How Zero-energy Homes Work

By: Julia Layton  | 
Because of what it pumps back into the system, a zero-energy home ends up consuming no energy at all.
Because of what it pumps back into the system, a zero-energy home ends up consuming no energy at all. See more green science pictures.

When it comes to energy use, not all homes are created equal.

First, there's the traditional electric house. A typical, all-electrically powered home in the United States uses about 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per square foot per month, or about 120 kWh per square foot in a year [source: ToolBase].


A higher-efficiency home, such as one with a solar water heater, a small photovoltaic system and high-efficiency appliances, brings the energy use down to about 84 kWh per square foot in a year [source: ToolBase].

And then there's the zero-energy home, or ZEH. At the end of that same year, a ZEH ends up consuming no energy at all.

Well, actually, it's a bit more complicated than that, but it does work out to a net-zero energy consumption. A zero-energy home is about as efficient as a house can get without giving up electricity altogether. It has all the comforts of a regular house -- it heats, cools, entertains, washes and dries. It just does it all more efficiently. And then, when it's done, it generates enough solar electricity to cover its own low-energy needs.

It seems pretty futuristic, but zero-energy homes aren't just a concept anymore. In the United States, they're starting to pop up for sale in the sunniest states, like Arizona, Texas and California, where solar fuel is most abundant. There are even some home-construction companies that focus almost exclusively on the ZEH or near-ZEH market.

In this article, we'll find out what these homes are all about -- how they use 60 percent less energy than a typical home, how they end up with a net-zero energy consumption, and whether they end up saving a homeowner money in the long run, or if the benefit is purely environmental.


Zero-energy Home Construction

Building a zero-energy home isn't simply a matter of throwing in a solar-power system and the highest-efficiency refrigerator on the market. A ZEH is built from the ground up with energy efficiency in mind. It starts with the most basic design and construction elements, focusing on two major areas: reducing energy requirements for the systems that account for most of a home's energy use and increasing the home's built-in energy-generating capacity.

A ZEH incorporates:


  • A solar-photovoltaic system for generating electricity
  • A passive solar-thermal system for heating water (passive systems have no electrical parts -- see How Solar Water Heaters Work  to learn more)

And it minimizes energy needs for:

  • Space heating, space cooling and ventilation
  • Water heating
  • Lighting and appliances

There are lots of tricks builders and architects use to accomplish these goals. For instance, the walls, roof and foundation, and the interaction between the three, can be designed to most efficiently manage water, vapor and heat flow. The roof coating may have a high solar-reflectance value. Eaves and awnings can be strategically placed and sized to block summer sun and allow winter sun. Other design elements may include:

  • Extra-thick windows and insulation
  • Built-in temperature and ventilation monitoring systems
  • Strategically placed skylights to reduce lighting needs
  • Orientation to take full advantage of sun exposure for solar panels
  • High-performance attic sealing to reduce cooling needs in summer

Even with the highest-efficiency design and appliances, a ZEH still uses power, and it's still connected to the electrical grid. So how can it be "zero energy?" That has to do with the installed solar photovoltaic system. The solar panels sometimes provide as much energy as the home uses. And when they don't, they have a payback plan.


Home Energy Production

This Habitat for Humanity zero-energy home in Wheatridge, Colo., features solar panels.
This Habitat for Humanity zero-energy home in Wheatridge, Colo., features solar panels.
Photo courtesy of NREL

A zero-energy home requires significantly less energy than a standard home -- up to 60 percent less. But still, 60 percent less energy needed is still energy needed. To make the home zero-energy, then, it has to produce its own power -- and it has to be clean power, or what's the point?

The solar PV panels accomplish the energy production in a ZEH. (It could also use wind power, but residential wind turbines aren't nearly as common as residential solar systems.) The trick that makes a ZEH different from a regular old solar-powered home is the combination of reduced electricity requirements and increased electricity production. So, whereas a solar home consuming 7 or 10 kWh per square foot per month and producing 2 solar kWh per square foot still has to turn to the grid for a significant portion of its electricity, the numbers for a ZEH are nearly perfectly aligned. A ZEH that needs 4 kWh per square foot has PV panels that can generate, on average, 4 kWh per square foot.


It's "on average" because solar panels rely on weather conditions to operate at their maximum efficiency. In this way, and in terms of actual energy consumption (as opposed to average energy consumption), a zero-energy home is in fact a net-zero energy home.

The idea is that it all balances out.

There are times, like in winter (when days are shorter) or on rainy days, when the solar panels are not going to produce all of the energy the ZEH requires. And there are also times when the home requires more energy, like on especially hot or especially cold days, or when the kids play in the mud and the laundry requirements increase drastically. At these times, the ZEH draws the extra energy it needs from the electrical grid.

And then there are times, when the days are long and the sun is cooperating, and the weather is mild so the heat or air isn't needed as much, when the home requires less energy than the solar panels generate. The solar panels then send their excess energy to the electrical grid, supplying clean energy where it's needed.

At the end of the year, the energy use and energy generation should cancel each other out. Thus the "net-zero energy home."

So, what does all of this energy-efficiency mean for the homeowner? Will a ZEH cost less than a traditional home? In the short run, in the long run, or ever? Or is it all a matter of saving the planet one house at a time?

Why buy one?


Economics of Zero-energy Homes

The double stud framing of a Habitat for Humanity ZEH in Colorado allows for energy efficiency.
The double stud framing of a Habitat for Humanity ZEH in Colorado allows for energy efficiency.
Photo courtesy of NREL

Cutting down on carbon emissions is a big deal. The polar bears can attest to that. So can drought-ridden villages in rural areas around the globe. But there are other concerns, too. First, there's the money factor.

Zero-energy homes run the gamut in price. A ZEH built in Frisco, Texas, in 2004 was listed at $1 million; a ZEH constructed in Edmond, Okla., in 2005 had an estimated retail cost of $200,000 [source: Oliver].


Regardless of price range, building a zero-energy home does cost more than building a traditional home of the same size and features. Estimates put the increase at anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent [sources: ToolBase, Oliver]. It's a pretty big increase, but that can go down considerably when you factor in any available federal and state energy-efficiency rebates.

And then there's the whole $0 energy bill thing. A regular single-family home in the United States pays about $2,200 a year on power [source: EnergyStar]. Reducing that to nothing can save $22,000 over 10 years. If you factor in those government incentives, energy-savings might be able to make up for an increase in purchase price.

There's a wrinkle in the energy-savings estimate, though. A ZEH is only ZE if the people who live in it practice good energy habits. If the homeowners leave the lights on all the time, run the AC at 60 degrees F (16 degrees C) in summer and take daily 30 minute showers, the actual energy use of the home is probably going to exceed its generating capacity. In that case, the energy bill is going to be greater than zero.

In the end, the true energy-efficiency of a zero-energy home depends a lot on the people maintaining it. PV systems require regular checkups to work at their maximum efficiency. Even the highest efficiency air-conditioning setup is going to have to work overtime if people leave the door open in the middle of summer. But if the home is used as prescribed, it could potentially work out to provide substantial benefits -- both to homeowners and to polar bears.

For more information on zero-energy homes and related topics, look over the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

How to build a zero energy home?
Here are some tips on how to build a zero energy home include using energy efficient appliances and construction materials, using solar panels to generate electricity, and using green building practices to minimize the impact on the environment.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Moving Toward Zero Energy Homes. U.S. Department of Energy -- NREL.
  • Oliver, Felicia. "A Zero Energy Home." HousingZone. May 1, 2006.
  • Selna, Robert. "Startup's prefab homes aim for zero energy bills." SF Gate. June 23, 2009.
  • Seven Steps to a ZEH. ToolBase.
  • ZEH Demonstration - Tucson's Zero Energy Home. ToolBase.
  • ZEH Overview - Department of Energy Definition. ToolBase.
  • Zero Energy Home Building Features. Zero Energy Home Dallas.
  • Zero Energy Home Design. Energy Savers.
  • Zero Energy Home: Frequently Asked Questions. ToolBase.