In Unearthed, Yahoo Life discusses some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveals what you can do to help make a real difference.
In March 2020, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood with my wife, our three small dogs and one annoyed cat. Our plan had been to move “back east” sometime in the vague future, but when our jobs went remote thanks to the pandemic, and we were suddenly both working from that one-bedroom, we knew it was time.
As we made our final drive out of L.A., wildfires blazed in our rearview mirrors. Destruction we thought would happen years in the future was unfolding in real time, cementing our decision to relocate to a place with promising long-term climate projections — a move we were able to make due to our savings and employment flexibility, privileges that were not lost on us.
Still, where to go? New York City — where I had spent my 20s and most of my 30s — is not only projected to experience significant flooding and hurricanes as climate change progresses, but, with both of us working from home and needing dedicated office space, it was no longer financially feasible. My mother, who had recently moved to Vermont, had her fingers crossed that we’d wind up near Burlington — but the housing costs there were just outside our reach.
And so, with the help of a climate change map from the New York Times, we narrowed down our search to the seemingly unlikely Rochester, N.Y. — a charming city situated on Lake Ontario with a surprising amount of vegan-friendly restaurants (no small bonus, as we are both longtime vegans and animal activists).
The cost of living in “Roc” was also appealing to our middle-class sensibilities; the median cost of a home here is $195,000 as compared with the country’s average of $375,000. All that plus the pièce de résistance: The city was, according to the climate change map, unlikely to experience severe weather conditions in the next 30 years.
While no place can be considered an absolutely safe haven, the National Climate Assessment projects that Western New York may weather climate change relatively well; the Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie) won’t rise like the oceans on the coasts, and the “lake effect” weather ensures that the region will have a healthy amount of precipitation.
We were finally en route to owning our own home, in an affordable, seemingly safe-from-weather-disaster place. Soon, though, we’d find out there was even more to consider.
Becoming net zero
Now that we had found an area that was relatively promising insofar as climate, we dug deeper into what types of homes are the most eco-friendly. We considered both the structure itself — learning that refurbishing existing properties creates fewer carbon emissions than building new ones — as well as the ongoing carbon cost to heat and power a home. It became clear that moving to a climate-refuge city wasn’t enough; we needed to go net zero, and we needed to do it in an old house.
“A net-zero home is a home that produces as much renewable energy as it consumes over the course of one year,” explains Ryan Shanahan, manager of zero energy retrofits at Portland, Ore.-based Birdsmouth Design-Build. “Given that roughly 40% of carbon emissions come from the operational energy of buildings and the fact that the majority of our building stock has already been built — and that the worst offenders are the oldest buildings — we simply don't have a choice."
With the number of Americans who are alarmed or concerned about climate change now reaching an all-time high of 58%, it’s evident that Shanahan is not alone in his sense of urgency and commitment to create solutions.
According to the EPA's carbon footprint calculator, a two-person household in our ZIP code emits an average of 26,748 pounds of carbon per year just for heating, cooling, electricity and vehicle fuel. This takes a toll not only on the planet, but also on our wallets. The average home energy bill for that same two-person household in our ZIP code is over $325 per month, while a net-zero home can result in nonexistent energy bills.
“Annual energy costs can be expensive, and historically, the price only continues to rise,” says Ryan Puckett of Rochester, N.Y.-based Wise Home Energy, a residential building performance company that specializes in retrofitting existing homes (including ours). “Having a net-zero home protects the homeowner from dramatic energy cost increases, as most of us have experienced this past year.”
Between February 2021 and February 2022, in fact, the cost of natural gas delivered through pipes was up 24%; numbers are only expected to increase due to factors including the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and climate change.
But there are also health benefits to going net zero. According to Donnel Baird — founder of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based tech startup that’s “turning buildings into Teslas” — making the transition “improves childhood health by dramatically reducing the risk of asthma caused by methane and nitrogen dioxide leaks that are due to burning fossil fuels at home for heating and cooling. So a net-zero home is a much healthier home.”
This is how we went net zero
By the time we found our quaint 100-year-old house in the heart of the city, we had a newfound resolve to retrofit. To kick things off, we followed Puckett’s advice and ordered 32 triple-pane windows with UV coating. The difference between the original single-pane windows (25% effective to prevent heat transfer) and the new triple-pane windows (98% effective) was palpable; I could sit on the couch in front of the window without piling on blankets the day they were installed. Even the chihuahuas stopped shaking.
But first, while we waited for the windows (supply-chain issues are no joke), we focused on insulation. This stage of retrofitting is super-important, as having triple-pane windows and efficient heating and cooling doesn’t do too much if there’s no insulation. Also, it isn’t always as straightforwardly eco-friendly as the other steps because the foam itself — though assuredly nontoxic — is sometimes made from plastics.
“Many of the most common types of foam are petroleum products and/or contain blowing agents that represent a huge carbon footprint,” explains Shanahan. “Therefore, it's ideal to use spray foams sparingly and rely on greener products for insulation and air sealing whenever possible. One of the greenest insulation products is blown cellulose, which is made from newspaper and treated with borates to make it fire and bug resistant. Its 'GWP,' or global warming potential, is literally thousands of times better than the worst foams.” Puckett agrees, adding that the blowing agents are much more environmentally friendly now than they were three years ago. We wound up going with blown-in cellulose on the first and second floors, while the attic and basement got foam (also effectively mouseproofing our house).
Then came the drilling for our geothermal heating and cooling system, also known as a ground-source heat pump. The closed loop (a pipe that connects to itself), filled with water mixed with a little antifreeze, runs through our backyard (up and down six deep vertical wells) and into the basement for heat transfer inside a geothermal furnace, and then back to the depths of our backyard to either dump heat back into the ground (in summer) or pull more heat from the ground (in winter). This method of building a climate control system harnesses the constant 55°F temperature of the ground below the frost line. (Ground-source heat pumps were first imagined by Lord Kelvin in 1852, but the first commercial system to successfully harness the heat in the ground was installed in Portland, Ore., in 1948.)
The solar panels came next — 33 installed on both sides of our home’s steep gabled roof and the sunny side of the garage roof, all connected to an app to inform us how much energy we’re getting, as well as any credit for electricity we make but don’t use.
Though a solar panel is usually the image that comes to mind when talking about greening homes, it's important to realize that “a typical home cannot reach net-zero energy status through the addition of solar panels alone,” says Shanahan — a reminder that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and an old house wasn’t made net zero in one, either. “Energy efficiency plays a big role in bringing the energy consumption down to the point that a home can reach net-zero energy with rooftop solar.”
The most important part of making my house net zero
Electrification was a critical next step, as electricity is the only kind of energy that can be produced renewably. “The logic is that if we electrify everything while simultaneously increasing the amount of electricity that is produced renewably, increasing battery storage capacity, and creating smarter grids, we win,” says Shanahan.
But, as he alluded to, not all power plants are created equal. As just a few examples of many, some burn petroleum. Others use solar and wind. Find out how your utility gets its electricity; if not from a clean source, search "clean energy near me" to find out how to switch. Luckily, the state and federal governments have a number of regulations in place to require more renewable energy sources from power plants.
According to Baird, “Going all-electric can save a home 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.” Though our hot water heater — the one appliance in our home that used natural gas — wasn’t that old, it was clear that it was not good for our air quality (studies link natural gas in homes to higher rates of asthma) nor our net-zero aspirations, as it burns natural gas to heat the water, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. So, having a gas appliance means you can’t achieve net-zero living, according to another definition of net zero: The carbon you release into the atmosphere equals the carbon you take out.
We replaced our gas-powered hot water heater with a super-efficient hybrid electric air-source model. (It pulls some of its heat out of the basement air.)
“If you can afford it, replace the gas systems in your home today,” says Shanahan. “If you can't, always replace gas systems as they fail over time with electric systems. Replacing a failed gas mechanical system or appliance with another gas one will only lock in the consumption of fossil fuels for another 15-plus years. We simply cannot wait.”
But isn't it expensive?
If all this seems financially daunting, it’s understandable. And if you’re looking for the bottom line, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
“There are just way too many variables related to the state of the existing home, the package of upgrades chosen to get to net zero, and how far one must go based on the local climate,” explains Shanahan. “Bringing a home to net zero in Hawaii would be a lot easier than doing the same thing for a home in Minnesota.”
As for us, the costs came out to $27,318 for the geothermal system, $15,215 for the solar, $15,703 for the insulation and $23,873 for the windows — after state rebates and other incentives, which can significantly reduce the price tag of transitioning a home to net zero. While $82,000 and change is still very expensive, and not doable for many Americans — and only possible for us thanks to low-interest financing and a relatively low-priced house — the incentives may make the undertaking more within reach than you'd expect.
There are multiple starting points appropriate for a wide array of budgets and timelines. For example, when it comes to climate control, geothermal isn't the only option. A less expensive alternative is an air-source heat pump system, which runs on electricity and literally takes the heat from the outside air and delivers it into your home — and does the reverse in the summer.
Given the many moving parts, Shanahan advises starting with an energy audit (these are generally provided for free) by a local professional (which can be found by searching "home energy audit" and your state). “They will be able to assess the current state of the home's energy efficiency and help homeowners identify the lowest-hanging fruit and help craft a phased plan for which upgrades to focus on first," he says. BlocPower also encourages homeowners to fill out a form for free advice on how to lower costs and decarbonize your home.
Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good
Sometimes, greening your home can be as simple as replacing gas appliances with electric ones over time, putting a few solar panels on the sunny part of the garage, or finally getting around to insulating the attic. “When I first bought my home, the only thing I could afford was new LED light bulbs,” Shanahan says. “The point is that you have to start somewhere. The sooner you make it energy-saving, the sooner you start seeing your return on the investment.”
Hopefully in the future, retrofitting an old house to be net zero will not only be low-cost or free, but will also come with many incentives — aside from the ultimate one of knowing that we’re making choices in alignment with the needs of our hurting planet. “We have to make homes net zero to combat climate change,” says Baird. “There is no path to addressing climate change without greening buildings.”