More Net Zero Construction Notes

The further along we are getting in this building process the more apparent it’s getting that not many people know what the heck a Net Zero house is. In fact, we have not run across a single person that knew what it was when we tried to explain that we are building one. And this is not only true for common folk not in the home construction industry, but this also applies to all the home product sales people we encountered. From Home Depot and Lowes to flooring, lighting, plumbing, and fireplace specialists. Nobody has any idea what we are talking about when we try explain that we can’t have use propane for cooking or a fireplace and how important it will be to use healthier building materials. They just think we are tree huggers and then proceed to try to change our minds about propane fireplaces and gas ranges. This is prompting me to want to become a Net Zero evangelist. After living in one I may just feel as though I’m “Born Again” and may start preaching to everyone in sight in hopes of getting them to convert.

Sure I can’t get all that excited about it yet because at this point it does seem a little bit like the promise of Heaven. It does sound an awful lot like Heaven actually. A toasty warm house in the Winter and a nice comfortable house in the Summer  . . . all without having to pay energy bills. Fortunately, unlike actually making it to Heaven, in this case I will be able to live through it and tell my story so everyone knows if Heaven does indeed exist. Only time will tell and we are so anxious to find out.

So in my efforts to help spread the word and educate on this Net-Zero technology I want to blog a little here and there to try to explain what makes a Net Zero home special. I already tried to explain the basics of the foundation and basement being built with thick blocks of insulation. And I also mentioned that the walls would be “doubled.” You can see in this picture the outside wall (that has the window framed in it) and then an additional 2×4 wall in front of it making our exterior walls a full foot thick.

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Both of these walls will be insulated essentially doubling the amount of insulation that a normal house has. And in between the two insulated walls is what is called a “thermal break” of air. I’m not totally sure how the technology behind this works and perhaps I’ll become more knowledgeable when we get that far so stay tuned on that.

Then there’s the roof. On a conventionally built roof you would normally have insulation only in between the roof trusses. Those trusses might be 2″x10″ or 2″x12″. Our roof trusses are 16″ thick as show below.

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Not only are the trusses thicker, but we will have double the plywood under the roofing shingles. Along the same theory as the exterior double walls with a “thermal break” of air in between, the roof is very similar. We have the traditionally covered plywood roof, but then another layer of plywood gets added. The picture below shows the two layers with the gap of air between.

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I still haven’t figured out how all this “air” does so much in super insulating the house, but like I said, I’m hoping to become more knowledgeable about how this stuff works. Right now it’s all very new and very fascinating.

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Going Green

How many times have you fantasized about calling your cable company and telling them to take a hike? A few months ago I called them just to downgrade our cable and cancel our land line and it was the best feeling. Next month I can make the call that says, “I quit.” That won’t feel as good as it sounds because we’ll still be on the hook to pay some other cable company in another town. There’s just no way to shake them completely, as much as I would love to.

But now just try to imagine making that type of call to your oil company . . . imagine calling them to tell them that you will no longer be needing anymore oil delivers. Can you even imagine this???

We got our very last tank of oil delivered just last month, to the tune of 900 bucks. As much as it hurt it also gave me a little sense of relief knowing that was the last time we would be dropping nearly a grand for a tank of black muck.

So how are we going to do this? You might be thinking that we decided to heat our new home with propane, or natural gas, or even electricity and if that’s the case we will still be paying dearly for our heat, it will just be paid to a different company. But now keep that imagination going and try to imagine a home that makes most, if not all, of the energy that it needs to keep you warm and toasty in the Winter and cool and comfy in the Summer. Is that possible? We will soon find out.

I have to be honest when we first started our house building research I didn’t even really fully understand what a “Net Zero” house was. It was our boss at work that introduced us to the idea. The more we researched, the more interested we became. It all sounded too good to be true and there had to be a catch. Why wouldn’t everyone build houses like this? Why on Earth would anybody still be building conventional houses?

As far as I can tell there must only be two things keeping people from jumping on these newer building technologies: one is likely the cost because anything worth having takes an investment and building one of these homes will cost more than a traditional home so that is an obvious initial deterrent; and another possible reason that this seems to be the best kept secret is simply that it’s so new. People don’t like to do new things because the unknown can sometimes be risky.

Sometimes it amazes and scares me just how little we know about what we are about to build. We have a tremendous amount of faith in the builder (Black Brothers Builders) we choose and the fact that our boss seems to be a very big believer in these new building methods certainly gave us the confidence to take this leap of faith. We started off by randomly searching for builders in our area and Black Brothers not only was right directly in Rockland, Maine but they specialized in building Net Zero homes. What were the chances of that? It had to be fate!

So what exactly does Net Zero mean? First off, our house will be super super insulated. The basement floor will be insulated and so will the walls. In fact, the concrete walls will be sandwiched between blocks of insulation. These are the blocks that will make up our basement walls.

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The exterior walls of the house will be a foot thick and will actually be a “double wall” with special insulation and air between the two walls. All of this means that the house will be incredibly ‘tight.’ One amazing fact that the builder told us last week was that in the event that we lose power (and heat) the house would only lose 1 degree per day! So you can see how the house will be very efficient to heat. And where is that heat coming from?

Our roof will be covered with solar panels that will be generating most of the energy that we need. In some months (Summer) we will actually make more energy than we need, but that should offset duing the Winter months when we need more energy than we make. The Net Zero term means that ideally at the end of the year you break even–you sold the electric company just about the same amount of energy that you needed all year long.

It’s likely that we will not actually net zero due to the fact that we will be working from home with tons of electronics running all day long, but just the thought of not having to buy oil and having most of our electric bill covered is wildly exciting.

I plan to blog about this entire experience, from the new building products and construction techniques used to the results of living in a Net Zero house so I invite you to come along for the ride and check it out.