Solar panels with sunflowers in Net Zero Construction in Vermont: Building Delivery Systems that work.

Whenever a new term grows to a certain level of popularity, it can become a buzzword in any given industry. When the term becomes a buzzword, its original definition can become skewed. The term “net-zero energy” is one of those terms. “Net-zero” simply means that over a period of time—at least a year—your cost of energy from the grid is zero. Doesn’t that sound great? But the term will mean different things to certain people, contractors, and those who reside in different regions.

What works for net-zero construction in Vermont, New Hampshire and, in general, “up north” requires planning and execution of specific elements; geared to achieve zero energy usage in a climate known for being ‘a little cold’ in the winter.

Here are three key questions you should consider before hiring a contractor to execute a building delivery system that will achieve net-zero energy for your home. You can use these questions as a test; if the contractor doesn’t ask them, it may be wise to walk away and shop elsewhere.

1) Who is Occupying the Home and What are Their Current Energy Needs?

This question precludes that the contractor will scale mechanicals to the size of your home, its setting, and exposure to solar. To achieve creature comfort, your builder will need to know your creature habits as well! Here are some questions to consider:

  • How many people will live in the home?
  • Do you enjoy entertaining and how often do you entertain?
  • What kind of appliances will you have and what will be their energy requirements?
  • How many T.V.s will you have and how many hours will they be on, and at what times per day?

2) Will Excess Power from Solar Panels be Going Back into the Energy Grid?

That answer is “yes” for most of our net-zero construction in Vermont and New Hampshire. The way to achieve zero energy usage is to sell excess solar power back to your utility company during sunny days.

Before you decide on a location to build, check with your electric provider to make sure they allow net metering. Net metering allows your electric meter to “run backwards,” crediting you for delivering power to the utility rather than the other way around.

Companies like Green Mountain Power in Vermont encourage customer-generated electricity. Power companies are learning to reap the benefits of locally generated electricity for at least two good reasons: 1) They don’t have to rely on expensive transmission lines to bring in power from other states or even from other countries and 2) locally generated power eliminates the line loss associated with transporting electricity over great distances.

3) Will you be Utilizing Heat Pumps for Heating and Air Conditioning?

A heat pump is an air conditioner operating in reverse. Instead of exhausting heat from inside spaces to the outside as an AC unit does, a heat pump captures outdoor air and uses it to heat your home. Rather than ask the question, “Are you going to use a heat pump?” I’d rather say, “Please use a heat pump.” For net zero construction in Vermont to work, heat pumps are the answer. A heat pump:

  • Is highly efficient. Newer units easily can extract heat from sub-freezing temperatures —down to -17 degrees— and still retain efficiency.
  • Can be scaled. In other words, you may not need “one big one.” Smaller, integrated wall units allow zone control—just use what you need.
  • With pre-charged lines, they’re easy to install.
  • Last as long as carbon-based units (oil-powered furnaces).
  • Are ultimately the best source of green heat available.

These three all-important first questions will get you on the road to one of the most remarkable innovations in living since the Stone Age: net-zero energy. A qualified zero energy builder can guide you in other questions you may have such as how you might use carbon-based supplemental heat (a wood stove) or if having a standby generator is advised for your location. From there, you simply need to choose a design and timeline to begin building your zero-energy dream home.