Zero Energy Homes, Made Affordable

How’s this for a challenge? Create a zero net source energy (as opposed to site energy) home as defined by the Department of Energy’s Building America program. Design it to operate in the extremes of Denver’s unpredictable climate, using off-the-shelf, readily available technologies. Keep the mechanical systems as simple and uncomplicated as possible. Incorporate energy-efficiency strategies that don’t require the home owners to be experts in sustainable building operations or conduct any maintenance beyond that required of a ‘normal’ home.

Not overly difficult, you might say? Add that the design must be replicable for future Habitat for Humanity homes, utilize low-cost construction materials, and allow volunteer- friendly construction techniques. Still with me? The clincher: The target market is the affordable housing sector. Impossible, you might say? Challenging yes, but not impossible for an integrated design team of NREL engineers and Habitat for Humanity staff and volunteers. The finished product is a 1,200 square foot, three-bedroom reduced income home that actually produces more source energy than it consumes!

Design Considerations

The combination of energy engineers, a construction manager a real estate development manager and Habitat volunteers on the design helped strike a balance between engineering ideals based on energy modeling, cost realities inherent in affordable housing, and considerations involved in a volunteer construction crew.

Habitat’s volunteer labor advantage steered the design team to approaches that favored low materials costs and high labor costs. While this approach minimizes the substantial labor cost, when combined with the affordable housing requirement it restricts the range of sustainable strategies available. For example, strategies such as structured insulated panels (SIPs) and insulated concrete forms were not considered because of their high cost. Similarly, the requirement for volunteer-friendly construction techniques and ease of replication eliminated the option of using Straw Bale. The design simplicity requirement eliminated the possibility of a combined solar space heating and water heating system. Finally, the zero energy requirement, given Denver’s cold climate and the current high cost of PV systems, required some trade offs that some ‘purists’ might consider controversial.

Design Approach – Envelope

Given the considerations described above, the design team decided to focus first on reducing the home’s energy load as much as possible, and then size the PV system to meet the remaining electricity needs. The first place to look? Yes, you guessed it – a passive solar orientation with a ‘super insulated’ envelope. Starting with a standard Habitat three-bedroom, 26 x 46 square foot design with a crawlspace, the team increased the South-facing glazing area and reduced the North, East and West facing glazing area. Next, a double-stud wall with fiberglass batt construction was selected to take advantage of it’s relatively low cost, volunteer-friendly technique and Habitat’s low construction labor cost. Blown fiberglass installed in the attic achieved an R-60 rating and insulated floors achieved an R-30 rating. While the double stud wall design, with exterior structural studs spaced at 16 inches O.C. might not achieve LEED Homes Advanced Framing Techniques points, the interior studs spaced at 24 inches O.C. certainly meet the requirement. The R-3 fiberglass batts in the exterior wall cavities and the R-13 filling the space between the exterior and interior walls as well as the interior wall cavities definitely help optimize energy performance. An outer vapor-permeable house wrap and fiber cement siding, with and an inner poly vapor barrier plus drywall adds to a very ‘tight’ whole-wall-R value. Blower tests yielded a natural infiltration rate result of 0.15 ACH, a very ‘tight’ indication.

Heating and Ventilation

With the house’s heating energy needs drastically reduced through this super-insulated shell, the design team then focused on the heating and ventilation system. Note that I didn’t mention heating, cooling and ventilation system. Yet another design challenge! Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver has a policy of not equipping its homes with air conditioning. This meant that the final design had to maximize heat reduction (for example by maximizing solar gain) without increasing the cooling energy load.

To supply a proper amount of fresh air to the house while minimizing potential for energy loss, the team opted for an energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system with efficient electronically commutated motors. The system exhausts air from the kitchen and bathroom, and supplies fresh air to the living room and bedrooms. Heat loss from ventilation is reduced because the ERV system heats the incoming air with warmth from the exhaust air.

The design team soon discovered that a very low heating load is a double edged sword. On the one hand very little energy is required to heat the house. On the other hand, most commonly available heating systems are oversized for such low heating needs, and overly complicated or expensive systems cannot be cost-justified. After carefully considering a variety of high-efficiency heating systems, and much internal debate, the team decided to follow a hybrid approach of electricity from the PV system, and natural gas.

Controversial Approach

Some of us who are ‘purists’ may turn up our noses at the thought of a zero energy home using natural gas. However, the economics involved convinced the design team that a hybrid approach was the best solution (see side bar)

The PV system selected by the design team uses the local utility grid for storage, thus eliminating the substantial cost of the storage battery. When the system is producing more energy than is being used, it delivers energy to the grid. When the system produces less energy than it produces, it draws electricity from the grid.

When the system draws electricity from the grid, it is likely drawing fossil-fuel generated electricity. Although a larger sized PV system may minimize the volume of electricity drawn from the grid, the cost of larger systems is prohibitive. The design team opted to include natural gas in order to reduce the size of the PV system by 1.1 kW, making it much for affordable for a Habitat Home. The team designed the system to offset the natural gas used, thus achieving, and even surpassing, the goal of net zero source energy.

The hybrid approach allowed the team to size the PV system that is affordable, offsets the use of natural gas as well as any grid generated electricity, and thus allows the home to achieve (and even surpass) the goal of net zero source energy. The hybrid space heating system combines a pointsource direct-vent natural gas furnace in the dining room and living area, with small baseboard electric-resistance heaters in the bedrooms.

Water Heating

The design team selected a solar water heating system – rather than a combined space/water hearing system – for simplicity, backed up by a natural gas tankless water heater. The team calculated that the 96 square foot collector area and 200 gallon water storage would result in an annual solar-savings fraction of 88%. They opted for the tankless natural gas back up heater after finding that the tankless system uses zero heating energy whenever the solar water tank is at or above 115 degree water delivery temperature.

The Crowning Element

Having reduced all possible energy loads as much as possible, the design team zeroed in on the lighting, appliances and miscellaneous electric loads (MELs). They installed compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout the house, and ENERGY STAR label appliances. This left the miscellaneous electric loads, from TV, hair dryer, toasters, computers, and anything else that could be plugged in by the occupants. Using Built America benchmark assumptions on MELs, the team settled on a 4kW PV system. Because the Built America assumptions on based upon a national average of a ‘typical’
American household, the actual occupant use and local climate may either block the home from achieving zero energy usage, or propel it to the ranks of ‘net energy producer’.

The Verdict

Initial test results were encouraging. From the February to July of 2006, the PV system produced 1,600 kWh more electricity than the house consumed. Factoring in the natural gas used for space heating and water heating backup, the house produced 75% more source energy than it consumed. Although a longer testing period is required, it’s a safe bet to say that the house will be an annual net energy producer rather than just achieve net zero energy user. However, this could change if the occupants begin using more than the average calculated into the Built America benchmark.

And the home owners? While it is true that the house is a net energy producer, they unfortunately are not free from utility bills. There is the monthly charge for the natural gas, as well as fixed charges for the electric grid and natural gas connection fees. From October of 2005 to May of the 2006, the owners shelled out an average of $18.25 per month in energy bills. Because the fixed monthly charges averaged 80% of those bills, in actuality the family used on average $14.60 worth of energy.

For those of us who suffered through $200+ monthly energy bills during that same period, those results are very compelling.


Energy and Atmosphere

Passive Solar Design

o The house was designed with increased glazing area on the long South facing side, and reduced glazing area on the North, East and West facing sides.

Renewable Energy

o 4kW Photovoltaic system using utility power grid storage to eliminate need for and associated high cost of, storage battery


o Raised heel trusses in attic allow 2 ft of blown fiberglass insulation, achieving R-60 rating for thermal envelope top

o Floors insulated to R-30

o R-3 fiberglass batts in outer 2 x 4 structural stud wall cavities, and a second, interior 2×4 stud wall with R-13 fiberglass batts placed horizontally between stud walls and vertically in interior wall cavities

o Outer vapor-permeable house wrap and fiber cement siding

o Inner poly vapor barrier and drywall

Space Heating

o Hybrid natural gas/electric heating system, combining a pointsource direct-vent natural gas furnace in the living room and dining area, and small baseboard electric-resistance heaters in the bedrooms. This combination provides the added bonus of zone heating, as each appliance has its own independent thermostat.

Water Heating

o Solar water heating system with 96 square feet collector area and 200 gallon water storage tank as primary water heating system, with natural gas tankless water heater as a back up system


o Double – glazed, low -e glass installed in South facing windows, with U-factor of 0.3 and SHGC of 0.58. For the East, West and North facing windows, Double – glazed, low – e glass was also used, with a U-factor of 0.22 and SHGC value of 0.27. The U-factors of all windows exceed (ENERGY STAR requirements by 20%).

o ENERGY STARĀ® appliances were installed.


o Compact fluorescent light bulbs deployed throughout the house

Indoor Environmental Quality

Local Exhaust

o Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) system with efficient electronically commutated motors, exhausts air from the kitchen and bathroom, and supplies fresh air to the living room and bedrooms.

Outdoor Air Ventilation

o The ERV system heats incoming fresh air with warmth of the exhaust air, thus significantly reducing heat loss from ventilation.
Materials and Resources

o Advanced Framing Techniques: Walls consist of inner 2×4 stud wall, 24 inches O.C.

Miscellaneous Home Security Ideas You Could Use Today

To really make good on one’s obligations as a home owner it is necessary to constantly seek out new and original ideas, especially those relating to improved home security. It is easy to run out of ideas pretty fast when it comes to security planning in general, and particularly for newbie homeowners the process of staying creative and well-positioned on the security front can be a real challenge. From protecting against burglary and break-ins in general to defending your home from the ravages of the elements and the forces of nature (which can prove to be as dangerous if not more so than criminals), it is absolutely necessary to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and put them into practice-basically, it is of tantamount importance to avoid letting your home security plan become stagnant and predictable! To push home owners throughout the United States and anywhere else in the world in this direction, below we have compiled a few different miscellaneous home security ideas that could be put into effect right now at this very moment…and we hope that, in the case that a reader should come across an idea which they have never thought of before, that is exactly what they will do! So here you have it:

  • The first idea we would like to propose is perhaps the most peculiar though it is also likely to be the most popular in homes where love for animals abounds…get a guard dog! Guard dogs are a wonderful addition to your home security plan overall and they will prove to be very effective at shooing off unwanted visitors no matter the hour of day or night. Be sure to choose the breed of dog wisely as certain kinds have a greater disposition to bark and growl, key features of guard dogs; also, be sure to properly train the dog through a professional trainer as otherwise you might end up with little more than an extra mouth to feed at home!
  • To further prevent burglars from being able to pull off their plans with relation to your home, you ought to consider having high intensity security floodlights installed outside your home (well above the ground where they are unlikely to be tampered with). Set these lights up to a motion detector so that they will only be activated when someone or something approaches through the darkness. With this increased visibility, you and/or your neighbors will be able to detect problems more easily and more frequently.
  • Another wonderful home security idea is to start paying attention to the greater security of the neighborhood rather than just the security of one’s own property and family. The more the merrier when it comes to security, and if you band together with neighbors near and far to address security concerns relating to both criminal activity and threats posed by natural forces, then you will be benefiting your own home and many others to a great degree.

How To Beat (or At Least Minimize) The Closing Costs On Your Home Mortgage

Understanding the HUD-1

What are Closing Costs??

Closing costs can be the hardest part of the home mortgage experience. You are seldom prepared for how much they will be, and you feel powerless to change them. This doesn’t have to be. With a little knowledge you can keep your closing costs to a minimum and have a pleasant closing.

The definition of home mortgage closing costs are the fees and everything that you have to pay when you finalize your home mortgage or buy a piece of land with an escrow agent and/or attorney. These costs range from realator commissions, county and escrow company fees, escrow account prepayments, first
month’s interest on the mortage, termite or pest control, rent the home if the seller can’t move out right after closing, home mortgage title insurance and probably 5 – 10 other miscellaneous charges. Anything and everything connected to the sale of the home and completion of your loan package for your home
mortgage is a closing cost.

To help you know what you are paying, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (also know as HUD) has mandated a uniform form for every sale or home mortgage called a HUD-1. I strongly recommend that you learn to read this form. You will quickly be able to tell how much you are paying for closing
costs and ultimately for your home mortgage. You are allowed to ask questions and dispute charges on the HUD-1. However, if you do dispute a charge and changes are necessary, then your home mortgage company will have to re-approve your loan, which could potentially delay your close on the property. You
should ask to see the HUD WELL BEFORE the closing. This will make the closing much easier for you and quicker for all.

This article will briefly overview major closing costs associated with sales and home mortgages. In later articles, I will help you read a HUD-1. Finally, in my 3rd article, I will outline some strategies to get the best deal
from your HUD-1.

The federal government has decided that there are 8 categories of closing costs for a home mortgage. If this seems a little overwhelming, don’t worry. As they say with any large task, “don’t eat the elephant in one bite, take many
bites.” You should take HUD-1 reading one step at a time. Bottomline, reading the HUD carefully will give you a better understanding of the whole closing. The first category of the HUD is government costs. specifically, property taxes. You will get a discount on the price of the property for the part of the year that the seller should pay taxes. For example if you’re closing on May 31, you will only be responsible to pay 66.7% of the year’s property taxes. The seller will pay the other 33%.

The next government category is Recording Costs. Your county charges you a fee to officially record your sale and home mortgage into the public record. This is how you can actually look up the latest selling price on any property.

The next category is the agents’ commission. This is normally negotiated and paid by the seller. In many states it’s 6% of the sale price of the home. The 6% will be evenly split between buyer and seller’s realtors. Next after the commission comes the fees of the home mortgage broker and the home mortgage lender (the bank). The law requires that before closing you are provided with a summary of these fees. This is called a Good Faith Estimate. Some of these fees are actually paying home mortgage interest to the end of the month and home insurance to the end of the year. The escrow agent won’t let you close until all fees are paid in full. Title company fees are set for the title company who will ensure that the title to your home is free and clear of any encumberances (someone with a lien on your home or land). Since it is your right to choose your title company, you should
call around your area to find the best rates. But don’t just go for the cheapest title company. I recommend that you ask for recommendations. Ask people in homes nearby yours to tell you about their closing experiences. If they had good experiences, I recommend you strongly consider that title

Sometimes large home mortgage lenders have special deals worked for you. Finally, there are miscellaneous other people to pay, like the surveyor and pest inspection. These you can shop for, or have someone choose for
you. Buying a house with a home mortgage is a big deal. By knowing all this in general, you will be less likely to be intimidated at closing.

If knowledge is power, than the ability to read a HUD is a valuable talent. The HUD will unveil all of the half-truths to the light of day, letting you see what you are really paying with that home mortgage. With a little practice, it will come with ease. Then you will truly be in control of your own closing.

How to Maximize Your Home Business Tax Deductions for 2005

Someone once said, ‘the best way to calculate your taxes is…Honestly’. Add ‘Smartly’ to that and you’ll get to keep more than you make. This April 15th is going to be the day of reckoning for every taxpayer. If you are smart enough with your accounting and keep your eyes and ears open, this could be your favorite day of the year. Take full advantage of tax deductions due you and you can come back richer from the IRS office.

As a home business owner who has been keeping track of every dollar spent, you can make a killing on your tax deductions with these smart taxpayer tips.

  1. Jot it all down: keep a track of all your business expenses. Maintaining timely and accurate records is something you’ll thank yourself for, this April. You don’t necessarily need elaborate documentation to do this. An easy and a very cost effective way would be to keep all your expenses jotted down in a diary. It is a good idea to collect evidence as well (in case the IRS decides to do an audit later) like receipts, bills, and statements for cheque payments etc.
  2. Shop for your taxes: this financial year you will have a choice to either deduct your state income tax or your state sales tax. Do some math and compare the two to see which tax deduction is higher. Major purchases in the last financial year should be crosschecked to see in which category they yield a larger deduction.
  3. Itemize your deductions: Before you decide to settle down for standard deductions ($4,850 for singles and $9700 for married couples filing jointly), fill out Schedule A to see if your itemized deductions are larger than the standard deductions. You might be in for a surprise. Consider itemized deductions in areas like: Home ownership, charitable donations, Medical expenses and miscellaneous deductions. According to the IRS’s most recent numbers, those filers who itemized back in 2002 deducted an average of $19,673 from their taxes
  4. Go beyond the usual deductions: This year look beyond the good ol’ mortgage interest deduction to save some more. Consider medical and dental expenses, sales tax and personal property tax, education expense, damage cause by disaster or theft and miscellaneous expenses. Miscellaneous would include job search expenses, investment expenses like brokerage fees, safety deposit boxes and subscriptions to investment publications. Also included in miscellaneous is..Believe it or not… expenses of filing your taxes! This is still not over: add depreciation on your computer and cell phones used for business purposes.
  5. Entertainment and meal expenses: no…this doesn’t include lunch with friend to swap Christmas part ideas. Establishing the business purpose of a meeting is crucial for deducting expenses on entertaining.
  6. Transport expenses: if you use your own car for getting about on business, you can claim deductions on that too. Take care to religiously note down details like mileage, tolls, parking fees and maintenance costs.

A good way of finding out what more you can use for maximising your deduction is to get tax preparation software.

A word of caution here: keep ‘creative deductions’ like kid’s allowance, silicone implant etc. out of the picture. It is rather difficult to outrun the IRS, as they have three years to decide they want to verify your records and can drop in for a surprise audit.

Maximise your tax deductions in 2005 with these tips and see all the cash flow back in into your business.

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