It’s easy to see the appeal of a zero-energy home. The premise is simple enough: build a house that consumes the least possible amount of energy and install renewable energy generators that can make up for the home’s remaining needs.
Owning a zero-energy home would reduce your utility costs to nothing (hypothetically), reduce your carbon footprint to near-negligible territory, and potentially increase the resale value of your home at the same time.
If it sounds futuristic and unattainable, you might be surprised to learn that more than 8,000 net-zero units were constructed in 2016—and that number is growing year over year.
But what if you’re not ready to move yet—or if you’re planning to stay in your current house indefinitely? Is it possible to convert an existing traditional home to a zero-energy one?
What You Need
Let’s start with a brief review of what you’ll need to upgrade an existing home to energy neutral:
- Insulation. One of the biggest sources of a home’s energy consumption is its heating and cooling systems, which are made far less efficient by old methods of insulation. If your windows aren’t properly sealed (or they only offer a single pane between you and the outdoors) they could be a major source of heat loss. Doors—plus cracks in the walls—may be similar sources of lost energy. And if your home doesn’t have modern insulation, you could be losing even more. Reinsulating an older home isn’t terribly expensive, but you may need to open up the walls to do it. Keep in mind that further renovation costs (such as installing new windows) can add up quickly.
- Appliance upgrades. One of the easiest ways to reduce your energy consumption is to replace your appliances and devices with newer, more energy-efficient models. You can start by upgrading all your old bulbs to the new, LED standard, and replace your furnace and AC unit to models made within the last decade or so. You can cut your energy consumption dramatically with these changes. However, depending on what you need to replace, it may be costly.
- Renewable installations. Finally, you’ll need to install some kind of renewable energy source on your property. It’s not possible to operate on zero energy, so the goal is to generate what energy you do use through renewable sources like wind and solar. Solar panels for residential properties are more affordable than ever, and if you have enough room on your property, you may even be able to install a wind turbine.
The Main Challenges for Zero-Energy Renovation
So how feasible is this, really? It’s certainly possible to renovate an older home to become zero-energy—but it may not be the most efficient route:
- Restructuring. Everything starts with an efficient design. The advantage of newly constructed zero-energy homes is that they’re specifically designed to be zero-energy. Everything from the angle of the home to the layout of the interior is considered, which means your older home will be at a natural disadvantage. For example, you might not have ductwork running to the second floor of your house, which will make your heating and cooling far less efficient than it could be with a modern design.
- Costs. Since renovations involve tearing down something old and replacing it with something new, remodeling tends to be far more expensive than a new construction. In some cases, you might end up paying more to retrofit an older home with energy-efficient materials than it would be to build an entire new one.
- Renewable limitations. You may also come to learn of practical limitations that prevent you from installing the renewable sources of energy you need to keep your home powered. For example, your neighborhood may not legally permit you to construct a wind turbine in your backyard, or you may not have enough space on your property to install enough solar panels to fully power your home.
Focus on Possibilities
If you’re not able or willing to construct a new home, and you aren’t able to rationalize the costs and inconveniences of a full-home renovation, don’t give up hope. You don’t have to make your home truly zero-energy to see the cost savings and environmental benefits of upgrades. Anything you invest in the efficiency of your home, from better appliances to a small solar panel kit, will help you offset those costs and damages. Focus on what you can afford; this isn’t an all-or-nothing pursuit.