12 Trends to Zero Energy Homes

                              12 trends leading us to zero energy homes


By Laylan Copelin - American-Statesman Staff

Is a “Zero Energy Home” in your future?

Sam Rashkin, the U.S. Department of Energy’s chief architect for building technologies, makes it sound inevitable. As prophets go, Rashkin has a track record. In his previous job at the Environmental Protection Agency, he directed the Energy Star home program from its inception in 1990s to 2011 when he left for the Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program.

Today, about 1.3 million new homes are labeled as Energy Star homes — up to 30 percent more efficient than typical construction — but Rashkin argues that 12 trends will push the adoption of “zero energy ready” homes at a faster pace than Energy Star homes achieved.

“Energy Star is really interesting,” Rashkin said at last week’s meeting of the South-central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, or SPEER. “Zero is emotional.”He likens the idea of a “zero energy ready home” to a car that gets 1,000 miles a gallon.You can’t help but brag if your $300 monthly utility bill is now $5.

“I’m telling my friends, I’m telling my family, I’m stopping people in the street,” Rashkin said.

He defines the “zero energy ready home” as “a high performance home so efficient that almost all annual energy consumption can be offset by renewable energy.” It goes from “ready” to a zero energy home when you add renewable energy.

Rashkin insists the idea isn’t far-fetched. The technologies already exist. He estimated that a homebuyer could get a zero energy home for an incremental cost of $5,500 to $8,500 over 2009 Internation Energy Conservation Code.“In other words, roughly $30 to $60 a month more on the mortgage will easily save $90 to $120 a month on utility bills.” Rashkin said.

And a few builders are already building them. Although there are only 8,000 structures in the Challenge Home program so far, Rashkin said 12 trends will drive home buyers to seek the more durable, efficient models.

• Energy prices are rising long-term. The national average for electricity bills, for example, has gone up almost 80 percent over the past decade.

• Buildings are getting more efficient. Efficiency standards are up 30 percent since 2006.

• A builder’s risk is increasing. “Even the worse house allowed by law is air tight enough and so well insulated that you’ve hit the building site’s tipping point,” Rashkin said. With today’s standards, there are more problems with moisture and indoor air pollution if a house isn’t properly constructed, including ventilation systems.

• People will pay for healthy choices. Just as consumers spend $40 billion a year on organic foods, Rashkin said they will pay for a better living environment. One factoid from the EPA: Pollutants are two to five times higher indoors, where we spend 90 percent of our time, than outdoors.

• The appliances in our homes are getting more efficient. Over the past 30 years, the energy efficiency of refrigerators increased more than 200 percent.

• Water efficiency is as important as energy efficiency. The U.S. population doubled from 1950 through 2000 but water usage tripled. Half of water usage is tied to energy production. By building homes that use less energy, water is saved.

• Disaster risk is everywhere, whether it’s tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or termites, but better construction methods can make a building more disaster-resistant and save on insurance.

• Extreme weather is driving up insurance rates. “We’re looking at 100-year storms happening every few months.” Rashkin said.

• Americans are innovation junkies “Not innovating is a risky position,” he said. “If you don’t do it, someone else will.”

• Thanks to the Internet, better informed customers know more about a builder’s business than ever before, whether it’s the number of complaints or awards.

• Prices for solar installation are falling dramatically. While Rashkin recommends making a home “solar ready,” he said adding solar should only come after building in the energy efficiency systems and construction methods that are the foundation of “zero energy ready.”

• Finally, homes are getting older. In 1985, the average age of the housing stock was 23 years. In 2011, it was 35 years. “Eighty-five percent of the competition has high utility bills, comfort issues, moisture problems, pests, indoor air quality problems, durability issues and obsolete technology throughout the house,” Rashkin said.

As for new home builders, Rashkin knows the competion is the low-cost builder with the billboard touting houses “from $100,000” without a discussion of the cost of operating that structure.

Rashin suggested this billboard retort: “My power bill is $5. What’s yours?”