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Thread: The future of energy efficiency and houses

  1. #1
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    The future of energy efficiency and houses

    Over the weekend, I learned about this company out of Huston TX that is building net zero homes and actually guarantees that the house will not have a utility bill for 10 years. Houze uses a full systems based approach that is surrounded by a natural gas generator that produces electricity to the house, and the heat that is given off by the generator is used to heat the house and the hot water. Granted it still uses natural gas, but the energy return to the grid pays for the cost of the natural gas. They do a full construction up approach with metal frame, foam insulation, and other efficient building materials. The interesting part is they sell these houses for around $250,000. Right now it is only in Huston, but I think that their model could be adapted to other parts of the country.

    Alternatively, there is a house that is 110 years old in an Ann Arbor historic district that is also net zero. He was able to accomplish this by retrofitting his house with geo-thermal heat and solar panels. He rebuilt the original windows to make them fully operable, put on aftermarket storm windows, and used dense pack cellulose insulation in the walls and foam on the underside of the roof. The Net Zero House hosts events every year to help educate others. One thing that the home owner stated that I thought was profound was that "it is not only important to build new houses to be energy efficient, it is important to retrofit existing structures to be energy efficient as well." I was waiting for him to add, "in a way that is affordable for the average home owner..." but that never happened.

    I looked into geo-thermal for my house... and found that it would not be cost efficient. The ROI would take 30 years for me because it would be a retrofit. I also wonder how hard it would be to develop a hybrid system that uses a combination of methods.


    I know that I have commented on it before, but being that it is mid-winter and I have been thinking about this for a while, but at what point will people start demanding more energy efficient new homes and better ways to make the existing housing stock more energy efficient. The problem right now is limited resources and constructors that can do these modifications in a way that the average homeowner can afford. Yes when we look at it long term, it is, but the ROI should be something a bit more realistic and manageable... like under 10 years.

    What are your thoughts on the future of energy efficiency in homes. Will it be limited to new construction or will there be a cost effective way to retrofit the existing housing stock to approach net zero.
    If you want different results in your life, you need to do different things than you have done in the past. Change is that simple.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis View post
    What are your thoughts on the future of energy efficiency in homes. Will it be limited to new construction or will there be a cost effective way to retrofit the existing housing stock to approach net zero.
    I think retrofits of some energy efficiency things will continue to keep coming down in price as they become more widespread, and as technology and building methods change. But it will probably be a very very long time until retrofitting an existing home to be "net zero" becomes more economically efficient than building a new home to those standards.

    Personally, I think it would be a cool experiment to redevelop a neighborhood in one of the areas in Detroit where everything has been demolished and go for as much energy efficiency as possible. You could have some multi-family housing, single family housing, and commercial and retail all built new but maybe utilizing a shared geothermal system for heating/cooling and hot water.
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    Cyburbian MD Planner's avatar
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    There is a net-zero project in my city that is selling like hotcakes. It's in the historic district as well so there have been lots of issues over the years to work through.
    He's a planner, he's a dreamer, he's a sordid little schemer,
    Seems to think that money grows on trees . . .

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis View post
    but at what point will people start demanding more energy efficient new homes and better ways to make the existing housing stock more energy efficient. The problem right now is limited resources and constructors that can do these modifications in a way that the average homeowner can afford. Yes when we look at it long term, it is, but the ROI should be something a bit more realistic and manageable... like under 10 years.

    What are your thoughts on the future of energy efficiency in homes. Will it be limited to new construction or will there be a cost effective way to retrofit the existing housing stock to approach net zero.
    This sort of thing is a decent chunk of what I do right now.

    You must understand that "people" is not a monolithic entity and not everyone catches on at the same time. It goes like this:



    We are seeing this with solar panels right now. Insulation will follow close behind. Great Britain is trying to insulate their buildings but is making a sharknado-FUBAR out of it, because they know they need insulation. Retrofit is much harder and more expensive to do than actually doing it right the first time. When energy prices go up permanently, somehow it will happen (and with varying degrees of success, just like everything humans do).

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    We are seeing this with solar panels right now. Insulation will follow close behind. Great Britain is trying to insulate their buildings but is making a sharknado-FUBAR out of it, because they know they need insulation. Retrofit is much harder and more expensive to do than actually doing it right the first time. When energy prices go up permanently, somehow it will happen (and with varying degrees of success, just like everything humans do).
    I used people in the general context and not as a universal position. But I agree.

    With most things, a retrofit is harder than inclusion during primary construction, but I also think that there are concepts that people don't understand, partly because of opposition from some groups. Replacement windows is a great example. People are told, mainly by sales people, that they NEED to replace their windows. Instead there are ways to educate people to show them how to make their existing windows just as energy efficient as a mid-range energy star replacement window for less cost, and it is more environmentally friendly because the old windows don't end up in the landfill.

    There are two numbers that matter to home owners... up-front costs and ROI, and in most cases, the up-front cost has a lot more weight than ROI does.
    If you want different results in your life, you need to do different things than you have done in the past. Change is that simple.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis View post

    There are two numbers that matter to home owners... up-front costs and ROI, and in most cases, the up-front cost has a lot more weight than ROI does.
    Wife and I worked closely with the first veterans green jobs program, where they went in to a place and retrofitted low-income housing for energy efficiency. What was remarkable was how easy it was for the residents to convince others simply by having friends come over and hang out for a while - the comfort level inside was through the roof (so to speak). Quieter because heater not blowing all the time, not drafty, better sleep. Like Great Britain, the US can invest in energy retrofits for multiple benefits and that ROI will pay dividends many times over (like most such programs do).

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I agree with the need to provide cost-effective improvements for existing homes. This is particularly a problem for lower income residents because it is often the poorest performing buildings that have the cheapest rent or cost the least to purchase. But then those who are earning little income end up spending a large percentage of their income on energy bills because the home is expensive to operate. In the end, its all about the cash flow and this is often the obstacle for big investments like solar panels. People are throwing so much money out the window to operate the home that they cannot amass savings to invest in improvements that will save on these bills.

    There are a lot of opinions about where the best place to start on improvements is and I think this is an area that trips people up. Low hanging fruit like converting to CFLs is easy and affordable, but doesnít save you all that much on monthly bills. Most energy in a home is used to either heat or cool spaces. This includes the refrigerator. So, the best bang for the buck is going to be in this area Ė tightening up windows (and people should realize that even the best insulated replacement window is not that well insulated. There just isnít that much between you and the elements even with two panes and gas in there), improving insulation, etc.

    Next comes appliances/equipment and personally I would look either at heating/cooling (new gas furnaces, for example, can be insanely efficient) or the refrigerator. Old refrigerators can use a LOT of energy as they are running all the time. Newer ones generally use far less energy than older ones. But beware Ė Energy Star can be misleading. One of the trends we have seen with refrigerators, for example, is that a new unit may be more efficient at cooling, but in many cases manufacturers make the actual unit larger so in the end it is using the same overall energy as that smaller, older one. Plus, bigger fridges tend to waste more food as we fill it up weekly and then donít eat everything in there.

    After all this, things like gas-powered generators or solar panels make more sense. But the payback on a leaky old house with inefficient heating/cooling and appliances will likely be longer than the life of that equipment. You will never get to net zero so long as your home leaks.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    You will never get to net zero so long as your home leaks.
    True. Solar Today usually has a project highlight in each issue, and to get down that far to net zero in a retrofit you have to gut the place and put a thermal break in the studs (and minimum 6" wall cavity, usu. 8").

    Nevertheless, your rundown of places to start is a good one.

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