There were a lot of factors that came into play when we decided to build a net zero home. Location was one, as was affordability. I was also concerned about size– with only three of us, I didn’t want anything over a thousand square feet. We wanted access to the outside, no matter how small, and underlying all of our options was the idea of keeping the environment in mind.
As we went through the checklist, the thing that met the most of our needs was a new net zero home in the suburbs. Yes, sprawl is bad. But when you homeschool and your husband travels for work anyway, being central is quickly vetoed once you factor in the cost of being central. Having gone through the stress of renovating homes twice before and being intimately familiar with condo boards and their limitations (pet approval!) and fees, we decided to build.
What is Net Zero
A net zero home or building is one in which all of its energy needs are met by renewable energy generated onsite (Wikipedia). There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but generally you want to start with a super energy-efficient building. Our house has LED lightbulbs, energy efficient appliances, triple pane windows, and a ton of insulation. It has a ventilation system because it is so air-tight, which also improves indoor air quality. There’s a heat pump with an electric furnace and even an electric water heater. There is no natural gas in our house at all. Instead, everything is designed run off of the solar panels that cover the roof of our home and garage.
Solar panels are not only the coolest part of our net zero home they’re also the only clue that our house is maybe not as normal as it looks. They cover the roof of our house and garage and come with the added bonus that they will (allegedly) prolong the life of our shingles. They don’t need any maintenance other than a visual check that we can do from the road, and the panels themselves have a 25 year warranty, the other components have varying warranties depending on the part. Living in Edmonton we get our fair share of snow, but a study by NAIT has shown that the loses due to snow cover are minimal and therefore the best thing to do is to just let the snow melt on its own (NAIT).
Our heating and cooling system is a heat pump and backup electric furnace. They are incredibly energy efficient which is important because while renewable energy is so important, the biggest aid to the energy crisis will be using less of it. If you’ve ever been in an older home you might be struck by how frustratingly sparse and ill-situated electrical sockets are in comparison to newer homes. This is because so much of our lives depend on electronics– I think I charged my phone two or three times today alone! (Yes, I have a problem but also– my phone is old. Leave me be.) The less energy we use, the better, which is why it’s a much better investment to insulate, caulk, and update windows in an older home than slapping solar panels on the roof and calling it a done job.
We also chose a number of environmentally conscious upgrades in our home. Cork flooring is not only warm underfoot and gentle on bad knees, it’s also extremely sustainable (HGTV). I am clumsier than a heroine in a chick flick and I have yet to break a glass by dropping it on the floor. (I have however, broke one or two by dropping them in the sink which should tell you everything you need to know about how amazing cork flooring is and simultaneously how terrible I am around breakables.) We elected for maple countertops in the kitchen which was a request our homebuilder had never received before. And if you haven’t read my testament to the life-changing magic of a bidet attachment, go forth my child, go read it now.
Perhaps my favourite feature of our house is the energy monitoring app. It tells us how much energy we are producing or pulling off the grid (more on that in a moment) at that very point in time, and how much we’ve used throughout the day. I can see when I ran the dryer, when I charged our car, when I turned on the oven, even how many times the heat kicked on throughout the night causing me to feel guilty and lower the thermostat another degree… then freeze in three sweaters and turn it back up. I honestly think an app like this becoming available to all homeowners and apartment dwellers alike would go far to bringing awareness to our energy usage and help us change our habits. The institution of marriage might crumble though. Or… it might save it?
Yes, to answer the thought you’ve been holding since the last paragraph, we are connected to the energy grid. This is because our solar panels do absolutely nothing at nighttime. Sure, we could get a battery, which might be good to have as a back up, but because we live in Edmonton where our energy needs are so different in the summer versus the winter it makes the most sense to be connected to the grid. This way, when we’re overproducing (which is still happening in October because I am ridiculous about not using electricity) the energy we aren’t using is sent to the grid, adding renewable energy for everyone. At night or on severely cloudy days or in winter when our panels just aren’t cutting it because we’re charging our car or I’m baking and drying all of our clothes on high all willy nilly like that, we can pull off of the grid rather than being stuck without electricity. Over the course of the year, the overproduction will balance out the underproduction and we’ll end up net zero. This also has the benefit of being a lot less scary to convince someone to go solar because there’s a backup plan in place.
Why Net Zero?
The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change made news when they announced that we as humans need to go completely net zero with our emissions by 2050 in order to limit warming to 1.5C (IPCC). We need real action by governments in order to achieve this, which is why the most important thing we can do is reach out to our leaders and vote. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our part as well. By choosing to build a net zero home over a traditional home (or even better, by retrofitting your existing home if you can afford) you’re taking your own steps towards helping us all meet this important milestone.
But Tiffany, you might say, that’s all fine and dandy but I simply don’t have the money to put where my ideals are. I get it. Building a new home is never the most environmentally friendly option, ever. So I get that affordability comes into play. But if you have the money and are just debating on whether or not you should save a buck (which again, I get), hear me out.
One of the first things that struck me about the net zero home we visited before building was how cozy it was, even in the dead of Edmonton winter. I checked the thermostat a number of times to see if they had the heat kicked way up (they didn’t), and compared to my older home which I had always thought was particularly cozy, it blew it out of the water. Because it’s so air tight, because of the way the heating system works, there aren’t cold spots. It’s just straight up cozy. And who doesn’t want to be cozy?
Not only is warmth a factor, but throughout the summer we were kept comfortably cool. And a bonus to the insulation is how quiet our home is. I mean, there’s a construction crew digging a basement next door today and it took me longer than I care to admit that they were beside us and not down the street. Also, as someone who is constantly needing to open the windows, our ventilation system keeps our house from ever feeling or smelling kept up. I still open them up once in a while, especially after a good rain, but it isn’t another chore on my list.
Yes, a net zero home is an investment but it’s an investment in a carbon-neutral future. The more people buy into these technologies, the more affordable they become and the more comfortable people become with buying into them. Think about it– what’s the first thing you do when a friend gets something new? You ask them about it and chances are, you earmark it as a future purchase for yourself. A carbon neutral future isn’t just a goal, it’s a requirement, so the sooner that people see that this is a real possibility, the sooner they will demand governments to act accordingly. And we need that to happen now.
In 2018, California passed a mandate that all new homes must have solar panels. VOX did a great piece on the pros and cons of this mandate, which you can read here. Living in Alberta, a gas and coal, meat and potatoes province and not well, California, I can’t help but think solar here has such a positive impact on promoting positive attitudes towards climate action. My neighbour confessed to me that he wishes they would have gone ahead and done net zero as well, and I get it. It felt like we were taking a risk at the time. But now that we’re living it I would do it ten times over. Of course in a perfect world we’d all be living in sky rises, but the world is far from perfect. This was what checked the boxes for us.
Will net zero homes become the norm? If urban sprawl continues, I certainly hope so! But I also hope it becomes just one part of a comprehensive plan against climate change. Our neighbourhood has a mix of housing densities, walking trails and green space, and when it’s completed it will also have commercial properties and services within walking distance; all tenets of good urban planning.
But if you’re building a new home and you’re still not convinced, let me ask you a question: how long do you expect your home to last? Chances are, you see it as an investment, something that, even if you don’t plan on living there that long, will last sixty years or hopefully more. So why then would you build your home with yesterday’s technology? Just a thought.