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Throw Your Energy Bills in the Trash with Gary Wollenhaupt of Proud Green Home

Green home

Take a look at your most recent energy bills. What if you could improve your home in little ways that would reduce those energy bills each month? Sound good?

It’s all a matter of making the right investments. When you work on your home, are you working to improve it or simply to maintain the status quo?

To learn more about green living and slashing energy bills, Harry Helmet reached out to Gary Wollenhaupt, Editorial Director at Proud Green Home.

Why build a home focused on resource efficiency?

We know energy use will continue to increase both in cost and in impact on our planet, so making our homes more resource efficient is one way to positively influence our society.

Personally, I have owned five homes and have embarked on a journey with each one to make them better – from simply sealing around windows and doors to installing a heat pump water heater. I wish I had the same level of knowledge when my first home was built. I would have done a lot of things differently! I’m kind of a tightwad, so I look at high performance homes through the lens of cost savings (primarily). But it’s nice to help the planet a little bit, too.

On your website, you discuss the concept of zero energy homes. How does that work exactly?

A zero energy (or net zero energy) home basically means the home produces as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. A zero energy home typically has solar panels and the solar power flows into the power grid, offsetting the energy used by the home. Given the climate zone and time of year, on any given day or week that might not actually be the case; but over the course of the year, it balances out. The electric company tracks the amount of power the home produces and applies it to the bill. Depending on the utility company, the charges may be reconciled monthly or annually.

This is different than a LEED home or a Passive House certified home where there are strict criteria. For a zero energy home, the proof is in the pudding so to speak by analyzing the utility bills.

However, most zero energy homes are built to be highly energy efficient and may also be LEED or Passive House certified, or at least built to those criteria. The idea is to make the home as energy efficient as possible through insulation, choice of heating and cooling system, windows, water heater and appliances to reduce the energy demand as much as possible. Then you can use a smaller, less expensive solar panel system to meet the home’s energy demands.

To clarify, is there a difference between a home that is zero energy versus an already standing home that you just slap solar panels on?

It’s really all about generating as much power as it uses. That’s the only real criteria for a net zero energy home. Theoretically, you could just stick enough solar panels on the roof of any home to offset energy use. But that gets very expensive for an average home. The U.S. Department of Energy has the Zero Energy Ready home certification program that outlines what it takes to build a home to the level where it’s then affordable to add solar panels to generate enough electricity to be net zero.

Bottom line: it’s cheaper to build or improve a home with insulation, windows, HVAC etc. and reduce the amount of solar panels you have to buy than to buy enough solar panels to make an average home into net zero.

Why is self-sustaining so important in the modern day?

Regardless of your political stance, it’s clear that our resources are finite and we need to be better stewards of the planet. Energy and water will continue to become more expensive, and the toll it takes on the earth to extract more resources causes harm in the future. Some progress is being made as newer U.S. homes are 30% larger but consume about as much energy as older homes (according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration). If the homes were smaller, think how much less energy would be used. There’s always progress to be made, and more and more people are coming to understand how they can make even a small difference in their own homes.

Would you say the appeal of a zero energy home is its ability to be “low maintenance?” If so, why do you think being “low maintenance” is so important to people in the modern day?

Yes. There are many products out there right now. For instance, for exterior siding and roofing, some mimic the look of classic wood finishes but are made of vinyl, culture stone, or other maintenance-free substances. I’ve seen vinyl cedar shakes you’d swear would give you a splinter if you touched it, but they’re totally maintenance-free. It’s the same way with metal roofing or cultured slate. It looks absolutely authentic and carries a 50-year warranty.

It’s worth spending a little more up front for products that will never need maintenance. You save money and time, and you don’t have to use substances like paints and stains or cleaners.

Low maintenance is always appealing in a home. I know it’s important to me. People like nice homes, but the idea of resealing cedar shake siding every 5 years is crazy. People would rather create and interact and be part of a community than paint their siding.

I know I hate fixing things that shouldn’t be broken but don’t work right. I’d much rather spend time improving my home – even with a fresh coat of paint in a room or new flowers on the deck or whatever the case may be. Spending a lot of time and money to maintain the status quo just isn’t as appealing.

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