Volume 14, Issue 5 - June 2013

EYE on Energy

Renewed Interest
Net-Zero Homes Gain Energy

by Eric Jackson

Before the housing crisis, the building and construction industry was abuzz about net-zero homes and buildings. Many countries, states and local authorities pledged to achieve widespread net-zero status in aggressive timelines—some as soon as 2015.

Strides have been made in net-zero efforts, but perhaps not as great as expected. When fewer were buying, fewer were building, and even fewer still were willing to invest in the technologies and upgrades necessary to build a net-zero home.

That’s not to say the net-zero concept disappeared and was forgotten. It was merely overshadowed by larger concerns in the building and construction industry. But today that is changing.

As the new construction market continues to improve (in some areas more than others) and the dust is settling, we are seeing more builders recommitting themselves to these ecologically balanced structures.

Basic Training
A web search will yield endless results defining net-zero. But in the most basic sense it is a residential or commercial building that produces as much (or more) energy as it consumes in a year. This can be accomplished through a combination of energy-producing features (solar power, wind power) and efficiency solutions, such as double-studded walls, triple-pane windows, natural summer ventilation, super-efficient heating/cooling systems, as well as appliances.
Advancements in these technologies have made net-zero homes more feasible in terms of both cost and the ability to actually achieve net-zero results. Some state and local authorities are even offering incentives to builders and homeowners investing in net-zero homes.

New Developments
As net-zero gains energy, some window manufacturers who have invested in technologies that achieve the highest levels of energy efficiency are cashing in. One example is MI Windows and Doors (MIWD) which, with their MI EnergyCore® product, has landed more than one net zero job in the past year.

MIWD is working on a home in Tucson which will be the first net-zero energy house using the City/County Net-Zero Energy Building Standard. With an expected HERS rating of -17, the home is expected to produce all its own energy and will be able to sell excess energy produced back to the local utility.

Tucson is considered one of the pioneer communities in the development of building code standards for net-zero homes. Aside from forward-thinking localities, very few codes exist. But, that could be about to change.

The Next Frontier?
As net-zero homes are garnering more mainstream interest, we are seeing more investments being made in research as well. Notably, in September 2012, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled a new laboratory that looks and behaves like an actual house, but was built to U.S. Green Building Council LEED® Platinum standards. The two-story, four-bedroom, three-bath facility incorporates energy-efficient construction and appliances, as well as energy-generating technologies, such as solar water heating and solar photovoltaic systems.

For one year, NIST researchers will use computer controls to simulate the activities of a family of four living in the home with lights turning off and on at specified times and hot water and appliances will run. Like Vision House, the lab will give and take from the energy grid with the goal of achieving net-zero energy used over the course of the year.

At the end of the year, the facility will be used to improve test methods for energy-efficient technologies and develop cost-effective design standards for energy-efficient homes.

Initiatives such as this lead us to believe that standardization is on its way. And we should be prepared.

Eric Jackson serves as director, external affairs, for Quanex Building Products.

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