional investment.
ZEBs are also known for being extremely airtight. Walking into a well-designed ZEB, you would feel no air (unless the building’s air is on, of course). To accomplish this goal, ZEB builders and designers pay a lot of attention to a building’s envelope (an envelope refers to the physical separator between the conditioned and unconditioned environment of a building), specifically its thermal envelope. Builders often install foam in the center of the foundation, and concrete on the building’s interior and exterior. Robert (Bob) Dykins—a ZEB builder who constructed the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-certified home in Connecticut in 2007—explains: “In doing that, it’s like putting wool socks onto your house. It keeps the cold out from the ground up. There’s a lot of insulation underneath the slab [concrete] with a lot of attention to moisture migration in the foundation, which, in the long run, will keep the house healthier by not introducing unneeded moisture.”
Because designing or moving toward a ZEB has gone from a concept to a reality, it has gained national attention for sound reasons—namely in that ZEBs are wise investments that will help homeowners and businesses save money and the environment in the long run.
To learn additional information, I encourage you to go to zeroenergyproject.org, energy.gov, and www.wbdg.org.
James Quinn lives in Benicia and teaches at Elmer Cave Language Academy in Vallejo. A UC Davis alumnus in English, he now studies education as part of Touro University’s Master’s in Education program. Along with teaching, he tutors and writes often. He is working on a novel that takes place in Benicia. See his website at mrquinnj.weebly.com.