Your Guide to Energy Savings With a Net Zero Home

Your Guide to Energy Savings With a Net Zero Home

Monthly energy savings with a net zero home aren’t the only return on investment. Under CleanBC’s Better Homes and Home Renovation Rebate Program, the province is offering at least 17 clean energy incentive programs. Through these programs, BC Hydro, FortisBC and the Province of British Columbia are offering more than 100 individual energy efficiency, renewable energy, clean transportation, and low-income incentives and rebates.

“Doing our part” has been evolving to mean we must achieve net zero emissions – AKA carbon neutrality – ensuring the greenhouse effect does not spin further out of balance. A finished net zero home does not negatively affect the environment by adding to the greenhouse gas problem.

Viewing your net zero upgrade as an investment

A carbon-positive home would produce more renewable energy than the home uses, exporting the excess to the grid. Going beyond net zero could represent a small annual income, but there’s also another way of looking at it. If the energy surplus is ongoing, carbon-positive homeowners could offset the “carbon debt” incurred by producing the building materials used in the home and its construction over time. And that’s got to feel good.

Net zero homes produce as much energy as they consume and are up to 80% more energy efficient than a home built to conventional code. Over the course of a year, the energy bill should work out to roughly $0.00. Many Canadians are already reducing their carbon footprint by converting their houses to net zero homes, participating in creating a cleaner and healthier environment and enjoying the energy savings with a net zero home.

However, an increasing number of Canadians are beginning to see upgrading to Net Zero as more like an RRSP, a retirement savings plan that will continue to pay them every month through their utility bill while providing power security during their retirement years.

The third way a net zero upgrade investment can pay dividends is through the increase in property value. As more net zero homes and passive houses are built, the real estate industry is arriving at better methods for determining the market value of high-performance homes.

The BC Energy Step Code is targeting the year 2032 as the year new homes must be net-zero energy ready (NZER). Net zero homes will become the standard over the next ten years, and older homes that fall short will represent either an expensive upcoming remodel, or a tear-down. For couples planning to downsize when they retire, a quality net zero home will be exactly what the market will be looking for, and it should fetch top dollar.

The most common image of net zero people hold is a home with arrays of solar panels mounted on the roof. While it is possible to make almost any home net zero, simply by bolting enough solar panels to the roof to match consumption, a true net zero home is also very energy efficient.

Upgrading your home to Net Zero

Retrofit projects usually begin with a home energy audit. The energy performance of your home is evaluated and broken down in a detailed report. Home audits not only pinpoint problems but can also help uncover opportunities and solutions for achieving net zero. Common shortcomings will be a building envelope that needs sealing, thermal bridging, the insulation, windows, HVAC system, and perhaps a switch to Energy Star certified appliances and LED lighting.

As your team begins to address the energy performance deficiencies, it’s time to look towards a renewable, clean energy source. Your home must produce as much clean energy as it consumes. There are three options: solar panels, wind turbines or water turbines. Solar is almost always the most practical renewable energy source, but there are exceptions. For example, a home in a heavily wooded area may be a poor candidate for solar energy generation, but if there’s a creek running through the property, it may be possible to generate enough renewable energy from the running water.

Wind turbines must be installed in places with few surrounding obstructions, with reliable and significant wind speeds. For water turbines, you need to have water flowing through your property, and there may be permits required to harness its energy. Water licences and approvals in British Columbia allow property owners to divert, use or store surface water or groundwater, or to make changes in and around a stream that runs through their property. Both wind and water turbines have many moving parts, which may involve routine maintenance.

Solar energy systems make more sense for most residential homeowners. They are versatile, virtually maintenance-free, and can provide you with enough power to achieve net zero. Your net zero consultant and retrofit designer/contractor will determine the optimal placement for your solar panels.

Where will your solar system be mounted?

The location and orientation of your house will be the primary consideration. A roof-mounted solar system utilizes unused space on your roof, so it’s the popular choice. If you are on a heavily treed lot, a study may be made of the sunlight readings and patterns throughout the day. If the roof surfaces of your home do not receive enough sunshine, the roofs of a garage, shop another building may work better.

If your roof’s condition and structure won’t support a solar system, repairs may be included as part of your net zero retrofit. When designing your solar power system, accessibility is another consideration. Solar systems require little or no maintenance, but it’s important to consider how a technician would gain access to the system to make repairs, clean off leaves or debris from trees, or perhaps trim away some branches that have become a problem. When it comes to accessibility, ground-mounted systems have the advantage.

Ground-mounted solar systems are an option if roof mounting is not ideal. You will need enough extra space on your property to allow for a ground-mounted system. There are more parts required for the racking on a ground install, with concrete footings to pour, so the upfront costs will be higher. Obtaining municipal permits for mounting a solar system on the ground can also be more involved and expensive.

Will your renewable energy source be tied into the grid or have a battery backup?

Once the placement of the solar system has been established it’s time to decide on the type of system your home will have.

An off-grid solar system makes you self-reliant because you’re not connected to the power grid. During the daytime, solar panels supply your net zero home with power. The excess energy is stored in a battery bank rather than being sent onto the power grid. During the nights, or in storm conditions, your system will switch over to battery power, providing power security.

Most homes in cities and towns will be connected to the grid, but if your home is on the outskirts, or in a rural area, going off-grid may be an option.

The greatest advantage is that there will be no bill from the utility company. The disadvantage is you won’t be able to sell excess energy back to the power company.

A grid-tie solar system works in conjunction with your utility provider’s power grid. Your solar system will provide power for your net-zero home during the daytime. At night or during stormy weather, your home will draw the power it needs from the grid. Any unused energy will be put into the grid for credit.

This is the most affordable system to install. You can sell excess power back to the utility company, so going beyond net zero could result in a small profit for at least part of the year. Because you’re dependent on the grid, if the power grid failed, you would be without electricity.

The third option is a grid-tie system with battery backup. You enjoy the benefits of both the off-grid and grid-tie systems. Your solar panels produce power for your net zero home during the day, and any surplus energy is stored in the backup battery.

This system allows you to sell any excess energy back to the utility company because you’re still connected to the grid. Because you have a backup battery, you enjoy the security that a backup offers in the event of a power grid failure.

The takeaway

Most Canadians who hear the term “net zero” think of solar panels, a reduction in their monthly hydro bill and being energy conscious. They may be skeptical about recovering their investment any time soon.

The BC Energy Step Code and incentives provided by BC Hydro, FortisBC and the Province of BC are pushing for net zero within the next ten years. With the high rate of inflation, the cost of upgrading in the latter portion of the decade will be significantly higher than it is today. Jumping on the retrofit sooner, rather than later, not only will save money on the remodelling costs but start the monthly return on investment a lot sooner.

There are other returns on the net zero retrofit investment in addition to the monthly energy savings. Net zero homes increase in resale value, and they become more durable against the elements, so there’s less maintenance. If the home is designed to exceed net zero, surplus energy can also be sold to the utility company, providing a small stream of revenue.

Many Canadians are beginning to view the monthly energy savings and potential sale of surplus energy as similar to an RRSP annuity. Investing in a net zero retrofit is a way of saving for retirement. If they plan to downsize when they reach retirement, the increase in property value achieved through the net zero upgrade should deliver a solid return on their investment when they need it.

Reid Madiuk

Reid Madiuk's been putting on a toolbelt since he was twelve years old, alongside his father, one of Whistler's first residential builders. As a third-generation Whistler and Squamish builder, Reid brings over 20 years of carpentry expertise to designing and constructing exceptional homes.

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