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The Ultimate List of Net Zero FAQs for BC Homeowners

We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of net zero FAQs, and included a few questions that are more difficult to find answers to. The questions and answers are loosely grouped by topic.

If you have a net zero question not listed here, please leave your question for us in the comments below.

In the simplest terms, what are the core components of any Net Zero home?

To build a successful net zero home, it needs to:
1) conserve energy, through an air-tight super-insulated building envelope,
2) utilize passive solar energy, through high-performance windows and overhangs that keep direct sunlight out, and
3) produce energy, typically with solar photovoltaic panels.

What is a Net Zero home?

Net Zero is a residential property designation earned when the home generates enough renewable energy to match its consumption needs. High-efficiency appliances and HVAC systems are powered by renewable energy sources like solar panels or small wind or water turbines and a grid-connected system. The home powers itself during those periods when the sun is shining, water is running or the wind is blowing, and any excess electricity produced is fed into the grid. When renewable resources are unavailable, your home draws energy from the grid. (In off-grid projects, energy is stored on-site in an array of batteries.)

Electric utility companies in participating areas allow net metering, so excess energy generated by grid-connected renewable energy systems “turns back” the electricity meter as power is fed back into the grid.

In addition to using renewable energy resources, net zero homes conserve energy through engineering, strategic construction practices and high-performance materials. Insulation, air-tightness, triple-glazed windows, harnessing natural light and solar heat, and high-efficiency HVAC systems and appliances are ways to minimize the electricity the home consumes.

Every component of a net zero home – the building envelope, mechanical systems, and renewable energy systems – is engineered to work in perfect harmony to create the ultimate energy-efficient home. A net zero building adds no incremental greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

How much does it cost to build a Net Zero home?

Contrary to the popular belief, it does not cost $100,000 – $250,000 extra to build a typical energy-efficient net zero house in Canada. They aren’t luxuries for the rich who can afford to think green. The cost of choosing net zero adds 8-12% to the construction costs of a comparable “traditional” home. Government grants and other incentives can offset a portion of that right away, and the initial investment pays off in lower utility bills, greater comfort, healthier living, a higher quality lifestyle overall and less maintenance.

Sagen and the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corporation (CMHC) offer a 25% mortgage insurance premium refund on Net Zero and Net Zero Ready Homes. Net Zero Homes are also up to 80% more energy efficient than traditional homes built to code.

How much are we likely to save by going net zero?

Net zero homes are designed to be as efficient as possible, and when comparing one to a typical traditional home, the energy costs average about 10% of what the other homeowners are paying. But there are a lot of variables to factor in when comparing the cost of a net zero home to a traditional home. It depends on what energy considerations the traditional home has, and factors like the geo-location of the net zero home, the property size, orientation and shade, and the type of appliances that will be installed.

If the conventional home has double or triple-glazed windows, and it faces south, the owner could already be realizing some of the benefits net zero homeowners enjoy. The same goes for high-efficiency appliances and the high-efficiency furnace or heat pump.

If we build a Net Zero home, will we have to be concerned about our power consumption?

No, your home will probably still be connected to the municipal power grid. If your consumption exceeds the power your house creates, it will draw from BC Hydro. Other times of the year, you’ll produce more power than you use, and you’ll feed energy into the grid. Think of the power company as a storage facility for your excess energy.

Will my rooftop solar panels require a lot of maintenance?

Along BC’s West Coast, we don’t usually get a lot of snow. The roof-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) system (solar panels) will be faced and sloped to minimize the accumulation of snow, but if there is sufficient obstruction that power is no longer being generated, your home’s control panel will notify you that they need attention. Net zero homes are designed with orientation and shade analysis considered, so there isn’t likely to be any snow removal required.

Dust and pollen can reduce power output by up to 10%, but a good rainfall should remove any buildup. The industry standard for a solar panel’s productive lifetime is 25-30 years, and they are usually trouble-free.

Will we have to make big lifestyle changes with a Net Zero home?

No lifestyle changes will be required because your home will still be tied to the electrical grid. You will always have power, no matter how much electricity your home is generating. That being said, there are ways to reduce your energy consumption, and those are a good idea whether you own a net zero or “traditional” home.

  • Use energy-efficient LED task lighting instead of lighting up entire rooms with overhead light fixtures, whenever possible.
  • Set your thermostat a few degrees cooler than normal during the hours you’re sleeping, or when no one is home. During the summer months, allow the temperatures to rise a few degrees above normal, to reduce the demand for air conditioning.
  • Unplug electronic devices when they’re not in use. Remote switching can be set up on timers or you can use inexpensive handheld remotes to cut the power to stereos, televisions and computers. Limiting “phantom draw” from electronics around the home can reduce power consumption noticeably.
  • Minimize your use of high-energy appliances such as irons, hair dryers, curling and straightening irons, toasters, waffle irons, space heaters, etc.
  • Turn off the lights when you’re not in the room.
  • Use LED bulbs instead of traditional lighting for interior and exterior fixtures.
  • Make use of natural lighting and passive solar heat. Windows facing the south allow the sun’s rays to shine through, where they are collected, absorbed and then transferred to the thermal mass.
  • Set timers on bathroom ceiling fans, so they don’t run for hours at a time.
  • Use a drying rack instead of the electric dryer most of the time.

Can we retrofit our home to meet Net Zero standards?

Yes, net zero balances the power your home needs with the renewable energy you can generate to meet that need. With new insulation and heating technology, and lower-cost renewable energy systems, any home can get to net zero. Whether a particular home is a good candidate for a retrofit will depend on several variables, such as the age, condition and value of the house, the neighbourhood and balancing costs against the potential resale value.

Knowing your project’s worth before spending your time and energy, with accurate cost estimates, is the place to start. If you choose to pursue net zero, or even “near net zero”, your home’s energy performance will improve dramatically even if the journey is broken down into several projects over a few years. These are the incremental steps typically taken to achieve net zero, although not always in this order:

  • Efficient water management with low flow water fixtures, stacked plumbing, on-demand hot water recirculation and drain water heat recovery.
  • Switching to Smart panels and devices that reduce energy waste by limiting energy usage.
  • Switching to Energy Star appliances throughout the home.
  • Renewable energy generation with roof-mounted PV (solar) panels that can supply electricity at 60 to 70% of the cost of electricity you buy from the grid.
  • Super-seal your building envelope to make it airtight.
  • Install continuous insulation so you require a smaller HVAC system that will save you money on both heating and cooling year-round.
  • Air-to-air, air-to-water, or GSHP heat pump installed to provide efficient electric heating and cooling.
  • Heat pump water heater installed to deliver efficient electric water heating.
  • High-performance windows and doors replace the old drafty units, to reduce heat loss, eliminate condensation, and provide day lighting.
  • Mechanical fresh air system heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or energy recovery ventilator (ERV) is installed to expel stale air and bring in fresh filtered air to every room automatically, retaining about 70% to 90% of the heat from the discharged air.
  • Low energy LED or Smart bulbs replace old incandescent, halogen or fluorescent lighting throughout.
  • Home energy monitoring to optimize energy use throughout your home.
  • Under-slab insulation in colder climates, involving the addition of between 8 and 10 inches of extruded polystyrene or high-density expanded polystyrene insulation.
  • Level 2 charging port(s) for electrical vehicle battery systems.

Note: The  Greener Homes Grant from the Canadian federal government can be stacked on top of your local municipal incentives to make a net zero retrofit more affordable.

What is the BC Energy Step Code, and will Net Zero soon be required?

The BC Energy Step Code puts BC on a path to meet the target of having all new buildings “net zero energy ready” by 2032. Deep energy retrofits like EnerPHit Passive House and Step 5 Net Zero Ready renovation programs through CHBA are becoming more popular, as new builds will be required to meet this target by 2032. Metro Vancouver municipalities have moved to Step 3 on the BC Energy Step Code staircase – a 20% improvement over Step 2 – but at this time the target remains 2032.

The BC Energy Step Code applies to Part 9 and Part 3 residential buildings in BC, including the Sea to Sky Corridor of British Columbia. Part 9 Residential Buildings are classified as buildings with three storeys and under with a 600 square meter footprint or less.

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