By David Dodge and Scott Rollans
Have you ever dreamed of living in a net-zero home? According to Peter Darlington, that dream may be closer than you think. In fact, you might already be living in your future net-zero home.
Darlington runs Solar Homes Inc., a Calgary company specializing in renovating existing homes to net-zero–a home that produces as much energy as it consumes. Net-zero might seem like a remote, ambitious target, but Darlington insists it’s more attainable than you might think. In fact, his first green reno project was on his own 1980-s era home.
“It’s really quite simple to do,” says Darlington. “You can just add some insulation some solar panels and you can have a home that doesn’t require fossil fuels anymore. It’s much more comfortable. Cost you less to operate. And it’s really a pretty good return on investment.”
Cut your emissions, reduce energy use and save money
Darlington has worked as exterior contractor for more than twenty years. Then, he realized he could be doing so much more. “I believe that climate change will be the greatest risk or challenge that my children will face in their lifetime. And, I don’t want to look back and have my children ask me, why didn’t you do anything about it when you knew how to?”
“ I started with an online course through Heatspring offered by a gentleman named Mark Rosenbaum. It was a 40-hour online course, it talked all about energy modeling heat pumps, different mechanical systems and air tightness,” says Darlington.
Then long before Darlington started Solar Homes Inc. he did a net-zero energy retrofit on his own home as proof of concept.
Four steps to taking your home to net-zero
To get your home closer to net zero, Peter outlines four key steps. And, he stresses that you don’t need to do it all at once.
1. Get an energy model done for your home
First, get an energy model done for your home to prioritize the stages of your project. This is critical because it tells you how much insulation you need, how much of a difference windows make, what size of heating system you require and what size of solar system is needed to power your home.
2. Add insulation, air sealing, siding and efficient windows
Then you will probably start with an exterior renovation, adding insulation and triple-paned windows, and then improving your overall air tightness. This will cost about $30,000 for the insulation, improving air tightness and siding and about $15-20,000 for windows.
3. Upgrade your mechanical systems
As your furnace and water heater wear out, replace them with electric heat pump models (furnace and water heater) and add a heat recovery ventilator to provide pre-warmed fresh air in your tightly sealed home. Mechanical upgrades will run about $15,000.
4. Add a solar system
Then add a solar array that is sized big enough to provide all of your electricity needs, which now includes your heating and hot water systems. If you require a larger solar system, about 10 kilowatts, it will run about $30,000.
“All these things can be done individually, so that you don’t have to bite off this massive capital cost right up front.”
“We put 10-kilowatt solar on the garage and that generates about 90 per cent of our annual requirements.”
And there’s never been a better time to think about going net-zero: “In Alberta there’s a bunch of incentives available from province towards insulation windows solar panels and there’s almost 15 grand available to a home that’s looking to renovate to net zero,” says Darlington. Currently there are rebates for insulation, windows and solar.
Turn a home renovation project into one that pays for itself
“There are lots of people in Alberta spending 50 or more thousand dollars on cosmetic upgrades to their buildings. Why not spend a little bit more? Unlike a conventional renovation, a net-zero upgrade will save you money every year for the rest of your life.”
One of the biggest savings came when Darlington was able to say goodbye to his natural gas bill. “It may not sound like a lot, but the distribution and connection charges for the natural gas are fairly significant and add up to, you know, six, seven hundred dollars a year. So, getting rid of that really made a big difference why on the overall investment.”
Peter did all of these things to his own home and he couldn’t be happier.
“One of the surprising aspects was just how comfortable the house became after you sealed all those cold spots and all those drops. It’s a much more comfortable home to live in. Another one is that it’s much cheaper. I saved almost $4,500 bucks in the last two years just by generating my own energy and having a more efficient home.”
You could spend a lot of money on a cosmetic renovation, or combine it with energy efficiency upgrades and save money now and for the life of the home.
Energy efficiency could help even more
By also making the effort to change lights to LEDs, install a smart thermostat, use more energy efficient appliances, unplug your old beater beer fridge and eliminate phantom power you could dramatically reduce your electricity demand by 20 – 50 per cent, which would reduce the size of the solar system you require, saving you even more money.
The bill, and the payoff
According to Peter’s estimates, you could bring a typical home close to net zero with an overall investment of roughly $95,000. Current rebates on windows and solar could knock $10-15,000 off of that. And, best of all, the money you spend just might help you sleep better at night.
“Aside from the obvious return on investment, there’s not a lot of chances in life to invest money and things that not only make your home more comfortable and bring down your operating costs, but are also morally correct,” says Darlington.
Landmark Homes recently announced a new net-zero home that sells for less than $400,000 including a garage, solar and GST. But let’s face it in a world where we want to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions the big prize is in existing energy inefficient homes and buildings that will still be around 50 years from now.
Renovating old buildings has so much potential to reduce emissions the Netherlands has started an ambitious project called EnergieSprong to renovate every single building in the country to net-zero by 2050.
The cool thing is you can cut your emissions to near zero, save money and produce all of your own clean electricity for the life of your home.