Here’s How to Convert Your Home to Be Zero-Energy

by | BiggerPockets.com

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?

Related: 5 Things You Need to Know About Net Zero Projects

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.

Related: Get Money for Your Green Upgrades

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.

What upgrades have you made to make your home more energy efficient? Share your tips below!

About Author

Larry Alton

Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer and researcher who contributes to online media outlets and news sources. A graduate of Des Moines University, he still lives in Iowa as a full-time freelance writer and avid news hound. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing.

4 Comments

  1. Jasen Alexander

    Nice post. I am surprised that we do not see more posts like this. I had a rental that I wanted to sell but I could not get my price. We went green and it sold in two weeks. Got the price I wanted and the cost of the green improvements.

    • Max Miller

      Jasen, What specifically did you do and what was the cost? I am reluctant to do more unless it is made easier by something else that needs to be done. Like if I had to open a wall for one reason I would then try to insulate better. I had DTE out to install free LED bulbs and switched the toilets over to low flow once the old ones started having issues.
      Thanks.

  2. Angel Gutierrez

    I’m really surprised that no one ever mentions geothermal heating/cooling. That technology has only been around for a few thousand years and was how homes(in more urban and civilized areas) were climate controlled BEFORE hvac systems were even invented.

    By the way… it’s free. You just have to dig a vertical shaft into the yard close or if possible inside the house. Look it up on YouTube…. there’s plenty of examples.

  3. Eric Cecere

    Excellent post. Great tips on money and energy savings.

    For those folks that are not buying brand new construction they can decrease energy usage by having a small device installed directly in their personal home, multifamily units or businesses which cuts energy costs up to 30%. This thing is great and we install them on our student housing units. This patented device can be installed in any building regardless of location, building age or construction type. This adds money back to our NOI.

    Check it out at http://www.greenenergypowerbox.com.

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